Rebecca Lim is no stranger to playing cops, notably on Ch 8’s C.L.I.F. and Ch 5’s Mata Mata: A New Era. But nothing she did on those shows really help with her latest law-enforcer role on The Bridge, the 10-part drama produced by video streaming service Viu and HBO Asia.
“On C.L.I.F., I only had a few scenes as a forensic officer, so I didn’t have to do a lot of running around,” Lim, 32, tells 8 DAYS over the phone. “On Mata Mata, my character Margaret is super-enthused, full of energy, very smiley and super likeable, and the show was also set in the 1970s, so it’s very different [from The Bridge which is set in the present].”
On The Bridge — an adaptation of a 2011 Danish-Swedish drama which has also spawned remakes in the US, UK and Russia — Lim plays Serena Teo, a brilliant but emotionally tone-deaf detective assigned to a bizarre murder case of a woman whose body was dumped on the Tuas bridge linking Singapore and Malaysia.
The body is positioned in such a way that one half is in Singapore, and the other half in Malaysia. That’s not the bizarre part, the bizarre part is that the corpse is severed into two parts, with the bottom half belonging to another woman. The cross-border nature of the situation requires Serena to team up with Malaysian detective Megat Jamil (Folklore’s Bront Palarae) in the investigation.
Their search for the truth leads them to encounters with assorted scumbags involved in human trafficking, money laundering, child labour and spousal abuse. But Serena is always at loggerheads with Megat. Can they catch the perps without turning the case into a diplomatic nightmare?
Even Lim has some trouble portraying her low-EQ alter-ego, who’s like the complete opposite of Mata Mata’s Margaret. “I think Serena is so far the only role I’ve ever played whereby I did not smile at all throughout the entire series.”
8 DAYS: How did you get involved with The Bridge?
REBECCA LIM: Actually I was already scheduled for another show during that production period when director and executive producer Lee Thean-Jeen messaged me. The last time we worked together was on The Pupil six years ago. We always wanted to work together but our schedules always clashed so we never really had the opportunity. When he messaged me, he said he had an interesting script and that there was probably going to be a very challenging role for me and he was not sure if I were willing to accept to challenge. I think those were his actual words.
When he said that, I was very intrigued by the role already. Because coming from TJ to say that something is very challenging, I think it would indeed be very challenging. He wanted to audition me, but at that point in time I was filming Blessings 2 in Malaysia. So I thought it’d be a bit tricky because he wouldn’t be around, his crew wouldn’t be around, and the script was [closely guarded] so they couldn’t send it over. Thankfully, at that period of time, it was the Malaysian elections. So TJ came to Penang where I was filming, to vote. He came back for two days, and I was like, “Wah, perfect timing!” When he and his wife came up, we shot two scenes on his iPhone in the little corner of my hotel room. He said that was the most low-budget audition he’s ever done (laughs).
We submitted it, went for dinner, and I didn’t think much about it after that. I mean, I was always hoping for the best, but I didn’t think much about it because I was going to do another show anyway, and I had just wanted to audition. When the audition got through, he called me and said, “Look, you got the role, now the second thing to do is how we can clear your schedule for this drama.” And that was up to Mediacorp and my managers to work things out.
In a Toggle interview, you mentioned that the scheduling was so tight that you barely had time to train because Serena is a physically-demanding role.
The scheduling was extremely tight. After I wrapped on Blessings 2, I was only in Singapore for less than a week before I had to return to Malaysia to film The Bridge. I wasn’t very fit, to be honest (laughs). I haven’t really been exercising that much over the past few years, but thankfully, we [were scheduled to start] in May, after the Star Awards period. That was when I started to exercise a bit more to fit in my gown, so everything worked out fine. But for the fight sequences, because the schedule was so hectic, I couldn’t train as much as I would like to. It was really just one hour of intensive physical training and blocking and learning the choreography from the stunt coordinator just one day before we started to shoot a big fight scene on the second day of filming.
There’s a lot of action on the show.
Actually, every scene on the show was very last minute. I was only supposed to do one action scene [in the series] but in the end I think I did several. After the second day when we shot our fight scene, the stunt coordinator was like, “Eh, actually she can [do more]. Let’s include a bit more fight sequences in there.” So that was how more and more action scenes came about. [There was one scene in Episode 2 where Bront was supposed to fight a butcher but because he had injured his leg], they were like, “Okay, let’s give all [the action] to Rebecca to do.”
Did you suffer for your art?
Quite a lot, actually. Bront had the worse injury with a torn calf muscle, mine were mainly bruises. Sometimes my reactions were a bit too slow, so I got hit by my co-star. In the slaughterhouse scene where I was fighting the butcher, there was one shot — I’m not sure whether it was kept in the final cut — of my hand hitting against this wooden pillar. I got cut from it and there were some splinters and bruises. So [I suffered] cuts, bruises, and muscle strains basically. I’ve been quite fortunate that [none of the injuries was] too serious.
Serena rides a motorcycle on the show. Was that you or a stunt person?
Stunt person lah (laughs). I’m not so cool. I’m the one who got off the bike, and that’s about it. I would love to say it was me, but no, it wasn’t (laughs). I don’t even have a bike licence.
What kind of research did you do? Did you catch up on the previous versions of The Bridge? Was everything you need to know about Serena and her world in the script?
The script is pretty direct. The dialogue really shows Serena’s personality: a very no-nonsense, low EQ kind of person who’s socially awkward as well. I deliberately didn’t want to watch too much of the original and US series, because I didn’t want to be subconsciously influenced by their performances. They already have very good feedback about their acting, especially in the original version, so I didn’t want to watch too much of it. I wanted to have my own take on the character.
I hate to be in your shoes: to remake a critically acclaimed show. I can’t imagine the pressure you’re under.
Yes, and when I tell people that I’m going to do an Asian remake of The Bridge, everybody said, “Oh my gosh! I love The Bridge! Tell me when it’s out!” So there’s quite a bit of pressure to do justice to it as well. Because it’s an Asian remake, I hope that the audience can understand that there’s going to be some cultural differences — like the way we speak, the way we do things — so don’t expect an exact replica of the US or Swedish version. If you do that, it’ll be very inauthentic in Singapore and Malaysia. So we try to give our spin on the material.
Director Lee Thean-Jeen said that for the Asian version Serena is the least unlikeable of all the incarnations of that character. The best, or worst rather, he could do to her is to uglify Serena by giving her freckles. Or is that sunburnt cheeks? I can’t really tell…
It’s actually supposed to be a combination of both freckles and sunburn (laughs). When I went for the imaging session, the directors and EPs basically said my skin was too smooth and fair for Serena. So they had to do my make-up one shade darker than my original skin tone, and they didn’t want me to touch up my eyebrows and cover my eye bags, because they said Serena wouldn’t do that because she doesn’t have time for make-up.
So basically I was really bare-faced, except for the foundation and sunburn and freckles. Hopefully I don’t look too scary (laughs). My roles in the past few years have always been very put-together or very sweet, very领家小女孩 (or ‘girl next door’), so I actually welcome this change. I think a lot of people will be very averse to not putting much make-up on screen, but to me, it was quite a refreshing change.
Serena is a very grumpy person, who’s easily annoyed. I love that eye-roll expression she gives Bront Palarae in the first ep while she’s in his messy car. Is it easy to play someone who doesn’t smile?
It was actually pretty tough playing someone that’s so easily annoyed, or who also doesn’t hide her emotions at all. She shows everything on her face. So you can really tell what Serena is feeling about this person or matter, and it was actually a huge challenge because it’s my first time playing someone like that. I usually play characters who do things for the greater good, her boyfriend, her family.
Serena is just really self-centred but at the same time she wants to get the job done. She’s very tough, driven and task-oriented. Of course, when we are filming, it’s just so hard to keep a straight face all the time. On my first day with Adrian Pang, who plays my superior, he said he wasn’t very used to seeing me so black-faced all the time. And on set, people would ask me, “Are you okay?” Because they thought I was really upset, or I was having a bad day. But actually I was just trying to get into the mood of Serena (laughs).
Are you trying to go method?
No (laughs). I’m far from being a method actor.
The Bridge was filmed in Malaysia and where you’ve filmed there a few times. And last year you did the Ch 5 drama Missing in Thailand. What the lessons you learnt from shooting outside of Singapore?
Different countries have different working cultures. When it comes to shooting overseas, it’s [important to] adapt to that place’s culture and filming practices. Everyone works differently, and it’s very important that the actors [know that]. The crew in Thailand and Malaysia are definitely much bigger than Singapore. In Singapore, we work with a maybe six- to eight-man crew, but in Thailand there were 80 people on set at any point in time, and in Malaysia, it’s about 30-50 people.
So it’s good, but at the same time, I also appreciate the Singapore working culture because even though we have so few people, it doesn’t mean that we shoot less scenes a day. In fact, sometimes we can even shoot more scenes, so I would like to think we actually have a very efficient filming culture.
People may look at the surface and go, “Oh, you have opportunities to work in Thailand and Malaysia with huge crews and [enjoy] awesome welfare,” and I’m actually very grateful for that because not many people get the chance to experience it. I never dreamt that I would be given so many opportunities to work on co-productions with other countries.
One lesson I learnt [from those experiences] is that every culture is different and it’s important to respect each other's culture and not to push each other’s practices and habits down each other’s throats. Because that would cause tension on set and that’s not a very pretty sight. So just go with the flow and learn along the way.
Because each country’s culture is so different, I was really pulled out of my comfort zone and placed in situations where I had to learn to adapt. For Missing it was just Pierre Png and I as the only Singaporeans on set in Thailand, and for The Bridge, I was pretty much the only Singaporean filming throughout the entire series, so I had to learn to be independent, but at the same time to also be focused. You have to multi-task a lot because you have to adjust to the new practices of other countries, and at the same time learn to juggle new things you’ve not tried before.
In other words, when in Rome, do what the Romans do. What was it like working with Thean-Jeen again? Working with him on The Bridge was a reunion of sorts.
Yes! I was so happy to work with Thean-Jeen again because he gave me my first lead role of my career on The Pupil. So working again with him was actually pretty heartwarming because he would sometimes draw comparisons [between my performances in the past and present], “Oh, eight years ago when I first worked with you, you were like bleaurgh.” Now, he would see that I’ve made some improvements as if he were a proud friend who’s watched me grow up. But at the same time, he still sees me as the same person he knew eight years ago. So it was a very comfortable working relationship. And because he is Malaysian and is based in Singapore, he is my only Singaporean-ish friend there. So it was quite comforting to have him onboard as well.
On the show, Serena doesn’t always get along with her Malaysian counterparts. Did you get along with your Malaysian colleagues?
We always joke on set, like I would come on set extremely prepared with all my notes, and a list of questions for the director. But Bront, on the other hand, is more instinctive; he would come without reading too much of the script, wanting to do more spontaneous acting and all that. Then they would tease me, “Oh, you know, Rebecca’s Singaporean, she does her homework, while Malaysians are very relaxed.” And when we were filming on the road, we could film on the main road, the bridge, and the expressways — we just had to block the road. In Singapore, we would never be able to do that because of the laws and all that. They would joke, “Just a bit of kopi money, it’s fine.” So it’s just a very different culture there; I would say, less tense. So, there were all these private jokes about Singaporeans being very tense, very no-nonsense, cannot joke, which are totally not true lah. I can joke about myself! I think [they see us that way because] most of them haven’t really worked with Singaporeans before as well.
Judging from your Instagram, you have quite a following in Malaysia.
Yeah, I’m actually surprised as well. I think because a lot of our Ch 8 shows are aired in Malaysia. When we were filming in Penang, Ipoh, or even in KL, there would be people coming up to ask, “Oh, are you Rebecca Lim?” When we were filming The Bridge, I assumed that no one knew me and I would walk around in KL in my pajamas, like I would just walk from my hotel at Somerset Petaling Jaya to queue up at Village Park Restaurant for its famous nasi lemak for half-an-hour in my pajamas, and I would meet someone in the queue who knows who I am.
My pajamas is like T-shirt and FBT shorts lah (laughs).
The interview has been edited and condensed.
The Bridge airs Mon & Tue on HBO (StarHub Ch 601), 10pm. It’s also available on Viu, HBO Go and HBO On Demand (StarHub Ch 602).
Photos: HBO, Viu