Google search ‘Lawrence Wong’ and the Singaporean actor isn’t who appears on the first page. That honour goes to Singapore’s Finance Minister. Of course, it isn’t odd that the search engine is prioritising the political importance of a Minister over the soft power of an actor’s celebritydom.
We are still navigating a pandemic and its economic repercussions after all. It must be noted however that Lawrence Wong is one of this country’s biggest cultural exports since Chin Han (issue 167). He has even gone on to become the 35th most influential actor in China.
The latter came about after Wong became frustrated at the local TV station’s lack of recognition for his talent (perpetually casting him in bit roles), and took himself to China, where he snagged a role of a lifetime: as palace guard-turned-general in The Story of Yanxi Palace.
With millions of views on streaming platforms, one might imagine Wong to become self-contented, but no. Having struggled early on in his career has sharpened his resilience to setbacks as well as his resolve to succeed. And now Wong is finding success in another field altogether – a cosmetic start-up called “Grail”.
Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
I wanted to be a vet. Initially, I wanted to be an architect because I have an uncle who is an architect, and I always looked up to him and yearned to be well respected by everyone, just like he is, But as I got older, I discovered a love for animals, and a desire to take care of them and make them well. I didn’t think about acting till much later.
When you started acting in 2002, it would be 16 years before you’re in a series with major pop cultural impact. What would you say has been the biggest challenges in your areas of personal growth?
I really started from the bottom. I didn’t win talent competitions and I wasn’t signed with anyone big. I was a part-time actor and played many extras. I had to climb up to where I am today. When I started, I didn’t really fit into the mould of leading men roles in Singapore – men who are tall, dark, and more mature-looking. I had a baby face. I didn’t get roles that mattered.
Nobody thought I would make it as an actor and my family wanted me to give it up. I often felt like I was very alone. I had so much to give, yet no avenue to show any of it. But all these challenges did shape me artistically, emotionally, and professionally. There was certainly a lot of growth as a result.
You mentioned that lead rolls didn’t typically go to someone who looked like you. How did you feel about that, what gave you the motivation to keep going?
Pure passion. Pure faith. I knew I had what it takes, and I had so much to offer. I only needed an opportunity to demonstrate it. In addition to hope, these were the motivations that kept me going. In fact, having faith and having hope is so crucial in anyone’s life, not just someone who wants to be an actor.
You never considered: I had enough. I want to give up?
Oh, many times. I felt I could choose the easy path and put my degree in mass communications to work. I could always do other things related to the media industry. But I guess I have a “never say die attitude”. I never gave up and I don’t even know why.
When you encounter a setback. Is there something special you do to recover? How do you deal with setbacks?
I just keep going! The funny thing is that while I’m going through all these things I don’t really think about it, you just think about what you need to do and how I can keep moving forward. Of course now in hindsight, things could have gone really wrong but while I was at it, it wasn’t something I thought about. That said, you have to be smart about things and be objective.
Do you have the required skill sets? Are you really talented? Do you really want this? What can you do to be better? This is why I explored markets overseas because, if my looks are not suitable for Singaporean audiences, maybe I should try other audiences? I’ve never met another actor who has worked in Thailand, Taiwan, or China, so had no one to help me. I just kept looking for opportunities or places where I might potentially be welcome.
There were the whole of 16 years before Story of Yanxi Palace. Did you set a milestone for yourself to hit before you decided you should do something else?
To be frank, it was when I went to China. To me, that was my last trip because I felt that I was at an age where I had found other passions to pursue. Even now, if you ask me whether I’d be an actor forever, my answer will be “maybe not”. Because I think my life is more than just filming show after show back to back. I’m multifaceted. There are many things that I want to pursue, explore, and develop. Back in 2006, China was my last try.
So you’re now the 35th most influential actor in China. Many other actors will be content on focusing on their career. Why did you decide to start a business?
COVID-19 was a huge push factor. I’ve always wanted to have our own brand because one of the most common questions I get asked is “what do you use for your skin?” But you know, everyone’s skin is different, and I don’t really have the kind of confidence to push a product to you without full knowledge of say the ingredients or how it is made.
So I thought maybe I could start something, but I never got around to it because I was always busy. Last year, when COVID-19 struck, I was stuck at home like everyone else and I guess, while others were baking, I was formulating, devising, and trying to make my brand happen, and it happened.
Now, most celebrities would be happy to lend their name to branding, but you actually went into the whole entrepreneurial path. Why did you choose one path over the other?
Of course I can choose the easy path but, to me, a reputation in show business is sacred. I believed that if I wanted to do this and it has always been a dream of mine for so many years, I would rather do it right. I mean if this is going to be my brand, I want to have full control of everything, including packaging, ingredients, range of products, even the brand story. I want to be involved in every aspect. Only then can I call it my own brand. If not, I can’t say “this is by Lawrence Wong”, it would just be a collaboration, or a product endorsed by me as long as it works well for me. But I don’t want to be just the face of the brand for a year or two, this is what usually happens in our line, and I didn’t think I would be contented with that.
Did anyone try to discourage you?
I didn’t share this dream with anyone. One thing I realised is, if you have a dream and a goal, just look towards it. If you want to seek advice you must be very careful who you are seeking advice from. You must ensure that the people you’re seeking advice from or sharing your ideas with are like-minded people who can elevate your ideas instead of putting you down. For Grail, COVID-19 meant I didn’t really have a chance to go out and mingle so I didn’t really have a chance to share my plans or ideas with anyone anyway.
For someone with little business experience how steep was that learning curve?
Really, really steep [laughs]. There are so many things to consider, not just the product. Even if you have a freaking good product, you still need to know how to market it, how to price it, how to balance between cost and the quality of the product. That there are so many aspects made the learning curve really steep. But I enjoyed the process. I was learning something new, and this always appeals to be because I get bored easily. I feel alive when I’m creating something and putting it out into the universe.
Was it completely experimental or did you have business mentors to help you?
I have a business partner but everything else was a new experience. Formulating the product was new to me. I had to learn details about ingredients. For example, our aloe vera is organic. I had to do research and weigh the necessity of using organic aloe vera from Africa instead of regular aloe vera, so there were many factors to learn and read up on and hear specialists arguments for and against it.
Just out of curiosity, what did you discover about aloe vera? Is organic that important after all?
There is still an ongoing debate about organic products, in food as well as in skincare. There are people who don’t believe in it, but I think it’s always better to go with something that is harvested in a life-sustaining fashion. It is also kinder to your skin in the long run. One of the core philosophies of my brand is to use as little chemicals as possible. That is why Grail products are mostly made with botanical formulations.
What did you learn about yourself during the process of becoming an entrepreneur?
I discovered that I was quite the perfectionist [laughs]. It’s my brand, so I want to be in control of everything. That said, Grail is not my full-time job. There are many other things that I have to attend to. I have learnt that it is necessary to let go and let people handle some things for you, and that you have to compromise on certain things‒ just a little. In reality you have to compromise between what exists versus what’s ideal in your head.
In your personal experience, what ratio of perfect versus good enough makes the right compromise?
I would say it changes depending on the situation or how tied up you are at the moment, or even at different phases of your life.
What do you hope to accomplish with Grail? What is considered a successful outcome for Grail?
To be honest, I never really thought about that, but I hope that Grail will become a daily necessity in people’s lives. That said, I didn’t set Grail up to achieve conventional benchmarks of success. To me, being able to launch Grail is itself a success because I have been wanting to do it for many years and I’m finally doing it. I didn’t start Grail with an endpoint in mind because it is a continuing passion. I find quantifying success in commercial terms is not only stressful but also unnecessary, as it would distract from my true motives in launching Grail.
What If someone offered to buy you out, would you sell?
It depends on who and how much and at which stage Grail is at, I mean there are no hard and fast rules [laughs].
I understand you don’t necessarily want to let the cat out of the bag yet but, but what comes after Grail?
We will come up with, with lifestyle products that you might not expect me to come up with.
What will the Lawrence Wong today tell the Lawrence who was just starting out?
Relax. Be patient. Your time will come and there is a time for everything in life.
(Main Image: Nylon shirt, with matching cummerband belt and elasticated shoes, cotton socks and BIG LOGO TRAINER PUFFED sneakers, all Onitsuka Tiger)
Photos: Shawn Paul Tan; Styling Daryll Alexius Yeo; Set Design: Out Of Stalk; Hair: Gary Low/ Passion Hair Salon; Makeup: Peter Khor using Chanel Beauty; Photography Assistance: Melvin Leong; Fashion Assistance: Ivan Tan