Few local actors actually dream about a career in acting. Singaporeans are far too pragmatic for that. And so Desmond Tan buckled down to pursue a degree in real estate, a field that promises to pay off handsomely in this land-scarce country. His grades were good, and he thought he had his career mapped out. But things took an unexpected turn when he participated in the Star Search 2007, with the intention to “just get some exposure”.
It was only during the competition that he realised he does have something for acting. It invigorated him and he enjoyed having a medium to express himself. Despite placing second, Desmond’s career trajectory proved that ranking and titles don’t determine your future, but that hard work and dedication do. That said, his journey as a singer-actor wasn’t a smooth ride either. While it’s easy for us to wax poetic about his aptitude for show business now, many didn’t share the same sentiments when he was just starting out.
The deferential and humble 35-year-old had to juggle school and acting commitments while trying to prove his abilities to casting directors and his peers. With the immense pressure to do well, he gave himself an ultimatum. “I gave myself two years. If this doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to what I studied in school ‒ real estate,” he said. Desmond Tan shared with AugustMan his difficulties and struggles while giving us the low-down on his latest projects.
Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
Like most other kids, I wanted to be a soldier, or police officer or action-packed roles in a similar vein. It was only during Secondary School when I chanced upon a Jackie Chan movie that I wanted to be an actor. My friends and I would purchase boxing gloves and practice at car parks after school.
What kickstarted your trajectory towards being an actor?
I participated in Star Search right after completing the mandatory national service. Though it was merely for the experience, I just wanted to join the queue. (laughs) After the talent competition, I got cast for episodic characters; I was still in the midst of pursuing a bachelor’s degree and couldn’t commit to bigger roles that required me to commit to a full-time acting schedule.
You undertook a real estate degree and graduated with honours. What prompted you to make the switch from real estate to acting?
I’ve always been more inclined towards the arts and theatre despite being a science student. During my time, it seemed as though pursuing an academic path in science was the only option to a successful future; it’s an infallible option for many Singaporeans. Throughout the course, I had a lot of creative projects, and I found myself enjoying those assignments more than those relating to my major. That reaffirmed my decision to make the switch.
You were studying while simultaneously juggling with acting commitments. What were some of the struggles you faced, and how did you overcome them?
I needed to compress time and stretch the hours in my day. Not only did I miss lectures at times, but I also found myself struggling to keep up with my other commitments. However, these difficulties came with a silver lining; I became more resourceful and learned to manage my time better. Those soft skills have also fortified my willpower and taught me to be more mindful.
As mentioned previously, I could only take on episodic characters, and they would often be obsolete in the show. I felt like my roles were insignificant, and I was extremely dejected. My peers were assuming bigger roles and had widespread recognition. Over time, I stopped comparing.
I realised that it is futile to compare as we all have different journeys. It is not worth losing ourselves and falling into depression for something beyond our control. Anyway, life isn’t a competition, and I believe that the key to success is to enjoy your progress and the things you do.
Cotton tiger-striped printed shirt, Onitsuka Tiger
You also helmed a fashion label while juggling school and your acting career. Can you share with us more about your clothing brand?
Of course. Atzu was a brainchild of a friend and me. We both felt like the fashion scene in Singapore lacked something distinctive, and we believed we could bring that to the table. Catering to different styles and individuals, we split the label into two categories: White Label and Black Label. The latter focuses on avant-garde pieces and silhouettes, while the former sees daily wear and ready-to-wear pieces. We had the opportunity to present our collections on runways and Singapore Men’s fashion week.
Among the many roles and TV series you’ve appeared in, which would you say is the most memorable and which is your favourite?
The most memorable one for me would be When Duty Calls; I’d received my first Best Actor nomination and award for the role as a soldier. It’s ironic because prior to acting, I wanted to sign on as military personnel. One of my other favourites has to be Derek, where I play the protagonist who is a serial killer.
You received quite the buzz for your critically acclaimed performance as Luo Xiaoxiao in the drama A Song to Remember. Besides having to practise your lines, you had to train hard for the physique. What was your motivation to persevere?
Oh yes, it was extremely laborious. Considering the nature of the character’s job, a coolie, or better known as “rickshaw puller” in early Singapore, had a lean and muscular physique. And as a coolie with a heroic disposition in the show, I felt the need to achieve a similar body frame.
I had to take one to two hours off my busy schedule to hit the gym every day. And to further optimise my time, I would wake up at 5am to cycle from home, which was at Jurong at the time, to Caldecott for make-up and filming.
Thankfully, my vocation as a Commando in national service has strengthened my willpower, tenacity, and mental strength. It has made me a man of steel. Also, when I feel like giving up, I find myself imagining what my role models, Andy Lau, Tony Leung, and Leonardo DiCaprio, would do to prepare for their roles. As committed and-devoted actors, I believe they would have persevered too.
Jersey front-zipped T-shirt, nylon track pants and Gigatia shoes, all Onitsuka Tiger
Speaking of recognition, how did you feel being named as one of the Eight Dukes of Caldecott Hill in 2014?
It was interesting for me to be in what seemed like a boyband. But at the same time, I was glad that I was getting recognition for my work and efforts. Personally, the biggest compliment is when the audience tells me that I bring life to the characters I play. Show business is cut-throat and competitive.
Have you ever considered giving up?
The lockdown has made me question my life decisions and career trajectory. It has also given me the time to do a little bit of self-reflection. I asked myself if this is something I am willing to pursue in the long run. Without hesitation, my answer is yes.
In fact, after all these years, I still find acting exhilarating and invigorating. Throughout the few months of the circuit breaker, I was looking forward to the easing of COVID-19 measures and returning to filming.
What will the Desmond Tan today tell the Desmond who was just starting out?
“Take acting more seriously.” When I first plunged into the world of acting, I was distracted by the fame and spotlight, like any person in my age and disposition would. That sort of deterred me from becoming my best self.
Besides acting, you’ve also ventured into singing and have launched several singles music showcases. Was this something you have always wanted to pursue?
I’ve had an interest in singing since young. In Secondary School, I took up Scouts as my CCA. During my time there, I formed a boyband and sang a lot during camps. And right before national service, I participated in Project Superstar, a reality singing competition in Singapore. While I was fortunate to have made it through the second round, I had to enlist immediately after, which prevented me from going further in the competition. But it’s all good now. I’ve been given many opportunities to showcase my vocal abilities and penchant for singing; I’ve performed and written several songs. As a matter of fact, I’ve written and will be singing the theme songs for my upcoming drama series.
Nylon shirt , Onitsuka Tiger
What other hobbies do you have?
I’m a sports geek. I love soccer, marathon, triathlon, and any endurance sports you can think of. But due to my packed schedule, I could only visit the gym for my fitness fix.
As I was browsing through your Instagram profile, I could tell that you have an eye for fashion. Do you have any style tips?
Don’t be restricted by trends or the mainstream. Clothes are an extension of our personality and identity. If you feel like wearing that dress shirt with slippers, go for it; there’s no right or wrong when it comes to fashion.
Lastly, what can your fans look forward to in the near future?
Besides music projects, fans can look forward to my upcoming drama, Home Again, slated to air during Chinese New Year. I will be playing a farmer who got kidnapped during his adolescent years.
Photography Shawn Paul Tan; Styling Daryll Alexius Yeo; Hair Ryan Yap/ Passion Hair Salon; Grooming Melissa Yeo Using Boy De Chanel; Photography Assistance Melvin Leong; Fashion Assistance Phua Yue En