Photos Stefan Khoo Styling Chia Wei Choong Fashion assistance Asri Jasman Grooming Elyn/Cecilia Chng Beauty Hair Edward Aw
Once upon a time, there was a boy who dreamed of being the fastest in the water, slicing through the aquatic world and emerging with a medal on dry land. Then his mum passed away two days before his Primary School Leaving Examinations and his entire world crashed, those dreams along with it. He failed almost everything but managed to get into Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) because it wanted him on the swim team. The face he presented to the world was plastered with a smile but within, Benjamin Kheng was a maelstrom of emotions.
The boy is becoming a man now. “Except when I’m on my PS4 at 2am with burritos all around me and Netflix on the computer,” the boy who would soon be king laughs. We sat down with the singer-songwriter-actor and chatted with him about Wonder Boy, grappling with fame, his good looks and how it impacted his life, and his favourite swear word.
What was it like to play Dick Lee, considering that he was in front of you all the time?
It was quite surreal and stressful at first. I don’t think there has ever been a precedent of a man directing his own story, right? But we had gone through a couple of workshops and Dick really laid it out for me. He did not want an imitation of him because it was pointless. He wanted his story to inspire me and then I must take the character in the direction I desired. So there was a sense of freedom in that process.
What do you want the audience to take away from Wonder Boy?
That it’s ok to mess up and make mistakes. I’m sorry to say this but Dick royally messed up when he was young. He made almost every mistake you could make because he was young, passionate and idealistic. But sometimes that’s the only way you learn. He was undoubtedly talented, but what was more remarkable was that he could get back up after every mistake and brush it off. I think that’s something everyone can take away.
Do you apply the same thing to your own career now?
Oh, yes. I will have to learn to be ok with making mistakes, to grow my wings as I’m falling, because I guess my career took off pretty fast and I had to legitimise why I was doing this and the reasons behind my craft.
Meaning people weren’t taking you seriously for your craft?
It’s more of a lot of the mistakes that should have been made in the bedroom or in the rehearsal space were made on the stage or on screen. I have to keep forgiving myself and telling myself that I am not defined by every single mistake I’ve made.
Did you beat yourself up a lot over your mistakes?
Everyone does. Every good creative wants to quit every day. Every single day I think about the reasons I am doing this. I always feel that I am not contributing to society in a more tangible way. But the truth is you and I are. We are creating culture, and informing and inspiring lives. When you fail once, you think that you are not meant for this. But all the best people in the world has failed at least a couple of times. You need to want to fail.
I’m going to play Devil’s advocate. Would you attribute your popularity to your good looks?
Uhh. In some sense, yes. And it does bother me. I’ve tried to work against it all my life although I wouldn’t trade it off because I know it helps. But good looks aren’t the be all and end all.
Your good looks made you work harder?
Yes. I used to cringe so hard when people told me I was good looking. I would go back home and work extra hard to validate myself and to make sure that I could actually play music, and do this or that. I put a lot of pressure on myself because of that.
“I feel like the art of really caring for people, especially in this industry, is lost. We always have to build our own kingdoms. It’s always about my numbers or my work and we forget how to champion other people because it’s competition. Sure, it is smart business, but what is it doing to us as people?”
With fame, do you think the boundaries between your private and public lives blur? That your private life belongs to the public?
You know every high profile personality who publicly displays his life? That’s not really his life unless he is in a really bad shape. I have had a lot of conversations with Dick and one of my best was when I asked him, “Almost all of your work involves your life story. Your family matters, your history with Jacinta, everything has been exposed to everyone. How do you deal with that?”
He replied, “Dick Lee is the brand. But Richard (Wonder Boy’s protagonist) is not.” And that’s the line he draws – no one knows how it’s drawn but himself.
How about you? Are you drawing that line?
I did recently. I have been struggling with it a lot these past few years. I used to get bad anxiety attacks when I get uneasy in public. People don’t come up and say hello but stay in the corner and film you with their phones. And I just ran away. I am learning to be ok with it, to pick my battles and not feel like my whole life is gone just because of this weird intangible thing now.
So do you put on a persona now when you meet strangers? Or do you still try to remain genuine?
This is the real me. But I have never believed in hurting people. A few people are fine with saying the truth and hurting people in the process but not me. If I don’t feel like I can add anything to the argument, I’m just not going to say it. That aside, even when I am interacting with people at events and making small talk, a lot of people think that I have an agenda. But I don’t. I feel like the art of really caring for people, especially in this industry, is lost. We always have to build our own kingdoms. It’s always about my numbers or my work and we forget how to champion other people because it’s competition. Sure, it is smart business, but what is it doing to us as people?
What do you want to do for humanity?
I feel like I need to change at some point in my life.
Earlier on, you said you felt like you weren’t creating something tangible. It feels like you’ve had this struggle for a long time.
I used to teach drama and swimming to kids and that has always felt more tangible to me. And I’ve had people coming up to me to say that I inspired them or that a song helped them through bad times. I’m always so happy to hear that. So I’ve started doing a bit more work with non-profit organisations to see how I can be more involved. I think it is important to have awareness. I honestly don’t see myself doing this forever.
So what’s the plan?
I actually want to do more creative work behind the camera, hopefully.
Out of the three disciplines – singing, filming and theatre – which one do you really like?
The thing about theatre is that if you are a performer, it is the most enjoyable and cathartic process. You spend two months being the character. So that’s the most fun. While I do enjoy watching films, the process of filming is painful sometimes. As for singing, well it’s great but it’s not theatre.
Who is the real Benjamin Kheng then?
This it it (laughs). Well, I do have a three-hour bandwidth. After I go home I binge on Netflix shows and eat burritos. Whenever I travel, I’m always on my PS4. That’s a commitment.
What are you playing?
UFC 2, a lot of sports games, NBA. Mass Effect, a bunch of dude games.
Tell me something about yourself that very few people know.
(long pause) I’m incredibly interested in sports physiotherapy. Ok, it’s not so interesting. But when someone gets injured, I’m all over them trying to figure out why they are injured and why it happened.
So you like the science behind it.
Yeah, but the science involving physicality.
But that’s because of your background, right?
Yeah… that’s not very interesting, never mind. What else? I’m allergic to beer though. I start swelling up. Only beer and no other alcohol. But I haven’t diagnosed it yet. I don’t really like beer anyway. I’m also a very cheap drunk. One tequila shot and I become stupid, funny and wasted.
I feel like I want to ask you what is your craziest drunk story.
I’m a very sleepy drunk. I’m sorry I don’t really have any good stories. I’m not a wild kid. I don’t really drink. Nathan (Hartono) is a terrible drinker though! (laughs)
One of my the interviewers I look up to is James Lipton and he asks everyone who goes on his show the same 10 questions. I want to ask you this list too.
What is your favourite word?
What is your least favourite word?
Queef (laughs). Sorry. It’s just a terrible word. It’s a natural thing but it’s just a terrible word. Not that I don’t like it…. Ok, I need to explain this before I get crucified for this. I’m not hating on the act of queefing, I just don’t like the word. It sounds terrible. Can I just say that for the record? Just the word. Ok, cool. Moving on.
That’s funny, because next I’m going to ask you what turns you on.
Queefing (laughs). Without the word.
Creatively, spiritually, emotionally.
Intelligence and humour.
And what turns you off?
Bad work ethic and lazy people.
What sound or noise do you like?
The rain at 8am when you can sleep in. It is a super heavy downfall but you still have a couple of hours to sleep in. That’s the best.
That’s because you don’t have office hours.
That’s true! (laughs)
What sound or noise do you hate?
My own unpitched vocals. I lose my mind.
What is your favourite curse word?
Lanjiao? I have one so it’s fine to say it. And it’s just fun to say. Fuck is boring. Everybody uses it.
Dick Lee’s favourite curse word is ‘fuck’.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I would love to be a photo journalist for National Geographic or Reuters.
Oh. Do you have a camera?
Yes. I do like photography. I’m just on a Canon 6D with 35mm. It’s pretty standard gear.
When did you pick up photography?
When I was in polytechnic about a decade ago.
What profession would you not like to do?
Ok I think being a journalist is tough. I think it’s always tough to stay on top of current events and to always try to gather an opinion about something is so tiring. There’s so much to fight about these days, right? And the fighting never stops. It feels like the only reason you fight is to fight. And then you have to talk about it, you have to expound on it. It’s tiring. I mean, it does something to my soul to read about it. That’s why I try to limit my Facebook time these days. I can’t imagine having to write these articles every day and what it must do to you.
Alright last one. If Heaven exists what would you like God to say to you when you arrive at the Gates?
Go back down. You’re not done yet.
Wonder Boy is out in cinemas 3 August