As a lifestyle journalist, one of my job hazards includes having to interview celebrities. I say job hazard because it’s not always what late-night talk shows depict celebrity interviews to be like. It can get cold and impersonal. Sometimes you don’t get to converse with a human being. Sometimes, you’re talking to a walking PR machine, spewing practised key PR messages. Fuzhou-born local actor Xu Bin is an exception to this.
There is a very down-to-earth quality about his charisma. At our cover shoot, you can see in his eyes the playful young man, but also the seasoned actor. He’s done a ton of shoots like this one, but you can’t deny his appreciation for his career and how far he’s come even as the spotlight bears down on him.
Just as a library is a multitude of stories, the 34-yearold has lived a very storied life. He left his native Fuzhou at a young age to study in Singapore. His first brush with stardom came in talent competition programme Campus Superstar, but it was in 2012 and 2013 that he really burst into the scene, getting noticed for his performance as Oscar Yang in Gonna Make It and Zhong Junliang in Don’t Stop Believinʼ, the latter of which earned him his first Star Award for Favourite Male Character.
Today, he’s also starring in a new role: that of father to his two children, Ethan and Elyse. But what does it take to be Xu Bin? We study the spirit of the thespian that he embodies, and the guile and grit which has pushed him to the upper stratosphere of our local entertainment industry.
Congratulations on another strong showing at this year’s Star Awards, including getting on the Top 10 Most Popular Male Artistes list for the fifth time in 10 years. How does it feel?
I am more than grateful. I know many fans voted for me daily, day and night. Receiving the award on stage is a result of their hard work, they are the ones who put me on stage. They are truly the wind beneath my wings.
You’ve come so far since appearing on Campus Superstar so many years ago. How did that help you achieve the career you have today?
In my teenage years, I signed up for Campus Superstar with a happy-go-lucky mentality. I was there to gain experience and wanted to see where it would take me. Advancing into the top 20 back then was totally unexpected but a pleasant takeaway. It was a process of growth and honing my skills, and it set a very good foundation for my later years in showbiz.
What pushes you to keep rising in your career? Is it a certain attitude or external motivation?
It’s staying true to my roots, staying true to my passion. When you devote yourself to performing wholeheartedly, your efforts will one day be reciprocated. Good things take time, and the process is what keeps me going. They say never look back, but to me, looking back allows me to reflect and learn from my shortcomings.
How do you manage the many relationships doing what you do – from the creatives in productions to talent management, to even brand partners or sponsors, and also perhaps your own personal relationships with friends and family?
I see myself putting on different hats. In the office, I am a senior who offers my insights. On filming sets, I put aside who I am and allow myself to take on another personality. As a brand ambassador, I fulfil my responsibilities and share my beliefs of the brand with my following. Back home, I look at things from a different perspective when I put my kids to bed or be a husband to my partner. No one particular hat is able to serve all perspectives. Wearing different hats day in day out helps me strike a balance.
You left Fuzhou at a young age to come to Singapore. What were those first years here like? Did you know back then you wanted to be in front of the camera?
During my first few years as a student in Singapore, I was relatively young and all I knew I had to do was to adapt to this whole new environment. I did not have a close relationship with my classmates back then as I was still getting used to the English language, hence I spent a lot of time just studying and reading. Little did I ever imagine I would be taking on a journey in showbiz years later.
“Doing the best you can in every moment, that’s the way of life.” – Xu Bin
Do you go back a lot? Is there a difference to what you’re like in Singapore and what you’re like in Fuzhou?
I used to go back to Fuzhou regularly but since Covid-19, it has been a long time since I went back. I do hope to visit sometime soon once I get time off from my schedules! I have spent more than half of my life here, living and breathing Singapore, so there is definitely a huge difference when I visit Fuzhou now. It’s a place that seems very foreign, yet familiar and heart-warming at the same time. It’s a very unique relationship for me.
You’ve played some very memorable romantic leading men. Can you share with us how that came to be?
I strive to comprehend the character’s emotions and try to read and understand the lines of how each character will communicate. I am a sentimental person, perhaps that plays a huge part in helping me share the emotions of the character and, in this case, romantic relationships that each story requires.
How do you pick your roles?
There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to deciding on picking a role. Aside from schedule availabilities, more often than not, my managers will discuss with me the suitability of the role. I want to do justice to each of my assigned roles, be it big or small, hence I’m grateful for my team and managers who are always open to discussion.
What informs your acting? How do you prepare for your roles?
Giving my character a thorough profiling helps me perform better. Whenever I receive a new script, I usually look through it once, then start profiling my character. I will read through the lines again and analyse his relationships with the other characters to understand more about this new person I am meeting on paper. Once I’ve built a clearer picture of the character’s personality, I reread the script again in depth, and by this time I usually get to see the character in a different light.
As an actor, is there a certain type of story you want to tell?
The best types of story are the ones we live to tell every day. There has to be a certain amount of “yourself” in every role you play, and to do that, you have to live and love life the way it presents you, in every single aspect. There’s a story in Chinese:
A young monk asked an eminent monk what he did before he attained the Tao.
The eminent monk said, “Chop firewood, carry water, and cook.”
The young monk asked, “What about after attaining enlightenment?”
The eminent monk said, “Chop firewood, carry water, and cook.”
The little monk was very puzzled and asked, “Then how can we be considered Taoist?”
The eminent monk said, “Before attaining enlightenment, when chopping firewood, I thought about carrying water.
When carrying water, I thought about cooking. When cooking, I also thought about chopping firewood.
After attaining enlightenment, when chopping firewood, I thought about chopping firewood. When carrying water, I thought about carrying water. Cook as you cook.
Doing the best you can in every moment, that’s the way of life.”
What type of books do you like to read?
Once in a while, I indulge in a Chinese novel. But honestly, I spend most of my free evenings now reading children’s books to my kids before their bedtime. Journey to the West is my boy’s selection now.
Do you have a favourite author? Who is it and why?
My favourite author has to be Louis Cha Leung-yung, better known by his pen name, Jin Yong. When I was a kid, I dreamt of becoming a martial hero. Jin Yongʼs Wuxia novels bring me into the magical world, and paint my childhood with a spectrum of rainbow colours.
Do you have a favourite line from a book or lyric from a song?
I have a favourite line from the song, The Final Battle by Jay Chou. Its lyrics were written by Vincent Fang. Translated from Chinese, it goes:
With the sight of sunken grounds and smell of burnt concretes, I reminisce the taste of ice cream and soft drinks And those carefree teenagers idling in summer days.
What do these words mean to you?
This song expresses the yearn for world peace. I like how clear a picture a few words could paint, illustrating how simple pleasures can suddenly become a luxury in times of turmoil. This song reminds me that I, too, hope for world peace, or should I say, I hope for every day’s simple pleasures, every day’s simple luxuries.
Is there a director you’ve always wanted to work with, local or international?
I’ve never really dabbled in the comedy genre, so that is a challenge I want to take on. I would love to work with Stephen Chow. I have watched all of his movies, some of them many times over! Even though I’m rewatching the same movie, it always strikes a different chord. And the saying goes, “When you watch Stephen Chow as a kid, you find joy. When you watch Stephen Chow as an adult, you find life.”
What are you like outside of the limelight? What’s a typical non-work day for you like?
I am actually quite a stay-home man. A typical non-work day will mean scheduling a workout so I stay in shape and on top of my health. I will also try to set aside time outside of work for my family as well, so when the kids are off school, my wife and I will bring them outdoors for some sun and fun.
In your 30s, what kind of role do you play when interacting with the new stars in their 20s who are coming into the scene? Are you coming into the role of mentor?
I don’t think I qualify as a mentor yet, as I still have a lot to learn. But as a senior, I’m more than willing to share with the new stars my personal experience and help them navigate showbiz. If there’s something I can learn from them, I would most gladly take it home and that’s the beauty of filmmaking.
What’s next for you? Is there anything beyond acting that you want to do in the future?
I pretty much still wish to put most of my focus on acting. I look forward to more opportunities to partake in overseas or cross-country productions and taking on a wider spectrum of roles. The journey has just begun, I still have a lot to learn.
Photography: Joel Low; Styling: Daryll Alexius Yeo; Hair: Joanne Er/J Hair Salon using Schwarzkopf; Makeup: Geng XiangJun; Photography Assistance: Eddie Teo; Fashion Assistance: Crystal Lim; Location Epigram: Coffee Bookshop