Photos: Lee Lay Na
This Toggle Talk interview with Romeo Tan almost did not happen due to the actor’s crazily-packed work schedule back in mid-March, when the interview was done. Rushing down to W Sentosa Cove Singapore, from the western side of Singapore where he did his morning shoot for The Journey: Our Homeland, Romeo, who was neck-deep in work, was due back at work in the evening after the interview. He barely had time to catch a breather, but the optimistic chap chirped: “It’s good to be busy,” as we settled down in one of W’s private suites for the interview.
It helps, too, that he is in a better state of mind than when he was doing Tumultuous Times as his turn as the cheerful Hong Kuan (in Our Homeland) is “not as intense as Zhang Yan”, which required him to memorise pages of dialogue (the longest he had was nine pages at a go) while speaking in a scholarly fashion that was befitting of Singapore in the '50s.
Calling Zhang Yan one of the most challenging characters he has ever played, Romeo said that role also marked one of his first setbacks in showbiz– when feedback from the public turned out even more scathing than he'd expected.
Speaking of “the journey”, the 29-year-old had a pretty cushy road to fame: it came for him very quickly, after his stint at Star Search 2010 and a supporting role in C.L.I.F. 2, and can only go up from here. In almost no time at all, we saw Romeo go from being practically nobody – when he was still a rookie – to leading man material.
While he has gained more jobs, roles and recognition, along with it came maturity, or should we say, the loss of innocence. No longer the bright-eyed and bushy tailed, naïve Romeo, the 29-year-old poured his heart out in this Toggle Talk interview and shared about his workplace relationships and struggles – from the comparisons with fellow duke Desmond Tan to the “troubling” rumours of his relationship with Elvin Ng, and lets in on the other lowest point in his life. Read on for more or watch the videos for a blow-by-blow account of his interview.
WATCH: Romeo talks about the pros and cons about being one of the 8 dukes
He feels pressured to compete with (and lose to) Desmond Tan.
While he tells himself to see the 8 Dukes as a form of “healthy competition”, sometimes little details like who’s first or second in photoshoots or even interview sequences, are like little “mind tricks” that remind him about their supposed rivalry with one another. It’d be a lie to say he’s not disturbed by it, Romeo said, especially when he’s perceived to be one step behind Desmond.
Yes, he may have joked about using Desmond’s photos as a practice dartboard (in the video interview), but at the end of the day, they aren’t rivals to the point of being standoffish with each other. “When we’re filming or doing photoshoots, we’ll still talk – if we don’t, that’s bad, right? (Laughs) Desmond is an easygoing person. We talk about everything – from NS (national service) life to work gossip and will even share jokes [with each other].”
Romeo added: “Desmond has had his fair share of struggles too, especially since he joined the business much earlier. I’m equally in awe of him too because before the 8 Dukes was formed, he underwent a transformation and I can attest to that – he worked hard on the way he carried himself and his fashion sense.”
Friends or colleagues? He says friends are people “outside of showbiz”.
This discussion certainly brings to mind a famous comment once made by Fann Wong, in reference to her widely-speculated rivalry with Zoe Tay: “We are just colleagues, not friends".
Similarly, Romeo says he doesn’t differentiate between colleagues and friends at work. “At the office I’m just doing my job and doing what I love. And they [his co-actors] are important figures because without them, we wouldn’t be able to film a show. We’re all artistes and actors, and I don’t go round acting pally-pally with people.”
While he considers his friends to be “people whom I’ve known outside of showbiz,” Romeo shared that there are some people in the TV station that he feels closer and more comfortable with. (More on that on the next page)
Tumultuous Times was one of the lowest points in his life.
During filming and before the drama was broadcast, neither the director nor the producer had problems with Romeo's speech or enunciation. But after the show was put together, a lot of problems were unearthed. “And these were mistakes made on my part,” he admitted.
As someone who makes it a point to watch his own dramas to know where he performed well and badly in, Romeo recalled, “As I watched on and hoped for the episodes to get better, it didn’t. And then slowly, comments from social media started pouring in, and when I read these comments, it struck me like a bolt out of the blue. I hadn't received that kind of feedback before, and I was upset and depressed for a while.”
He is no longer the “free, happy soul” he once was during his rookie days.
When he first started out, Romeo would come to work feeling happy, but into his second or third year at showbiz, things changed and he has since learned how to take everything with a pinch of salt.
“I think it’s an interpersonal relationship problem. I didn’t think it’d be this complicated last time. When you’re younger, you’d say ‘I don't want to be your friend,’ but you would still play with your friends the next day,” he said. “But today, when people smile at you, you don’t know if they are really smiling or if it carries some meaning behind it. Sometimes I’d say things without thinking, but people would remember these words and think that I have a motive. Word gets around and it leads to misunderstandings…”
He addresses the “troubling” rumours of his relationship with Elvin Ng.
Although he draws a distinct line between colleagues and friends, Romeo shared that he counts Elvin one of his “closest friends in showbiz today.” Not for any other special reason but based on the fact that Elvin guided and taught him many things about filming during C.L.I.F. 2, that they became friends after the drama. And like most friends, they hang out at each other’s houses. In fact, chuckled Romeo, “My mum sees him so often she’s tired of seeing his face!”
“We’re just good friends. I have another good friend outside of showbiz too, and both [my good friends] are guys. I've known one of them for 15 years and another is Elvin. My mum doesn’t find it strange, nor is she bothered by it.”
As bros who share a chummy relationship, both Romeo and Elvin set tongues wagging when they were spotted hanging out in real life. While these rumours are “troubling” to a certain extent, Romeo says he prefers to turn a blind eye to it instead of straightening things out. “This feels more comfortable, anyway… If people say we’re admitting to it (by not commenting on these speculations), so be it. I don’t think we need to respond to or clarify these rumours.”
“In the beginning, we weren’t bothered by it, but when others started to discuss this topic, it got uncomfortable. Now we just bo chup (don’t care),” he added.
WATCH: Romeo admits it's not easy being in the entertainment industry
He has no qualms making his relationship public…
… depending on which stage of his career he is at. Right now, however, priority goes to focusing on work and taking care of his fans. “Give me a few more years and I’m sure my fans are able to accept it. But it’s not the time now.”
Having been in three to four serious relationships, Romeo says that he can now accept dating someone from the same industry. “If I find someone from showbiz, I’d have to face another actor at home, but at least she’d be aware of my job stress, what I’m dealing with, and help me with it. If I’m dating someone outside of this industry, I can totally immerse myself in her life and what she’s doing when I’m home. I can also put down my identity as an actor, but she may not understand what I’m doing and I might not have so much time for her.”
His bottom line? “Understanding [towards each other] is very important.”
The other low point in life as a “cable guy”.
As a teenager, Romeo started doing odd jobs when he was 14 years old – working at McDonalds, distributing fliers and even modeling – just to earn some extra pocket money. None of his part-time job stints, however, were as memorable as his time as a cable guy – and we don’t mean it in a good way. For just S$50 to S$60 a day, he had to go from house to house to repair and look into internet and broadband cable problems while carrying heavy equipment. It was then that the then-Polytechnic fresh grad received a hurtful comment made by a flat owner when he went to fix her internet connection.
Recalled Romeo: “I said to her: ‘Your chair is comfortable’ and she looked to me and said: ‘When you earn more money in the future, you can buy this too’,” he paused slightly, looking a little indignant, and continued, “I’m just complimenting her chair; she didn’t have to say that to me. Just ‘cos I’m doing such a job doesn’t mean I cannot afford the chair.”
He has put the past behind him, but the sting from the words clearly still remain. With all the money he’s racking in from endorsements today, Romeo can buy as many branded designer chairs as his heart desires.
Romeo, 1. Female flat owner, 0.
WATCH: Romeo reveals the low point in his life before he became an actor
Special thanks to W Singapore - Sentosa Cove.
More Toggle Talk stories:
Heartbreaker to TV sweetheart: Carrie Wong
Dennis Chew: Single, unavailable and very much in love
Inside the privileged life and insecurities of Julie Tan
Confessions of a celebrity mum and former neurotic: Quan Yi Fong