Chen Hanwei: I used to be a 'difficult' actor

Been there, done that: Before Chen Hanwei became the respected actor and mentor he is known as today, the acting thespian confessed that he was once an obstinate artiste who only cared about himself 

Chen Hanwei looks back on his showbiz career
Chen Hanwei looks back on his showbiz career
23 May 2017

Chen Hanwei looks back on his showbiz career

Photos: Channel 8
Videos: Charlene Chong, Vina Chia


A long, long time ago, Chen Hanwei’s TV idol status was sealed in stone with his turn as the charismatic ‘Fang lao shi’ in Morning Express. For the role, he wore his hair long, just like Hong Kong singer-actor Ekin Cheng who was the bonafide heartthrob of that era, and had a luscious mane that could easily rival those of shampoo ad lasses Cherie Lim and Madeline Chu.

Never mind that his long-haired teacher image in the show was a little unorthodox, the audience loved him anyway. “Who’d believe that a teacher had long hair?” chuckled Hanwei, as he looked back on his past ruefully, “But I successfully persuaded the producers, who had faith in me, and they allowed me to try playing the role with long hair.”

It seemed no longer important whether the audience loved him for the role or for his styling, but Hanwei’s sudden surge in popularity cemented his obsession with his long hair (or “my precious” as he called it), and marked the start of his “difficult” phase.

For someone who is well-respected by his peers and well-loved for unfailingly—and readily—extending a helping hand to those in need, we found it hard to believe that the five-time Best Actor winner was once an “unprofessional” and difficult actor to work with.

But everyone has a past, Hanwei included.

(Continued on next page: Hanwei explains why he quit acting in 1997)

Chen Hanwei in various roles with the same long hairdo
Chen Hanwei in various roles with the same long hairdo
23 May 2017

Chen Hanwei in various roles with the same long hairdo

“To be honest,” he confessed during his interview at the 118 set in Mediacorp Experience, a brand new behind-the-scenes gallery open for public viewing, “I don’t really fancy long hair these days but it was ‘my precious’ in the past… Because of that show I became very popular and as a result I refused to cut my hair short for every other role I took on after Morning Express.

“I did all sorts of roles in my long hair,” he chuckled in disbelief, rattling through a list of characters he played with his shoulder-length mane, of which included a lawyer, cop and creative director, just to name a few. “I thought highly of myself and treasured my hairstyle. I even ended up fighting with some producers because of my hairstyle (chuckles).”

Hanwei had his way (mostly), despite his unprofessionalism, in large part due to his skyrocketing popularity.

The one time he was forced to cut his hair to play a refined and courteous character in The Guest People, a 1997 drama about Hakka immigrants, he quit showbiz in a fit of anger after filming wrapped and went to work behind-the-scenes instead.

For the three years he disappeared from TV, he worked as a fashion stylist and went round knocking on the doors of fashion labels and houses to loan outfits for artistes and dramas. He also continued to keep his hair really, really long, in fact, “it was the longest” he ever had.

He returned to the TV station subsequently to film Millennium Bug in 1999 and “went crazy” with his hair. “I kept it long – all the way!” he recalled in embarrassment.

From left, clockwise: Hanwei in Cupid Love, Morning Express, Creative Edge, Of Cops and Men, The Guest People, The Millenium Bug

(Continued on next page: Hanwei explains why he is motivated to help newbies and younger actors)

Hanwei the
Hanwei the "big brother"
23 May 2017

Hanwei the "big brother"

It didn’t take long before he saw the folly of his ways. But it was this personal episode he had as an “unprofessional” and “difficult” artiste who only cared about himself and his own progress that propelled him to help and stand up for the newbie and young actors today.

Speaking like big brother, he thoughtfully mused, “It’s strange… When you’re at a certain stage [in life] or age, and when you see newbies getting bullied, you tend to want to help resolve misunderstandings, you want to get the atmosphere [on set] right.”

“I used to be like them too when I was in my 20s. I had my temper and it was a problem with my character… This is very normal,” he philosophised. Hanwei’s face lit up when he recounted how he helped Sora Ma assimilate into the 118 family, when the actress found it hard, initially, to gel with the cast due to her differing opinions and acting style.

“She felt that she was being difficult, but I told her, in my opinion, that she’s not in the wrong for wanting to enrich her character, but told her that she may need to use the right method to communicate with her co-stars and directors… I witnessed her transformation and now she’s part of the family too and that makes me happy,” he smiled.

Another reason why he tries—and still—goes out of his way to communicate with his co-stars – no matter young or old, on how they’d play their characters, like he did with his two onscreen daughters played by Isabel Yamada and Rebecca Lim in The Lead? “Acting requires teamwork,” he said.

“Acting is not a solo gig. We do this not for ourselves but for the overall presentation of the show, to nail the right feeling for it,” he explained, “You can choose to do your own thing but when it comes to teamwork, it’s a different matter altogether.”

For someone who has been there, done that, what are some advice he has for younger actors who feel like their careers are headed nowhere? What does he think about playing second fiddle to his younger co-stars? Read on as Hanwei shares some interesting anecdotes about his journey as an actor as we revisit some of his most iconic roles (and hairstyles). 


When he was doing the same old roles over and over again, during his early days
When he was doing the same old roles over and over again, during his early days
23 May 2017

When he was doing the same old roles over and over again, during his early days

Like most artistes, Hanwei was once stuck in a rut when he was assigned the same type of roles to play, time after time.  He used to lament about never getting any good roles to try until it dawned on him one fine day that every person has a unique and different characteristic to themselves. “It can be their image or their personality,” he added.

So what is one piece of advice he has for budding actors who are going through the same problem today?

“Don’t be lazy. Don’t just flip through your script just before filming begins and come to set unprepared without personalising your character. If you encounter a very strong co-star who comes to work well-prepared, you’ll start to panic. And once you start filming, you don’t have time to think about anything else and you may be even thrown off course by comments from the producer or director… I often tell the young ones to go fall in love and get a pet dog. All these open up your eyes to the world and allows you to experience a breadth of emotions and this is what acting is all about.”

From L-R: Hanwei in Knotty Liaisons, Fantasy, Vive La Famille

When he gained acting enlightenment in the early noughties
When he gained acting enlightenment in the early noughties
23 May 2017

When he gained acting enlightenment in the early noughties

“The producer approached me for [Love Me, Love Me Not] and promised that it will be a fun role because I’d get to uglify myself. I was piqued by the prospect of uglifying myself because it’s something I’ve never done before. So I tried it and, who knows, it was [a] really ugly [character]! As a result, I got addicted to performing and it dawned on me that you can be ugly but cute at the same time. From someone who thought he was an idol to crossover to method acting was something I found hard to accept initially. I thought you’d only get to be a method actor when you hit your 40s, so I started to tune my channel towards that and took on even more challenging roles after the producers built up their confidence in me.”

When his pet dog died in 2002
When his pet dog died in 2002
23 May 2017

When his pet dog died in 2002

“I adopted my dog together with Huang Biren at the SPCA for $20… It was a beagle and a very active breed of dog. One day, when I was filming Springs of Life, my friend called to tell me that my dog passed away because it was knocked down by a car when it was let out of its leash. I had to film a very big scene and tell jokes before a large crowd of people on stage while coping with the loss of my dog. In that instant, I had to act as someone else… I didn’t feel the sadness on set, but it hit me when I got home and it’s all quiet and I saw the leash lying in the corner. I didn’t shed a single tear all day, but after I settled everything, I was overwhelmed with sadness. This is why I believe that sometimes crying may not be the best expression to show you’re sad when it comes to acting.”


When he finally decided to cut his hair short – with no regrets
When he finally decided to cut his hair short – with no regrets
23 May 2017

When he finally decided to cut his hair short – with no regrets

“After keeping my hair long for so many years, I could actually bear to cut my hair for A Life of Hope. It’s like I finally ‘woke up’ after filming this show and I saw a change in myself. I started to have more demands on myself in terms of my roles and image and tried not to leave a trace of Chen Hanwei in all characters I play, no matter big or small. It’s safe to say that I’m the male artiste with the most transformations.”

What he does to personalise every role he plays
What he does to personalise every role he plays
23 May 2017

What he does to personalise every role he plays

Hanwei has a habit of scribbling interesting lines and phrases he hears from conversations or around him into a notebook (or his phone). And when he gets a role – any role, he starts to think about means and ways to characterise and enrich it to give it a little more ‘oomph’ and turns to his notebook for help and inspiration.

“I always tell actors that the lines may be very polished and written as such, but you need to inject life in the speech and make it sound more Singaporean. Of course not every line needs to be punctuated with leh or lor. It’s acceptable to do that for a show like 118 but for The Gentlemen, because I play a male chauvinist, he’s slightly more prim and proper and speaks with little slang.”

From L-R: Hanwei in Daddy at Home, Best Things in Life, It Takes Two

When he gets supporting roles, despite his leading man status
When he gets supporting roles, despite his leading man status
23 May 2017

When he gets supporting roles, despite his leading man status

Throughout his close to 30 years of acting, Hanwei tells us he has never once rejected an acting offer, regardless of the type of role (supporting or lead), that came his way.

“No matter how ordinary it is, I try to enrich it to my best efforts and bring the character to life. I’m very grateful when some producers tell me that I always look the part of what I play. The Lead’s producer told me they casted me for this role because they feel that I’d always make the character look the part. I am thankful for this praise, but I feel that I still have room for improvement…

“I don’t think there is any difference between lead and supporting roles. A lot of people like to think that a rose grows on thorns, but why don’t we think that a thorn is growing on a rose? So what if the thorn is a supporting character? It can also be a rose – it ultimately depends on how you enrich a role.”

From L-R: Hanwei in The Journey: Tumultuous Times, The Lead

WATCH: The story behind Hanwei's obsession with his long hair
WATCH: Chen Hanwei recounts his rise from a calefare to 'The Lead'


The Lead airs weeknights, 9pm on Channel 8; watch it on Toggle-It-First or watch past episodes on Toggle

Report a problem