Why Desmond Tan insisted on going 'method' in ‘When Duty Calls’

The self-professed late bloomer tells us how his transformations into his drama characters have sometimes scared him

Why Desmond Tan insisted on going method in ‘When Duty Calls’
Why Desmond Tan insisted on going method in ‘When Duty Calls’
16 Apr 2018

Why Desmond Tan insisted on going method in ‘When Duty Calls’

After a decade in showbiz, Desmond Tan has finally gotten the affirmation that he wished for – a performance category nomination, and a Best Actor one at that.

The 31-year-old, who has been in Hong Kong and Shenzhen for the filming of upcoming Toggle Original Bluetick, spoke to Toggle through a phone interview – one that lasted a good hour-and-a-half, with the actor apologising at the end of the interview if he had taken up too much of our time as he gushed about his attempts at method acting.

While he stopped short at calling himself a ‘method’ actor, citing environmental limitations (more on that later), he shared that a big part of getting into his varied characters has been helped by the acting style  – something that he also employed in When Duty Calls, which ultimately earned him his nomination at the Star Awards 2018.

Not only did he tell us more about his star-crossed story with the fish we famously saw him devour on TV, but also how he interpreted some of the dramas he attempted to apply method acting in: 2011’s A Song to Remember and 2013’s The Journey: A Voyage.

Read on for more.

Desmond’s fishy tale that has more than meets the eye
Desmond’s fishy tale that has more than meets the eye
16 Apr 2018

Desmond’s fishy tale that has more than meets the eye

Who can forget the epic scene where Desmond wolfed down a raw fish after his When Duty Calls character, Sergeant Loke got lost in the wilderness and had to eat it for survival? It seems that nobody, including Desmond and the crew who were in the jungle with him that day will be able to – at least in the short term.

That few seconds that aired on television was a tiny fraction of the amount of effort that went into planning and executing the actual scene, as Desmond told us over the phone. “I never thought that eating that fish would help me get nominated,” he chuckled. “I thought of it purely because I wanted to bring out the desperation that my character felt at the time.”

Sharing that the production team was very supportive of him adding this additional scene into the story despite of the costs that would be incurred – it took half a day to film, and they even had to get rain trucks at the scene. “My goal was for the audience to better understand my character (…) and I feel that their willingness to film this scene shows that everyone was working towards the same goal, which was what moved me the most,” he explained.

Things didn’t go entirely swimmingly, however, as the entire process, from buying the last fish at the supermarket on the morning of the shoot, to finding its ‘twin’ from a nearby wet market as backup, packing it into aluminum cooler bags (Desmond even used three bags, each filled with ice), to filming the actual scene, didn’t quite proceed according to plan.

“I was hoping to buy a few just in case they needed a few takes,” the actor shared, “But they only had one, so I had to buy it anyway. I was so worried that it would go bad that I packed it really well, but by the time we had to film, it was late afternoon, and I’ll never forget the smell when I opened the bags – I nearly went crazy! It was quite obviously going bad, but I had to eat it because that’s what everyone was there for.”

(Continued on next slide: The star-crossed tale of Desmond and the fish(es))

The star-crossed tale of Desmond and the fish(es)
The star-crossed tale of Desmond and the fish(es)
16 Apr 2018

The star-crossed tale of Desmond and the fish(es)

He admitted that he felt a pang of regret at that point of time, because things weren’t panning out as he expected. “I prepared myself mentally on how I would be eating the fish, but from the moment I smelled the rotting fish, to when I bit down into the fish and couldn’t get past the scales, which I asked the supermarket staff not to remove, I wondered if I could really finish filming that scene,” Desmond mused. “But I didn’t have a choice, so I just told myself that I had to keep going.”

After discussing with the director that they would complete the filming in one take and to just go with the flow, filming started and he started chomping on the fish in earnest. The first mouthful of fish scales, meat and bones scratched his mouth while he was chewing it, and also hurt his throat when he forced himself to swallow it.

“My first reaction was to throw up, but because I starved myself for the whole day in order to experience how hungry (Sergeant Loke) was, the only thing that came out was gastric juices,” he let on. The director finally yelled ‘Cut!’ after two minutes or so of Desmond eating the fish (by that time, he was almost done devouring it), and said that him, along with the rest of the crew, could no longer watch the actor wolf down the raw fish.

Desmond grinned, “Honestly, I don’t’ have any regrets doing this scene (…) Some of my friends have called me crazy for doing this scene, (but) I feel really fulfilled after doing scene, because it was the first time I could focus on bringing out something through method acting. I strongly recommend this technique, and for me to be able to use method acting in Singapore in my work was something very enjoyable.”

(Continued on next slide: Much ado about Desmond and method acting)

Much ado about Desmond and method acting
Much ado about Desmond and method acting
16 Apr 2018

Much ado about Desmond and method acting

(Pictured: Desmond with Liu Kai Chi (left) and Wong You Nam (right) while filming Bluetick)

With all that said and done, what is method acting, and why is Desmond so drawn to it?

This technique, as Desmond explained, is one where the actor tries to become his character. Actors who have used this method include multiple award-winning Hollywood actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale.

“I’ve tried out method acting in various roles, because I feel that this is the way I can step into the character’s world. It’s like wearing someone else’s skin and living in it, and it makes me feel like I’m not Desmond Tan any longer. I particularly enjoy this feeling because I forget who I am, and it’s the kind of pleasure you get from getting drunk,” he related.

One thing his role models in method acting have in common is that they have at least one Oscar award to his name – something we asked if is Desmond’s goal as well. Desmond shared, “If you’re talking about a goal that’s in the long, very long term, I’d definitely hope to be able to achieve one day. However, I’m still a very small fry in the world of acting and I have a lot to learn.”

“If I had the opportunity to participate in a Hollywood production, even if it was a minor role or a cameo – or even an unpaid appearance – I’d definitely willing to do it. I’ve learned a lot from the different directorial and acting styles when I’ve been filming overseas, and I believe that I’ll be able to pick up more by exposing myself to different filming practices.”

(Continued on next slide: Desmond’s rookie method actor mistake while filming for The Journey: A Voyage)

Desmond’s rookie method actor mistake while filming for The Journey: A Voyage
Desmond’s rookie method actor mistake while filming for The Journey: A Voyage
16 Apr 2018

Desmond’s rookie method actor mistake while filming for The Journey: A Voyage

That said, Desmond admitted that his exploration into the world of method acting has not always been done the right way.

In The Journey: A Voyage, he had to play an opium addict, which prompted him to rapidly lose 15 kilogrammes for his role. “I locked myself in my room in order to feel the loneliness that my character felt,” he continued. “It was pretty scary – I wouldn’t call it depression, but that feeling of being separated from the world around me was quite frightening, but it allowed me to better understand my character when he got addicted to opium.”

“I would consider it the first time I really used method acting, and at the time, I hadn’t grasped it fully. If there’s one role I would like to be able to do all over again, it would be this, because I believe that after more experience with method acting, I would be able to better express this role and resonate with the audience,” he concluded.

In the long term, Desmond hopes that the characters he plays will be remembered on their own, and not just because he was the actor in the project. “Be it the acting style, my enunciation, tone or physical appearance, I hope to always show a different side of myself,” he shared. “I’ve enjoyed the past year or so because I’ve been able to challenge myself with different roles. From a serial killer to a photographer to an officer in the army, I’ve been enjoying my time living as different people.”

(Continued on next slide: How far will Desmond go for method acting?)

How far will Desmond go for method acting?
How far will Desmond go for method acting?
16 Apr 2018

How far will Desmond go for method acting?

Speaking of his serial killer role, Desmond’s portrayal of Derek Ho in Code of Law 4 has caused much buzz, something he explained was the result of much deliberation. “Before filming started, I joked with the director, ‘Should I go method for this role?’ and he said that it was up to me, as long as I didn’t get arrested,” he laughed.

“Method acting doesn’t mean that I have to murder people for real in order to portray the role of a serial killer. All you have to do is to be able to understand and live in the mind of your character. I watched a lot of video interviews with real-life serial killers, and I realised that they look like your average person on the street and it’s just that they have peculiar ‘hobbies’, in this case killing people,” he mused.

As a strong believer of the saying, ‘The more you fail, the better you fail’, Desmond said that he is willing to take the gamble and push himself out of his comfort zone in order to take on a more diverse range of roles, citing a transgender as one of the characters he would like to try the most.

“At this point of my life, I don’t have a bottom line that dictates how far I’ll go for a role. When I was here filming, the director once asked me if there’s anything I absolutely won’t do, and I said no (…) Back then, I learned about method acting through trial and error, and even though I was once worried that I would really die from going method for The Journey: A Voyage, I’ve learned to walk the fine line,” he expressed.

He concluded, “I’m really a late bloomer who only understood acting very late in my career, and I also only truly fell in love with acting much later on in my career. I won’t say that my acting is great – although compared to my early days in showbiz, I think I’ve developed quite a bit – and right now, I’m enjoying my journey as an actor, which is very different from when I was always anxious on the film set.”

VIC debuts April 19 on Toggle.

Watch past episodes of Code of Law Season 4, When Duty Calls, The Journey: Tumultuous Times, The Journey: A Voyage, A Song To Remember on Toggle.

Related:
Paige Chua, Desmond Tan bag first Star Awards Best Actor nomination
Desmond Tan nailed serial killer role with drunken audition
NASTY: Desmond Tan eats raw fish for survival in ‘When Duty Calls’
The truth behind Desmond Tan’s failures and “friend zone” story

Visit the official Star Awards 2018 microsite for more information.

Catch the Star Awards 2018 – Arrival of Artistes on April 22, Sunday, 4.30pm on Toggle.
Catch the 2018 Star Awards ceremony LIVE on April 22, Sunday, 7pm on Channel 8/U or Toggle.
Catch the 2018 Star Awards Post Show Party LIVE on April 22, Sunday, 10.30pm on Channel 8/U or Toggle.

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