Photos: Don Lee
Back in late March, we came across an interview where Desmond Tan and Rebecca Lim openly expressed their wish for folks to quit asking the duo about their friendship.
Well, thankfully for us (and you, the dear reader), that declaration happened after our session with Desmond in February for today’s Toggle Talk tête-à-tête. If not, we probably would not have been unable to unearth the juicy titbits we did regarding the real state of the beloved BFFs’ relationship – information you too will be privy to after you’re done with our write-up and videos.
We also addressed his tough first years in showbiz, especially before a certain shirtless rickshaw puller named Luo Xiaoxiao came along. “I think audiences started to know me better from Together, but my real breakthrough was in A Song to Remember,” Desmond recalled during our chat at Sheraton Towers Singapore.
Before that, however, were three years of darkness. “It was depressing to see my peers like Andie Chen and Ya Hui making it big and nabbing endorsement deals, while people would ignore me on the streets!” he candidly shared. “I wondered why they were achieving so much more despite entering showbiz at around the same time as me.”
It didn’t help that many of his characters ended up getting killed off. “My friends would jokingly ask if my next character would die again, and it didn’t make me very happy,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why is the company doing this to me?’ I became the laughing stock of everyone.”
We don’t think anyone’s laughing now. Desmond has come a long way since his Star Search finalist days (and the not-so-golden period that came after it), with two Star Awards trophies, sweet endorsement deals and a prominent spot in the 8 dukes, a gang comprising of the finest young hunks on the Hill.
Read on for more, and watch the videos for a blow-by-blow account of his interview:
WATCH: Desmond recalls the not-so-good ol’ days when people didn’t recognise him in public
He didn’t take acting seriously at first.
We had to admire Desmond’s honesty when he said that when he took part in Star Search in 2007, he “wasn’t in it to win it”. “I never really put my heart into it,” he said. “I didn’t expect to make it all the way to the finals.”
His frivolous attitude changed in his third year in the industry, when he took up a theatre studies course at the National University of Singapore (where he also obtained his degree in Real Estate in 2011). “The more I got into my research, the more I realised how much I love film and understood why directors have been telling me to do certain things all this time. I slowly began to have more confidence in myself and my acting improved.”
It’s safe to say that his old, insincere side is dead and gone. What else could explain his willingness to dabble in method acting for his role as an opium addict in The Journey: A Voyage, where he got into character by locking himself in a room with alcohol for three days to experience a similar drug high? “I had a responsibility towards my character and wanted to play him well,” he proclaimed.
An hour of “NG” once nearly brought him to tears.
As someone who is more comfortable with the English language, it’s no surprise that Desmond once struggled with a script that contained complicated Chinese idioms for one whole hour.
“I had 20 to 30 ‘NG’ (no good) takes for this one line,” he recalled. “In the end, I had no mood to eat and was so ashamed I went to sit alone in a café, where I almost cried. The director was very patient, but I could tell that everyone else was unhappy because they were waiting to break for their meal.”
Desmond hasn’t always gotten to work with such tolerant filmmakers, but he maintains that he has never received a huge telling-off from anyone either. “Most of the time they’ll just nag at you or scoff, ‘Aiyah, can you act or not?’ When I was newer I would take their remarks personally so it was hard.”
He wants to be known for his acting, not his abs.
After flaunting his chiselled frame in A Song to Remember, it’s no surprise that subsequent projects had him stripping down as well (even if it didn’t quite make sense for the show).
“At first I didn’t have a problem with it. I thought, since I have a good body, just strip lor,” he shrugged. “But after a few dramas I wondered why I had to keep doing it, and I started to not feel like it anymore. I wanted people to concentrate on my craft instead of my body. If you’re only going to be famous for your physique, then you’d might as well be a model.”
WATCH: Desmond gets real about his relationship with pal Rebecca Lim
He has thought about going after Rebecca Lim before.
With their chemistry, camaraderie and “They look so cute together!” charm, fans can’t be blamed for wishing the two celebrated BFFs to take their relationship to the next level (as Desmond himself has seen from pleas on social media).
However, it looks like he is staying put in the “friend zone” – by his own will. “Just being friends is very comfortable, and I don’t want to spoil that,” he declared.
So does that mean they’ve never had a crush on each other?
“Of course I’ve had good feelings towards Rebecca before, but people tend to have good feelings towards those who have characteristics that they like. Whether or not you choose to go further is another thing,” was his very diplomatic response. “The risk (of ruining a friendship) is higher if you suddenly want to take it to another level and the other party doesn’t.”
After more probing, Desmond granted us another interesting admission: “I’ve thought about (pursuing Rebecca) before, but I never did. Maybe there has been ambiguity between us before, but we never went anywhere with it, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt interest from her before because men are very stupid when it comes to this. (laughs)”
There you have it, guys.
He believes in establishing a good career before getting married.
“I love my dog” was Desmond’s very off-topic and unexpected remark when we tried to bring up his relationship of five years with a mysterious flight attendant, even though we are no strangers to his reluctance to delve into details about his love life. “I don’t need to talk about my personal life because many things and thoughts will change.”
That’s not to say he and his beloved deliberately go into hiding all the time. “It’s hard to avoid things like people secretly taking pictures when we’re eating outside, because we are in the public eye. If people see us, then they see us.”
More prying ensued, only to be met with, “I thought we wouldn’t be talking about this. (laughs)”
He’s a little bit more open with his philosophy on tying the knot. “I believe that a good career is an important foundation of any relationship,” he stated matter-of-factly. “If you want to get married in Singapore, you need money. If you can’t give yourself security, then you can’t give it to anyone else.”
This wasn’t always the mind-set he had, however. The soon-to-be 29-year-old revealed that he used to think he would be married with kids by the time he was 30 or 32, but he no longer believes in these age goals.
“I tell people not to create a ‘deadline’ because it’s like setting an expiry date on your relationship,” he said. “Imagine telling your other half that you will marry them by 30, but not being ready when you’re 29 and having to take a step back?”
He won’t waste time on fake friendships in the industry.
“Desmond is good friends with everyone.” “Desmond is a very nice guy.”
While comments like that are probably meant as compliments, they worried him as he did not want others thinking he was being fake.
“I’m not always Mr. Nice Guy, but I will still be courteous towards someone whom I dislike,” he clarified. “I just won’t suck up to them and tell people we are buddies – it makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t like it when someone tries to buddy up to me on camera when we don’t even speak other times.”
He also divulged that he has fallen out with old pals within the biz. “But you won’t ask me who, right?” he laughed. “Perhaps it is because the older I get, the more I do not wish to waste time on friendships that aren’t genuine.”
Star Awards snubs hurt, but sometimes they’re expected.
It took five years for Desmond to finally be able to hold a Star Awards prize in his hand (the Rocket Award in 2012, which he picked up for his role in A Song to Remember) and he also scored his first Top 10 Most Popular Male Artistes victory in 2014, but what’s still missing is a nod (for his acting) in the professional categories.
“Honestly, I do get disappointed whenever the nominations are announced and I don’t see my name,” he confessed. “They say the Star Awards is like a report card, so it makes me feel as if I didn’t do well. I’m not a naturally talented nor formally trained actor, so I rely on hard work to learn everything.”
He added, “Every actor wants more than just a Top 10 or Favourite Character trophy, but having those isn’t bad either. (laughs)”
That said, he doesn’t think the main acting snubs so far are entirely uncalled for, at least for this year’s. “My performances in Against the Tide and The Journey: Tumultuous Times weren’t that outstanding,” he acknowledged. “Of course, you can still hope for a miracle, but at least I was prepared to not be nominated.”
His rightful place may be in comedy.
That’s not to say Desmond’s resume is completely devoid of formal recognition: last year, he was named an Asian Television Awards Best Comedy Performance contender for his role on Channel 5’s Spouse for House. Although he walked home empty-handed, it’s clear that he enjoyed the part immensely.
“I never thought I would do well in a sitcom but I loved it,” he said. “It’s very different from dramas, where you go home with a headache and a heavy heart after filming a crying scene; but with a sitcom, you go home with a stomach ache from laughing too hard.”
Does this mean he has finally found his direction? “People say serious roles are taken seriously, but acting is divided into many categories, and the most important thing is to find what works best for you. Perhaps for me, it is comedy – you never know, I can become Singapore’s Stephen Chow!”
He has big dreams involving Hollywood and Golden Horse Awards.
Like any thespian that takes his trade seriously, Desmond has lofty ambitions for his career path.
“A few years ago I said I want to represent Singapore at the Golden Horse Awards, and many people said I was crazy. Then, after that, Anthony Chen and Ilo Ilo really did it. Why do (Singaporeans) have to feel like we’re not strong enough to go outside?” he pondered.
“If I get the chance to act in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China or even Hollywood, I will take it. I hope Tony Leung does not retire any time soon because my ultimate goal is to work with him,” he said. “I want to show people that we have a lot of great actors in Singapore and that we are no worse than those outside. We just lack the opportunity (to prove ourselves).”
Special thanks to Sheraton Towers Singapore.
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The price of Romeo Tan's fame? His loss of innocence
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