Tan Kheng Hua, Singapore’s veteran actress, now performing in Wild Rice’s La Cage Aux Folles, takes some time off to answer questions about acting in Singapore, and how she handles the delicate matter of aging.
You must be the “Sarah Jessica Parker” of Singapore’s acting scene in terms of career longevity! In an industry where even young people get out after a few years of struggling to find enough acting/singing jobs, what do you think has made you a success story?
Sarah Jessica Parker? Hmmm, I think I’d rather be the Annette Bening of the local acting industry. She’s well respected for her work, and she doesn’t come out to work that often; however, when she does, she’s on good projects because of her track record and she still manages to remind people she’s able to contribute positively to the scene. I’d like that for myself.
As for my “success” story, maybe it’s because I don’t really think of my story as a “success”. It’s just an ongoing story, both in my professional and my personal life. I never really feel I’ve made it. I constantly want to do more!
Right now, where you’re at professionally, do you still have to worry about your next acting job? Is it still a struggle? Or are you booked up to the year 2035?
Thankfully, I don’t really have to think about what’s my next job. I’ve come to a point where there’s always something there for me if I want it, so no, it’s not a struggle. What is a struggle is to get the sort of projects you want. So nowadays, if I really really want something, I won’t wait for someone to give it to me. I’ll just get up and try to initiate that dream project myself!
You seem to have done it all – musicals, comedy, drama, television, theatre, movies. Tell us, what is your ONE true love actually? What is the ONE medium/genre/form you can see yourself doing every day, forever and ever?
My ONE true love is my daughter. And as for the medium/genre/form I see myself doing, well, can I be greedy and say I want as many good roles in ALL genres as possible?
You’re married and a mother to a teenager in real life. Yet producers seem to still cast you as unmarried younger characters such as Anna in Closer (which you took over from the late Emma Yong). Do you prefer playing characters closer to your age, or a younger character?
Age has little to do with the sort of roles I prefer to play. I just want roles that intrigue me, inspire me to want to step into, and compel me to fall in love with them.
Are there a lot of roles or acting opportunities out there for the over-40 actress (or even actor) in Singapore, generally speaking? What’s the feedback from your older actor-friends? Are there any benefits at all to being an older actor/actress?
I think there are generally not enough acting opportunities for anyone! I’d like to see more solid acting roles for everyone who feels they’ve got something to contribute. This includes myself, of course.
As for the benefits of being an older actress, well, you can play a really good older role that a younger person wouldn’t have a chance to play simply because he or she is younger and isn’t fit for the role. In short, the wonderful thing about acting is, you can get a good role no matter what age you are. It’s not about the age, it’s about the ability.
What is it like working with director Glen Goei and castmate Ivan Heng? Any interesting stories to tell?
I love them as people as well as as work colleagues. They’ve been so much a part of my personal and my professional life. This makes it a real privilege to be in their company on many different levels.
“La Cage Aux Folles” tells the tale of an aging star plagued with insecurity. Does aging bother you, especially in an industry that seems to value youth?
I don’t value youth as much as I value health. So right now, I have no problems with my age because I am healthy.
As you get older, have you been met with any insecurity (internally, or from others) that you didn’t face when younger?
I think as we get older, we all want a certain amount of making sense of our past – that the choices you’ve made, the passions you’ve had, the successes you’ve gained and the losses you’ve incurred all made sense. My insecurities arise when sometimes I feel the things I’ve done have not made sense. Then what I do is look a bit deeper at the things that did or still do make sense now, and then I gain some sort of perspective, and I feel better again. We all have good and bad days.
If you could go back in time and say anything to the 25-year-old actor that was YOU, what would you tell your younger self?
Whatever you think you know, you don’t, but there’s no other way for you except to go through whatever you’re going to go through, Kheng, because I know you, you’re bloody stubborn. You’ll learn some things the hard way, but luckily you can learn. I’ll give that to you, you can learn. So in the end, I think you’re going to be all right.
Do you get recognized often? Is it always a blessing to be recognized easily?
I get recognized in a friendly calm manner. Not enough to make me big-headed. Not so little that I feel like a nobody. That’s enough for me.
You’ve done a fair amount of producing and directing. Do you prefer being behind the cameras or in front? Is the long-term goal to stop acting, and move into producing and directing permanently?
I don’t ever feel the need to make these professional decisions “permanent”. I happily accept all the projects, in whatever capacity, as long as it intrigues me, compels me, inspires me and is something I want to do!
I see that it’s quite an ensemble of actors that form the cast of “La Cage”. Any big egos or diva behaviour so far?
What has the experience been like being part of the show and what can we expect?
We can expect what Wild Rice does well – to be fabulous and full of heart.
Finally, what’s in store for you? What productions can we expect to see you in over the next 12 months?
I’m in Dream Academy’s Sondheim musical Company next. It’ll be directed by Hossan Leong. So hopefully, after all the singing and dancing I’ve done both at the Emma Yong Concert as well as for La Cage, I’ll be less rusty moving into Company!