“Acting was never something I dreamt of ever!” Prem John proclaims.
You don’t really know if you can believe this actor, who’s the younger of two children (his married sister lives in Canada) of an engineer father and teacher mother, both of whom have now retired to Johor Bahru.
“But Prem John is such an ‘actor’s name’!” I pronounce.
“Oh, that’s a really cute story behind my name”, John says.
The single bachelor then tells me that he was born John Premnath Ramanathan. His mother’s maiden name though is John, and he is the last male in his maternal family line. John only realised this talking to his grandmother at age 12, and soon after he simply reversed the order of his official name, using John as his surname instead.
Hmmmm…… with a name like that, could that have been the moment that Kismet came in and made him an actor? I can’t help but wonder.
“I was more of an athelete and rugby player at school”, explains John.
After finishing his studies at Anglo Chinese School and St. Andrews Junior College in Singapore, John headed to the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, in 2000, where he majored in engineering with a minor in law.
John then returned to Singapore in 2003 and became a journalist. Acting, theatre, filmmaking – it was all far removed from his mind then.
After a year, John decided to go into sales, primarily as a means to understand how the corporate world worked. Instead, he found himself succeeding in this new role, and instead he ended up working as an HR Consultant for Talent Two for the next 8 years.
After which, John, along with some partners co-founded Alphasearch in Suntec, where he was a full time partner till this April when he decided to focus more of his effort in acting and is currently a freelancer with this company.
So how did an HR Consultant find himself as an actor?
Listening to John tell the tale, it really does sound like Kismet.
John was the sports guy, not the theatre guy.
You believe this deeper when he tells you he experienced his first play, only at the age of 32 in 2010 in New York, when he saw the musical Fela! which is based on Nigerian composer Fela Kutti’s life.
Fela! would be the instrument that changed the sportsboy John forever.
Emotionally moved by the play, John realised the power of theatre. And of acting.
So it was perhaps kismet or fate or destiny or whatever you would call it, that later that same year in 2010, John’s then-girlfriend journalist-actress Zarelda Marie Goh was in a play Blood Ties where the leading actor pulled out all of a sudden, throwing the whole production into the ditch. Quite literally.
Goh, in desperation, turned to John and told him that either he takes the part of the leading guy, or the production would have to close before it even begins!
John got the script – just one day before the play was to open.
Rehearsals were the next day.
And that very night the play opened with the sportsboy as the lead.
“I was horrible!” John says.
But still, he took the stage for the 6 nights the play ran under the banner of the Short and Sweet Festival.
And that experience you could say paved the way for the actor to come out of the athlete.
Suddenly drawn to the power of stories, John then made the decision to become a director because as much as acting in his first play was an eye opener for him, John explains that he felt he was too old and not good looking enough to be an actor.
Hence wanting to be a director, John made the decision to take a year off work and just train as an actor because as he says, “A good director needs to understand acting.”
In 2011, John studied acting in Singapore and also in India where he worked with teachers such as John Martin of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Asia, and Ron Burrus of the Stella Adler Studios in Mumbai.
The hesitant actor was there only to learn the acting craft as a means to be a good director. Nothing more.
So John was taken aback when his teachers repeatedly kept telling him that he should act. Forget directing, they said. He could act. And should act. An actor he must be, they all proclaimed.
The wary actor was in a bind.
Therefore, in an exercise to prove his teachers (and some friends) wrong because he was convinced that he didn’t have the physical attractiveness to be an actor, John put himself up for 5 auditions – for 4 short films, and 1 play.
The reluctant thespian was offered all the roles.
So the actor was born.
“I’ve been in 11 plays so far. My 12th play will be as Cervantes in the Curious Lives of Cervantes and Shakespeare that will be directed by Asa Gim Palomera and will be presented at the Bangkok Arts Festival in November. I’ve also completed a few films, and will start shooting Kelvin Tong’s The Faith of Anna Waters in October.”
Did I say an actor was born? Let me take that back.
So a working, paid actor was born.
So much for being too old, and not good looking enough huh?
A working, paid actor on this island? God knows that’s a rarity in Singapore.
And maybe that’s why John is determined to help others like him – people who are late to the game of acting, with no formal training, but yet burning with desire for the stage.
Or film in John’s case.
The film Faith of Anna Waters is, of course, Kelvin Tong’s formerly titled Email, which is Tong’s Hollywood venture that was to star Twilight‘s Nikki Reed but due to a scheduling difficulty, will now star Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Rice under its new name.
The movie is about a crime reporter who travels to Singapore to investigate her sister’s murder.
“I only have a small role in this movie,” John elaborates.
Still, it’s a Kelvin Tong film.
Still, it’s a Hollywood film.
Still, he’s a working, paid actor, I remind him.
“But I’ve not done plays for the big companies,” he explains, “And that’s why I felt I needed to have a repertory theatre like Hot Chocolate”.
John goes on to explain that whilst he is doing fairly well as an actor who less than 5 years ago had never even seen a play, he feels that Singapore needs an avenue to train actors who haven’t been through the LaSalle/Nafa Acting programme route.
“There are people who have a passion to act, but who can’t get the experience they need in order to become paid actors.”
John continues, “It’s a chicken and egg situation, you know? Without being given the chance to act, how can one improve their craft?”
“I think many foreign actors here are very well trained, but we need a training ground for Singaporeans who want to act.”, he goes on.
Enter Hot Chocolate Theatre – John’s repertory theatre he set up with co-founder actress-director Susan Penrice Tyrie.
With a current contingent of 15 actors and actresses – all Singaporean – Hot Chocolate has about 35-40 people on their waiting list already, vying for a possible 10 more places.
Most of the actors were found via John’s Facebook Group, Sexy Brown Chocolate, which has been recently renamed to Chocolate and Chilli, and is a closed group.
John adds, “We originally called ourselves Sexy Brown Chocolate..long story there…but that was before we thought of forming a repertory theatre company in which case a quick google search quickly proved to us that we needed to change our name to ensure that we didn’t get lost in…………well…….just google sexy brown chocolate and you’d understand.”
“But what is this obsession with Chocolate?” – I just had to know.
“We all love Chocolate; me much more than most as I’m addicted to the stuff and it brings back such fond memories of my childhood reading books, watching movies, and playing with toys armed with chocolate that I just had to have chocolate in the name.”, explains John.
The former Sexy Brown Chocolate Facebook group now known as Chocolate and Chilli is a platform where John shares audition notices so other actors in the group will know of roles up on offer.
Due to Hot Chocolate Theatre’s upcoming play The Arsonists (running Sep 18-21st, at Goodman Arts Centre) taking focus, John says Chocolate and Chilli has been inactive for awhile.
But it is from this Facebook Group that he has found some of the actors who form the backbone of Hot Chocolate’s current ensemble.
John himself has also set up his own production company Ratel Productions under whose banner he hopes to find funding next year for two films he’s written, Snakes Scorpio and Try. He is also developing a play under Ratel.
And what is the meaning behind the name Ratel?
Well, John explains it’s an ode to his rugby playing school days where he was called “Honey Badger”, – an animal known for its vicious nature. Ratel is the Afrikaans name for this creature.
So, I’m guessing once a sportsboy, always a sportsboy.
Even with this willing actor.
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