It might be a struggle for you to recall Desmond Tan. You would have to go back five years to Star Search in 2007. After completing his national service as a lieutenant in the 1st Commando Battalion, Desmond was asked by a friend to join the talent search competition. “I signed up, not thinking about winning or anything – I just wanted to have some fun before I went to university,” Desmond revealed. Little did he know then that he would make it through the auditions, and then perform his way to the top six, and into the arms of Mediacorp.
“I used to sing, but I had never acted in my life before Star Search. It was my first time acting and I thought that my performance was quite bad,” he recalled. When he was high school, Desmond used to be part of a boy band called Angelboyz. Singing plenty of acoustic Chinese pop songs, and corny Backstreet Boys tunes, he performed as one of the main vocalists at campfires and celebrations at community clubs, counting Lee Hsien Loong as his biggest audience back then. “He came for a National Day celebration at one of the community clubs where we performed. He was still the deputy primeminister then. However after that performance, he became prime minister. We would like to believe that we were his good luck charm,” Desmond quipped.
After the talent competition was over, Desmond began juggling a fledgling acting career with his studies for a Bachelor of Science in Real Estate at the National University of Singapore. While his compatriots made headway in the industry, Desmond appeared in minor supporting roles in Channel 8 dramas like 2008’s Beach Ball Babe, and 2009’s The Ultimatum. “It was a tough time and even my friends teased me, asking which episode I was going to die in, and be written off. I decided to persevere because of the challenge.”
“It was the last 2011 star award of the night. When my name was announced, everything turned into slow motion.”
After an overlooked nomination for most memorable TV villain of the year as Jeanette Aw’s wicked cousin in Together at the 2009’s Star Awards, and enduring a nude scene in 2010’s art film When Night Falls, Desmond’s manic four-year flurry of work and school paid off when he was offered the role of Luo Xiao Xiao in A Song to Remember in 2011. “I put all my energy into the script rather than my textbooks during my exams. When I went to the audition, I was very scrawny, tired-looking, and yet had a belly from eating McDonald’s everyday. I was really happy when I got the role, but I realised there were a lot of things I needed to achieve to transform myself into a rickshaw puller,” recalled Desmond.
Desmond had to trim the baby fat fast while researching for his role, within a record time of three weeks before filming began. With unfaltering commitment and self-control, Desmond hit the gym and pool rigorously. He was meticulous with his diet, consuming plain and dry muesli, not with yoghurt or milk, but with water for the first month and adding brown rice and steamed chicken breast after. He watched Nicholas Tse’s turn as a rickshaw man in Bodyguards and Assassins repeatedly, scrutinising his every move. The result: a buff and bronzed physique coupled with an unyielding intensity and naturalism.
It was this passion that led him to the Rocket award for breakthrough actor at this year’s Star Awards. “It was the last award of the night. When my name was announced, everything turned into slow motion. I was stunned, but I managed to keep my speech short and simple,” chuckled Desmond.
“It was a tough time and even my friends teased me, asking which episode I was going to die in, and be written off. I decided to persevere because of the challenge.”
As he rides the recent wave of hyped-up fame, he recalls a pivotal moment in his five-year career: a crying scene with actor Yao Wen Long. “He told me that I’ll never see him again in mandarin. After he said that, the director shouted action and Wen Long closed his eyes. It felt so real that I started crying instantaneously. I feel most happy as an actor during these moments when I can’t differentiate the character from myself,” Desmond muses.
With two new shows debuting this September on Channel 8, Desmond calls for more support for Singaporean actors: “If Singaporeans don’t support each other, there is no way we can grow. For example, Koreans support their local dramas and productions. This is the reason why their actors are highly sought after all over the world. If actors in Singapore can’t receive the same appreciation and support, getting a foothold around the world like Koreans will be a tough call.”
Photography: Kean Wong
Styling: Wei Lun/
Styling Assistant: Hilman Nasir
Hair & Grooming: Nigel Woo/ Passion Hair Salon