ROLE PLAYING I've been in love with movies ever since I was a six-year-old boy. Back then, when my parents asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I would always say, "I want to go to the movies." As I grew older, I started wandering into the world of theatre. In the 1980s, the theatre scene in Singapore was much more active than the film scene. I spent the 80s and 90s working as a theatre actor. The first play I did was a funny one called The School for Wives, by Molière. We were wearing the ugliest wigs and the worst costumes you can ever imagine to try to recreate 17th-century France in Singapore. But I got my first real pay cheque from that. I was very happy taking that cheque to the bank.
During my university years, I was doing a lot of theatre acting. I would be skipping school for rehearsal. We were rehearsing at night - we finished at midnight and I had to go to school at 8am. It was very tiring.
DEGREE OF FREEDOM I am still surprised how supportive my parents were. Being in an Asian society, in an Asian education system, it was unconventional. Everyone from my high school and junior college are now doctors and lawyers. I came from that kind of environment but I chose to go on another path, even though I did promise my parents that I would get a degree. After that, I could do anything I wanted; that was the deal. So I did get a degree, in economics and linguistics, in 1994. After I graduated, I quickly forgot everything I had studied and signed up for a new TV show.
BREAK AFTER A BREAK When I was doing all that theatre work, someone spotted me and asked me if I would do auditions for a TV commercial, for Citibank. I did it. From that, the TV station noticed me and offered me a contract to do two TV shows with them in Singapore. After a few years, however, I decided to retire. I was in my mid-20s; I felt I wasn't going anywhere, so I thought I'd leave it to people who were still passionate about TV acting. And I went to explore the world of production and directing. I was directing for a good eight years and found it very gratifying. Then I went to Hollywood.
MOVIE KNIGHT An old friend of mine in Vancouver, Canada, called me. He was a manager. He said, "Hey, I have this interesting project. I can get a meeting for you." I said, "What movie is this?" And he said it was the sequel to Batman Begins. I knew nothing about that series at the time. I had no idea what the movie was about, but I knew (film director) Chris Nolan and liked his work. So I said, "OK." I was ready to make that leap of faith, jump on the plane and go to the meeting.
After I arrived in the States, I still didn't know anything about the movie. In fact, nobody knew anything. They were very secretive about the script. I didn't know how big my role was; if it was one line or 10 lines. But the chance to work with Nolan … I would do it if it was one word. After a nerve-racking six weeks, Chris finally decided to use me (Ng plays Lau, an accountant who hides mob funds and flees to Hong Kong, in 2008's The Dark Knight). Everything else followed from there. I am grateful to him for taking that leap of faith with me. There are so many surprises in my life; I don't take anything for granted. I enjoy every experience that comes; I don't think too far ahead.
THE DARKER SIDE I play Kay Song in HBO's new show Serangoon Road. To prepare for it, I looked at a lot of archival footage of the era (the 60s), like how people walked, moved and talked; what the fashion was; how they parted their hair; and I tried to listen to music from back then. However, this ultimately is a crime thriller set in a very explosive time in the history of Singapore. The character is very violent. If you knew me, you would not see any similarities between him and me. It was very challenging psychologically to immerse myself in that dark world, where someone is capable of committing heinous crimes and reprehensible acts. When I finished shooting, I immediately cut all of my hair.
HOME AND AWAY I feel very humble when people describe me as the first Singaporean actor to have made his name in Hollywood. There are so many good actors in Asia. I do miss Singapore. Work takes me away for long stretches. In the past six years, I have made Los Angeles my home. I am always on the road. In the last 12 months alone I have jumped from Indonesia to Hawaii, to Vancouver and then Santa Fe and Cleveland, for various shows and movies. I'd never done a period piece in Asia … and [ Serangoon Road] has allowed me to get closer to home than I've been for seven years.
PLAN OF ACTION I am going to Spain for the premiere of Final Recipe with Michelle Yeoh (at the San Sebastian International Film Festival this week). I'd like to have the opportunity to take a vacation and be able to get a tan. That's my short-term plan. The long-term plan is to direct.
Serangoon Road premieres tonight at 9pm on HBO. For more information, see Channel Hop.