An Interview With Benjamin Tan

The mystery guest we have interviewed is…*drumroll*…Benjamin Tan!

Benjamin Tan

You will be familiar with him as Lim Ah Hee in Jack Neo’s Long Long Time Ago (Part 1), which was released on 4 Feb 2016. Part 2 will be released on 31 Mar, so mark the date on your calendars! Benjamin studied Method Acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in Los Angeles, and is currently based in both LA and Singapore. Believe it or not, he studied Finance in the National University of Singapore before he went on to acting school!

1. Tell us a little about yourself.

This has always been the hardest question for me in every interview. I always try so hard to think of something creative or different, but I could not be more boring or ordinary.

Youngest in my family, hence have always been pampered by a loving mother since birth. Worked my way into my dream school, NUS Business School, only to drop everything after graduation to pursue something completely different and, some might say, irrational – acting. Ever since then, my life has been quite a roller coaster ride.

2. If you could act opposite or direct any actor in the world, who would it be?

There are so many brilliant actors in the world that I would love to work with that it is difficult to choose one. I really love working on eccentric and out-of-the-world characters. In my opinion, two actors have done amazing work in that field. They are Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp. If I had to choose one, I would love to work with Helena. But of course, I would probably need all the stars to align in my favor for that to happen.

3. Name 3 films you think every actor should see.

The Kid, To Kill A Mockingbird, Godfather I & II

4. What has been the hardest role you have ever worked on? Why?

The character “Horst” from the play “Bent” by Martin Sherman. This character is a German Prisoner-of-War (POW) who found love in a German concentration camp during WW2. First of all, one has to understand what he has gone through before his imprisonment, because of his sexuality in that time period. Subsequently, they have to understand his struggles in the concentration camp (torture, hunger, discriminations – again because of his sexuality) before finding love, only to have to keep it quiet for the safety of both parties. There are a lot of hidden emotions to explore, that cannot be openly expressed because of the circumstances. Every single emotion has to come through in the lines, but not on the face, and to express that is very difficult.

5. What do you do to prepare for a role?

I am a person who is pretty much trapped in my head most of the time. So I usually start with intellectual preparation, that is, to research the character, before moving on to the sensory elements. My research includes the time period, the values during that period, the family background of the character, his upbringing, and whatever other information I am given about the character from his descriptions and script. From there, I will fill in any missing elements with my own back story.

The research part is consistent for every preparation. But as sensory elements vary with characters, I hate to fix myself to one particular way of preparation. Generally, I would find parallels in the character’s story with my own, or some kind of connection between what the character is going through and my own life experiences. Let’s take an example of the POW I earlier mentioned, in the German concentration camp. One big element is the fear of death. Given that I have never experienced that in my life, I had to work with a fear I have actually felt before. If expressed in the right way, the fear will translate on stage for the context.

Improvisation is one important step that I would also take at some point of my preparation, because that is when I can completely let go of the lines and immerse myself in the story, to find my physicality through the interaction with the other person.

6. How would you explain what you do and why you do it?

I am an actor. To be honest, I do not know why I do what I do. Maybe one day I will have an answer for this.

7. We’re always hearing the term “making it” with regards to actors. What level of success would you need to reach for you to be like, “Yeah, I’ve made it”?

I could try to determine if I have “made it” through my craft or through financial success.

If I were to focus on the level of my craft, I would never make it. One of the curses of being an actor is that there is no level where you can say, “Ya, I think I have come to a point where my acting can never improve anymore.” Every role is going to be a challenge, for every actor. It is a constant process of learning and challenging oneself. But it is a beautiful curse.

The second way is through financial success of my career. If by doing what I do, I can earn enough to lead a comfortable life and support my parents at the same time, I would be proud of myself. That is the real benchmark for me, I guess. I would really love to buy my parents a nice house to thank them for supporting and trusting me with to live my own life.  

8. What do you know now about acting and the industry that you wish you knew when you first started?

This is a tough field to be in. When I first started out, I thought I could do this alone. Fortunately, I had a strong group of family and friends supporting me from the start. But even then, there are times when it gets so tough that I wonder what I would do without them. In retrospect, I wish I had appreciated their support more, especially in the beginning.

9. What advice would you give to actors/directors who want to work abroad?

Take it one step at a time. The thought of making the move/taking the step can be very daunting. But it is not impossible. Money is always a concern. My answer to that is, it depends on whether the person wants it enough to make sacrifices.

10. What do you hope to see for the future of acting/directing in Singapore?

I hope to see a day when actors and directors do not have to go overseas for a possible future in this field. The industry has indeed flourished over the past few years. We have talented directors like Anthony Chen, who is putting us on the map with productions like Ilo Ilo. However, we need even more for people to start pursuing this art form in Singapore.

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