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Meet freelance actor and SUSS undergraduate Gary Tan, who stars in a new home-grown short film, "Max". Image (left): Gary Tan

Ah Boy To Man: On Screen, This Actor Has Gone From Kid To Bully To Soldier

Without realising it, you might have seen Gary Tan grow up before your eyes on local TV. Making his debut at the age of five in “The Champion 任我遨游” (a Singapore-Taiwan swimming drama starring Jeanette Aw, Fiona Xie and Johnny Yan), the freelance actor has gone on to do noteworthy bit parts (often as a bully with a bad attitude) in series like “Close Your Eyes 闭上眼就看不见“ (starring Vanessa Koh and Edwin Goh) and “Reach For The Skies 不平凡的平凡”, (starring Bryan Wong and Kym Ng).

Gary beats up Edwin Goh in “Close Your Eyes “.

Gary’s character has an altercation with veteran actors Zhu Houren and Kym Ng in “Reach For The Skies”.

In a new short film, “Max”, directed by JD Chua, Gary plays a young man whose life, bad attitude (yes, again) and outlook are changed for the better as he goes through national service (NS) – transforming from Ah Boy to man in 9 minutes, if you will.

The Singapore University of Social Sciences undergraduate (pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Finance degree) is exceedingly polite, and very much the opposite of the brash, kiam pah characters he often portrays. That’s why they call it acting!

We speak to the 24-year-old about how he got started, a sleep paralysis condition, and his own meaningful NS experience serving in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Counselling Centre.

So cute hor: Gary in scenes from “The Champion”.

How did you get into acting?

It started when I was around four or five years old. My mother wanted my brother, sister and me to have an enriching childhood, so she sent all of us to an acting course [conducted by Mediacorp]. After completing that course, we got approached by a producer. After talks and auditions, I made by debut in a 2004 drama called “The Champion”. I portrayed the son of one of the main characters played by Taiwanese actor Yen Hsing-Su [Johnny Yan].

You knew your role in "Max" called for you to shave your head, right?

Oh, yes, yes, yes! I thought it would be quite fun also lah. Then I get to be in the army for the second time! <laughs> When I came to class, I had to immediately wear a cap, and my friend was like, “Why you wear cap? Are you bald?” I was like, “Yeah.” But when they asked me why I shaved, I just kept quiet. I don't really like to 张扬 [Mandarin for “make public”], and say, “Oh, I'm doing this and this.”

Gary (left) plays the titular role in "Max", directed by JD Chua.

In “Max”, you play a guy who has an attitude- and life-changing experience as he goes through national service. What was NS like for you?

Contrary to my role as Max, I wasn't in a combat unit. From the get-go, I was assigned to be in an admin role already.

Yes, we saw from your IG post that you were PES Unfit. Would you be willing to share the reason?

Sleep paralysis – that’s when you’re paralysed just as you enter the sleep process. I really don’t know the cause of it, but when it happens, I can open my eyes and see whatever is around me, but then my whole body is restricted – cannot move, and there's this vibrating feeling. So I have to struggle to get out of it.

Back then, I coped with it by leaving the lights on before I went to sleep. I never sought treatment for it, and it slowly fizzled out. It only happens once in a while, like when I sleep very late.

That was the main factor of why I down-PES. I was actually quite devastated because I wanted to be gung-ho and go through OCS [Officer Cadet School], SCS [Specialist Cadet School], all that.

So where did you get posted to?

I was really fortunate to be interviewed by the SAF Counselling Centre (SCC) to be an Assistant Counselling Specialist. It was a really fulfilling two years; I really learnt a lot.

We would do drug talks, and speak to new NSFs about mental wellness, mental health, and services provided by the SCC.

We were trained in basic counselling skills, went for counselling courses, and got to man the SAF Counselling Hotline. Sometimes we are the first responders. In one instance, there was a suicidal caller, so I had to quickly call the unit, call the direct supervisors, tell them they had a man who was feeling such and such, please render assistance.

I was subsequently appointed as the Counselling Assistant In Charge and was awarded the Best Soldier Award for FY2019 Q4.

What was your biggest takeaway from that vocation?

Just to be a more compassionate person who can demonstrate more empathy. I think I acquired the basic skills to know when someone is feeling down or having a bad day; I will know the right things to do and say. And sometimes, you don't even need to talk to them, you just need to stay by their side and listen to them, because it's about active listening. It's not always about giving advice. They have to arrive at the solution on their own. So it's about being there for them.

Gary is about to enter his third year at Singapore University of Social Sciences. | IMAGE: GARY TAN

So what’s next for you?

For now, I’m more focused on my studies. I took Finance because with the current climate, I guess I just need to know more about financial literacy.

But acting is really my first love cuz I started when I was so young! So if the opportunity comes, I would love to do as much as acting I can, but then, I also have to prioritise my education as well.

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