Image: Jamie Koh/ ST
MediaCorp actor Elvin Ng is Mr Nice Guy. He is charming and friendly and gives you his undivided attention when he talks to you.
Just do not ask him about his company's heavily marketed "Eight Dukes".
In a rare instance during a two-hour-plus interview with Life!, he gets clearly agitated when broaching the topic of MediaCorp's crop of eight popular young TV actors, comprising Xu Bin, Desmond Tan, Romeo Tan, Aloysius Pang, Jeffrey Xu, Shane Pow, Ian Fang and Zhang Zhenhuan.
"Why must everyone ask me this question? I honestly don't understand it," he says with a frown, sitting up suddenly.
"I've already gone past the phase that they are going through now, so I wouldn't compare myself with them and it irritates me when people compare me with them."
After the interview, the 34-year-old suddenly raises the subject again on his own accord.
"Could you explain to me why journalists want to ask that question? I'm not trying to be difficult - I just really want to find out."
The only other time he shows exasperation is, ironically, when he tells of how people like to say his "acting has improved".
The star, who made his show business debut a decade ago, explains: "I find it so irritating when people say that because I've been doing this for a while now and I think at this point in my career, I don't need people to talk to me as if I'm totally new.
"I think I've come a long way, so if people still feel the need to say I've 'improved recently' or I'm 'improving', then I'll question them."
Both these sore spots point to greater insecurities in him.
He confesses that often times, he has "no idea" why he is still trudging along in this industry.
"I've always been rather introverted and shy. I think I suffer from an inferiority complex. I tend to think very lowly of myself and, when you're an actor, you're also public property for everyone else to scrutinise, so it's not easy," he says.
The good-looking and popular actor has certainly felt the brunt of many public bashings over the years. Since he entered show business in 2005, he has become the guy that critics love to hate.
Brickbats - including "He cannot act", "He talks funny" and "He is just a himbo" - have been hurled at him even to this day, no matter the role or accolade he gets along the way.
Still, that has not stopped him from becoming arguably the most popular MediaCorp actor of his generation (somewhere between Tay Ping Hui and the Eight Dukes), amassing a huge fanbase populated by young teenage girls and doting aunties.
His fan club Elvinology, whose official Facebook page has more than 11,200 members, is a group of eager supporters who enthusiastically wave placards of his name at every event that he appears at, even sending him off at the airport in the wee hours of the morning when he has to fly off for overseas work trips.
Ng's Instagram account (@elvinngchoonsiong) has more than 146,000 followers and he has won the Top 10 Most Popular Male Artiste Award at every Star Awards ceremony since his debut.
At the upcoming Star Awards next month, he is only one of five stars to be nominated for a Most Popular Artiste award in all five country categories: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and China.
In Cambodia, in particular, he has become a big star, gracing its local magazine covers (as seen on the right) and holding frenzied fan meets. Last year, he was also the leading man - and only Singaporean - in the Cambodian TV miniseries The Jade Elephant.
Perhaps, his haters will always love to hate him because the accidental actor became a huge deal so quickly.
He was discovered on the variety show School Belle And The Beau (2004), which features a bevy of babes and hunks from local tertiary institutions. Then a National University of Singapore English literature student, he clearly charmed the pants off the producers at the TV station as the company offered him a prominent acting role in a drama series soon after.
That role was the part of a "kind-hearted Ah Beng" in Channel 8's A Life Of Hope (2005). He recalls: "It shocked me that I would get such a big role so soon. I had no acting experience at all, but I guess they felt I fit the role somehow.
"I had no idea what I was doing and having to juggle memorising scripts and studying for school at the time was difficult. I have to thank the very good editors for editing the scenes to make my parts watchable," he says with a chuckle.
Months later, the broadcaster offered him a three-year artist contract.
"I considered it for a long time. I felt very conflicted. I don't have a lot of confidence in myself, but I thought if they saw something in me, then maybe I should just try it out," he says.
At the time, he was wearing braces to fix his "Dracula fangs", which hindered his speech somewhat for his first few roles.
"People said I talked as if I had an egg in my mouth. But I can't complain because if I hadn't fixed my teeth, I wouldn't be able to have my big smile for Systema now, right?" he says with a laugh, referring to his endorsement commercials for the oralcare brand.
In the years to come, he would take on one leading-man role after another in dramas such as Rhythm Of Life (2008) alongside Christopher Lee and The Dream Catchers (2008) opposite Rui En. In most of them, his character was the dashing romantic hero.
Elvin Ng, on being paired on-screen with Rui En: “The first time we worked together, the director said we had zero chemistry. But strangely, audiences loved seeing us together. Maybe it’s because they see us as opposites – like I’m the sunshine boy melting the ice queen.” Image: Mediacorp
"I guess that's how my squeaky-clean image and nice-guy image came about. Sometimes, I'll ask the producers if I can try playing a bad boy, but they'll say I should just keep playing the good guy because it suits my look," he says.
"I'm fine with that. Since I'm sort of boxed in this way, I hope I can find ways to bring subtleties to every good guy character I get and make the most of this box."
No matter how hard he tried, however, the criticism just kept coming his way. Audiences branded him "wooden" and speculated that he was coasting by only on his good looks.
"People kept saying I'm only lucky because I have the face. Maybe that could be true in the beginning, but you need to have something more to last this long.
"You also need character and perseverance and lots of tough, hard work. Other actors have come and gone, but I'm still here, right?"
Executive producer and director Chong Liung Man, 51, who has worked with Ng on several dramas since his debut including Breakout (2010), says the actor is a "very, very hardworking person".
Mr Chong says: "If you look at Elvin's script, you'll be stunned. Every page is filled with all of his thoughts and writing because he's analysing every line his character says to better prep for his role.
"I've told Elvin before he's not gifted when it comes to acting, but you can't ever deny that he gives it his all."
Life! television critic Foong Woei Wan also praises him for his work ethic. "I've had my doubts about him. But through the years, he's almost always worked a little harder on his Mandarin, on his acting, than expected - and that's something," she says.
Things finally seemed to take a turn for the better in 2010, when Ng was nominated for Best Actor at the Star Awards for playing the beefy, but naive Tarzan in the drama Together. A year later, he was nominated in the same category again for playing an autistic savant in the blockbuster drama Breakout (2010).
Elvin Ng with Dai Yangtian in the TV series, Together (2009). Image: Mediacorp
"People gave me a lot of positive feedback for those roles and I was really happy about them.
"But now that it's been a while since I was nominated for Best Actor, people are going back to their original pre- conception about me - that I'm this totally new and inexperienced guy in the business," he says, sounding both frustrated and helpless.
The lowest point in his career - and life - was two years ago, when his father was hospitalised for heart problems and then died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm at the age of 57. The actor had been filming the romantic comedy Absolutely Charming (2012) at the time and had to constantly shuttle between the film set and the hospital.
"Over four days, I must have slept only one hour. Then when he died, it was more running around, dealing with the wake and funeral. I was grieving while filming a light-hearted show - it was so tough."
Somehow, he weathered the storm, even managing to keep his cool and remain polite when hardcore fans crashed the wake.
"One fan even brought her parents and treated me as if I was meant to be their son-in-law. Another fan showed up and had a black face the entire time because she considered me her boyfriend and said I kept her waiting too long," he says.
With his father gone, there is no way he would consider moving out of the family home, says the actor, who lives in a jumbo flat in the west with his mother, 58, his younger sister, 32, and younger brother, 29.
His long-time family friend and neighbour Kelly Leong, 32, says Ng "always puts his family first".
She adds: "He definitely took on the load to look after his family - especially his mum - in recent years. He is so busy with work, but whenever he has time off, he will always take his mum on trips."
Some day, Ng hopes to be able to buy a big terrace home "for the whole family because that was what my father always dreamt of".
His father used to run a renovation hardware shop in a family-owned shophouse from which his mother now collects rent.
Will that terrace home include a wife and kids too? The bachelor, whose third and last serious relationship was two years ago, says with a laugh: "I don't know whether I'll get married and have children yet. But if it happens, I won't hide it.
"I'm a fiercely private person when it comes to my personal life, but if I get married, I would want to share it with the world. I'll make it an open invitation."
Until that day, he continues to ply the trade in show business. For the record, he has no issues with the Eight Dukes as long as you do not compare him with them.
"My honest take is that I see them as my younger brothers. There is so much exuberance and youth in them and I have much to learn from them.
"I'm just a tortoise running the race on my own and I'm not worried about how many hares are behind me and running how much faster. I'm on my own path."
He has become better at handling criticism too. "If certain people are going to say things about me, I don't see the point in trying to change their minds. I don't feel like I need to prove anything to anyone. As long as I can answer to myself that I've given everything that I could, that's good enough."
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on March 16, 2015. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.