It's obvious how much Pierre Png adores his wife Andrea De Cruz from how he requests to feature the bouquet she sent him in his photo to show his appreciation. Image: ST/Desmond Lee
After 16 years in showbusiness, Pierre Png has finally won his first acting award and he is not afraid to say that he deserves it.
At the Star Awards on April 27, given by MediaCorp to recognise the best and most popular stars in local television, he won the Best Actor award. It was for his role as villainous tin mine supervisor Heilong in the period drama series The Journey: A Voyage, who stops at nothing - including murder - to get ahead.
Days after his win, the 40-year-old star happily tells Life! that he feels extra pleased with the award, especially since it was for a role that he feels "really proud" of.
"This is the one role that will stay with me till I die. What I did for the role - the amount of time and work I put in for the character - it certainly made this the most satisfying role for me. I really put myself in the character and thought up his entire background story, to get into his head.
"And if I didn't get an award for that, then I really cannot think of any other role in the last 16 years of my career that could possibly have gotten it. So yes, I think I deserve some credit for my effort. I cannot think of a better person for them to give the award to."
He has been nominated for Best Actor at the Star Awards three times before, for the dramas The Shining Star (2006), The Little Nyonya (2008) and Pillow Talk (2012), but lost to Li Nanxing, Chen Hanwei and Christopher Lee.
Png says: "I think I needed to wait those 16 years, and to go through so many roles and missed opportunities, in order to really appreciate what I have today. You go through difficulties and let-downs but they only make you stronger."
His career has certainly not been a bed of roses, especially in the initial years, when his employer made him switch from filming English programmes for Channel 5 to acting in Mandarin drama series for Channel 8 in 2001.
As the actor of Peranakan descent puts it: "Now I can hold a conversation in Mandarin with a taxi driver, but back then, I could barely string a sentence together."
The actor, who attended St Gabriel's Primary and Holy Innocents High, was scolded and badmouthed by many who worked with him.
Without naming names, he says: "Some actors would tell me, 'Just go back to Channel 5, you're clearly not cut out for this'.
"I've even had a cameraman tell me that he's just going to leave the camera rolling and wait until I was ready to finally piece my sentences together - that's how badly they thought of me."
Difficulties with the language meant that he had to put in more effort than most in learning his lines.
"I had to put in triple the effort of everyone else. On the set, when everyone was happily chatting away during breaks, I was still trying to go through my lines just to get the pronunciation correct."
He readily admits that for the first five years of working on Channel 8, he did not give it his all. His first shows for the channel included Holland V (2003), where he played an upright policeman, and Portrait Of Home (2005), where he played a mentally challenged young man.
"I was just in denial that I would have to be on Channel 8 for a while. I was waiting for the day when the management realised that I sucked and I was waiting for them to put me back on Channel 5.
"But that clearly didn't happen. It was only when I finally decided to accept the reality that I thought, 'Okay then, if I'm going to do this, then I'd better do a good job'. After that, I learnt to appreciate the language and saw how beautifully concise it can be."
He got a dubbing artist friend to read out his lines and record them so that he could play the recording and learn from it. On top of adding hanyu pinyin to scripts to help him with pronunciation, he made notations of the complex Chinese idioms and proverbs to better understand their nuances.
These efforts have paid off as his performances on Channel 8 started to get audiences to sit up. His role as an unhappy husband in the blockbuster drama The Little Nyonya (2008), in particular, was much lauded, and earned him a Best Actor nomination at the Asian Television Awards on top of the Star Awards nod.
In 2012, he also won a Star Awards prize for being among the Top 10 Most Popular Male Artistes at the station.
After the interview, while he is giving this reporter a lift in his Land Rover, a casual conversation between him and his manager shows just how serious he is about perfecting his Mandarin.
His car radio had been switched on to a Mandarin station, which surprised his manager. He then tells her: "I like to listen to this station because there is a lot of talking involved. I can pick up the way they speak and pronounce certain Mandarin terms and sound more natural in my roles."
Acting in Mandarin may have come easier over the years, but he was still delighted when he was given the chance to start working on Channel 5 productions again recently.
Last year, he took on the lead role in Channel 5 thriller Zero Calling, where he played a man who is forced into doing horrible deeds by a mysterious caller.
Coming up, he will be seen in Season 2 of Channel 5 period drama Mata Mata, as a forensic pathologist.
"It's just so much easier when you can get straight into the roles without worrying if you're saying your lines properly."
Of course, it is one of his earliest roles as henpecked husband Phua Chu Beng on the long- running Channel 5 comedy series Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd (1999 - 2006) that he is best known for. He played the part from Season 2, replacing Edwin Chong, who had reportedly quit the series to return to a career in accountancy.
One mention of the show and Png starts gushing.
"Phua Chu Kang - that was some of the best years of my life. As a cast, we worked so well together and doing comedy in front of a live audience like that, hearing them laugh, that was just amazing."
The show made him a household name - a fast ascent, given that he had gotten into showbusiness just a year earlier when he snagged a supporting role as an obnoxious and rich boyfriend in Glen Goei's movie, Forever Fever (1998).
He had auditioned for a movie part along with his army buddies towards the end of national service, "just for fun".
The boyishly handsome actor adds with a laugh: "We were foolish young men, and we thought, if James Lye could be on TV and hug all those pretty women, then shouldn't we try acting as well?"
Lye was a heart-throb who hosted entertainment programme Showbuzz and then went on to act in Channel 5 and 8 shows.
Working on the film led Png to "be bitten by the acting bug".
So he joined the 1998 Fame Awards, a TV talent search organised by the broadcaster then known as Television Corporation Of Singapore, and won the title, along with a $50,000 contract with the station.
Performing in front of a camera just felt right, he says. If acting had not panned out, he would have likely pursued a career in hospitality, given that he has a diploma in tourism studies from Shatec.
"You don't necessarily plan for these things to happen, but when I look back at how things fell into place, I can say that I was destined to be an actor. People have made nasty comments about my acting and my Mandarin over the years, but frankly, I don't care."
Occasionally, his self-confidence and choice of words in this interview almost make him sound cocky. But his actions often paint him as a sensitive and considerate person.
Over the 31/2-hour interview, he constantly asks this reporter whether she is hungry. While chatting after the photo shoot, he suddenly breaks off midsentence to remind his hairstylist friend seated nearby that he is free to leave after he has grabbed a bite "so that he can go on and do more important things".
Later, when he offers a lift, he goes off first to turn on the air-conditioning in his car, "so that you don't have to sweat in the heat".
Of course, few Singaporeans will forget just how good a guy he was when in 2002, he made headlines for donating a part of his liver to his then-girlfriend, now wife, ex-actress Andrea De Cruz, 39.
It was the first living liver transplant between two people who are not related to each other and the heartwarming story became one of the most talked about news stories of the year.
Then, she was suffering from liver failure after taking slimming pills and he decided to donate part of his liver despite the high risk involved.
He recalls that his 80-year-old father, who used to sell drinks in a school tuckshop for a living, had reservations at the time, but his kindergarten principal mother, 74, gave him the okay.
"I was going to go ahead with the transplant anyway, regardless of what they said. Of course, my mother was very worried for me, but she wanted to be supportive - which I think is the highest form of love, isn't it?", says the youngest of four children, visibly moved.
"Andrea was hospitalised at the time and I was at the lowest point in my life, seeing her talk in half-sentences. I knew I wanted to be with this woman, so I couldn't imagine not doing whatever I could to help save her."
The pair tied the knot a year after the transplant, in October 2003.
More than a decade later, he is elated that his wife is "healthy and happy", as he adds with a chuckle: "We have two businesses, which she tends to, but actually, she's more of a tai-tai enjoying her life."
De Cruz runs boutique florist Belmont Flora in McNair Road and hair salon Cinq at Scotts Square.
This Wednesday is the 12th anniversary of the transplant.
He says: "We will probably go out for a nice meal and go to church to give our thanks. Other than our wedding anniversary, no other date is as special to us - certainly not Valentine's Day because every day is Valentine's Day for us."
The actor lights up every time he mentions his wife and he brings up her name often.
"She is the centre of my life and I draw confidence from her," he says.
He then proceeds to show recent photos of her on his phone, and says: "You see how she laughs so happily in this picture? And how full of life she is? Seeing that makes me so happy."
He also gushes about the bouquet of Easter lilies that his wife, who was in Hong Kong for the week, sent him that morning as a surprise. At the photo shoot later on, he requests to have the bouquet featured in the photographs being taken for the interview, as he wants to show how appreciative he is of her gesture.
Given the fact that his wife's body could reject the liver any day, the self-professed "practical" person is pragmatic when it comes to the topic of death.
He has booked two niches in a columbarium for themselves and even chosen the pictures he would use for her obituary and funeral.
"I know, it all sounds so morbid, right? But we talk openly about death. It's inevitable for everyone."
The couple made the news last month when De Cruz said at an event that according to statistics, she may have only eight more years to live, and that is a big factor in their decision not to have children.
But she tells Life! that it is also more than that. "People need to understand that I have my concerns because my anti-rejection medication can potentially cause birth abnormalities for the foetus."
On their marriage, she says that like anyone else, they have their "ups and downs".
She adds: "We'll agree to disagree and we have our discussions about issues. But he is really the most wonderful person. He very kindly and graciously gave me half his liver and I certainly hope that this love story of ours is one that will continue for a long, long time."
Png says that they may consider adoption one day. "There are some days when she's all for it, and other days when she's not, so we'll see. What's most important is that she's enjoying every day of her life. For now, our three fur kids will do."
They have three shih tzus aged two, eight and 11. They also have 15 nieces, nephews and godchildren between them.
On their relationship with the kids and fur-kids, he says with a grin: "I'm the disciplinarian. Andrea's the one who's like, 'Aiya, just let them be.' So she's the good cop and I'm the bad cop."
Png says that he enjoys spending time at home, a condominium in the east, on his days off.
"I'll ask Andrea what she wants to do with the day, but if she goes out with her friends, then I'll just stay at home to do gardening. I'm also learning how to play the guitar on my own."
Occasionally, he goes on drives around the city with other members of Land Rover Owners Singapore, a club comprising fellow enthusiasts of the car.
His friend Terence Kong, 38, a financial services director who is part of the club, describes Png as a "very humble guy with a big heart because he's always pushing the club to do more charity work; Pierre values the simple things in life".
The actor says that it is at this point in his life that he feels most content.
He says: "You spend your 20s full of energy and wanting to experience everything, but actually, you don't know much. You come into your 30s thinking you know a lot, but you're still quite unsure with what you're doing.
"Only in your 40s are you completely unfazed and you just take things as they come. That's where I am now. I'm enjoying every day as it comes and I couldn't be happier."
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on May 5, 2014. 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.