Ever wondered how Singaporeans are introducing Singapore to the world? Introducing our new digital series, Going Global, which takes you into the lives of Singaporeans who are making waves abroad in the worlds of arts & culture. First up: singer, actress and musical theatre star Nathania Ong, who recently became the first Singaporean ever to tackle the esteemed role of Eponine in Les Miserables.
About five seconds into my conversation with Nathania Ong, I realise this feels a little bit more like a chance encounter rather than a Zoom interview. “This is so lovely,” she tells me excitedly, bare-faced and smiling brighter than a ray of sunshine, after weeks of coordinating a call bridging a seven-hour time difference between Singapore and London. We chat for at least five minutes about the weather, in an enthusiastic, genuine way and not a fake, small-talk kind of way – a British heatwave, Ong jokes, might feel almost as hot as I do while sitting in my heavily air-conditioned Toa Payoh office.
From there we move on to a different topic without missing a beat – Ong’s accent, I note, is as crisp and clear as those I heard while studying abroad in the UK – before segueing into a side conversation about why all Brits go shirts off as soon as the temp hits 20 degrees. Then and there, I suddenly remember why I’m here in the first place – to better get to know the first-ever Singaporean actress to play the famed role of Eponine in Les Miserables, on none other than London’s esteemed West End.
This is how the conversation goes, though, when you finally get the chance to sit down with someone as humbly talented as Nathania. Lucky doesn’t seem to cut it – blessed, even. The feeling I get, as I hear her speak about how she climbed her way to the pinnacle of commercial theatre, is the feeling I get when I talk to my best friend (who, serendipitously, also happens to live in London). Blessings, serendipity, luck – whatever you call it, she will be the first to tell you her journey to the top has had a healthy dose of all three, and then some. “I started on the singing route,” Ong says of her early beginnings. How she ended up applying for drama school – and ultimately becoming an actor in one of musical theatre’s most coveted roles – ended up being more of a happy accident.
“I applied for 5 different wrong schools, all in straight acting,” she laughs. “Not realising that in order to get into an acting school, you had to be able to act.”
Needless to say, Ong was rejected from every single one. She started from scratch, coming back to Singapore to attend an acting program at Lasalle before a new lease on life came knocking in the form of Mountview Academy, the prestigious London-based drama academy which was holding auditions right here at home. But discouraged by her failed (and expensive) first attempt at auditioning, Ong didn’t jump at a second chance right away. “I had kind of given up on that dream, and my best friend knew it,” she says. “She was the one who actually convinced me to be like, ‘Hey. You need to go and audition, like you wanted to study in the UK for ages. And this is your chance, like it’s right in front of you.’ I was slightly like, not traumatised,” Ong muses. “But I think I was slightly afraid.”
Fast forward a few years later, Ong remains grateful for the roundabout way she took to achieving her dream. “I think it kind of preps you for the acting life,” she says, “which is rejection after rejection after rejection, until suddenly you land a part.” Everything she knows now about living in the real world stems from that moment. “I think the best thing that you can realise is that it’s okay if people say no. A lot of times when we do something, we associate our value with what we’re offering…but it’s actually not that deep.”
“Dissociating your value from what you’re offering – is a really big step of how I’ve tried to deal with rejection,” Ong continues, “because, being an actor, you are your product. And so every time you step into that audition room, when you pull all of that out, you learn all that material, you invest all that time, and then to have that ‘no’ can be quite heartbreaking.” I ask her how that act of getting knocked down only to have to get back up again, the constant emotional whiplash, has shaped her as an actor and more importantly, as a person. Ong counters that it’s all just a part of life; rather than the idea that rejection has shaped her, she considers how her mentality has learned to embrace rejection as a matter of circumstance rather than a life-changing experience, just another inevitable bump in the road or a blip in the universe – c’est la vie. “Just realising that they’re not saying no to you and your talent, and you as a person,” she says. “They’re saying ‘no’ because they feel like, potentially, they just found someone better for the part, and it can be like a few inches [of] height difference or something.”
Now, with even bigger shoes to fill on the West End, the stakes are higher, the auditions tougher, the rejections perhaps even harder to bear. Especially as an Asian face in a still predominantly-white industry, Ong is well-aware of what’s at stake. “I feel like visibility is a really, really important thing,” she says. “But also I feel like in another sense, I feel that more work needs to be written…as an East Asian, I can say that it is so frustrating to see our stories being written by people who have not lived our experiences.” She asserts that more Asian stories on the big stage will further pave the way for Asian actors hoping to follow in her footsteps. Will she be switching over to writing herself anytime soon, though? “One step at a time,” she says with a grin.
When musical theatre legend Lea Salonga made her debut as Eponine on Broadway in 1993, becoming the first actress of Asian descent to do so, “Joy Luck Club” was selling out theatres across America, raising hopes for greater representation in Hollywood and beyond. Yet thirty years later, while many of the same obstacles for people of colour in the arts and entertainment industry still remain, Ong represents a new generation of up-and-coming actors who are leading the change once again. One part of that is acknowledging that while she may look Asian or Singaporean on the outside, what drives her and inspires her internal philosophy as an actor – is neither or. “I feel like it’s been more about just my experiences as a person,” she says. “We are made up of the experiences that we have. I spent the majority of my life in Singapore. And so when I think about my childhood…I think about mundane things, like taking the bus. And I think, like us as individuals, we all have little memories like that. And no one’s going to have that experience.”
All those experiences have certainly added up in a big way for Ong, whose ticket to one of musical theatre’s biggest roles seems to lend credence to the old adage that the more you live, the more you learn. When asked about her approach to making such an iconic role her own, she acknowledges that she has big shoes to fill, but doesn’t look an inch too intimidated. Drawing on those lived experiences, years of working multiple side jobs and saving up cash just to get a chance at auditioning for her big break, really paid off when it came to portraying the character’s scrappier side – not what Ong calls the “polite” interpretations previously seen on screen and on stage. “I was like, she’s ugly, she is a street rat…She’s not embarrassed. She’s nothing,” Ong says. “She’s completely unfazed by that, because that’s just her life.”
Ong may be far from a street rat, I note, but I can’t help but think how worldly she is all the same; the kind of grit only acquired by being thrown onto the streets with nowhere else to go, as Eponine, or by choosing to live on the streets, working hard to find one’s way in the world. “I think it was the late Alan Rickman who was talking about this,” she says. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that there was a video when he was talking about how to be a good actor. And he says that to be a good actor, you need to build an exposure to things happening around the world, to develop opinions based on current events. And through establishing those things, you can build your interpretations of whatever’s thrown at you…I was like, would my character have this opinion, or would my character be somewhere a little bit further? We all have this reservoir of our knowledge and ideas and opinions on things, and so in order to improve as an actor, enriching that reservoir is a really important set.”
But for Ong, the reservoir of experience is more than just about learning how to become a better actor or a better person. Living a life outside of character has taught her how to live life to the fullest; years of moving across London and Singapore have shown her a thing or two about cultural code switching, but have also given her experiences far beyond everything she’s done on stage. “I think a trap that a lot of people fall into is making acting our life,” she says. “Acting is fun and acting is really gorgeous and difficult and detailed and meticulous, but it is very difficult,” she laughs, “and it’s a job, effectively, at the end of the day.” And while it’s safe to say that global citizenship has not only broadened her professional horizons, but her personal ones as well, her day to day remains simple. When asked what she likes to do to unwind throughout her daily life in London, she cites easy access to walks in the park as a simple joy.
And despite the struggles of missing home particularly during the pandemic, Ong says she has no intention of giving up her newfound independence in London anytime soon. “It’s really difficult because the industry feels quite small,” she says about the arts scene in Singapore. “But we can’t expand the industry until the demand increases.” And though she acknowledges much more needs to be done to support up-and-coming artists in the region and the burgeoning entertainment industry, Ong says there’s more hope for her hometown than many other cities around the world. She cites the ease of going to the theatre, how the experience is equally enriching as a viewer as it is as an actor, as one of her favourite things about life in London, and encourages everyone back home to do the same – to show the support for the arts needed in order to get the government to show actors the money. “I’ve met so many talented Singaporean performers, and there’s a few in the UK as well, to just float around and bump into a Singaporean performer and be like, ‘Hey, we have this shared lived experience.’ But then, why are we having to go all the way to the other side of the world in order to act? We have the talent. That talent has always been there.”
Ong likens her finding her footing as an actor, and as Eponine, to filling out a colouring book. “I do get compared to a lot of the Eponines quite regularly, and it’s difficult to face. But I think it kind of boils down to colours and notes, and textures within,” she says. “Because there’ve been so many interpretations of Eponine, it’s been so special finding my own.” With Eponine, there’s little doubt that the opportunities afforded to her for professional development in London are much greater than what she could get at home. And just like finding her own identity in character, her new life in London as a young independent has shaped her in ways she has only started to see. “When I was in Singapore, I was shielded by the comfort of my family, and I’m the youngest of four girls,” she says. “There’s something that forces you to grow as a person when you go and you live independently, especially abroad, because there’s all of these unfamiliar things around you that you’re trying to adapt to.
I have matured in the way that I approach situations, but also, I think I’ve grown in patience, when life throws crazy things at me. Because sometimes you just have to sit and breathe, put your hat on and just try to get it over with.” Unlike Eponine, who dies tragically in the streets of Paris mourning what could’ve been, Ong’s future brims with possibility all the way out on the West End; despite being thousands of miles away from home, she’s single-handedly built a new life surrounded by people and things she loves – far from being on her own.
This article was originally published in Harper’s Bazaar Singapore.