Crispian Chan is an actor and theatrical photographer with almost 15 years of experience in the theatre industry. He was recently in “Apprentice”, a local film about capital punishment which received several awards and a standing ovation at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. We spoke with him about being an actor here in Singapore.
Tell us a little about yourself! What got you interested in acting?
I was born and raised in Australia and stayed in a town where there were only two other Asian families. My first language was Cantonese and when I started primary school for the first six months, I was mute all the time because I couldn’t speak English well. My family engaged a speech therapist, and he (stupidly) said, “Do speech and drama”. So that opened up the world of acting for me and it was part of my life since an early age. I did it (acting) first to develop language and I started enjoying it so much I took it on as a subject in high school and building a career around it. It got tough to get a job in Australia because of diversity issues and so, I came to Singapore. It’s been 12 years here and I have since expanded my base and worked in radio stations, theatres and then studied acting at LASALLE. I love the formative elements of acting: the feedback from audiences and just watching all that unfold in a theatre environment. I found myself doing a variety of roles here as compared to constantly playing a boat refugee or a gangster (who never spoke English by the way) back in Australia. I was able to live in different roles and speak in many voices. It’s a thriving and fantastic industry here!
What was your first role as an actor?
My first role as a kid – I remember playing a firefighter and I was in a little box performing at a school concert. As for a professional role – I was cast in an Australian television drama called “Sweat”, and it was a really special one as it had a character who was played by Heath Ledger. In the show, I was a swimmer and the irony was, I broke my collarbone a day before filming and I had all my scenes cut (laughs).
I loved your appearance in the Apprentice, it was such a moving piece. What’s challenging about bringing this script to life and taking on this role? How did you prepare for it?
The apprentice is an important story and it’s very unheard of, especially when it comes to subjects like capital punishment. The biggest challenge for me personally was doing the research. I was trying to find a way to truthfully portray how one would feel before going to the noose, what it would be like in that situation knowing that you are going to get hung and standing on that trap door. Jun Feng was a great director who guided me through the process and for me, trying to make it honest and raw was important. I was playing a guy who wasn’t entirely innocent, but he was also human. “Apprentice” is not a mainstream film but on an international stage, it really helped set a new tone and wave for Singapore’s film industry.
What is the most extreme change to your personality, hair, body weight, etc, that you have done to prepare for a role?
I haven’t done anything crazy in comparison to Christian Bale where he had to lose extreme amount of weight until he was a bag of bones for his role in “The Machinist”. I think it’s funny how people marvel at actors who undergo physical changes like that. However, they often forget that as actors, we are constantly subjecting ourselves to the mindset of the roles which we portray, which goes beyond physical changes which are more superficial. We have to envision and confront a character, who may be engaging in an act of murder, or an act of horror, and that in itself is extreme. In theatre, we always say it revolves a lot around sex and death, and that’s true. You live to kill; you kill to live. We watch films because we are seeing extraordinary people doing ordinary things. You don’t just have to lose a lot of weight just to place emphasis on a character, you know?
I have seen your photography works for the theatre company as well and they are stunning! So how did you move from being in the front of the camera to behind it?
My love for photography came from a necessity in university. We had to be everything and not just an actor. I was my own director, tech crew, lighting, etc. One of the things we lacked was a photographer for publicity, and me being a gadget guy who loves the camera, I thoroughly enjoyed capturing all the raw emotions. Theatre is not like film where you can watch it over and over on Blu-ray. It is usually on for only three weeks or so and you can’t revisit it once it’s over. That’s where the beauty of having pictures comes in – you can reconnect with the moments by looking at the photographs. There are good and bad photographers, but as an actor myself, I am able to connect with like-minded people easily. There’s no director in between, no lights, nothing, just you and the person and it’s really personal which I love.
In a biographical film of your life, who would you like to play you?
Well, most likely some white guy would play my character, right? I’m kidding. I would love to have Robert Downey Junior, he is hilarious and has such good energy. Tony Leung maybe? Plus both has fantastic mops of hair (laughs).
Is there an overarching philosophy that guides your life?
I am currently doing a show that talks about the process of ageing and one of the things we did was have a discussion on what ageing means to us and listing ten good and bad things. It helped me deal with the idea of dying and put all the insecurities I used to have into perspective. To answer your question, “Live in the present. Be present.” We need to stop reacting but respond. Life isn’t as complicated as you think it is and what we need is to simplify things back down. As you grow older, your life quote will change with it. What you would want now could be something different in your 20s as compared to your 30s. At this point now, I realised that things don’t have to be complicated.
The acting industry is tough, if you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
Don’t do it. If you are not going to listen to me then understand that you need to do it with passion, humility, you need to read books, travel, and watch films. You need to ask questions and see the beauty of it. Prepare yourself. Raw talent only gets you so far. Many young actors come in now thinking they got life all figured out but truth be told, you will never stop learning even when you are 45. The world is ever-changing and nothing is absolute. Always be present.
Your desert island choices for-
Book: Can I have an edible book? Okay, I want a Kindle with Wifi and 3G. Or perhaps a survivor guide book to get me the hell out of there. I loved those as a kid, pretty sure I thought a zombie apocalypse was coming.
Film: Cliche, but Star Wars is a safe bet.
Music: It has to be classical or it will drive me nuts. Something from Mozart preferably.
Any person in history for conversation: I would love to speak to Grandfather, I never got the chance to brush up on my Cantonese to have a proper conversation with him.