Rebecca Lim: Playing Desmond Tan's lover will look 'incestuous'

4 November 2014 / 1 year 11 months ago

It was in December 2006 that the glamorous sobriquet - 7 Princesses - was coined by a local magazine. It referred to seven MediaCorp actresses who were anointed as the successors to Caldecott Hill queens Zoe Tay and Fann Wong.

The list included the likes of Jeanette Aw, Jesseca Liu, Felicia Chin, Joanne Peh and Rui En. Rebecca Lim, then a part-time actress, was not among the royal selection. She tells Life!: "I was quite upset that I wasn't in it or I wasn't even close to it."

At the time, she was juggling filming with an accountancy course at the Singapore Management University and recalls: "There was a running joke at SMU that 'There are seven princesses but Rebecca is like the maid of the princesses.'

"I would laugh but deep inside, I'd be a bit hurt because I'm human, right?" Those days are far behind her and, if anything, she is now a rising star, reports The Straits Times.

Her career has been on a hot streak in the past few years, beginning with her turn as trainee lawyer Wendy Lim in The Pupil (2010).

It was her first full-time contract role and she went from finishing her final exam paper to turning up for work on the set the very same day.

It catapulted her into the spotlight as she beat more established actresses, including co-star Janice Koh, to win Best Drama Performance In A Leading Role at the regional Asian Television Awards.

She says: "It was a very unexpected win. I told my parents to pick me up at Pan Pacific hotel at 10pm because that was when the ceremony ended and they had to wait for two hours. When I finally came out, they were like 'Why so long?'"

That same question could well have been asked by those hoping for her career to take off but the long wait has sweetened the fruit of success. "Because for so many years, compared to my peers, this didn't happen.

It was practically nonexistent, this whole career thing. Now that things are starting to be better and more substantial, it is heartening."

From an inauspicious start flubbing simple lines in Mandarin, the bilingual star has gone on to make waves in the Mandarin entertainment scene as well.

Lim, 28, was named Best Supporting Actress for her role as a free-spirited sales manager in The Dream Makers, a drama about what goes on behind the scenes of show business, at this year's Star Awards.

At the same ceremony, she also made it to the Top 10 Most Popular Female Artistes, her third such consecutive accolade. Suggest that she has arrived though and she swats away the thought with a laugh:

"I don't think I've arrived. I hope the arrival point is much further and higher. I would like to think I'm midway through the journey, a plane that's taking off, not landing."

Cheerful and humble, she is personable and likeable during the interview over iced coffee at Woodshed cafe in Rangoon Road. That easy-to-like factor comes across in some of her roles as well, such as the eager cop in period drama Mata Mata 2 (2014).

But you sense that it is no act that she turns on or off. Instead, it comes from some place deep and genuine. The way she is dressed reflects a thrifty nature and also suggests that family and friends are important to her.

Her Burberry bag was a gift from the fashion house after it dressed her for the Star Awards one year and she happily points out that her Dior shoes were bought at half-price.

The geometric print dress is from her friend's label, Exhibit, and the ring she is wearing is a custom-made piece incorporating diamonds from her grandmother's jewellery.

She says earnestly: "It's not like I'm the most beautiful of all the actresses, the tallest or the most eloquent. I'm really not. It's very humbling when I sit back and think about it, like, why are all these things given to me and not to so-and-so.

When things are given to me, I'm very, very appreciative of it because I know that it's not me who has gained all this. It's with the help of a lot of people like managers, my style team."

What might seem like overnight success has in fact been the result of hard work over several years. She came to acting through the beauty pageant route and is the first to admit that she was terrible.

On how she got started in the business, she says: "Surprisingly, my parents, who are very traditional, were the ones who pushed me towards that.

They said since it's an opportunity and you're going to be doing a course you're not very interested in, why don't you just do it? That was how everything started."

Lim had her heart set on being a doctor but was not accepted for the course at the National University of Singapore. She eventually went to SMU as it had extended the application deadline.

Her debut was in Family Matters (2006), where she had a tiny role as a secretary in a law firm. She winces at the memory.

"My Mandarin was so bad that even for a short line like "Mr Tan, you have a meeting at 3pm today", I would NG (abbreviation for a no-good take) close to 20 times." The entire filming experience left her, well, cold.

She says: "It was very cold but I was still perspiring as I was so nervous. I was not used to cameras and the pressure and to be put in a situation where you are not equipped with the skills or you are uncomfortable or not confident, that makes it worse.

"Once you flop, your insecurity makes everything worse." To her surprise, her contract was extended after that excruciating first year. She says: "If I were them, I wouldn't have extended my own contract. I was just very under-utilised and very forgettable."

It was Mr Andrew Cheng, 63, now a consultant for MediaCorp Studios & Artiste Management, who championed her then and indeed, he was the one who spotted her at the beauty pageant. Lim recalls that he once said to her:

"I was the one who spotted you so I don't think I'm wrong, let's try again." She adds wrily: "He tried a lot of times, a lot of years. I'm glad it worked out." Mr Cheng tells Life! that he was not scouting for stars then, rather, he was looking for artists with "unique personality".

He proclaims: "Star quality is a given once you are successful." And while she was "not the prettiest nor the most glamorous", she left such a striking impression that years later, he still remembers where she was sitting exactly in the MediaCorp TV Theatre when he first saw her during a rehearsal.

"To me, she is the same girl that I saw - quiet, simple, humble and very talented," he says. Slowly, the roles became meatier and Lim was ready to sink her teeth into them. Playing a prostitute in the nostalgia drama Fighting Spiders (2009) marked a turning point.

She had actually gone for the "goody role" but was asked to audition for the role of Susie Woon instead. Fearing she would be typecast after that, her first instinct was to turn it down.

That initial voice of doubt turned out to be wrong as she was named Elle Awards 2010's Actress of the Year by the fashion magazine. And she has not been stuck playing prostitute-type roles. It certainly helped "in a huge way" that it was an English drama.

"When I deliver the lines, I don't have to think, I can use my own words to substitute. When I lose track of the scripts, it's easier to react to what the other person is saying.

"When my Mandarin wasn't very good, I was thinking 'What English translation did I write in my script?'" She kept at the Mandarin though, hiring a tutor, listening to the radio and reading magazines.

"The important thing was if I don't know anything, I'd just ask, even at the expense of sounding stupid. Previously, I was very shy and people would think, 'This girl is very ang mo pai (Hokkien for English-speaking person)'."

Her baptism of fire came in her first leading role in the Channel 8 suspense thriller The Truth (2008), where she played Peh's sister and sported an unflattering big perm.

The barrage of criticisms over her Mandarin came fast and furious and "out of 100 comments, there were maybe 98 bad comments". She says: "I felt a little bit defeated because I really did try my best. I did expect bad reviews but not that many.

"And it did upset me because I could tell my parents were affected by it as well." But it was not in her character to wallow in self-pity. "That's the good thing about me. I can't feel angry or upset for a long time because I don't like to be constantly in a very negative state.

"I like to get over things quickly because I understand how blessed I am as a person. I have great friends who have been by my side and family. And even after the bad reviews, MediaCorp still wanted to sign me on and people were willing to give me second chances."

Not that her parents sugar-coated things for her. "They did tell me that my performance wasn't great. My family's very honest." That down-to-earth quality about her is very much the result of her upbringing and family is everything to her.

She lives with her parents, who are retired from a family business in technology. Their home is a condominium in Bukit Panjang. Her elder brother, 29, is in the finance industry and her younger sister, 24, is studying dentistry in Australia.

Lim describes herself as a chubby kid growing up. She adds with a chuckle though: "The funny thing was, I was quite a confident chubby kid. No one in my family told me - my family's a very loving family or they just didn't want to shatter me."

She was a self-professed tomboy who would hang around her elder brother and join in his football games as the goalkeeper. That tomboy phase lasted for quite a while and she did not wear her first pair of heels until she was scouted to take part in a junior college pageant.

That led to the Miss Singapore Universe 2005 pageant, an eye-opening introduction to the world of glamour - and the bitchiness that comes with it.

She was on the receiving end of some snide remarks and even anonymous letters "which said not very nice stuff" but she no longer remembers the details.

"At that time, I thought it was quite funny because these were women older than me writing this kind of stuff to me, the youngest one there."

Perhaps they felt that she was a threat despite her inexperience. Lim came in fifth in the pageant and also won the Miss Photogenic Award. It was also at the inter-JC pageant where she met Desmond Tan, now a fellow MediaCorp actor.

He was the representative from Jurong JC and she flew the flag for Victoria JC, and thanks to matching heights, they were paired together.

They have been friends since and have continued to be paired up in endorsement deals, including for Japanese clothing label Uniqlo and luxury car brand Mercedes-Benz. (Thanks to the latter, she gets to drive a black CLA200 compact sedan.)

And for the first time in an upcoming Channel U series, they will be playing a couple. She admits: "I'm not totally looking forward to it and I know my friends are not either because it will look a bit incestuous."

Tan, 28, puts on a more stoic front and says: "I believe I'm prepared for any kissing scenes as long as it fits the story and it's necessary."

He adds: "I'm looking forward to acting as a couple with Becks. I think acting with a decade-old friend will be a fresh experience and would probably produce unexpected on-screen chemistry."

The drama, 2nd Chance, is slated to air next year. As to whether they could ever be more than friends, he teases: "In fact, we are already more than friends. Not everyone knows about it. You might have guessed it correctly.

"Yes, we are not only friends, we are also colleagues... and also fellow ambassadors for various brands. If it was possible, it would have happened a long time ago." Lim says with an enigmatic smile:

"Sometimes friendships are a lot more precious than relationships. Even if you had the slightest thought of venturing there, you'd be like 'I don't want to jeopardise the friendship'." Does that mean the thought has crossed her mind?

She deflects the question quickly with a laugh, saying: "I don't know. You think silly things when you are young, that's all I can say." Given that her priorities are family, followed by work, then friends, there does not seem to be a place for romance for the single Lim.

She says: "I don't consciously steer away from it but it hasn't happened, it's not happening and I don't see it happening in the near future." In the meantime, she is enjoying her time in the spotlight.

While she does not set herself specific goals in terms of what she wants to achieve, she is keen to try new things such as hosting and acting in movies. But she is clear about what is important to her.

She says: "I'm glad I have a lot of jobs and I do my best in every role. I read the script again and again because every time you read it, you get new insight into the lines and how you want to portray it.

"But I do have a life outside of my job and I appreciate it. I enjoy spending time with my family, my friends. I don't want my whole life to revolve around work and acting. There's more to life than that."

Outside of work, it sounds like she leads an ordinary, almost boring, life. Apart from spending time with friends and family, she says: "People ask me what my hobbies are and I really try my best to sound very exciting and interesting but I'm really not.

"I'll do my nails and go for a facial and things like that." Having picked up three Top 10 Most Popular Female Artistes awards, you point out that there are seven more to go. When an actress receives that accolade for 10 years, she gets named All-Time Favourite Artiste.

And each year, the award comes in a different colour. She seems a bit daunted by the road ahead but brightens up at a thought: "Seven more colours form a rainbow hopefully."

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