There was a piece of good news for Malaysian arts recently — actress Amanda Ang was named a winner at the 2020 New York Festivals TV & Film Awards.
The results were announced on the website of the august awards, which honour the best among the global community of advertising, creative and media leaders and performers. Ang won the bronze award in the Best Performance by an Actress category for her role as 1930s’ prostitute Soh Fan in Singapore TV series, Last Madame. It is her first major award.
Much talked about for its M18 rating for mature content — a first for a Mediacorp drama — the show premiered last year on its streaming platform, Toggle, and starred Singapore actress Joanne Peh. Ang played the close confidante of Peh’s mamasan character, Fung Lan, who runs the popular House of Phoenix brothel.
“Soh Fan is the lead prostitute of the house,” Ang says of her role. “As you would imagine, she is an intense character. She has gone through so much in life and survived a world of abuse. She is someone who has to find a reason to keep going every day. Tapping that emotion as a woman — not feeling safe, of being hurt — was difficult but a great experience.”
With her expressive eyes and presence, it is easy to see why the actress was cast in what she says is her most daunting role yet. In one scene a worldly seductress and in another a wounded victim with a past, Ang rose to the challenge of playing her demanding character, especially when paired with the experienced Peh.
“I learnt a lot by watching Joanne. I can be quite animated, but I learnt how to match her energy, to be more subtle on screen,” Ang says over the phone.
It is indeed a spirited yet refreshingly unaffected person on the other end of the line, rather different from what may be one’s first impression of her. But what stands out about Ang is her frequent laughter. It is hearty and infectious, as if emanating from the belly up.
Acting came fairly late for Ang, who had a short career in advertising before giving it up to focus fulltime. “I was born in Labuan, where my mum is from. But my dad was from Klang and, growing up, we moved back and forth a lot. I had no experience whatsoever with acting, or anything related to entertainment. In fact, I remember wondering — when I looked at my friends who all seemed to be good at one thing or another — ‘what was I good at? What was my thing?’” she says of her childhood.
“But having stayed not longer than three years in one place, the biggest lesson I learnt was to be adaptable. The cultures of KL and Labuan are so different, and the various ages I experienced them at affected me differently.”
That adaptability has served her well in her career. Ang’s first taste of theatre came after she graduated from university, where she studied mass communications. A friend invited her to watch an improvisation show by Electric Minds Project. Enamoured, she became a regular at their shows until, one day, she was invited to audition for their then new show, Jambalaya!, in 2010. She was selected and has not looked back since.
On what drew her to acting, Ang reflects, “There wasn’t a moment or role that proved definitive for me, but I think it became more apparent to me as I went further, how happy I was to act. Generally, I am the type of person who wants to do things well, but this, acting, was definitely a choice. There was a lot to give up for it, but what kept me going was knowing that this was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Her notable roles include Emma in Eja Productions’ 2015 staging of Betrayal by Harold Pinter. “It asked for a side of me that does not come out very often. She was a very quiet character and taught me how be grounded on stage.”
Another character she enjoyed playing was the boss in the original iflix series, Cupid Co, a role originally written for a male actor that required a strong sense of gravitas.
As an actress, Ang has a versatility that serves her well, now more than ever. Having started with comedic roles — she has had her fair share of “ditzy girl” parts — it nevertheless played to her strengths when producers from across the Causeway came knocking.
“Work was slow for a couple of years here,” she says candidly. “So, I decided to create a showreel of my work, and developed enough of a thick skin to show it to anyone and everyone I met.”
It caught the eye of the team behind The Wedding Survival Handbook, a romantic comedy-type series for Mediacorp that cast Ang in her first lead role. “They would have preferred to cast a girl with a stronger social media following and popularity, but the producers were nevertheless keen to have me on board. I was very touched by that.”
The show opened the door to her audition for Last Madame and, after that, another TV series. Suffice to say, last year was good for Ang, marking her entry into Singapore with three back-to-back TV series. And while the Covid-19 pandemic has put a pause on things, her career is no doubt at an exciting juncture.
“I think I was just at the right place at the right time,” she says levelly, spoken as only someone who has faced many closed doors can. “Acting can be hard work, in that you can be working very hard and be very talented and still not get anywhere. But as long as the world accepts me, I want to keep going.”
'Last Madame' is streaming on tv.mewatch.sg and on the meWatch app. This article first appeared on May 4 in The Edge Malaysia.