Ayden Sng appears in the oblong box. It is a Friday evening and he has carved out a rare pocket of free time to do this interview.
Through the middling-resolution of the screen, he appears fresh-faced, beaming; even as he is in the throes of filming the Channel 8 series All That Glitters (née Road to Riches).
The Mandarin drama series begins with a murder before it flashes back to the past, where we follow the journey of three friends and the events that led to the tragedy. Starring Desmond Tan, Jeremy Chan and Sng, it was shot in Alor Setar, Malaysia; Hat Yai, Thailand; and Singapore.
Sng plays one of the three friends, but his character offers the bonus of being the series' antagonist; a role that he states that he “had been waiting for a long time.”
“Well, not necessarily waiting to play the ‘villain’,” Sng specifies, “but the thing about bad guys is that they usually aren’t one-dimensional. That’s the sort of role with depth that I have been wanting to play.”
The key is not to think of them as villains. Sng cites the Joker (played by Joaquin Phoenix) as someone you would empathise with and root for. “In some sense, I felt a lot of the self-rationalising, self-justification that the character goes through.” Sng wants to bring an authenticity to his character. There’s a backstory to his role, where his ambition is primarily driven by self-preservation; when all is said and done, Sng hopes to deliver something relatable to the audience, regardless of his character’s alignments.
And if the audience were to perceive him differently when they see him on screen, Sng takes it as a win. “If you act sufficiently well that people think that’s you in real life, it’s a testament to your performance.”
There’s another reason for Sng’s willingness to take on this role, and it parallels the same motivation of his character: self-preservation. And by that, Sng is looking to prolong his career as an actor by not being typecast.
In any industry, a role is ascribed to you because you have traits that fit into the stereotype. Cast your eye at the median boy band and you’ll notice the typecasts: the wild one; the bad boy; the leader. These are formulaic functionary, easy pop-culture digestible, accessible and charming.
“It’s the same for actors,” Sng says. “When you begin, right off the bat, they’ll try to figure out what your general vibe is. Then they will label you regardless of whether it is your identity or not. Even for the show I’m doing now, the executive producers met with a lot of resistance when they announced their intention to cast me because the character is someone uneducated, uncouth; who sells satay at the hawker centre.”
Ayden is too educated, he’s too polished for this role. Ayden Sng can play someone who works in a nine-to-five white-collar job. Ayden Sng can play one of the bros or the boy next door. The good son; the good son-in-law. That’s the box he is put in. Except it’s a comfortable casket. It limits his potential to see how far he can stretch his acting wings. For All That Glitters, his role is a complete departure from the ones he’d done before. This is a part that requires him to be—in his own words—“beng”.
“To be in that persona took a lot out of me than with previous roles,” Sng explains. “And because this is a melodrama, there are tons of emotional and violent scenes so the difficulty index for this is probably 10 out of 10.
But despite the stress, it is a much-needed invigoration. It’s this venture into uncharted territory that he rediscovers his love for acting.
If only more people were to see him that way.
“My interest and commitment to this craft is sometimes eclipsed by the fact that I work with a lot of brands.” By that merit, he can be viewed as a male huāpíng (Mandarin for “vase” but it’s also slang for a “pretty but useless person”). It’s a frustrating perception but Sng understands it is not an easy thing to dispel. “It’s not something that I can demand. It’ll take time and a body of good work to justify that.
That’s usually the first impression people will have of Sng when they encounter his Instagram account. It’s understandable. His feed is filled with images of him posing with brands; film and TV announcements; some behind-the-scene stills. But Sng is proud of his interest in fashion and grooming; it opens him to a lot of brand collaborations. “This allows me to continue acting. Good roles after good roles that will hopefully lead to good performances and eventually people will see me as a good actor.”
Sng wants more opportunities to branch outside of Singapore. He wants to add a regional or even a global stage to his oeuvre. He had a chance to do so with a film called Seven Days, which is about a ghost possessing her grown-up younger brother’s body for seven days to resolve any regrets before moving on.
His first feature opened doors to other film projects that Sng is in discussion with. “As an actor, that’s something you look forward to,” Sng says. “Not because you want that regional recognition but with that level of production, you’re exposed to a whole set of different experiences.”
Last year, Sng filmed Hungry Soul in Batam. Co-produced by CJ Entertainment (the company behind Parasite), Sng saw how the production operates, which was vastly different from his experiences in Mediacorp. “It’s not necessary about who is better. It’s about being exposed to how things are done in different countries. I feel that a Taiwanese production focuses a lot more on improvisation. Whereas in Singapore, things are less fluid but that also means you do get a lot more quality control.
Citing an example of his experience shooting in Taiwan, Sng claims that each take is different but in some of those takes, Sng saw something brilliant that’s birthed from improvisation. It’s different and that’s the sort of variety that you’d want to have as an actor.
For the immediate future, Sng wants to work on more films (“Because film acting is different from TV,”) and also to take part in co-productions overseas.
It’s a promising prospect, one that Sng is optimistic about. It would be a platform where he can manifest himself into the kind of actor that he wants to be.
This sort of mentality shapes his identity: he eschews the blown chances, the what-could-have-beens and instead is hyperfocused on looking forward. The industry that he’s in sometimes feels like a game that he has to play, always having to prove himself according to their terms. Not many actors get to chisel out their own niche (look at Yeo Yann Yann and Anjana Vasan).
But Sng is pragmatic. This is a long game, one that you need to play well at. You can either hate the game or continue to build yourself and be certain of your identity.
“Being in this industry forces you to mature quickly. Because if you don’t, you might lose yourself.”
As he grows into himself,Sng finds that he doesn’t need to explain himself to people the way he did before. When the pandemic happened and lock-down was in effect, it didn’t impact Sng all that much, other than not being able to work for several months. His lifestyle remained the same—Sng was pretty happy about staying indoors.
“I don’t like spending time outside of my home much, but it’s not that I’m antisocial,” Sng explains. “I still talk to people online, via Zoom or whatever. You don’t have to go to a social setting to have meaningful conversations. I got to experience those types of things at home, and with my pets, and I felt content.”
People who hear this tell him that he sounds old.
“I don’t think of it as any form of judgment, to be honest. I’m ok being known for that. In the last interview that I did, I used this term called ‘the joy of missing out’. That’s one way that I live my life. If you don’t ask me out, great. I’m happy to focus on the things that I truly want in my life.”
This, according to Sng, is like creating his own joy machine. To seek out happiness in your loved ones or pets; even in the hobbies you engage in. Sng collects colognes and perfumes so whenever he has visitors, he’ll introduce them to his home-based fragrance bar. “I’ll ask them to try something that they have never had before. Are you into daytime scents, fresh scents? Are you into floral and citrusy stuff? Why not opt for amber or oud?"
Another source of joy comes from his cats. Growing up, his family had a German Shepherd. “But that wasn’t the most pleasant experience for me,” Sng says. “The reason I’m drawn to cats is, perhaps, my personality is a bit like theirs. I’m a huge homebody. I love to stay indoors. The thought of walking a dog outside doesn’t sit well with an introvert and a germaphobe. “Cats are really clean. They groom themselves all the time.
He’d wanted to own a cat since he was studying at Duke University (“But I didn’t want to deal with the process of bringing it back to Singapore.”) One of his best friends from university, who was also his neighbour had a cat that he would volunteer to look after. When he returned to Singapore, he planned to get a cat once he got his own place.
With that checked off, he now has three Bengals, and quite possibly more in the months to come. A pair of Maine Coons are expected to arrive at his doorstep this year.
“I don’t mind being branded that crazy cat uncle. Having cats give me a sense of fulfilment and it doesn’t matter what others think; at the end of the day, I’m obligated to myself and nobody else.”
Photography: Joel Low
Fashion Direction: Asri Jasman
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Styling: Wilson Lim
Make-Up: Peter Khor using ESTÉE LAUDER
Hair: Christvian Goh using REVLON PROFESSIONAL
Photography Assistant: Eddie Teo
Location: Bulgari Resort Bali