Not Your Typical Theatre Actress

We talk to Oon Shu An, the woman whose body of work spans TV, theatre, online series and film

It’s her first fashion magazine shoot, but Oon Shu An shows no signs of nerves. She’s sitting in front of a huge dressing table as hairstylist Calvin Gan and makeup artist Larry Yeo hover over her, trying to decide if her long, dark locks should be left down or tied into a low ponytail. She looks relaxed, but clearly she’s taking it all in.

The first thing I notice is how petite she is. The next, how much she smiles. I receive a mega-watt stunner when I step forward to say hello and introduce myself. The smiles continue in front of the camera, just with greater variation. She’s a natural, an ability perhaps honed from years of performing. Sultry, cheeky, happy, quirky, girlie — she pulls off each look like a firing semi-automatic. The camera clicks incessantly.

We snatch moments throughout the shoot to chat — while she’s not busy changing into different designer outfits, getting her hair redone, or getting a quick sip of water. She’s nursing a bad cough, and is in the middle of a trying period juggling projects, including the sold-out run of CheckPoint Theatre’s Normal. But you wouldn’t know it based on how indefatigable she seems.

Before long, I discover her varied influences and loves: Disney movies. The Backstreet Boys. Louis CK and Jon Stewart. Benedict Cumberbatch and Donnie Yen. Her boyfriend of several years, photographer Joel Lim. Her theatre mentors such as Karen Tan, Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman. Her teachers from LaSalle College of the Arts, where she graduated with a degree in acting.

“I never knew that I wanted to act for a living, I always thought I’d have a ‘real’ job,” she tells me. “I didn’t even think you had to study to be an actor. I figured you could just get involved in productions, and learn from there.” Oon auditioned for a place at LaSalle, and went through “voice classes, movement classes, improvisational movement classes” before going on to hone her craft in a variety of projects. She may be perceived in some quarters as an overnight success story, but Oon has been around the performing block for the last 14 years — and counting — since her stint with Buds Youth Theatre as a teenager.

Body of work

She was the girl advertising on for a special companion. She’s been in films and telemovies including Becoming Royston and Love in a Cab. These days, however, she’s perhaps most known for three projects: She played concubine Jing Fei on the Netflix series Marco Polo, a project that’s gained her a US manager under talent representation agency Luber Roklin Entertainment, who also represents Hayden Christensen. She’s also the host of ClickNetwork TV’s beauty info-mentary Tried and Tested, through which she also delves into her “other passions, like social issues such as relationships, sex education and dating”. 

She holds a Life! Theatre Awards Best Original Script nomination for #Unicornmoment, a deeply personal one-woman performance she wrote and starred in, in which she addresses millennial identity. One of the videos she made in the lead-up to the show, titled My 5-Minute Magic Routine, went viral with more than 443,000 views on YouTube. 

You’ll be seeing a lot more of her, from this month. She was recently in Rubbers, Han Yew Kwang’s R21 romp in which she played a Japanese porn star called Momoko. Next up: Our Sister Mambo (for Cathay Organisation’s 80th anniversary in July) together with Michelle Chong, Siti Khalijah and Moses Lim, Pangdemonium’s Chinglish (October), and MediaCorp Channel 5’s Mata Mata, as a kick-ass policewoman come November. In-between, she’ll be online for more Tried and Tested videos. 

Yes, she’s pretty much everywhere.  

Nature versus nurture

I meet her again on a blisteringly hot afternoon, the kind of day where being outdoors seems like a suicide mission. Oon is at Hairloom getting an ’80s-style perm, before filming begins for Mata Mata soon after.

When I arrive, she’s ensconced in her chair, about halfway into the process. “Hi!” she chirps, and apologises once again that I have to meet her at the salon instead of casual French restaurant Saveur, where we were originally going to have lunch, because “this digital perm is going to take four hours!”.

We order takeout Thai food instead, which arrives minutes later. As she takes bites of her omelette and mango salad, I ask her what sets her apart from her peers such as Siti Khalijah, Jo Tan, Mina Kaye and Frances Lee. Is she an overachiever, considering she’s one of very few — if not the only — actress with stage, TV, online and film credits under her belt?

 Oon pauses thoughtfully, mid-chew, before admitting “nothing was planned”. She explains, “It was down to opportunities coming my way. The kind of career I have now just fell into place. I have turned down projects before because I didn’t think I was right for them. But if people want you, they want you, and they approach you, you don’t say no. You have to be open to put yourself out there and accept projects you may fail in. 

“Before, the only way to be known [to audiences] was through MediaCorp. I guess I got lucky because today, there are so many mediums to be exposed on — different groups of audiences know me from different [media] platforms.”

 These opportunities, she says, are also what differentiates her from the generation of actresses before, including Karen Tan, Janice Koh and Neo Swee Lin. She says, “The Internet didn’t exist before. The older generation studied overseas, while others trained here with theatre groups. At the time, there wasn’t even a theatre school here. 

“The earlier generation laid the foundation for mine. And I would hope that my generation makes things better for the next generation. I would consider myself successful if I do that for the people who come along next,” she adds. 

Going the distance

And how does this earlier generation see Oon and her peers? Tan, whom Oon considers a mentor, says, “I’d say the present generation of [younger] actors has been praised too often, and generally given the impression they are entitled to instant work and recognition, with the money to match. Is Shu like them? No. I feel she makes it an effort to learn, like everyone else, but more, if possible. 

“I’ve done two plays with her…and both times I found her to be hardworking, and truly wanting to learn. My personal wish for Shu is that she not only continues to influence young people, but stretch herself creatively as a writer. Actors, they are buy-one-get-one-free; writers are
a lot more rare.”

Adds Claire Wong: “With each generation, our scene is constantly invigorated by artistes who explore contemporary issues through the lens of the society they live in and with their world view. Shu An is a thinker who asks questions, and who cares about making things better.

She has a sizeable following on social media, something which remains uncommon among theatre practitioners. She’s also extraordinarily plugged in to what people of her generation are going through, and in particular how those experiences are mediated by new forms of media.”

For sure, Oon will go on enjoy creating more work over multiple platforms. How can she not, when driven by such passion and creativity? When asked what she looks forward to in the near future — and if she’ll try her luck in Hollywood — Oon smiles, “I’m open to working overseas; I’d love to work on projects that are international. But I really believe in Singaporean work. As an artiste, I think it’s incredibly important to tell our stories. If doing that doesn’t bring me worldwide recognition, I’m okay with that.

“I love helps me experience the world, and brings me closer to understanding what I want to do: To engage people and tell stories.”

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