Not Just a Pretty Face – Local Actress Malene Opens up About Her Journey so Far
Over the last five years, Malene T has taken local Tamil television channel Vasantham by storm. Having been a part of more than 20 dramas and short films in this time, the 29-year-old has proven to be much more than a pretty face in the industry.
This doe-eyed beauty has shut her naysayers down with a series of versatile performances. She has played lead roles in hit dramas such as Vettai 4, Kalaba Kadhala, Singa Airlines and Romeo & Juliet, where she portrays various characters such as a badass cop, a scheming flight attendant and wife who struggles with fertility issues. In view of our previous article about actors with no formal training, Sinema.SG had a chance to catch up with the actress to find out more about her journey.
Malene, previously an Account Executive at a large FMCG company before taking the leap of faith into the industry, reminisces the road that brought her to her biggest love – acting.
“Getting into television is something that I have wanted to do since I was a teenager. All my life, my extracurricular activities always revolved around dance, drama and debate. That’s where my interest in the art stems from. I have always had teachers who pushed me.”
However, she had to put her dreams on hold for more pressing necessities. “After I finished school, I had to support my family – something I have had to do since I was 19. I scrambled to find a conventionally stable job. Eventually, I started working on drama projects part-time, mainly after work and weekends. Those were very busy times. I was constantly exhausted. One day, after stabilising, I decided to quit and pursue acting full-time.”
Malene’s pragmatic patience paid off as she completes her fifth year in the media industry, recently appearing on 128 Circle, a multilingual drama that aired on Channel 5. She plays Tanisha, who stands by her fiancé through their many adversities. Following only a handful of her predecessors, the actress described the challenges of moving into English language work. Minority actors crossing over to Channel 5 is still viewed as a feat because of how rare it is.
“The question of stereotyping what minority races look like arises. When I go for advertisement casting, there are specific racial physical traits that they look for. For Indian women, the requirement is usually to be dusky with long black hair. Just because you want to show multi-racialism on your poster, doesn’t mean you can reduce us to just these traits.”
What immediately came to my mind as she raised that point was the Brownface scandal that happened in 2019. In the ad, local actor and deejay Dennis Chew is pictured with visibly darkened skin to portray an Indian man. The ad has since been removed with apologies issued by both Chew and the agencies behind the poster. The PR debacle caused waves of unhappiness amongst Singaporeans, especially those of colour as deep-seated feelings of discontent revealed themselves.
“We need to step away from these superficial categorisations. We can afford to do that now, in this time. That’s why a lot more young people who are venturing into media are looking to go online with their skills instead of local broadcast media because there is a much larger acceptance online,” reiterates Malene.
However, being from a minority race was not the only challenge Malene had to overcome in her continuing journey. As a woman, she has experienced being talked down to and reduced to just her looks.
“The industry is such that people judge you based on how you look. It’s an inevitable part of it. There are always nasty things being said. You have to stand up against them and put your foot down when you have to. People tend to speak to you a certain way because you are female. We must tell them that it’s not ok to talk to me like that just because I am in the media.”
“There is still that occasional snide remark or comparison, that just doesn’t happen as much to men. Even a child actress is put down to looks with comments saying she is pretty. Shouldn’t the question be whether she can act? A child actor wouldn’t be subjected to that. You can deliver an Oscar winning performance but if you aren’t conventionally beautiful then nobody cares. We need to be more focused.”
In an industry where conventionally good looks is both a blessing and a curse, Malene counts her blessings to be working in the local industry. Relating to her experience abroad, she said, “Singapore is one of the safest places to be working as a woman in this industry. I have gone abroad to shoot and I have experienced firsthand, on set, the kind of things that women go through on a daily basis there – being disrespected or being subject to inappropriate advances are common. It’s very normal for them despite it being very unsafe.”
Another major challenge that Malene had to overcome was the lack of formal training. While she comments that many in the industry don’t have formal training and learn on the job, she also recognises the benefits of having formal training.
“You will definitely have an edge over everyone if you have training because you are seen as a professional who is constantly in practice. You would know everything in theory and have learnt how to apply it in your work,” comments Malene.
A common misconception people have is that production houses hand actors roles after they have been in the industry long enough. Dispelling this myth, Malene says, “Before each new project, you still have to go for auditions and casting calls. The production house will never just hand the opportunity to you because you’ve done work before. From my first project till now, I still go for auditions. It’s how you perform at that moment and whether you convince them to hire you that counts.”
Recounting her first audition experience in 2015, Malene recalls, “I was rushing to the audition after work. I remember being sweaty, late, and just a mess. I was not even well prepared, but I did what I could, given my circumstance.”
Five years later, she explained that she still gets nervous before an audition but is much more well equipped to handle it now, “You have to train yourself to push through the nerves and perform.”
While accomplishing as much as Malene had in the past five years is no easy feat, she revealed that people around her still question her success.
“Challenges exist for everyone in the arts scene. Artistes are slowly getting better recognition but perspectives of legitimacy are still a big challenge, especially with how your own family and friends see you. Everyone has questions about whether you will be successful. Like every industry, excellence requires hard work, focus and the stamina to keep going.”
As a woman of colour myself, speaking to Malene and learning her struggles was akin to looking into a mirror. She is a self-made woman who has proven her prowess in the industry with her versatile performances. Sinema.SG would like to wish Malene all the best on her future endeavours.