Born and Raised in Singapore – An Interview With Local Actor Koh Jia Ler
While we were researching for our recent piece on Singaporean actors with no formal training – and as far back as November during the torrent of Wet Season related news – we were surprised that there weren’t a lot of interviews online with local actor Koh Jia Ler. Even if there were interviews, they focused on his film roles and the more controversial aspects of Wet Season but never about who Jia Ler is.
The now 20-year-old is a two-time Golden Horse Awards nominee and starred in Channel 8 drama Life – Fear Not. While he is undoubtedly young, director Anthony Chen has pointed out Jia Ler’s natural knack for the craft at every opportunity asked. Even with his talents, Jia Ler has shown to have the drive and determination to constantly improve himself – particularly with his struggle with languages – to make acting a career reality.
It was our pleasure to speak with Jia Ler to find out about life in front of the camera so far, the challenges he faces, and his hopes for the future.
Speaking with Jia Ler over a phone interview with the faint sounds of his family playing mahjong in the background, there is a deep sense that he is as down-to-earth and as homegrown as it gets – especially with how he landed his first role in film.
The story goes that one day during his Primary 5 year, there was an announcement that local director Anthony Chen was going to hold auditions for a movie, with every Primary 4 and 5 class sending 10 candidates.
“I never really cared about it lah, I just carried on with my day,” Jia Ler jokes, “Most of my friends went for the audition after recess and I followed them because I didn’t want to go to class. Every class had 10 people. My class had 11 because I wasn’t selected but went anyway.”
While he can’t remember what Anthony asked them to do during the audition (“Something about imagining being on a plane to New York City”), Jia Ler was contacted soon afterwards to go for the workshops for what would be his acting debut with Ilo Ilo.
The year-long workshop sessions were held during the weekends, from biweekly to weekly as the pool of 8000 students were narrowed down to eight. Jia Ler fondly recalls those weekends, “I was just enjoying myself. All of us bonded throughout the workshop – especially the final eight of us – and I was there to have fun.”
Soon afterwards, Jia Ler’s mother got a call while he was sleeping informing them that he had landed the role. He found out after waking up and was rather nonchalant about the news.
“I wasn’t really that excited and I was like, oh okay. I was still young back then and I didn’t really want acting as a career.”
Not knowing what to expect, Jia Ler remembers his first day on set as a nervous one. However, this nervousness and uncertainty slowly faded away as he grew closer, becoming “a family” with the cast and crew.
“Most of the time I would also sleep on set when the shoot didn’t involve me. I would listen to what the director wanted me to do or sleep. I honestly don’t remember having a script for Ilo Ilo as well. What I remember is sleeping and Anthony will wake me up whenever it’s my turn to tell me what I have to do for each scene.”
Ilo Ilo was filmed during the June holidays of Jia Ler’s PSLE year. When asked about how he managed to balance between his studies and acting, Jia Ler was frank in admitting that there was no balance at all.
“Honestly, I didn’t care about studies back then – that’s why I went to the Normal (Technical) stream in secondary school. I never studied during that period; I was just filming all the way.”
Nevertheless, his performance for 2013’s Ilo Ilo would nab him the Golden Horse Awards nod for Best New Performer that year. By then, Jia Ler had already progressed to secondary school. “A few of my teachers who watched [Ilo Ilo] would tell me that I was just as naughty as my character. Friends and classmates would know that I acted in Ilo Ilo but they never really want to get close to me or anything – which is good!”
Later on in his secondary school years, he landed a role on Channel 8 drama Life – Fear Not, playing student troublemaker Wang Huaipo. He was both happy and shocked to learn of the news, “Because it was Mediacorp, you know. Back with Ilo Ilo I thought it wasn’t a big thing but I did feel being able to act [on a Mediacorp series] was a really big thing.”
He found his first foray into long-form dramas to be challenging and tiring. As with these series, each batch of episodes would be engaged by different directors and their teams – which Jia Ler felt was “quite messy” compared to feature-length film productions with a uniform crew throughout.
Still, a bond was forged between the cast – and even with the background extras – during the month-long shoot, gathering around to chit-chat and to use their phones whenever they weren’t needed for scenes. He also notes, “All those famous Mediacorp like Felicia Chin and everyone on set really treated me well, making sure I eat and helped me along the way.”
His struggle with his languages – a struggle familiar with most Singaporean youths – did crop up with the Mandarin language series but he managed with practices at home and with the cast. However, even more hard work was required once Wet Season came along.
While Jia Ler’s role in the 2019 film had him mostly speak in Mandarin, it was “more of the Singlish kind of Mandarin” for him and a completely different ball game when it came to Wet Season’s media tour. While accompanying the film during its world tour last year, he found that he would struggle with the accompanying interviews when they brought up hard-to-understand terms.
“Even in English, I already cannot understand. If in Mandarin, I will be even more gong (don’t understand),” Jia Ler jokes, “Wet Season really shows how bad [Chinese] Singaporeans’ Mandarin is – the film talks about me lah.”
This is compounded by Jia Ler’s inexperience with live interviews as well. While he treats sit-down interviews like casual conversations, he can’t help but be worried about stumbling and mumbling on stage or on-air speaking with an emcee.
To improve on this, he had weekly practice sessions with UFM100.3 Radio DJ Wenhong and another tutor to improve his Mandarin before heading overseas for the press tours, including for the 2019 Golden Horse Awards where he was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor role.
“I really respect all the actors out there whose Mandarin is good as it is key to being on a Mandarin language show – even if their English is not that good. I want to improve my Mandarin because I don’t think I can make it to the standard of Hollywood. I also have to [take away] my Singaporean accent – which isn’t easy.”
Despite having an extraordinary youth being twice nominated for the Golden Horse Awards and starring in a television series, daily life away from set has been ordinary for Jia Ler. He does get a little more attention in school but he didn’t have any extra benefits or friends that have gravitated towards him because of his screen roles. He has, however, made friends in the same field as him such as Damien Teo and a few others whom he often speaks and meets with.
Looking back in his acting career so far, Jia Ler feels that he has grown in a way where he understands more about the craft and the industry, progressing from “just doing what the director wanted” in Ilo Ilo to inputting his own ideas into Wet Season and being prepared enough to go onto set without any script.
He is, however, concerned about how he might perform with other directors. He feels that he could be “too used to Anthony’s way of directing” and looks to remedy this by experiencing more roles and opportunities.
“I think it’s a good thing [to have the opportunity] to act during my teenage years so that I have more room to improve as I get older. I want to use the experience on myself, and also to teach and help others.”
For now, Jia Ler has to contend with what most boys in Singapore have to go through – National Service (NS). Now in the Basic Military Training (BMT) phase, he will complete his two years of service in 2022. However, he does share that he is currently enjoying his time in the army with the daily physical training.
His love for physical activities would not be a surprise to his family and friends. Besides being an actor, he has been an active participant in Wushu competitions during his secondary school years – much like his character in Wet Season.
More recently, Jia Ler picked up lion dance as his next hobby, spending his first year familiarising with the various roles of the art form before spending his second year sharpening the skills while putting on performances. He has currently settled on the tail section of the lion dance and looks to compete in competitions after his BMT.
Jia Ler shares that he looks to make acting his profession, and hopes to take on roles in action movies. “Like Jackie Chan jumping over cars and with safety wires connected to your waist – I really want to try that! I feel like fighting and action is already in my blood so that is what I want to do.”
While Jia Ler doesn’t have any projects lined up in the near future, keep up with the rising star on his Instagram page.
Right Time, Right Place, Right Attitude – Five Singaporean Actors With No Formal Training
Making It Rain in May – A Behind-The-Scenes Look at Wet Season
Review: WET SEASON Enthrals with Its Impeccable Performances and Stunning Cinematography
(Banner image credit: Koh Jia Ler’s IMDB page)