Adrian Pang prefers not to wear shoes.
When the veteran actor walks on set, ready to film the accompanying video to this article, he half-jokingly asks if he can temporarily do without the Doc Martens we’ve picked out for him.
“Of course,” I reply. “Whatever helps you feel comfortable.”
A look of surprise crosses his face, as though he isn’t used to feeling listened to.
Within seconds, he props himself atop a few wooden crates in the middle of our makeshift studio, legs and bare feet positioned like an uncle at a coffeeshop. His shoulders relax. Looking into the camera, he smiles.
He picks his words intentionally, and I can almost hear the wheels in his head turning: Will this answer do? Do I talk about that? How exactly do I explain this?
Yet this discomfort seems to be his most genuine self.
While many actors eventually develop a conditioned reflex to invent, pretend, or retreat into characters, Adrian cites “real people” as the one thing that inspires him. Accordingly, this opposition sometimes manifests in both inner conflict and outward unease.
Despite the social nature of his industry, his preferred version of himself is the one hiding in a corner. He admits, “I’m an ex-extrovert. Over the years, I’ve become more introverted. Now I’m often much happier being invisible.”
He isn’t a misanthrope, though he probably wouldn’t mind being branded as one. He only enjoys the company of a very select group of people. To illustrate his point, he recalls having a terrible time at a recent reunion with friends from junior college, which he only chose to attend in order to avoid another wedding.
“One thing that irks me about my generation is the compulsion to organise reunions. I generally try to avoid people anyway, let alone people from 30 years ago. So when I had to decide between [two gatherings I didn’t want to attend], I foolishly chose a group I knew from way back. Luckily, there was good Mexican food. After this, nobody will invite me to anymore reunions!” he laughs.
In a way, his desire for invisibility can feel almost comical. Sporting a handsome head of salt-and-pepper locks and a heavily tattooed right arm, the 51-year old arrives on set in a floral shirt and denim cut-offs. Surely dressing 20 years younger than one’s age is no way to be a wallflower.
Yet having internalised the sincere belief that you don’t matter, invisibility is one role Adrian is determined to consistently knock out of the park. It’s something I see as I watch him in rehearsal for Fun Home, an upcoming musical by his theatre company Pangdemonium.
Throughout the two hours, he sits at the edge of the circle observing his fellow actors, speaking up only when it’s his turn to run his lines. In contrast, his co-stars, Nikki Muller and a couple of children, are chatty and effervescent. I catch myself wondering if I would even notice Adrian if I didn’t know who he was.
Then, on two separate occasions that I ask what he likes most about himself, he simply states: “Self-loathing prevents me from considering that question. In many ways, I am a walking cliché. Your typical insecure man child. An emotionally stunted man child.”
Ironically, it is this self-hate that he hates the most about himself.
“I don’t like that I’m so hard on myself. My impatience. My insecurities. My bad temper. My pessimism. I worry too much … Where do I stop?”
Adrian is also modest to a fault. Even before I can ask if he’s ever worried that ‘Adrian Pang the Celebrity’ would overshadow the characters he plays, I anticipate his eventual answer.
“‘Adrian Pang the Celebrity’ is not even a thing, so I don’t have to worry about it.”
Yet at 51, he’s just taking on his most daunting role: rediscovering how to love himself.
Even the parts he doesn’t like. Especially those.
It’s more than modesty that underpins his trademark self-deprecating humour. There is also a darker side to Adrian that I suspect he once had to suppress in order to ‘fit in’. In some ways, he is the cliché tortured artist who constantly feels like the odd duck.
“I used to feel something akin to loneliness in a large group of people, but that was a long time ago when I felt a vague need to ‘fit in’ or ‘have fun’. Now I try to avoid groups of people, even those I know, because I get visited by the spectre of paranoia, anxiety, or alienation. It’s good to be me. I need some time on my own every day.”
This penchant for melancholy has its benefits. For one, wanting to run away from himself makes Adrian a natural at becoming someone else.
He explains: “Prancing about on stage in front of an audience is my way of dealing with all my shit, while pretending to be other people.”
Still, it’s not mere escapism that draws Adrian to acting. His desire to completely step into someone else’s shoes also drives him to transcend his craft, channeling his tendency to feel too much too often into empathy for all shades of the human experience.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it,” he quotes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book he pronounces “sublime, funny, moving, profound”.
“I watched it when I was 10, and Robert de Niro’s performance has stuck in my consciousness all these decades. I remember being terrified, awestruck, and confused at what was unfolding before my eyes. It wasn’t a defining moment, but it certainly made some kind of an impact,” he says.
Adrian now hopes to strike a similar chord with his audience through the nuanced themes that Pangdemonium tackles.
“The most difficult thing in playing complex characters is leaving them behind after the play is over, especially the emotionally demanding ones. You invest so much into bringing them to life and portraying them as fully as you can that they become your friends for a while or even a part of you. In some ways, they never really leave you. I learn so much from the plays that I do.”
Having run Pangdemonium for seven years with his wife Tracie, he’s clear about what passion is and isn’t. Coincidentally, Adrian gave me the best career advice I’ve ever received when we first met after his exit from Mediacorp: “When you stop liking what you love, that’s when you know it’s time to go.”
Today, his tone and heart feel lighter. Even as he laments the busy month ahead, his ‘complaints’ are laced with gratitude for being able to do what he loves.
“I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and I don’t take all the good things in my life for granted. But I do have moments where I stumble into a hole. Maybe I harbour some kind of passive aggressive envy, but perhaps that’s my heart telling me that I shouldn’t be complacent. There’s always this drive in me to keep working, keep wanting more, don’t sit still, don’t rest on laurels,” he says.
Like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, Adrian can get mildly obsessive with his personal routines.
For starters, he takes great pleasure in making to-do lists. He tries his “damndest to be on time”, arriving at least 10 minutes before call time for our shoot. He also replies to all text messages and emails promptly and personally, even if he’s in the middle of work.
“Because there are only a handful of friends that I would ever confide in, I channel that absence of people I can open up to into work. I think my family sees me as a bit of a workaholic,” he admits.
In his personal interactions, he is unexpectedly thoughtful. Two days after the shoot, he texts me a ‘thank you’ message and tells me he will get around to reading the articles I’ve sent him. Previously, after the Fun Home rehearsal, he had chosen to eat a late lunch so we could finish our conversation.
And when he talks about family, it’s clear they are his top priority. Midway through our shoot, he laughs out loud at a photo he receives from his teenage sons. They have taken a wefie with a poster on anti-aging.
“When I became a dad, it was earth shattering for me, as if everything I’d gone on before didn’t quite matter. I look at my boys every day and think: ‘You changed my life, you made my life make sense’,” he says, aware that he still romanticises being a parent even after more than 17 years.
That said, it’s his sons’ unprompted gestures of kindness that really make him proud. He explains, “People don’t expect others to be kind. But if you can be kind and compassionate despite that, and make somebody’s life or a moment in time better or more comfortable, that makes me happy. I get the feeling my sons will be okay in life.”
For all the awards and rave reviews he gets for his work, Adrian is still a parent: he measures his success by the kind of men his boys turn into.
“I see different aspects of myself in each boy. It makes me more scared than proud, to be honest. Having said that, they are both wonderful. I was a little shit as a child, and even now I think I make a pretty shit adult. As a dad, you try and you fail. The rulebook changes all the time because life changes you. Life changes your kids.”
I quickly realise dark humour is his forte: “The most underrated joy is a tie between good health and a good bak kut teh, which I realise cancel each other out.” It can also seem like his crutch, as though he has to make a conscious effort let his guard down.
But I know that when it comes to self-love, Adrian already understands one important lesson: it’s easier to give less fucks about what others think than what one’s inner critic thinks. Nevertheless, he tries and fails and tries again.
At 51, he is just learning how to be comfortable with what truly matters.
“I can sit on my own and listen to something from 30 years ago, and feel good but sad. It’s a nice kind of sad. I like that feeling,” he says.
So now when I think of Adrian Pang offstage, beyond the glamourous media interviews and photoshoots, I picture him retreating into a familiar comfort: music.
I imagine him savouring alone time in his living room, listening to either Olivia Newton John or Hall and Oates (both his current guilty pleasures). I imagine him dancing with his demons.
I imagine him without shoes.