Huang Biren strides through the door of the three-storey shophouse which is the location of today’s shoot, apologising for being five minutes late. She carries herself with a confident, almost haughty air; self-assured and attractive despite the complete lack of make-up on her face. Even without the accoutrements of glamour, there’s no denying that the 46-year-old looks nothing like a frumpy housewife.
It seems that even after three Best Actress trophies at the Star Awards and being hailed as the "Goddess of Drama Serials”, Huang Biren still gets all excited about being dolled up and treated like a superstar. Perhaps it’s because unlike her peers Zoe and Fann, she was never quite seen as a glamour icon, gracing the covers of magazines every other month and fronting endless ad campaigns. Maybe she was so good at playing the dowdy mother and the downtrodden wife that people forgot that, with her statuesque build and aristocratic cheekbones, she was also pretty hawt. Inspired by her latest role as a prison warden stepmother in Tiger Mum, we ask her to channel a sort of femme fatale glamour for our shoot, and boy, does she nail it.
Tiger Mum marks Biren’s second drama after seven years away from TV screens, during which she saw her son Justin, now 15, through his PSLE and her daughters Janessa and Janelle, 7 and 5, through their early years. It’s no small feat that her comeback drama, last year’s Three Wishes, where she played a mother of three and wife to Thomas Ong’s character, saw more than a million people tuning in to its first episode and was the top-rated serial of 2014. It’s testament to how much people miss and enjoy Biren’s performances.
Can we say that Huang Biren is making a big comeback? Is 2015 your year?
I don’t have that “Okay, now I’m back” thinking. It was a matter of timing that there were a few dramas in a row. I want to strike a balance between work and family life, so I’m going to do a maximum of two dramas a year. Three is too tiring. I’d be happy to do just one too! So I had Three Wishes last year, and Tiger Mum from November last year to this year, and a break before I start filming The Dream Makers 2 in June. That is the year-end blockbuster and we will film for four to five months till the end of the year. That’s as good as making two dramas already!
You left Mediacorp in 2008. At which point did you think, okay, I’m ready to come back?
Actually, I was ready to take on projects right after my boy’s PSLE in 2012, but it’s not like I was in a rush. If I take on a project, I really have to like the role and the story. And I have to do all the preparation work to ensure my family is well taken care of, so that I have the peace of mind to do my best at work. Whatever was my ‘department’ at home, someone must be able to take over, and take over well. I’m lucky to have enough help. I have two helpers, because my kids have to take home-cooked food for all their meals — it’s healthier. Once in a while, if my boy wants to join his friends for a meal, it’s okay. He’s already 15 years old. I had my mother-in-law come on weekdays to look after the children, and my aunt-in-law to chauffeur them around, and they took the school bus as well while I was busy with work. But now that I’ve wrapped Tiger Mum, they tell me they don’t want to be on the school bus anymore — they want private transport. It’s reasonable, ’cos they want my time and attention.
You must have received requests to return to acting many times over the years.
Yes, but the timing or direction were never quite right. I was approached once right before my son’s PSLE, and I told them, ‘No, no no! I’ve been by his side for so many years — I can’t leave him at that critical moment! In 2013, I was supposed to act in The Journey: A Voyage [in a role that eventually went to Carole Lin], but I discovered a cyst near my kidney. I went for a massage and the masseuse actually told me something was not right, and after a scan, they found a benign 10cm-long cyst. I was at a loss, because I had verbally agreed to do the drama, but it involved travel to Malaysia and China, and I didn’t want to take the risk of anything happening while I was there. It was a tough decision to give up the role. But I had an operation to remove the cyst and I’m fine now.
Do you think your comeback drama was well-received because people missed you?
I guess the fact that people were happy to see me again was one of the factors. But a drama is a team effort — if I’m good and the others are not, it won’t work. I’m also very willing to step back and assess my own performance — there are those who say they don’t watch their own shows, but I always do, to see if there’s room for improvement. I act in a lot of family dramas, but I don’t like to think that I’m always typecast as a mother. Even if the roles are similar, every mother is different. There are ways to portray them differently and come up with a different product. People can see it.
Did you miss the stardom, or were you too busy enjoying the tai-tai life?
[Laughs] No lah, I’m not a tai-tai lah! I am a driver, dietician and tutor — I have to multi-task, you know! When the kids are in school, I have time to go for a swim. I have to keep fit! And I’d still meet up with friends in showbiz — I’d have lunch with Aileen Tan, and Chen Hanwei always calls me to chat. And I’d meet the other celebs at kids’ birthday parties, like at Zoe’s sons’ birthdays — I am still quite well-informed about the industry!
You look amazing for a 46-year-old. What do you do to maintain your figure and your skin?
I’m not that hardworking lah, but I definitely go for regular facials, and I go to the salon now and then to see what needs to be done in terms of lifting here and there — nothing invasive lah, but things like mesotherapy. After a certain age, we all need the help of machines. I swim maybe two or three times a week. I don’t eat rubbish and I don’t eat supper at all — that’s the thing that makes you unhealthy. I don’t eat after 7.30pm or so, and I take less carbs at night. Those turn to sugar and make you fat.
Your new show is called Tiger Mum. Are you a tiger mum? As in, are you super strict and expect nothing but the best from your kids? After all, your son is in Raffles Institution — he must have done really well for his exams.
Actually, my character in the show is not really strict like a tigress — she appears stern but she’s not fierce. As for my kids, I am a tiger mum, but I am also not. I just believe that when you do something, you have to do your best, otherwise don’t do it at all. In a way, that’s a bit like a tiger mum, but I also feel that once you have done your best, we shouldn’t care so much about results. I believe that learning is a long process.
How do you discipline your children?
Okay. [Gives a stern look] I’m the disciplinarian in the house. Surprisingly, my [Assistant Commissioner of Police] husband doesn’t lay a hand on them. He leaves it to me. I guide them academically, and if they don’t do their job, they will get the punishment. I either make them face the wall or I’d use reverse psychology. I would say, “Okay, fine. You don’t want to do it, it’s okay. Because at the end of the day, I’m not the one facing the music from the teachers and the school. You don’t want to do your Kumon homework? Never mind. Later, I will still take you to Kumon class, and you can explain to the teacher why you didn’t do it. Because you were lazy? Because you were playing? And when the teacher asks me, I will not cover for you.”
It works! They are scared! It’s better than scolding and nagging them. If I start yelling at them, I only make myself crazy. Facing the wall is more for bad behaviour. My two younger girls, who are two years apart in age, will quarrel. I’d say, “Okay, you don’t want to be friends with each other? You can be friends with the wall. You face the wall until you want to be friends with each other again.” It’s cute when they start to discuss with each other and finally say, “Okay, mummy, we have decided to be friends again.”
There was talk that you left as you were not happy with your pay.
I’m very open. It started off with the terms of the contract, which did not meet my expectations. Also, I had just given birth to my second girl. I had a discussion with my husband, and we thought that since the package did not meet my expectation and we had entered another phase of our lives, why don’t I stay at home and we try something new. It was a difficult decision, as acting was my first job. To leave my comfort zone and a job I love so much was a struggle. During my son’s younger years, I had very little time with him. He tried to wake up very early in the morning — he was only two or three then — just to say bye to me. He’s say, “Bye bye, mummy, see you tomorrow morning” as he’d be asleep by the time I came home. I thought, “Am I going to let the girls go through this too?”
But no regrets, right?
No regrets. I think I laid a very good foundation for my boy. This time that I’ve spent with them is precious. Anyone can replace me at work, but no one can replace me at home. And now, with my son already in Sec 3 and my daughters in Primary 1 and K1, the timing is right. It’s time to keep the promises I have made to various producers and directors.
Do you get people telling you you’re cold or unlikeable?
Yes, yes, I do get that. I think one of the factors is that I’m tall. Also, I don’t really go around smiling. When some of the younger actors see me, they would freak out, kind of. Because I had been away for so long, they didn’t know me, and heard I can be very serious when it comes to work. For Julie, Aloysius and Ian, I was acting as their stepmother in Tiger Mum, so they were a bit apprehensive. I thought it was important for me to break the ice. At the end of the day, they realised I’m not so scary, and definitely not a tigress! [Laughs]
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