Happiness can be an elusive goal. Some say the more you chase it, the harder it is to achieve it.
Just ask Luna, the protagonist in Mediacorp’s Alienated. Played by Lim Shi-An, she is a young school girl, a teenage outcast who has difficulties fitting in at school. Luna is bullied and feels despised for being “ugly” and “poor”. Luna wants everyone, or at least her crush Jake, to like her. A freak accident one day forces Luna down an unexpected path through alternate realities in search of happiness, only to face dreadful consequences.
The six-episode one-hour social thriller, produced by Viddsee Studios, is described as a “thought-provoking youth-centred series” that seeks to explore societal issues such as toxic positivity, cancel culture, bullying and social injustice.
Directed by Glenn Chan, the series is an adaptation of the viral Korean short film Human Form by filmmaker Doyeon Noh.
SG Magazine spoke to Shi-An and her co-star/real-life father Lim Yu-Beng about their roles, what it’s like to work together, and the social issues addressed in the series.
You play a teenage outcast who has difficulties fitting in at school. What was school like for you? Did people know you had famous parents (renowned actors Tan Kheng Hua and Lim Yu-Beng)?
I am lucky that school was a time that I look back on with fondness. I went to SOTA (School of the Arts Singapore) where I was surrounded by individuals who shared the same (sometimes unusual) interests as I did which fortunately made schooling life extremely enjoyable.
But I can definitely relate to a feeling of isolation. I remember first entering National University of Singapore, and experiencing the social anxiety that comes with having to establish new friendships again. It was also an environment where I felt quite inferior to the people around me. Having parents who are slightly more well-known hasn’t really changed the way I connect with people. If anything, it is a good conversation starter!
What first sparked your interest in acting and what continues to drive you to pursue a career in the entertainment scene?
For as long as I can remember, I have always loved performing and being on stage is something that I have sought since I was a young child! Just the other day, my uncle dug up an old video of me as Pocahontas in my kindergarten graduation performance and I could clearly remember experiencing pure joy on that stage. Perhaps it helps that I share this passion with my parents, who inspire through their work every single day.
Acting is something that I just cannot live without, it really is inexplicable. It is an activity that both challenges me and makes me feel fulfilled. I am also witnessing our local entertainment scene shift and evolve and I want to play an active role in making that happen.
How did you prepare for the role? Do you feel pressured now that you’ve landed your first leading role?
Luna was my first lead role, and I was extremely excited but also daunted. I am lucky to have worked with amazing directors who helped me shape the role and were willing to answer any questions that I may have had. I feel immense pressure but I am also hungry for more work! I watch my work intently and I know there is so much more I can do to improve. I’m so grateful to the Alienated team for trusting me with this role and I learnt so much during the process of filming.
Each episode (so far) covers societal topics Gen Zs can relate to, like bullying, beauty standards, cancel culture, etc. Have you had any personal encounters similar to the show? Is there a particular episode that stood out to you?
I love episode four, where the characters constantly feel that they will never look beautiful enough. I think this is something that everyone can relate to. Freckles are very “in-trend” now but when I was a kid, I remember receiving nasty remarks about them. I was insecure about it until I was a teenager, when suddenly the internet decided that freckles were cool.
Furthermore, as an actor, I sometimes fall into the rabbit hole of worrying about my image and whether or not I look as good as many female actors do. I think that episode four is a good reminder that beauty standards can be very unhealthy and we need to focus on the more important things in life. What I remind myself to focus on is the value of my work and that I should commit myself to bettering my skills.
What was it like working with your father, considering both of you have more screen time?
It was wonderful! My father and I have a very good working relationship – we respect each other’s space and know how to play to each other’s strengths. He is someone who has dedicated his entire life to his passion and I truly admire that about him. We don’t get to see each other that often so it was lovely to be able to see him on set and see him in his element.
Luna is constantly searching for happiness in alternate universes. What makes you happy?
Nothing makes me happier than having quality time with my friends and family. I am very close to my family and need to see them often to maintain my sanity! I cannot go a week without seeing my grandma.
My ideal day would be a long walk through nature with my mom, lunch with my close friends, and a big family gathering with lots of home cooked food. But generally, I’m quite a happy person. I am so lucky to have this life. Something that my mother taught me is to be grateful every day.
What are you currently working on now and what can we expect in 2024?
I have a new drama series coming out soon called Come Closer, where I play the daughter of Jeanette Aw and Qi Yi Wu. It is set in the 1980s and revolves around a murder. This was an extremely special project – look out for it!
What do you hope viewers will take away from the series?
There are many things that viewers can take away from Alienated. Overall, I hope that the series prompts them to look beyond stereotypes and to view things from a more layered perspective. I also hope that people’s perceptions of what is “right” and “wrong” are challenged.
This show is also a crazy, genre-bending, actionpacked rollercoaster ride so I hope that audiences are thrilled by how different it is from other local shows out there. If you haven’t watched it, you can catch it on mewatch, Channel 5 and Mediacorp Drama on YouTube.
Can you describe your character in Alienated and how did you prepare for it?
I play Humpty. Haha, in a sense, I’ve spent my whole life talking to this guy! I still do. I think we all have voices in our heads that tell us things…good, bad; I don’t really wanna characterise them as such. But I think once you know this guy, you can play him. And I do.
As for the physical characterisation, I’ve had a long background of physical theatre, a lot of it abstract. It’s not unusual in that space to play non-human.
What was your working dynamics with your daughter Shi-An on a full TV series?
I really enjoyed the dynamic. We treat each other as teammates, and we both love the work. We can talk about work and express our opinions. She will correct me when I make a mistake – it’s all good. From a young age, she has always been reminded that she has her own mind and agency, and it gives me great pleasure to see her own this. Because at the end of the day, I don’t care who you are, when you come to work, you do the work. And we both believe in that.
Without giving too much away, is there a particular episode or scene that stood out to you? Why?
I think there are some scenes when Luna screams at Humpty that are very troubling, and they should be. Sometimes we all want to scream at the universe, or ourselves, or our God, or death, or life. I think there is an element of Luna-cy that is painfully relevant here, and I’m thankful that we are more aware these days of mental health.
Shi-An’s character Luna travels through multiple alternate universes searching for happiness. How would you define happiness and success?
I’m not sure about the definition of happiness and success, but I think you can journey across any number of multiverses, and yet the ultimate journey is within yourself. Sounds cliché, but really, I think it’s a lifelong process of self understanding.
You’ve been in notable works over the years, including roles in Malay dramas such as the award-winning thriller Identiti. What’s your perspective on working in such varied roles?
I love it! I count it as a huge privilege to be entrusted with the task of being someone different. As an actor, my job is to transform. I’ve played all kinds of roles, villains, priests, lawyers, cops…. I’ve even played a banana. Yes, a talking banana. And I would do them all again in a heartbeat.
What advice have you given or would you give to Shi-An now that she’s a lead actress?
I don’t think I have given her any specific advice, honestly! If anything, [her mom] Kheng and I teased her! “Wah so good ah! Eh WE never got to be the lead of anything when we were 25 you know!” But seriously, we all love the work. And it will change from job to job. Today you’re lead, tomorrow you’re supporting, next week you’re the banana, hopefully with a few lines. And that’s the reality of a jobbing actor. Love the work first, not the prestige. And do it to the best of your ability. That goes for any work.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the series?
There’s an episode that I find quite terrifying, where people are “kind”, but it’s not what it appears to be. I hope we will all one day learn to be genuinely kind to ourselves, and therefore others. But like I say, the biggest journey is within ourselves.
Watch all episodes of Alienated on mewatch. Alienated is also airing on Channel 5 every Tuesday at 10pm, from now till Dec 12.
*Replies have been edited for length and clarity.