As a teenage performer in school plays, Rebecca Yeo never imagined that she would one day be clinching roles in film and television or recording radio dramas, audiobooks and video games. She explains the drastic ups and downs of an actor’s life, and how living overseas has strengthened her Singaporean identity!
11 Feb 2022 / By SGN
“This can’t be your career, you know.”
That’s the refrain Rebecca heard as a teenager, when she was performing in productions by ACT 3 International, a Singaporean theatre company for the young.
Her appetite for the arts had been cultivated early on. Outside of school, her childhood was spent immersed in theatrical performances and Singapore Symphony Orchestra concerts, yet acting was never deemed a viable profession – or so the adults in her life would tell her.
“As an Asian, growing up, you never think of acting as something you can make a career out of,” Rebecca recalls.
This is where I need to be
Though born and bred in Singapore, Rebecca spent the second half of her youth in South Africa. In the year of her O Levels, her family uprooted themselves on an impulse and relocated to join close friends in Newcastle, a small city 250km southeast of Johannesburg with a large Taiwanese community.
After graduating from the University of South Africa in Pretoria with a Bachelor of Education, Rebecca remained in the city, working as a Waldorf teacher. She was also active in the ASEAN diplomatic committee, which involved volunteering with regional delegates as well as organising and emceeing diplomatic events.
Eventually, a job offer in 2007 brought her back to Singapore to teach speech and drama at Julia Gabriel Centre. More importantly, the move back gave Rebecca the chance to reconnect with acting. She acted in films by students of (the now defunct) Tisch Asia and performed in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRT) revival of Dick Lee’s Fried Rice Paradise, directed by Steven Dexter.
“I loved it. I felt alive, and I realised: This is where I really need to be,” she recalls. Bitten once again by the proverbial acting bug, she sought the counsel of her mentor Michael Corbidge, then the artistic director of SRT’s The Young Company and now Senior Voice and Text Associate at the Royal Shakespeare Company. His advice was to hone her craft with drama school training in the UK, which prompted her to pursue a Master’s at Guildford School of Acting.
Rebecca performed in the revival of Dick Lee’s Fried Rice Paradise, in celebration of the People’s Association’s 50th anniversary.
Life of an actor
Rebecca initially thought to use the degree simply to beef up her teaching credentials, but by the end of the course, she decided to stay on and explore acting opportunities in London. One thing was certain: she didn’t want to ever regret not giving it a shot.
Slowly but steadily, the work came in. Her first gig after drama school, though not a traditional acting job per se, was a remarkable one. She was cast in a Robbie Williams music video – as a violinist in the female ensemble he conducts – and went on to perform at the Royal Variety Performance attended by the Queen.
Despite her theatre background, she began auditioning for roles on screen. Small parts on film and television followed, including in the 2014 movie Panic, starring David Gyasi, and Friday Night Dinner, a BBC sitcom starring Tamsin Greig and the late Paul Ritter.
Rebecca would assure her concerned parents that she was able to support herself, but doing so was quite honestly a struggle. “It’s tough. Actors work from job to job, and we never know when the next paycheck is coming,” she notes.
Like many of her peers, Rebecca relied on side hustles to generate regular income while maintaining a flexible schedule that allowed for auditions that came her way. “I did everything from flyering on the streets to selling organic vegetable boxes from door to door,” she says. “I’ve also temped as a receptionist in corporate offices.”
It was a big departure from the cushioned and comfortable life in Singapore, and Rebecca says she had to put aside her pride in order to learn to survive and find work to pay the bills while pursuing her passion for acting.
A silver-lined pandemic
As if things hadn’t been challenging enough, a pandemic came along and dealt a devastating blow to Rebecca’s career. When London went into lockdown in March 2020, her industry essentially came to a standstill. She lost a few acting jobs, and temping at offices was no longer an option.
On the upside, there was now increased demand for voice artists in the creation of audiobooks, radio plays and video games. She doubled down on voice work, upskilling through online workshops, fine-tuning her craft, and upgrading her home recording kit – a simple yet effective corner setup comprising a RØDE microphone, a foam shield, a Behringer interface, and the occasional clothes rack pulled across to absorb ambient noise.
Ironically, recording from home allowed Rebecca to work on more global projects. These included the strategic simulation video game Evil Genius 2: World Domination and the audiobook version of Luck of the Titanic, a young adult novel about the forgotten Chinese passengers aboard the ill-fated ship, for which Rebecca picked up an AudioFile Earphones Award.
As lockdowns eased, Rebecca returned to recording studios and worked on several voice projects in famous franchises: a Doctor Who audio drama, The Sandman: Act II (an Audible Original), and the forthcoming eighth instalment of the real-time strategy game The Settlers, in which she plays one of the queens.
Thankfully, the volume of work picked up so much so that she could forgo temping altogether.
Returning to screen
Alongside voiceover jobs, things have also been looking up in film and television. “There’s so much happening right now,” Rebecca says. “A lot of stuff is being made in the UK. They’re building more studios for filming. Crews are stretched and highly in demand – from drivers to directors of photography.”
Over the past year, she’s acted in a commercial, a music video, an indie short film called Dysphoria (on which she also served as production coordinator), and the long-running BBC soap Doctors (where COVID regulations meant she had to do her own hair and makeup, and filming proceeded with the aid of a bright pink two-metre pole).
Most recently, Rebecca has been involved in a couple of big-budget productions: a Warner Bros. feature film (which she cannot yet reveal) and The Power, the upcoming Amazon Studios series based on Naomi Alderman’s critically acclaimed science fiction novel, which imagines a matriarchal world where women are able to emit electricity from their hands.
Joy in the present
The path of an actor, full of ups and downs, isn’t for everyone. “People drop out a lot,” Rebecca reveals. “From my acting class, only a few of us are still in the game. It’s not easy when you don’t have a consistent income to rely on, especially if you want to start a family, have a car, or buy a house.”
The career volatility can take a toll mentally as well. Rebecca says it’s vital to have a supportive community around oneself and to seek a full life outside of acting, because “sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring is really destructive”. Actors often value the affirmation of successful auditions and glowing credits on their CV, but Rebecca knows that casting largely involves factors beyond their control – one’s height or hair colour, and unknown dynamics on the other side of the camera.
“What’s saved me is reminding myself to find the joy in everything I do – whether it’s an acting, voiceover or temp job,” she says. “Focusing on the present and realising: it’s about the journey and not a race to the finish. I write Morning Pages, practise a lot of gratitude, and try to be as authentic as I can.”
Rebecca cherishes her support network of loved ones, which include her fiancé, family, and friends both within and outside the industry.
Memories of home
There are many things Rebecca misses about Singapore, not least her friends in the acting community, and she envisions someday shuttling between Singapore, the US, the UK, and wherever else work takes her. What she also misses deeply is the food of her homeland, which is why she was especially delighted when Old Chang Kee generously sponsored a lunch on the set of Dysphoria.
It was her love for Singapore food – vivid memories of dishes like tau yu bak (braised pork belly, succulent and intensely savoury) and ayam kunyit (turmeric chicken, perfumed by galangal and lemongrass) – that inspired Pestle Tiffin, a home-based food business she launched with a friend during London’s third lockdown in 2020 and operated until her industry reverted to normalcy.
Serving Rebecca’s neighbourhood in South East London, Pestle Tiffin created weekly dinner menus with vegan options. Besides being a source of income at a time when regular work had dried up, Pestle Tiffin was a fun and creative venture that allowed her to revisit childhood favourites while introducing authentic and diverse flavours of Singapore to Londoners.
Menus were the result of extensive research and experimentation, plus numerous Skype calls with her parents to discuss their recipes and deconstruct Grandma’s classic dishes. Rebecca went beyond the “greatest hits” of Singaporean cuisine such as laksa and chicken rice, offering dishes like beef hor fun and gado-gado, desserts like cheng tng and tau suan, snacks like pineapple tarts and peanut pancakes, as well as reinventions like tempeh satay and coconut-encrusted tofu.
We are not one thing
Each time Rebecca moves to another locale or enters a different stage of life, she has had to re-examine and re-present her Singaporean/Southeast Asian/Asian identity in a new context, to a new audience.
Whether it’s growing up in a South Africa opening up post-apartheid or joining the UK entertainment industry where she is typically categorised as “East Asian”, living overseas has strengthened Rebecca’s personal recognition and understanding of her Singaporean identity.
“We are not one thing,” she explains. “We are an amalgamation of so many cultures and stories.” Citing herself as an example – a third-generation immigrant from China who is also Peranakan – she sees being Singaporean as embracing a colourful melting pot of languages, cuisines and traditions.
This sensitivity and curiosity towards other cultures, she has come to realise, is essential in her work as an actor. “I’m a small part of something greater, a prism channelling the kaleidoscope of humanity – it’s unfathomable, always surprising, and very, very rich,” she says.
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Based in London, Rebecca is a Singaporean actor and voiceover artist who has appeared across film, television, and commercials, and lent her voice to video games, audiobooks, and radio dramas. She is a Master’s graduate of Guildford School of Acting.