Best Supporting Actor nominees bring out the animal in their roles

Playing such roles has led to a Best Supporting Actor nod for three

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This year's Supporting Actor category is not one that rewards traditional good-guy performances.

In one corner of the ring at the M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards, there is newcomer Zachary Ibrahim's Carter in Pangdemonium's Fat Pig. His nod is for his turn as a loutish, brash man unable to conceal his disdain for a plus-sized woman, played by Best Actress nominee and fellow cast member Frances Lee.

In another is local thespian Remesh Panicker, who plays a reviled villain of Shakespearean yore - the moneylender Shylock in an updated version of The Merchant Of Venice by the Singapore Repertory Theatre. Panicker, who has previously racked up one nomination and one win in this category and a Best Actor accolade, is the one to watch.

The last nomination goes to Erwin Shah Ismail's portrayal of the ukulele-strumming grasshopper who lives in the moment in I Theatre's rendering of the Aesop's fable The Ant & The Grasshopper. His is a rare nod to a production from the children's theatre genre that is often overlooked at the awards.

The Supporting Actor award, among others, will be given out on April 20 at the 15th Life! Theatre Awards ceremony, an invite-only event held at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

jianxuan@sph.com.sg

Go to www.straitstimes.com/life-theatre-awards-2015 for the complete list of this year's nominees and full coverage of the awards.


Zachary Ibrahim

Nominated for: Fat Pig (Pangdemonium)

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None

Unlike his fellow nominees and most peers in the theatre scene, actor Zachary Ibrahim has no formal acting education to speak of.

The 25-year-old instead credits his stage presence and confidence to a stint as a show presenter at the Night Safari in 2013.

"I was doing three shows a night, with at least 1,000 people out there every time. I had to deal with tourists, excited kids and adults who didn't want to be there, on top of handling otters, snakes, wolves and hyenas," he recalls.

He first picked up acting by starring in a friend's play in 2008, during his days as a visual effects student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

"Then, on and off during national service, I did a couple of small productions and started to fall in love with it," he says.

Being a relative newcomer also meant he had to overcome nerves to work with veterans such as director Tracie Pang and fellow actor Gavin Yap on Fat Pig, a dark comedy about a man who falls in love with a plus-sized woman.

"My character Carter has this huge ego, so to even walk into the room was tough as I didn't have the confidence. It took a lot of time to build that up and get comfortable," he says.

"But Tracie helped by giving suggestions and letting me play around with the character, so I could stretch it and find ways to make things work."

Life! theatre reviewer Corrie Tan commended Zachary's "good sense of comic timing", and noted: "He made sure that every morally bankrupt punchline came with equal proportions of brutality and humour."

To research the role of the caustic, fiendish Carter, Zachary studied the work of one of his favourite American actors, Vince Vaughn.

"I like his presence and how he uses his size. He has this fast-talking and unflinching way in his delivery and timing."

Laughing, he adds: "I definitely wouldn't want to be like Carter. But I think he's in all of us. Many times, a lot of us wish we could say what we want to other people."


Remesh Panicker

Nominated for: The Merchant Of Venice (Singapore Repertory Theatre)

Previous nominations: Best Supporting Actor for Iron (Action Theatre, 2003); Best Actor for A Perfect Ganesh (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2000)

Previous wins: Best Supporting Actor for Proof (Action Theatre, 2002); Best Actor for Art (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2002)

Remesh Panicker's acting stint took a literal twist last May when he fractured his foot on the first technical night of the Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Merchant Of Venice.

The theatre veteran, 54, who jumped at the chance to play mercenary Shylock, one of his favourite Shakespeare characters, says: "It wasn't that painful, but I had to get used to walking around in an offloader and be careful not to lose balance."

Another highlight was having his eight-year-old son in the audience.

Panicker recounts: "He was slightly upset when he first found out I'd picked up the project as it meant I would be home later. But my wife convinced him and he came around. And he got into it after seeing the play. He would ask me all these questions."

His performance was praised by Life! theatre reviewer Corrie Tan as "a wonderful humanising of an otherwise unlovable character that gives the production its heft".

He is the most experienced nominee in the Supporting Actor category, but is unconcerned about winning. "I'm honoured to be nominated... As for what my chances are, it doesn't matter.

"A win would be like a nice cherry on top of the sundae, but the sundae itself is fine too."


Erwin Shah Ismail

Nominated for: The Ant & The Grasshopper (I Theatre)

Previous nominations: Best Supporting Actor for Romeo & Juliet (Wild Rice, 2012)

Previous wins: None

For his role in I Theatre's staging of the Aesop fable The Ant & The Grasshopper, actor Erwin Shah Ismail wishes he could have sprouted six limbs, much like the titular Grasshopper he plays in the production.

Erwin, 28, who had to sing, dance, act and play the ukulele (he even took the instrument along to a photo shoot with Life!), recalls of his multi-pronged role: "I took one week to memorise the choreography, learn the lyrics and ukulele chords and act out one particular song number.

"It was so difficult, but being able to do it felt great."

His nod is the lone nomination for a children's theatre production at this year's awards. The genre has traditionally been overlooked by the awards, in favour of theatre for grown-ups.

The judges said they nominated him for a sparkling, jaunty performance that felt in control, natural and sensitive.

The actor notes: "I don't think I've ever hammed up my performance. There's no need to... You cannot lie to children. They are smarter than we think, more brutal in terms of honesty and they have a short attention span."

He adds: "I work in children's theatre because if we want more theatregoers in the future, we should start with children and give them a jolly good time so they'll come back as adults."

In the months ahead, he will take on two upcoming shows - Off Centre, directed by Oliver Chong, which will run late next month; and in May, a dramatised reading of three plays, directed by Edith Podesta, a Best Director nominee for the play Dark Room x8 at this year's awards.

He adds: "I'm at that stage of my career where I can make a living simply by being an actor. That was my personal goal after graduating from Lasalle College of the Arts three years ago."