Behind-the-scenes star: Andrew Ooi

Singapore's Andrew Ooi: From playing ghost in X-Files to managing talent

Andrew Ooi (far right) with (from left) Echelon Talent partner Joel Morrish, actors Chin Han and Archie Kao, and co-creative partner Sukee Chew. -- PHOTO: ECHELON TALENT MANAGEMENT
Andrew Ooi (far right) with (from left) Echelon Talent partner Joel Morrish, actors Chin Han and Archie Kao, and co-creative partner Sukee Chew. -- PHOTO: ECHELON TALENT MANAGEMENT

Singapore's Andrew Ooi once appeared on the hit sci-fi series The X-Files (1993-2002) as a Vietnamese ghost.

The drama was filmed in Vancouver in its first five seasons and he had remained there after graduating from the University of British Columbia's chemistry department in 1994.

At that point, he was already helping to supply actors to productions. He recalls: "They called once and asked for Vietnamese actors who could handle a gun. After searching high and low, I thought, you know what, I did national service in Singapore and I can handle an M16."

The acting bug did bite, but only for a while.

He says: "I thought I could be an actor when I first started. But six months into it, I decided that it's not for me. You know when something's not right for you."

Some like acting for the attention and others enjoy it for its challenges, but it did not appeal to him. He says: "Actors have to be very open and they have to able to access their emotions at the drop of a coin. It's a difficult, difficult job.

"The bottom line is, I really value the privacy I have as an individual and I just wasn't comfortable being in front of a camera. It's a good thing I realised it early."

Ooi, 44, is now the president of Vancouver-based Echelon Talent Management, an agency known for its line-up of Asian talent. Its clients include Chinese-American Russell Wong (The Joy Luck Club, 1993), Chinese-American Archie Kao (from TV's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), Hong Kong's Josie Ho (Dream Home, 2010) and Singaporean Chin Han (The Dark Knight, 2008).

Life! caught up with Ooi when he was in town recently together with Wong, who is starring in the upcoming HBO Asia horror mini-series Grace.

For Ooi, it started out as a college summer job helping out a friend who was supplying extras and actors to productions.

He says wrily: "Naivete and idealism can take a kid a long way. I knew nobody in the industry when I first started. You're nice to people and people are nice to you. If you tell people you don't know, sometimes it works, they help you."

Medical school beckoned after graduation, but he decided to take the plunge into entertainment instead and bought over a friend's small outfit.

Echelon sharpened its focus and no longer represents extras, focusing instead on a roster of about 20 artists, he says. "We actually plot a trajectory for them that's long-term and it's about managing those goals. Our clients get offers, but it doesn't mean we take every offer that comes along."

What it boils down to is good scripts. And things have moved on beyond stereotypical roles for Asians. He adds: "I'm seeing more stories and more interest in Asia from Hollywood. The holy grail is, how do you find a story that resonates in both places? Kung Fu Panda (2008) is a Chinese story done with an American sheen to it, so it has been done."

Rather than sit around and wait for content to come along, he set up a production company in Hong Kong, 852 Films - the number refers to the area code of the territory.

Dream Home (2010), a slasher film by Pang Ho Cheung starring Josie Ho, was the first title released under the banner.

Ooi's advice to aspiring actors is to "run, run as fast as you can".

He says: "It's a very, very tough business. A lot of people only hear about the highs, but there can also be a lot of lows and rejection. For every high-profile role you're going for, there could be 200 to 300 actors going for it. Getting it is really something, but it's about what you do after you get that role and how you maintain your career and trajectory."

If it is tough on the actors, it is also tough on the manager-producer, who is constantly shuttling from city to city, he adds. "You know it's bad when you get on a plane and the air stewardess brings you your regular drink and you don't recognise her at all, but she knows who you are and what you want for your meal."

But there is no question that he loves this job. He hopes to be doing "bigger and better projects" and to do more work in Singapore.

He says: "One reason I never came back to work is because 20, or 10 years ago, there wasn't really anything I could do here at the level that I was doing. Hopefully, things will change and then I can spend more time here."