Jesseca Liu is not just a bikini babe

Jesseca Liu.
The 1.74m-tall Jesseca Liu (right) towered over her classmates in school.
The 1.74m-tall Jesseca Liu (right) towered over her classmates in school. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JESSECA LIU
Liu (far right) at Tiong Bahru in TV series Beach.Ball.Babes with (from second on left) Jade Seah (striped bikini) and Joanne Peh.
Liu (far right) at Tiong Bahru in TV series Beach.Ball.Babes with (from second on left) Jade Seah (striped bikini) and Joanne Peh. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER FILE
Liu as a man-eating matchmaker (above) in Marry Me, and getting fitted with a prosthetic leg for her role in Hand In Hand.
Liu as a man-eating matchmaker (above) in Marry Me, and getting fitted with a prosthetic leg for her role in Hand In Hand. PHOTO: MEDIACORP
Liu as a man-eating matchmaker in Marry Me, and getting fitted with a prosthetic leg (above) for her role in Hand In Hand.
Liu as a man-eating matchmaker in Marry Me, and getting fitted with a prosthetic leg (above) for her role in Hand In Hand. PHOTO: MEDIACORP

Whether it is wearing a peekaboo swimsuit or a prosthetic leg, Jesseca Liu wants to try different roles to surprise audiences

One of the hardest things that Jesseca Liu has had to do as an actress is to put on a bikini.

Even for a former model and one- time beauty contest runner-up, the prospect of donning unforgivingly revealing swimwear is daunting. And she has had to do it several times.

She wore a bikini in one of her earliest MediaCorp serials, swim team drama The Champions (2004). And in Beach.Ball.Babes (2008), her character turned up at Tiong Bahru wet market in a two- piece after her volleyball team lost a bet.

Liu says: "It takes time to psych myself up. I felt rather uncom- fortable in Tiong Bahru because that's not a place to wear a bikini."

As a man-eating match-maker in Marry Me (2013), she had to show some skin once more. It took some convincing by executive producer Molby Low that the scene was necessary and in keeping with the character.

I recorded a single, Warm Current, with Olivia Ong and after that experience with producer Chen Jiaming, I realised I can't take stress when it comes to singing. My dignity shrank till it couldn't be seen.

Are there really that many ways of enunciating the word "ai" (love)? It took me three days to record half a song and that seriously undermined my confidence. Better to stick to what I'm good at and enjoy doing.

JESSECA LIU on why she is sticking to acting

Liu, 36, adds: "So I asked for a month to prepare, to slim down and train, and they moved that scene towards the end of the shoot."

I love to read. I read everything from fiction to non-fiction. When I was older, the works of San Mao made a huge impression on me and because of her, I started to hanker after a wandering lifestyle. I wanted to lend it to a secondary school friend once and the father said, 'That's a book with bad influence'.

JESSECA LIU on reading

Low tells Life separately that the actress stuck to sliced fish soup for meals during that entire period.

Clearly, it takes work to be a bikini babe. Then again, simply pegging her as one would be doing her an injustice.

Wanting to play different roles can sound like a standard line that many actors say, but she has certainly tried her hand at a wide range of them.

She made a name for herself in the drama serial Portrait Of Home (2005) as pitiful Vietnamese bride Ruan Mianmian, played a slovenly producer in the Singapore- Malaysia co-production Falling In Love (2007), was an assertive heroine in private eye procedural Secrets For Sale (2011), and transformed into a grieving mother in the horror film Bring Back The Dead (2015).

Life meets Liu at One Farrer Hotel & Spa after the press conference for her new MediaCorp drama, Hand In Hand, which premieres on Channel 8 on Friday.

For her role as a beancurd stall owner, she had to strap on a prosthetic leg.

"I always hope that the next role would be different. If it's too similar to the last one, the roles might bleed into one another. A different role keeps things fresh for viewers and you can give them that sense of surprise," she says.

Walking around with a prosthetic limb gave her a new perspective as well.

"I'd naturally shift my weight to my right leg (where she wore the prosthetic leg). It felt uncomfortable and I was wondering why my lower back hurt at first. In the process, I got to understand a little of the plight of the disabled."

What comes across clearly is that she relishes the challenges that her acting offers and the sense of satisfaction she gets from it.

And that is why she left Media- Corp in 2010 and is now managed by HIM International.

It was not that she was floundering. After clinching the Most Popular Newcomer award at the Star Awards in 2005, she was anointed one of Caldecott Hill's Seven Princesses in 2006.

She went on to earn four trophies for Top 10 Most Popular Female Artistes (2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010).

She says: "I was tired, my cup was full. I wanted to have a go at things outside of MediaCorp, empty the cup and fill it with new things. Otherwise, I wouldn't improve.

"If I kept on filming series after series, I wouldn't have the space to grow. Maybe I would win a lot of awards and even make some good shows, but I didn't know if that was what I wanted. I left to get a clearer idea of what I wanted to do."

Now she does, adding firmly: "I want to keep on acting. I want to do more and have breakthroughs."

"Kampung girl" loves Langkawi

One of the most fulfilling roles she has taken on is that of a mother grieving over the death of her seven-year-old son in Bring Back The Dead.

"It was hard to play a mother because I had no experience with that. But getting into the role emotionally was easy because you would have lost something or someone and you could make that connection."

The nature of the role was tricky. "There's plenty of guilt, hate and very strong emotions. I'd say it's my most challenging role to date."

Despite this, writer-director Lee Thean-jeen, 46, tells Life that he was impressed by her performance.

"When I watched the rehearsal, I understood that she got the character and the story. From that point on, there was a certain amount of trust. She pretty much owned the role."

Liu has now set her sights on scriptwriting and directing.

She co-wrote the script for WaWa Pictures' murder mystery Who Killed The Lead? (2014) and starred in it, as well as two episodes of the MediaCorp romance dramedy Let It Go (2015).

Low, 45, WaWa's chief creative director, says that Who Killed The Lead? - a short web series in which Liu stars - was the perfect platform to try her out as a scriptwriter.

He says: "Technically, there's room for improvement but she has creative ideas. I think she has the flair as a scriptwriter."

Liu also hopes to direct. "Directors are always male and when it comes to scenes involving women, they might not always be able to explain them," she says. "I would analyse and explain and then I realise that that's part of what being a director entails."

Having written scripts, she has a good idea of the shooting process in the progression from the written word to moving image.

She says: "As a director, you need to have strong leadership abilities. You need to communicate with many people, from the lighting technician to the photography director to the actors, and bring them round to your point of view.

"I think I have the courage but I'm not sure if I'm up to it. That's what I want to challenge myself with next."

Bring Back The Dead's Lee is encouraging in this respect. "She is able to see how her role functions within the universe of a larger story, it's a gift that she has."

Liu, who is single, might have entered show business thanks to her wholesome image and flowing tresses, but she has no intention of coasting along on them.

Indeed, she does not come across as a high-maintenance actress. Once the photo shoot is done, she changes out of her colourful Alice + Olivia beaded dress into comfortable clothing - a striped top, shorts and sneakers. She sports pink nails and wears no fashion accessories save for a black Givenchy tote bag with Pervert 17 emblazoned across it, which hints at a streak of feistiness.

Still, it is hard to think of her as a "wild child" or "kampung girl", which she repeatedly describes herself as being in her youth.

The Malaysian grew up on the laidback island of Langkawi and happily recounts her childhood running about in durian plantations and on the site of a supermarket that was under construction.

The older of two siblings (her sister is six years younger) was one of the boys and even her parents did not seem to treat her as a girl.

Pointing to a faded scar below her right kneecap, she says: "That was the one time my mother took me to the hospital. On the other occasions, she would simply rub some ointment and that was it."

School was a chore and she once tried to avoid doing homework by leaving her bag behind and then lying that she had lost it. "I threw it in the grass patch but the caretaker found it and sent it to my home. So I still had to do my homework in the end," she recalls with a laugh.

She was 14 when she realised she had "okay" looks. The Taiwanese romance drama Green Grass By The River was popular then and she was nicknamed Qingqing after the heroine. It struck her: "Oh, so I'm more of a girl after all."

Being 1.74m tall, she towered over everyone in class. Her height and looks led to modelling assignments while she was doing an interior design course at Saito College in Selangor. Her parents had divorced by then and money was tight. At "a few hundred dollars a gig", the extra cash was welcome.

She went into modelling full-time after graduating in 2001. That led to roles in a few Chinese dramas in Malaysia until she was spotted by a MediaCorp executive producer in 2004.

With her friend and fellow model Shaun Chen setting an example by successfully crossing over to Singapore in 2002, it was not a difficult decision for her to head south.

"It was the first time I received a monthly salary and my mother started to be more reassured."

A few years later, she started a spa business in Langkawi, largely for her mother's sake. She leaves the running of it to her family.

Her career is now humming along, which means that romance is on the backburner. Liu might come across as strong-willed when it comes to choosing her path in work but in love, she is happy to be the little woman.

She says: "He must love me, take care of me and cherish me. I'll cook for him and take care of him. I hope he will do the same for me."

There is no pressure from home for her to get hitched, since her younger sister is married with three children.

She adds frankly: "I told my mum that even if I do get married, I might not have kids. Who knows when I'll get married or whether I can still get pregnant then."

In a manner of speaking, she does have two "sons", which is how she refers to the cats who live with her in a condominium in Yio Chu Kang. They help to calm her when she is in Singapore, a place she associates with work pressure.

When she gets the chance, she visits Thailand and Japan, where she "gets to be a normal person".

She adds: "I've never bought lingerie in Singapore because it's so awkward when you get the sales aunties offering to help."

The moment she is back though, the messages on her telephone start flooding in. "You need to prepare for such-and-such. Your image will be such-and-such. I think it's the same for everyone. When you're abroad, you get to put all of that aside temporarily."

Meanwhile, Langkawi is always beckoning to her. "When I retire, I would return. Or when I cut down on my workload, I would live there and shuttle to Singapore when there's a job."

She adds wistfully: "I love the place, there's no pressure there and it has nothing to do with my working world."

• Hand In Hand premieres on Channel 8 on Friday and airs on weekdays at 9pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2015, with the headline 'MORE THAN A BIKINI BABE'. Print Edition | Subscribe