Just a regular guy

These days, Terence Cao is enjoying being called a b******.

Thanks to his recent star turn as uber villain Zhang Guangda on Channel 8's The Journey: A Voyage, the MediaCorp actor is enjoying unprecedented popularity - or rather, notoriety. Faithful viewers of the 31-episode period drama serial, which concluded its run earlier this year, would come up to him in public and point fingers at him.

And, yes, they let the b-word rip.

"I have never received so much attention before for a role, ever," the 46-year-old TV star tells you excitedly at an interview in a meeting room on Caldecott Hill recently.

"The show has ended for more than a month now and, still, people are coming up to me with strong words. Just the other day, my friend introduced me to his friend, and that guy said to me, 'You know, my daughters really, really hate you'. When I hear these things, I welcome them because it means that I have entertained some viewers."

Then, he adds: "I feel good to a certain extent also because I'm irritating so many people."

Cue: a very un-villain-like chortle.

So convincing was Cao in the role that he has been nominated in the category of Best Actor for the Star Awards next month. This despite the fact that Zhang - a tin mine owner who mercilessly beats up his wife and poisons his family members - was a supporting role (veteran Li Nanxing, the epic serial's star and hero, is not nominated).

But the b-word insult that strangers have been hurling at Cao might also have hit a spot closer to home.Few Singaporeans did not read about the baby scandal he was embroiled in less than two years ago.

In October 2012, the actor made headlines when a 26-year-old Shanghainese woman by the name of Shi Mei showed up here with her then 19-month-old baby telling the local press that her child was fathered by Cao in a one-night stand. He asked for a paternity test which confirmed him as the father. He and Ms Shi eventually settled on a sum of $600 for monthly child support.

One and a half years on, Cao has come to terms with fatherhood.

Ms Shi, who works as a restaurant waitress in Shanghai, lives there with their daughter, Shi En, who turns three this month. He flew to Shanghai to spend a few days with her last April.

"We shopped, we went to eat and I put her to bed. It was just fantastic," he says.

He is uncertain when he will see his daughter again due to work commitments, but he hopes that it will be "soon, maybe after March".

Still, he says that he talks to his daughter over webchat sessions "almost every other day".

He remains friends with the mother of his child, he says, a decision that he believes is "best" for their daughter.

"I think that's important for my daughter. I have to get along with her mother for our daughter to be happy."

Throughout the two-hour interview, he comes across as level-headed and gentlemanly, often speaking with incredible politeness.

Every now and then, he flashes a mischievous dimpled grin and throws up a joke. It is in those moments that you see Cao the charmer, a glimpse of the man who for years has been labelled as a "ladykiller" in the media.

These days, the actor is getting more attention for his on-screen exploits though. He is riding high in his career. After 24 years in the industry, he has branched out from the straightforward romantic hero roles that he started out with.

Immediately after The Journey: A Voyage ended, he was back on the goggle box in the ongoing drama Soup Of Life, where he plays the lead role of an exconvict who works at a bak kut teh stall. On March 12, he will be seen on medical drama The Caregivers as the director of a hospital.

But acting, he says, was never what he set out to do.

The only child of divorced parents, he attended primary and secondary school at Anglo-Chinese School in Barker Road.

After completing pre-university studies, he joined Singapore Airlines as a flight attendant in 1988. That career lasted 20 months.

One of his air steward colleagues had wanted to try his hand at acting and asked Cao to accompany him to apply for the acting course held at the local broadcasting station, then known as Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.

A course instructor spotted Cao and asked him to apply as well. He did and was eventually accepted into the nine-month-long Professional Drama Performers' Training Course. His air steward buddy did not make the cut.

Upon graduation in 1989, Cao was given his first role in the period drama Imperial Intrigue (1990): a supporting part as a scholar-turned-robber.

Looking back, the actor laughs at "how terrible" he was at the job initially.

"My Mandarin was so bad that, at one point, the director said that I didn't have to read my lines in Mandarin anymore. Back then, our voices were dubbed in the shows, so the director told me to just act while mouthing 'one, two, three, four, five' instead."

Rather than quit, the self-described "very stubborn" man decided to stick it out. He says: "I wanted to prove that I could do it. I started listening to Mandarin songs and even read Chinese newspapers out loud. Since I got myself in this line of work, I wanted to do a good job."

Over the next decade, he would go on to play the dashing leading man on dramas such as My Buddies (1992) and Coffee Or Tea (1995) - something which he says made him feel "very self- conscious".

"I felt shy because I had only those same few tricks in my bag. Maybe I'll appear in a new show with a different hairstyle or a different jacket, but the way my characters behaved - it's all the same. I fall in love and the girls are different, but I was always the same.

"I was pretty discontented with myself because that's all I could do."

The turning point came when he was given the role of a coolie with a never-say-die attitude in the 1920s period drama Stepping Out (1999), which earned him a Best Actor nomination at Star Awards.

"After that, I got to play a good variety of roles. And it was then that I started to love the job."

Some of his notable roles include that of a good-natured realtor in Four Walls And A Ceiling (2000), as well as what he describes as the "charming Ah Beng" in The Reunion (2001) - both of which got him Best Actor nominations at Star Awards. He would go on to win the award for Best Supporting Actor in 2011 for playing a lazy, arrogant chef in The Best Things In Life (2010).

"I loved that I got to try these new experiences. I wouldn't want the audience to find me doing the same old thing over and over again, and see me as boring."

Boring is certainly not the word you would use to describe Cao's life off-screen, though.

He has reportedly had many romantic flings over the years, as well as a handful of long-term relationships, including a high-profile one with ex-actress Jacelyn Tay, 38.

They dated for six years - he calls it "my longest relationship" - until their breakup in 1998. Tay is now married to businessman Brian Wong and they have a two-and-a-half-year-old son.

Cao's "bad boy" persona is partly a result of negative press over the years.

In 2001, he was reportedly involved in a major quarrel with a residential security guard. In 2005, he was charged with drink driving after failing a breathalyser test, following which he reportedly created a scene at the hospital for refusing to give a blood sample. The court fined him $4,100 and suspended his driver's licence for two years.

The recent baby drama, of course, tipped the scales. Since then, he has thrown himself into his work and maintained a low profile, staying out of tabloid headlines.

Asked if he thinks fatherhood has made him more mature, he pauses to consider the question.

"I wouldn't say that it has matured me but I'm learning how to be more responsible as a person, and as a father," he finally answers.

"I definitely can't date like I used to."

Pressed to elaborate, he says: "It's just that I now have to think of another person.

"Before, a date is just a date. Now I also have to do some explaining about my situation."

He says he is not dating anyone, but adamantly corrects a misconception that he does not want to settle down.

"Why wouldn't I want to get married and settle down? It's just that I haven't met the right one yet." 

The actor's long-time friend and secondary-school classmate Joey Khoo says that he is "surprised" that the press has dubbed Cao a Casanova.

Mr Khoo, 46, who runs a clothes manufacturing business, says: "The Terence that I know is nothing like the Terence that you read about in the newspapers.

"He's a good guy and he's just very friendly to everyone."Armchair psychologists mining his childhood for the source of his relationship and fatherhood issues might have a field day.

Cao was raised by his paternal grandparents after his parents divorced when he was three.

His father had custody but Cao rarely saw him around.

"I'm not sure what he was doing - he was just MIA, missing in action, all the time," he says slowly, looking a little uncomfortable for the first time in the interview.

Along with his grandparents, he lived with his two half-brothers, now aged 42 and 43, and his half-sister, now 40. They were the children of his father and "several women", he says.

The family was not well-off, he adds, and Cao's uncle and two aunts helped support the children. As for his mother, he met her again only in 2002, when he was 34 years old.

The reunion was orchestrated by his late grandfather, who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

"My grandfather told me that he was worried that no one would take care of me after he was gone, so he decided that it would be good if I met her," he recalls.

He says that he did not ask her about her absence from his growing up years, saying he has no wish to re-visit the past and prefers to build on their current relationship.

His mother, now 65 and remarried with another son, has made up for lost time by being a "super mum". She brews soup for him, showers him with gifts and nags him about getting married.

He says that despite his parents not being around during his childhood, he did not feel anything was out of the ordinary.

"I didn't feel any less love because my grandparents doted on me and my siblings. Even though my parents weren't there, I had a loving and close-knit family."

His grandparents have died and Cao is visibly moved when speaking of how they took care of him.

Cao's retiree uncle, 74, who declined to be named, agrees.

He says: "All his cousins would go over to Terence's grandparents' place and they would play and eat together every day. Terence was a very popular boy in the family because he was always so friendly and funny."

During the interview, the actor repeatedly insists that he is "just like any other regular guy".

"I know how my life story and all the things that happened to me would make it sound very dramatic, so people have a certain idea about me. But I'm really just a normal guy.

"Really I am."

My life so far

"We're still brother and sister, regardless of whether it's 'half' or not. we're very close."

- On his relationship with his two half-brothers and one half-sister

"I would love to do movies and was offered roles before. About two years ago, I was offered a supporting role for a local movie but I turned it down because I felt it wouldn't make much impact. Since I've never done movies before, I hope to choose a role where I feel I can make some sort of a presence."

- On why he has not acted in a movie yet

"For the people who know me, I don't have to say anything else to convince them otherwise. And for the people who don't know me, I think no matter how much I say or do, they will never know the other side of me. So it's not important for me to try to address those labels. I just hope that people can focus on my work."

- On whether he minds being labelled "ladykiller" and "bad boy" in the media

yipwy@sph.com.sg

Soup Of Life airs on Channel 8 on weeknights at 9pm. The Caregivers premieres on Channel 8 on March 12 at 9pm.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.