FIR-ST RATE!

Fir Rahman, star of GRC and Boo Junfeng’s The Apprentice, discusses his love of theatre and getting a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival.

In the month of July, you’ll have the opportunity to catch Fir Rahman performing two very different roles, on stage and on screen – which is just how he likes it.

Head down to the Singapore Theatre Festival, and you’ll find Fir treading the boards as a military man in Alfian Sa’at’s GRC (Geng Rebut Cabinet). Pop into any cinema, and he’s headlining Boo Junfeng’s capital-punishment film Apprentice, which made a splash when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Rallying the Vote

“It’s my first Singapore Theatre Festival,” confides Fir, who is happily juggling gala premieres and rehearsals with more prosaic duties like picking his son up from day care. “I’m proud to be in GRC, and prouder to be part of the Festival!”

In GRC, Fir plays Brigadier-General Bukhari Ghazali, one of the new candidates running for political office in an alternate version of Singapore – one in which Malays form the majority of the population.

“I learnt a lot about Singapore politics,” Fir says of his experience working on GRC, which was first staged by Teater Ekamatra to sold-out houses and critical acclaim last year. “It really opened my eyes about what it means, politically, for anyone to be in the minority.”

Fir understands very well, after all, what that entails. “As a Malay, I know what we’re lacking as a community,” he says, pointing to the historical absence of Malays in key positions in the Singapore armed forces and navy.

But, because he knows just how marginalisation feels, he finds himself sympathising, too, with the character of Catherine Seah (played by Serene Chen) – the Chinese minority candidate in the fictional GRC.

Hitting the campaign trail to shoot a video for GRC
(Image courtesy of Teater Ekamatra)

Fir’s respect for this world that Alfian has created as a “mirror image” of our own is palpable. “The play is so good and so smart in examining Singapore’s political issues in a lighthearted way,” he observes. “It shows us that we needn’t be afraid of taking a good look at what’s going on in this country.”

“Every Singaporean should come and watch GRC,” says Fir with conviction. “Whether you’re Chinese, Indian or Malay, you can really relate to it!”

Taking the Stage

For all the success Fir has had on television and film, he will always return to the theatre. It remains his first love for many reasons.

“There’s a satisfaction I get only when performing live on stage,” he explains. “It’s in the energy I get back from the audience when I perform, whether they’re crying or laughing their heads off.”

While he’s done his fair share of television work, Fir believes that the real challenges for him as an actor lie on stage. “I only get the chance to play very good, meaty roles in the theatre,” he confides.

He recalls that he was once asked to play a Bruneian man a good twenty years his senior. “I can only play characters like that in the theatre. I love that character. He’s totally not like me at all. I had to work so hard to make sure it was believable that I was in my fifties.”

Fir is also a passionate advocate of rehearsals. “Theatre makes me a better actor because there are so many rehearsals,” he says. “That’s when and where you find your character.” It’s a luxury he doesn’t get when rushing from scene to scene on a television shoot.

Apprentice © Meg White

Cannes-do Spirit!

Apprentice was a different matter, however. With a great deal of affection, Fir describes the film – his first – as the one screen project that most closely resembles the work he does for the stage.

For one thing, the role of Aiman – a police officer who becomes the apprentice to a prison executioner – offered “layers” and an “emotional journey” that he rarely gets outside of the theatre.

He also appreciated the more measured pace of the shoot, which gave him time and space to develop his character. “Compared to TV, they had all the time in the world,” he laughs. Once, Junfeng set aside five hours to shoot a two-page scene, which would have taken just half an hour on a television set. Scenes were also rehearsed repeatedly, both for the actors’ benefits as well as to plan camera shots.

Getting Apprentice to the silver screen was a long, difficult process for all concerned. Fir recounts one of his toughest auditions yet: it went on for half a day back in 2013 and, as it turns out, was only for a trailer that would be used to raise funds to shoot the actual film.

He also read with several actresses, including Tanglin’s Mastura Ahmad, and travelled to KL to meet Malaysia’s Wan Hanafi, before all three were officially cast in the film.

It’s clear, however, that the hard work and long wait have been worth the while. Fir speaks with unbridled passion about everything he has learnt from Junfeng. “It’s such an honour to work with him,” he says, recalling how his director taught him to look beyond close-up shots and red eyes to convey the sadness in a moment.

“This is my first lead role in my first feature film,” he says in wonder, as if he still can’t believe that Apprentice has taken him to Cannes and back. “I’m totally blessed lah, and I’m definitely going to tell my grandchildren about this!”

He’s particularly overwhelmed by the fact that he and Mastura were able to represent the Singapore Malay community at the Festival – the first actors to do so.

“To see ourselves on the silver screen, and to have people we don’t know, people who know nothing about the Malay language, give us a standing ovation – it was very special.”

Catch Fir in GRC (Geng Rebut Cabinet) at the Singapore Theatre Festival from 14 to 24 July 2016. Visit www.singaporetheatrefestival.com for more information!

Apprentice opens in cinemas on 30 June 2016.

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