Let’s face it, the idea of hopping in a taxi to find a hunky celebrity like Oli Pettigrew sitting behind the wheel is something a commuter can only dream about. But when you’re in Singapore, the odds of that happening are surprisingly pretty good. Currently the host of AXN’s “Sony Style,” the Hong Kong-born British model and TV personality now also plays resident cabbie-cum-quizmaster to the network’s newest game show import, “Cash Cab Asia,” whose premiere hits cable TV screens this October.
Devised by Adam Wood, the “Cash Cab” franchise originated in the UK and has spun several versions in various countries. Unsuspecting passengers hail a specially outfitted taxi and are offered the chance to win instant cash by correctly answering a series of general knowledge or trivia questions en route to their destination. The catch? They only have 15 seconds per question (and three “strikes” or wrong answers) to come up with the correct answers before they get booted out of the cab, no matter where they are. But at least the ride is free.
In an exclusive one-on-one phone interview, the wacky and charming Pettigrew shared his hilarious on- and off-cam experiences while prowling the traffic-free streets of the Lion City in his Chevrolet “cash cab” (including being stalked by jealous cabbies).
Were you already familiar with the franchise before you joined the show?
Yeah, I’ve seen a couple of the American episodes on Discovery when I was here. They were just driving through New York, and I thought it was a cool, interesting and very simple show. So when I heard that I’d be getting an opportunity to host my own version, I was excited just thinking about where I could take the show, what I would be able to do, and if I’d be able to make it funny. I was quite excited about that.
You’re also the cab driver, right?
I’m the everything! It’s just me and a cab, and we’ve got five hidden cameras inside. I’m driving them to their destination, I keep track of how much money they’ve won, and I’m also sort of like the question master and host of the show. It’s quite a lot of things to do, [but] it’s a lot of fun for me.
Was it difficult hosting and driving around at the same time?
Honestly, if you would just take somebody off the street and put them in the car, it could be tricky. But we had a lot of practice, did some test runs. By the time we were actually shooting, I was super comfortable in the car. It’s all just muscle memory.
Were there a lot of passengers who got too scared to join?
That happened frequently. I’d guess about 30-40% of the time people would just run away, not want to play, or just cover their faces up, get scared and hide behind their bags. But I think if we get to go on season 2, once people see the show, they’ll be a lot more excited about wanting to play because they’ll see it’s quite fun.
Was there anyone who recognized you right away?
(Laughs) I did get recognized a couple of times, with people getting into the cab going, “Wait a minute, you’re Oli Pettigrew. Something’s fishy here, why’s this TV guy driving a cab?”
Frankly speaking, I’d probably know something was up once I take one look at the hot cab driver. But that’s just me.
(Laughs) Well, also because they’d get in and notice that there are a lot more lights in the cab. And we do have these little TVs in the cab with the “Cash Cab” logo on them—we’d get people from Australia and America, where they have the show as well, get into the cab and they’d get suspicious, but then they’d see the logo and they’d get really excited because they’re fans of the show as well.
What would you do if the tables were turned? How well do you think you’d do in the game?
Honestly, I’m a quiz geek; I think I’m pretty good at quizzes. I practice with the questions every morning and try to get the answers myself, and I’d get a 90% hit rate. But, if you were to put me in the back of the Cash Cab with no warning, I tell you it’s gonna be an entirely different game. These people aren’t prepared for a quiz, and suddenly they’re on TV. I played it with my friends; [they] knew the answers, but when you give them only 15 seconds to get out with it… It’s a lot harder than you think. So actually, I don’t know, I think I’d be doing just the same as anybody else. It’s a hard game.
Yeah, it requires you to think on your feet.
Very, very quickly, yeah.
What did you like most about being in the show?
I’m a big fan of unscripted television. I like to just make things up as I go along, to really have fun improvising. So with “Cash Cab,” one of my favorite things, which is also one of the most nerve-wracking things, is that the entire show is unscripted. The entire show’s resting on me; it’s just me in a cab asking questions, so I’ve gotta make it funny off the top of my head, I’ve gotta interact with these people, I’ve gotta make it entertaining. That was exciting for me as a challenge, but it’s quite nerve-wracking as well to know that it’s my responsibility 100 percent.
Any funny or memorable off-camera moments?
Off-camera? That’s a good question, no one’s actually asked that! I basically have this “chase bus” with my crew in it; they can all see me on this big screen and they can hear everything going on in the cab. I can actually hear them through an earpiece, so we’d just be having these stupidest conversations as we’re driving around in Singapore. The funny thing is, we’d be at a red light at night and I’d have my disco lights going on inside. Everyone would start laughing, and you’d get someone in the car next to you looking at you like you’re insane. I’d be just talking to myself and cracking up!
Another thing is that cab drivers would sometimes get a bit threatened by this new “cab company,” and they’d be sort of following me down the road trying to take photos of my cab, like, “Who is this new guy?” So as we’d stop at the traffic light, suddenly I’d pull out this wad of American 100-dollar bills and I’d just start casually counting through them and mess with the [cab drivers]. That was quite fun. There were lots of practical jokes going on.
We would love to see an episode on those.
I know! I’ll talk to AXN. (Laughs)
Actually, it would be fun if there were a Manila version, although if you were in Manila , you’d probably spend more time being stuck in traffic than driving around.
Right. We could do a jeepney version! (Laughter) No, but I think that’s why Singapore got chosen in the end. There were discussions about doing it in other countries, but… The problem with Manila, KL or Jakarta is that you could just be stuck in traffic for hours, and it just sort of takes the dynamic feature of the show out of it. It also limits the amount of time you can work. Whereas in Singapore, we’re lucky that we have very little traffic. We were always able to just get in, drive and have fun.
Let’s say you could pick anyone in the world as your passenger. Who would it be and why?
Ooh, that’s too hard a question, now! Hmm… I wouldn’t mind getting President Barack Obama, because he seems [like] quite a fun guy and it’d be interesting for me. He’s done TV shows before, so why don’t I get the President of the United States in the back of the Cash Cab and have a bit of fun with him? That would be memorable.
Lastly, any messages for the potential season 2 passengers who’ll be watching the show?
Absolutely. If you’re gonna get a cab and you’re thinking of crossing Singapore, just be ready—I could be anywhere. (Laughter)
Catch “Cash Cab Asia’s” double-episode premiere on Oct. 18, 7:35 p.m., with new episodes every Tuesday at 8:05 p.m., exclusively on AXN.