There was a dark moment in actor Zul Ariffin’s past he hopes he never has to relive. “No more 2012,” the 28-year-old actor proclaims, his voice brazen and determined, his gaze hard and unflinching.

Zul was speaking candidly in an interview with Star2 at Menara Star, Petaling Jaya recently.

“I gained weight, I got big and I had this long hair. I hadn’t been getting any jobs for over six months. I don’t know what happened. I kind of lost it,” he reveals.

“It was hard. I had to borrow money from my sister.”

It sounds as though he is describing a different person altogether.

For starters, clad in a fitted navy blue shirt and a pair of dark wash jeans, the man seated before me looks like he just walked off the cover of a fitness magazine.

Zul sports a neat, stylish quiff haircut which perfectly frames his strong, smouldering features while his body is sprawling with lean, vein-popping muscles. And no, not an ounce of flab is in sight.< p/>

He isn’t exactly what one would call a struggling actor either – not any more. Within the last six months alone, Zul has become one of Malaysia’s hottest local TV actors following his lead role in the wildly successful TV3 romantic drama Rindu Awak 200% last year.

Such is the actor’s newfound stardom that it took Star2 over two months before finally securing the interview with him!

Zul – with Rosyam Nor and Rita Rudaini – wins Best Newcomer at the Malaysia Film Festival for Penanggal.

Small-town roots

“I’m going to KL and I’m not coming back,” the actor recalls declaring to his mother the moment he completed secondary school.

Born and raised in Taiping, Perak, Zulkifli Ariffin, or simply Zul Ariffin, is the youngest of four siblings and is of Malay, Indonesian and Dutch descent.

“I sort of grew up alone. My siblings are more than 10 years older than me so when I was growing up, most of them were already off to KL. I didn’t wait for my results. I wasn’t sure what to do but I just wanted to work,” Zul explains why he was raring to head to the big city.

But he had his sights set on elsewhere originally.

“Taiping is pretty close to Lumut which has a naval base. I love the navy uniforms, and a lot of my friends were also planning to go there,” he shares.

He had wanted to join the navy but all that changed when he sustained a shoulder injury during a football match at 16.

At 18, Zul left for Kuala Lumpur and got his first job as a barista at a cafe in Bangsar Shopping Centre. “I still know how to make a good cup of coffee,” he says.

During his year-long stint brewing coffee, Zul was discovered by a scout which led him to appear in a number of TV commercials and gave him his first taste of being in front of the camera.

The extra income from the commercials helped him pay his way through college. He majored in graphic design at UiTM. However, two years in, Zul lost interest and decided to drop out of his studies.

“I’m colour blind anyway,” he says with a chuckle.

Zul was so dedicated Rindu Awak that he had his pilot's suit tailor-made and paid for it.

Second act

“I remember sitting at a mamak stall with my friend and I was telling him I didn’t know what to do next. I’ve just quit my studies. I have no savings.

“Suddenly, a production manager came up to me and said he’s noticed me at the same stall many times before and asked if I wanted to act in a drama.”

Just like that, Zul landed his first role in a TV series in 2008.

“My first day was the worst. I didn’t know anything at all. Where’s the camera? Where do I look? I told them I didn’t know how to act but I was excited to learn,” he reminisces.

The job was only for a week and earned him RM2,500, but he was instantly bitten by the acting bug.

“This is it. I went out to buy books on how to become an actor. I even considered going to acting school,” he recalls enthusiastically.

One job led to another and Zul gradually established himself as an actor, even starring alongside Aaron Aziz in the popular 2011 drama, Nora Elena. Doors opened for him until one day, they didn’t.

In 2012, Zul was hit with a dry spell. The actor felt demotivated and he started to let himself go.

“I needed to recover that passion I had when I first started acting. I needed to change. So I jogged twice a day, every day, to lose weight. I went from 100kg to 82kg. I cut my hair short and went clean-shaven,” he reveals.

In retrospect, Zul says he doesn’t know what led to the downfall; after all, rejection is part and parcel of an actor’s career and he is no stranger to it.

Asked the most painful criticism he ever received, Zul says a director told him once in front of all his cast and crew members when he had just started acting: “You suck at it.”

Giving it his 200%

Over a year after bouncing back, the actor got his biggest career breakthrough yet.

“People from Sydney, Dubai, London and Singapore were watching it. Some fans even flew in from as far as Qatar just to meet me in person,” he says on the reception of Rindu Awak 200%.

The romance drama – which thrives on its chemistry between a pilot, Zill (Zul), who is reeling from his fiancee’s death, and the spunky and opinionated Armel (Ayda Jebat) – catapulted Zul’s career when it aired last July, fetching a staggering 4.4 million viewers and a frequent trending topic on Twitter.

“It’s very hard to get guys to watch dramas but so many people have told me their husbands and dads watch it,” he says, adding he has met people of various races who love the Malay-language production, too.

Asked if he is as romantic as his character in real life, Zul says: “I’m not romantic at all, but I thought, why not take on a role like that to inspire all the guys out there. You know, if you want to give flowers, this is how you do it.

“I got my girlfriend an orchid just yesterday actually,” before adding cheekily, “but that only happens once a year.”

Zul has been dating Gayatri Su-Lin Pillai, Astro Shaw’s vice president and senior executive producer, whom he met while filming Penanggal (2013). The couple hit it off months after the film’s production completed.

When the relationship was announced, some accused the actor of using his personal connection with Gayatri to elevate his career.

Zul maintains he keeps his professional and personal life separate. “She works for Astro’s film department, I work for TV3’s drama department. I’m not going to act in any project if my girlfriend is in it,” he says. “I don’t need her to go lobby for jobs for me. I hate that.”

A domino effect ensued. Zul landed another leading man role in the primetime romance drama Istikharah Cinta, which aired last December.

Not only is he doing well on the small screen, Zul won Best Newcomer for his performance in Penanggal, at the prestigious Malaysia Film Festival. “It was a great night. I promised myself years ago I will not go to any award show unless I was nominated. You have to value yourself more.”

Looking ahead, the actor hopes to expand into the Indonesian market and dabble in thriller and conspiracy films besides starring in more novel-to-TV adaptations. He’s also working on something of his own, co-writing a script about a cancer patient with two weeks to live.

With all his recent successes and so much ahead of him, we ask if the actor was glad he had hurt his shoulder all those years ago. He replies: “Of course.”