“People learn who they are through the stories they tell. As they touch the imagination, stories become alive. The images trigger the imagination to realize what is in the narrative. When the imagination awakens, and the stories are told, existence itself comes to fullness, to completion.” –Fr. Aris Martin, Nov. 2020 in his Santo Niño Christology dissertation 5th chapter.
It was a cold evening on the first of March 2020, the start of the coronavirus community spread, and without masks required. Winds were howling, and no down jacket could keep the chills away until we got inside.
It unmasked the perspective of John Arcilla, who is an international award-winning Philippine-based actor, skilled in musicals on stage, acting in films and has a commanding presence.
When I asked him if he has unfulfilled dreams, he shared instead his sacred purpose: “I want to reach out to everyone, from A to Z, so [my acting] can affect lives. I want to be a catalyst for change, not for self-fulfillment, but to make this world a better place. Like an engineer or an architect, h/she build good shelters for people, I want my [artistic] craft to have a purpose, not just for me, but to have others realize that they have their gifts, and to improve their lives, [self-mentoring, self-realizing] when they share their talents with others.”
Arcilla was born in Quezon City, a descendant of former Pres. Manuel Quezon. His family moved to Baler after martial law was declared in 1972. A year after, at age 7, he discovered his interest in acting, influenced by a mom who loved Broadway, and a father who loved films.
Theater and cinema converged in him early, as he became a Philippine Educational Theater Association and a teen theater league participant in high school. He graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Quezon City, majoring in mass communication.
The Actors’ Workshop Foundation, the pillars of acting, Laurice Guillen and Leo Martinez, mentored him. Martinez has been in 100 staged plays with Repertory Philippines, one of the primary theater groups, while Laurice Guillen, who easily migrated from acting in films to TV to directing, was a protégé of the late Lino Brocka, an award-winning best director.
From his teens in theater to adulthood in cinema and television, Arcilla methodically climbs to his peak, and by now, has been validated by fourteen nominations, and six wins in two categories of the best lead actor and best supporting actor (FAP, Gawad Urian, Craft, Cinemalaya Film Festival, Asian Film Award, British Independent Film Award, FAMAS, Golden Screen Award, Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, and Star Awards for Movies). He has appeared in 83 movies and television shows from 1989 to 2020.
Quite masterful, don’t you think? His masterfulness is defined by the “wealth of knowledge that he has and his willingness to share that knowledge,“ as he participates when requested by students working on their university thesis.
He travels to New York and Los Angeles, and tours Europe and London to perform in musicals and acted in “Birdshot,” “Bourne Legacy,” and gained national prominence in the biopic of “Heneral Luna.” He expected it to run for five days, even presumed it was a student project until he met the young, talented director Jerrold Tarog. The entire cast selected, Tarog waited for Arcilla to audition. He was subsequently chosen for the lead role.
Arcilla discovered that Heneral is more than his fury and that his anger comes from the huge responsibility of fighting against the biggest country, America, and stopping it from colonizing the Philippines in the 19th century.
“Despite odd moments of bumpy storytelling and prosaic dialogue, Heneral grossed $5.3 million and in limited U.S. showings, $200,000. It was shown in 100 cinemas and an extended run for 9 weeks in the Philippines,” according to a Variety review. Arcilla was grateful that Heneral was actively promoted by Vice Ganda, Joey De Leon, Channels 2 and 7, showbiz actors in the Philippines, as well as a social media campaign by college students.
Arcilla received 21 to 22 recognitions and the film became the official entry of the Philippines to the Oscars.
Who are your favorite actors and how do you prepare to act for the lead roles?
“I grew up with Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, Glenn Close, and Meryl Streep,” Arcilla said.
“When I was 10 years old, I looked in the mirror and I counted 11 lines. I still have the 11 lines on my face. I was an old woman then and I’m a young woman now. We all have the whole thing in us all the time. We are the old people that we’re going to be when we’re young,” Meryl Streep says, conveying how steely self-assured she is, accepting all of herself along her life’s journey, in Ruben V. Nepales’ book, ‘Through a Writer’s Lens,’ published in December 2020.
Equally self-assured, Arcilla shared: “I do not idolize actors, I respect them, the likes of Christopher de Leon, Amy Austria, Jacqueline Jose, and Bembol Roco. Also, I don’t want to be a Xerox copy of them. I don’t want to play a cardboard character.” He wants the character to come alive, so the audience can appreciate him, see themselves, and even move forward with that character in mind.
For Heneral Luna, an “outsized character,” Arcilla memorized the lines, dressed in general’s uniform, and curled the corners of his mustache. When he gazed at the mirror, he became Heneral Luna, and he wanted Heneral perceived as the “best example of what we are as Filipinos,” as intended by Director Tarog.
General Antonio Luna and Fr. Fernando Suarez – the public figures behind the film characters
General Antonio Luna has a doctorate in pharmacy and published his study on malaria. “He participated in reform activities while in Spain and wrote under the pen name, ‘Taga-Ilog,’ for the periodical, La Solidaridad, which criticized the friars and abusive government officials and aspired for changes for the society,” as mentioned in the National Historical Commission of the Philippines’ website. He commanded the Philippine Troops in the Philippine-American War from 1899 to 1902.
In December, another public figure came to life, compelling audiences to watch. This healing priest, Fr. Fernando Suarez, became a public figure who invited appreciation, gratitude and consternation.
A testimonial of Fr. Suarez’s actual healing prayers’ intervention for Maria Benel Se, a CPA and a business entrepreneur in Los Angeles moved me, to include it here:
“My husband and I had a burning desire to have another child after our first child was born in November 2000. I was excited about being pregnant in 2006, but I had bleeding. I had a molar pregnancy, an abnormal formation of placental tissue that led to a miscarriage. After a D&C procedure, the hormone HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) level continued to increase, indicating a rare form of cancer, choriocarcinoma [fast growing cancer in the uterus]. I was referred for immediate chemotherapy. I was emotionally devastated, confused, and scared!
I attended Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Catholic Church. I remember during the homily, Father Suarez emphasized that he is not the healer but an instrument of the Holy Spirit to heal sick people. He reminded us that Jesus is the healer and that Jesus in the Blessed Holy Eucharist. After the mass, the people gathered. Many fell on the floor and a “catcher” would lay them down, as they were “Resting in the Holy Spirit.” Many were in wheelchairs, others had crutches and I saw them started walking without any aid. The experience was so surreal to witness.
When Father Suarez came to bless me, I fell on the floor. I could not move while lying on the floor and emotionally overcome. At that time, I did not understand what had happened to me and whether my cancer was healed but I knew in my heart that the Holy Spirit touched me. A week after, I went back to Cedars Sinai Hospital for CT Scan and lab tests, my oncologist told me my HCG level decreased below zero and canceled my chemotherapy. I diligently went weekly monitoring lab tests and after a year, declared cancer-free. I knew in my heart that I experienced God’s miracle through the gift of healing of Father Suarez. I am so grateful to God for his love and mercy.”- Maria Benel Se, as shared in an email, with this writer.
Fr. Albert Avenido, a pastor in Santa Clarita, eulogized Fr. Suarez during the burial mass. It was broadcast on Facebook Live. He too had his own testimonials: two relatives got healed, one was scheduled for surgery and after a healing mass encounter with Fr. Suarez, no longer needed the heart surgery and was canceled, while a mute relative after being blessed, started to enunciate sounds and words. Fr. Suarez had been doing healing masses for 17 years.
Preparing for the character of Fr. Suarez
To prepare for his role, Arcilla met with Fr. Suarez, who was beset with controversy. Fr. Suarez was banned by at least four dioceses: Cubao, Lingayen, Malolos, and Malaybalay. Bishops questioned why he was not part of a diocese. He revealed to ABS-CBN that “he went through an ordeal of mental torture, calumny, gossips, especially amongst priests and bishops.”
He sensed Suarez’s commitment to God. Arcilla shared what Fr. Suarez said in part: ”Even if I [Fr. Suarez] lose my healing gifts, and I keep attributing this [gift] as coming from God, as He alone can heal, as He alone can make the lame walk, and He alone has that power. What I have is a charism [extraordinary power] to follow God’s mission and proclaim His word. I will keep on with this charism as a priest and bring others to God, which cannot be equaled.”
Fr. Suarez influenced Arcilla, once a doubtful Catholic to be a more confident believer, after Arcilla was dismayed by countless reports of priests’ and bishops’ sexual abuses.
Fr. Suarez was accused of sexual abuse in 2019, and in January of 2020, Vatican cleared him of these accusations. He died shortly on Feb.4, 2020, from a massive heart attack, while playing in a tennis tournament that he organized yearly for priests.
Exploring personal creativity
The character Hipolito in the five-year strong FPJ’s “Ang Probinsiyano,” a teleserye is credibly brought to a global television audience by John Arcilla. He methodically differentiated what it is to act for the film, television, and in staged plays.
“For me, acting is pleasurable,” Arcilla said. “I supply the intention behind the toy gun.”
Yet, for the television audience sometimes wrapped up in doing dishes or cooking, his dramatic performance is ‘over the top’ to attract much-focused attention to know this villain, Hipolito, who thinks “he is the law.”
“I am having fun portraying him. [In contrast] Heneral thinks big about how he can save the country, while Hipolito thinks big where everyone is dispensable and he can kill the whole world. Hipolito has no virtues at all,” Arcilla continued.
During the pandemic, Arcilla “explored his personal creativity within existing, infinitely flexible, now-emancipated modes of expression,” as one author describes acting.
Arcilla subscribed to TikTok, an app to create a character for subscribers’ self-expression and their followers, for 15 seconds. He created young animated characters, with various distinct voices and personalities, which made millions laughed. He now has 1.8 million followers and 5.9 million likes. His acting, evolved from being masterful, to now viral in today’s pandemic world, and with his robust and alive imagination, he has created a sense of wholeness for John Arcilla, while bringing joyful relief to millions watching his TikTok characters.