TJ Trinidad: “It’s fun to play the bad guy”

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This 2017, TJ Trinidad stars in “Smaller and Smaller Circles” and the controversial “Bliss,” and is part of a local staging of the sci-fi noir “The Nether.” Photos by GELOY CONCEPCION

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Do I look crazy?” TJ Trinidad asks me.

He is responding to my question about why several of the characters he’s played are not so right in the head. There’s Luis from Yam Laranas’ horror film “The Road,” the satanically charming peddler of objects in Randolph Longjas’ horror anthology “Buy Now, Die Later,” or even the slightly on-edge groom-to-be in Jerrold Tarog’s complex love story, “Sana Dati.” In Tarog’s new (and supposedly X-rated) outing, “Bliss," Trinidad plays the “inutile husband” to Iza Calzado’s psychologically tortured actress.

He also plays an investigator in Raya Martin’s upcoming “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” the film adaptation of F. H. Batacan’s novel about a serial killer in the Philippines. For television, he’s currently training for his role as Greco in the upcoming fantaserye  “Mulawin VS Ravena.”

But Trinidad admits to liking the bad guys that he’s played. He hopes though that he’s getting these roles because of what he can bring to the table. “I don’t know what they see and hopefully what I hope they see is someone that can justify the role,” he says. “Someone that they can trust and I hope that’s how they feel.”

Trinidad is starring in Red Turnip’s local staging of “The Nether,” a complex story involving the titular cyberspace and a crime committed — though virtually. Trinidad is Mr. Woodnut, a visitor in the realm who aims to uncover the ‘child abuse’ practiced by Papa (Bernardo Bernardo).

“I enter the nether as an avatar investigating this realm,” Trinidad explains. “So my character effectively is an avatar but there’s an in-world person controlling it, and I am undercover agent investigating this realm of Papa’s and collecting evidence that we can use against [him].”

The play’s storyline, written by Jennifer Haley, shouldn’t be out of place in the television series “Black Mirror.” It explores the moral limits — or lack thereof — of what we do online, as “avatars” who have personas who can bring out the deepest and darkest of our desires. But it is, ultimately, a tragic story about love and wanting to be loved.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Trinidad and talked about the complexities of his character in “The Nether,” the demands of the theater, and how he journeys with the roles that he’s inhabited. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

tj trinidad1.jpg Trinidad admits to liking the bad guys that he’s played. “I don’t know what they see and hopefully what I hope they see is someone that can justify the role,” he says. Photos by GELOY CONCEPCION

What are the things that theater offers you in terms of acting that film and television don’t?

I guess it affords me to study and restudy the characters that I play. It’s like film as well, but with the play, first you discover [the character] as you initially read the script, you start dissecting your character, and then because you do it over and over again […] you get to rediscover it and you end up having a better understanding and therefore a better portrayal.

When you’re doing films, you have the script, and you also dissect and when you do a take … you prepare with your director to try and cover all the bases. But even if you do it a few times in a day, practice it, for a few weeks, it’s still different when you’re performing it in theater. I think I understand now why [my character’s] motivation is this as opposed to my initial interpretation.

So it’s like you’re taking a journey with your character?

Yeah. It is. In film, you hope that your initial interpretation is gonna be the right one, and you portray it the right way, of course with consultation with your director, but somehow it feels different with theater.

This is your second time in theater, the first being last year’s “The Normal Heart.” What are the things that you look for when you want to do theatrical play?

I’m so fortunate that they got me for this, because the script is so compelling, and the story is so interesting. You come across great scripts so, yeah, you hope that you’ll get picked by the director to play the part. You want to try and challenge yourself and try things that you haven’t done before. It’s scary, you may not be able to achieve it. You’re performing in front of a live audience, and there’s no take two. There’s also risk involved but that’s part of the challenge, part of the fun. So, yeah, I try to find characters that I’ve not done before, and that’s a challenge to play.

You mentioned the different — and almost instantaneous — audience reaction that comes with doing a play. So, for you, is there a different kind of preparation for doing a role in theater?

Ideally, I would use the preparation for theater with preparation for television and film. If I could rehearse as many times as we do in theater with film and television, I would do so. Because that is part of the discovery, but unfortunately you can’t because of scheduling … you have to arrive on the set, and that’s the only time you see your co-actors. That’s the only time you get to act with them, you don’t have enough time, you don’t have the luxury of time for rehearsals like that.

"...with the play, first you discover [the character] as you initially read the script, you start dissecting your character, and then because you do it over and over again […] you get to rediscover it and you end up having a better understanding and therefore a better portrayal."

You’ve had some pretty crazy roles in film and television. What are some of the things that you like doing when you get parts like these?

You look forward to trying to play it right because that’s when you discover things and you get that feeling that this is what the writer intended, this is how it should be played, and you’re getting it right and it’s a rush. There’s definitely satisfaction [in doing] that so … that’s what I look forward to … trying to find that feeling, that what you’re doing, your interpretation is correct, the way you portray it is correct and you get lost in it and that is the immersion, that’s what satisfies me the most.

Is there a role that you never get tired of playing?

You know, I’m often offered kontrabida roles [laughs]. And siguro by default, that would be something that I would get tired of accepting but I don’t. It’s fun to play the bad guy.

You’ve done some pretty complex characters with some serious moral issues, like here in “The Nether.” Do the motivations of your characters affect they way you look at the world?

No. I mean … when I first read the script there was no gray area for me. It was clear to me that Papa’s realm was not good. It’s wrong, but of course, this judgement that I have, [which] inadvertently became my acting block because I have to act with Iris — she’s the child in “The Nether” … that [Papa] effectively prostitutes — so it distracted me.

I was very hesitant [laughs] to do what I needed to do … that is how I feel in the real world, that’s how I felt coming into the play. But I still feel the same, I think, that social media has really changed the way we interact, and it is a very complex question whether or not you act something out in virtual reality if it’s still wrong … it’s mind-blowing to think about that … to think that it could be done. So with this play, coming into, going with it, it’s not so much that I bring home anything, any of my character and all that, but it raises a lot of questions for me that I discuss and talk to my wife about, because it’s very controversial and we live in a very progressive world already. So how do you justify or rationalize these acts.

tj-trinidad-diptychbw.jpg Trinidad also plays an investigator in Raya Martin’s upcoming “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” the film adaptation of F. H. Batacan’s novel about a serial killer in the Philippines. Photos by GELOY CONCEPCION

How did you get over that acting block?

I had to just strip all that judgement away. Everything, all the prejudice, all the bias, and attack it, but not in a sexual way at all, but more out of curiosity … I had to just take it out and just absorb that and use that as my foundation.

What are some of your most challenging roles?

This is challenging for me. It’s so intense. Because of [what the character has to go through]. You have to act something out with a child. But you know the child is played by an older man in the real world. So you have all this information and then you suddenly get lost because you suddenly forget who you are and you just want to be a kid again, you want to play, you just want to have fun and it’s just so easy to forget the real world when you’re in the nether. And then it gets distorted along the way because you realize that it’s not real.

So you get too further in the head of your character.

Not just in the head but in the place that they live in. It’s not a dream, eh. It’s still somewhat reality but in a virtual world. You end up getting so absorbed you have to take yourself out of it and realize that all the things that [you’re] feeling and sensing … it’s not real.

What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned as an actor?

It’s not a perfect science. Just because you get it right one night, doesn’t mean you’re gonna get it right every night. It’s constant learning process so you have to keep practicing, you have to hone your craft so you’re less prone to mistakes. It’s difficult but it’s fun.