How Meryll Soriano almost left showbiz

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Twenty-three years after she made her debut as a child star, Meryll Soriano is once again establishing herself as one of the generation's most talented actors, on the twin triumphs of last year's controversial Metro Manila Film Festival entry 'Honor Thy Father' and the recent ToFarm Film Festival entry 'Pauwi na.' Photo from MERYLL SORIANO/INSTAGRAM

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Monday and Meryll Soriano is late.

To be fair, she texted 30 minutes ago to report that Natalie — her virtual assistant on the Waze navigation app — estimated that she’d be 10 minutes late for our interview. “I’m already panicking,” she said, punctuated by a praying-hands emoji. “I don’t like being late.”

Punctuality, after all, was one of the first lessons the 33-year-old actress learned as a child star, back in the mid-90s. “Konti lang kaming mga bata nun nina Aiza Seguerra, so paikot-ikot lang kami sa mga shows,” she says. “So yung mga kasama namin, yung mga beterano — Caridad Sanchez, Connie Reyes, Charito Solis.”

The legendary Solis, the Philippine cinema icon best known to 90s kids as Ina Magenta on the TV show “Okay Ka Fairy Ko,” served as one of Soriano’s first teachers. While on set for a TV show, Soriano recalls, “Inupo pa [niya] ako nun to say, ‘Iha, ‘wag na ‘wag kang male-late.’” She adds that Solis, whom she fondly called Tita Chat, taught her to read scripts and learn her parts: “Nakita ko yung mga co-actor ko na bata naglalaro. Nakaupo lang ako kasama ni Tita Chat. ‘‘Di ka maglalaro. Mag aaral ka ng script. Dito ka sa tabi ko.’”

meryll soriano Paolo Villaluna's 'Pauwi Na' finds Meryll Soriano co-starring with veterans like Bembol Roco and Cherry Pie Picache.  

Strategic positioning

Starring in projects like “Kung Kaya Mo, Kaya Ko Rin!” (1996) and “Computer Kombat” (1997), Soriano was early on pegged by showbiz insiders to follow in the footsteps of her famous aunt, the award-winning actress Maricel Soriano, groomed to eventually develop into a leading lady of her own. That’s the industry she grew up in — a decade or so after local cinema’s second golden age, still populated by legends like Solis, and led by formidable talents like her aunt. “Walang ‘fad,’ ‘fad’ noon,” she says. “Lahat ang galing umarte.”

You can see the spark that industry insiders probably fell in love with during the four-year run of the ABS-CBN sitcom “Kaya Ni Mister, Kaya Ni Misis,” a TV hit top-billed by her aunt, in which she broke hearts and garnered laughs as a precocious girl. “Actually I really wanted to stop acting at that time,” she admits. “I wanted to go and be serious with school, kasi varsity ako ng volleyball. But apparently, linagay ako sa ‘Kaya ni Mister, Kaya ni Misis,’ so four years akong nandunbuong high school ko, the awkward years.”

Today, 23 years after her debut as a child star, there’s renewed interest in Meryll Soriano. The twin triumphs of the 2015 Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) entry “Honor Thy Father” (for which she was nominated for festival best actress) and the recent ToFarm Film Festival entry “Pauwi Na” serve as reminders of her considerable talent, which at times has been overlooked, sometimes forgotten.

The path from child star to adult actor is famously tricky, after all, littered with casualties and burnouts. But Soriano never followed anybody’s path — despite false starts and ups and downs, she’s always managed to forge her own.

In 2004, after the run of “Kaya ni Mister, Kaya ni Misis” and a role on the Claudine Barretto mermaid series “Marina,” a restless Soriano dove headfirst into independent cinema. “I was 18 or 19 at the time, and that was around the time Cinemalaya started,” she says, referring to the local independent film festival. “When I finally did ‘Room Boy,’ it really changed my life. I saw that there was another way [to do this].” For that movie, a drama in which she plays a prostitute, Soriano won the award for best actress at the 2005 Cinemalaya Film Festival. “That’s it,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, my God. There’s a meaning and a purpose behind this talent.’”

meryll soriano Soriano says her role in 'Pauwi Na' is one of the most difficult she's ever done. “The most challenging thing for me there, as an actor, was the cancellation of things," she says.

Since then, she’s proved herself both a muse and a conduit for local independent cinema, taking home a Best Supporting Actress Gawad Urian for 2006’s “Rotonda” and the Best Actress award at the Brussels International Independent Film Festival for 2010’s “Donor.”

Soriano and her like-minded peers, including Alessandra De Rossi and Mylene Dizon, fall into an archetype of actress that doesn’t really exist in the Philippines — talented actors largely content with starring in auteur films and interesting indies, but successful enough to lean on those projects as bread and butter, along with the occasional endorsement or two. Think Chloe Sevigny or latter-day Kirsten Dunst.

Instead, to work on the indies that allow them to tell meaningful stories and harness the full extent of their capabilities, actresses like Soriano are forced to take supporting roles in teleseryes as “poste” — acting pillars used to hold up the narrative, usually deployed to prop up teen-star leads grappling with their first big projects and the limits of their skills.

“That’s the problem now in the industry,” Soriano laments. “Before, there was a time when they were really making stars, like Claudine [Barretto’s time]. Now, after the reality show [trend], yun na. Dati totoong stars yun, talagang talented, may body of work, deserving sila sa posisyon nila. Right now, patay [yung industriya].”

A few years ago, she made a pact with herself to only do films she found meaning in, since she was already doing the big network TV shows to pay the bills. “There has to be a balance,” she says. “Of course, I have to pay the bills — I’m a breadwinner. But I needed [to do indie movies] for myself … I’m not saying I don’t want to do mainstream films. It’s just that the roles that they give me are the same [as] what I do on television.”

“It’s a game,” she says of the way she views the industry. “It’s strategic positioning of where you want to be.”

Meryll Soriano Soriano almost missed out on her role in "Honor Thy Father." "Never naman ako ipa-partner kay John Lloyd [Cruz],” she says. "Yung career niya or reputation niya, he would have to be paired with a real celebrity, Bea Alonzo levels. I thought it was a project that just wasn't for me."

The cancellation of things

Five years ago, Meryll Soriano all but disappeared from the industry. From 2011 to 2014, she moved to London, followed her dream of taking up a course in the Central Saint Martins art school, and began on a path she’d always wanted to pursue: design.

“I think I was influenced very much by my stepfather,” she says. “My stepfather used to make toys for me when I was a kid. We talked about Japanese design. We talked about the culture of being minimalist.”

When she came back to the Philippines, the acting offers dried up. “I left thinking I would always have a place in this business, in this industry, because I’ve made a career,” she says. “Na-depress ako kasi hanggang dun na lang yung career ko. Hindi na ako nakukuha sa Cinemalaya. Hindi na ako nakukuha sa pelikula. Wala. I didn’t know what to do kasi iba yung flavor ngayon. Hindi palaging may place ako sa industry — that was a lesson for me.”

“I really hit a wall in December 2014,” she recalls. “I had a breakup, I had a fight with my best friend, my father and I were really in a bad place — I just had enough. Nag-shut down ako. As in, December, January, walang may alam kung nasaan ako … At the time, I wanted to leave. I wanted to escape. I wanted to get out of this place and start a new life. I thought, ‘This is it. I can have the life that I want outside the country.’ I was supposed to leave for Switzerland with my son. I had a product design job offer there.”

“I was praying, ‘God, I just need a sign kung tama ba ito’ — kasi pabili na ako ng ticket, eh,” she goes on “‘Is this the right thing to do? Iwanan lang yung things unsolved?’”

“Honor Thy Father,” then, was an answered prayer. Led by John Lloyd Cruz, one of the country’s biggest box-office draws, and directed by Erik Matti, one of the country’s top directors, the film had a female lead role that Soriano booked through pure happenstance: she bumped into Cruz at a party and they called her in for a look test two days later. But its implications had been considerable — it was her first mainstream movie in a while, but it was a mainstream movie with intent and purpose.

“Never naman ako ipa-partner kay John Lloyd,” she says. “Yung career niya or reputation niya, he would have to be paired with a real celebrity, Bea Alonzo levels. I thought it was a project that just wasn’t for me.” Being part of the MMFF, “Honor Thy Father” would also be one of her biggest platforms in a while, a public reminder of her still considerable skills.

Of course, you can’t always rely on prayers. And in the last few months, Soriano has learned to take matters into her own hands. “Just now, in my life, I’ve decided to really let it go,” she says. “Kung may dumating na offer, of course I’ll do it. Pero hindi na ako magwe-wait para sa show o sa pang-bayad ng Meralco. Hindi totoo na ito lang alam kong gawin. Nag-aral kaya ako sa London. So sabi ko, ‘I’m going to let it go. If it’s there, it’s there. But my entire self, I’m going to dedicate it to design.’”

meryll soriano Recently, Soriano co-founded the design-based brand Community and the design firm Do Good Studio.

Recently, she put up the design-based brand Community with her friend Patrick Jamora, a graphic designer. “Yung projectile nung pangalan na Community lumaki,” she says. “[Eventually] we’d like to design for bigger communities. We’d like to design the perfect first-aid kit for rescue operations [for example].” For now, they’re starting small, with a project that’s both a statement of intent and a way to earn. Their first collection — made up of Bauhaus-inspired note cards, journals, and posters — is for “a community of paper enthusiasts.”

With Jamora and three other friends, she now also runs Do Good Studio, which she describes as a combination of “graphic design, branding, strategic positioning, identity, and all that.”

Through her design work — a “day job” that allows her to be creative, harness her design background, and have regular income — Soriano has freed herself, to choose her movie work according to quality and not paycheck, to build her filmography the way she wants to.

But still, film has a way of reeling her back in. And in the same time frame in which she put up the two companies with her friends, she also delivered one of her greatest performances — as a blind pregnant woman who sees Jesus Christ in “Pauwi Na,” the ToFarm Festival entry. Directed by Paolo Villaluna and based on a 2003 news clip about a family who, after tough times in Manila, decide to move back to Southern Leyte on two pedicabs, “Pauwi Na” sees her co-starring with the acting legends Bembol Roco and Cherry Pie Picache.

Soriano has always stood on the shoulders of giants. And true to form, in “Pauwi Na,” Soriano once again steps up to the plate. “The most challenging thing for me there, as an actor, was the cancellation of things … [The character] has no idea what another human being looks like … Ako yung bulag na nakakakita at kailangan ko ipakita na nakikita ko [si Jesus] pero kailangan ko rin ipakita na hindi ko nakikita.” To prepare for the role, she spent two hours a day blindfolded, from the moment she woke up, with just the help of a cane. “I needed to know [how it really was], to sharpen my hearing and be really conscious about touching things,” she says. “Hindi ko ito mapepeke, eh. I can’t wing it.”

Commitment to quality

“Sorry I was late,” she texts, after we part. “Charito Solis ain’t happy.” She punctuates this with the emoji for crying laughter.

But in 2016, with the kind of good film to bad film ratio any actress worth her salt would be proud of, with how careful she picks her projects, and with her kind of commitment to quality work largely missing from the industry, you look at Meryll Soriano’s filmography and think: Charito Solis would be proud.

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ToFarm Film Festival Philippines runs until July 26 at SM Megamall Cinema 7. For more details visit its Facebook page.