The resurrection of Soliman Cruz

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The veteran actor owns up to his drug addiction, shares how his time spent homeless was a choice to further his craft, and tells how he has learned to love acting again. Photo by SHIRIN BHANDARI

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “I’m sitting next to the monument.” The text on my phone reads.

In the heart of Manila, across a distinguished baroque church, I walk past a busy street buzzing with colorful jeepneys. I arrive to find my friend sitting under the angular sculpture of Rajah Sulayman. The statue was sculpted by Eduardo Castrillo in 1976. It was erected in honor of the brave and princely ruler of 16th century Manila who died fighting the Spaniards.

“You do know I’m named after him.” He points to the statue. I laugh in amusement as we head towards the boulevard together. The bay is calm during this time of day; however, the humidity is stifling.

It is the first time in two years that I cruise the stretch of Roxas Boulevard since moving north. The surrounding area of Pasay was my home for close to a decade. The face of Soliman Cruz is a common fixture to this side of town. He is known to many as an extraordinary actor who has been featured in award-winning films, plays, and television series. To the creative and bohemian folk of Malate, we know him simply as Sol.

Buti bumalik ka!” a street vendor exclaims. The elderly gentleman sits in a stall filled with an array of snacks and bottled drinks. Sol holds his arm out and takes the man’s hand in his. The people in the area are genuinely happy to see him and proud of his newfound sobriety.

“I never went hungry when I slept here.” Sol points to the grass below the tall palm trees of the bay. “People who live in the open are too busy trying to survive. There was never time to be sad.”

Kapwa or togetherness is the core aspect of Filipino psychology. His time spent homeless on the boulevard was by choice to further his craft. It is the belief that all beings should ideally operate and coexist interdependently, with harmony; not only towards others but with the environment. It is similar to the Sikh philosophy of sewa or selfless service to advance spirituality. Sol washing pots and pans inside a Hindu or Sikh Temple in Manila baffled others, but I understood his intentions. The media has taken advantage of his eccentricity and has been quick to label his life as one big social experiment.

_DSF4112.jpg Soliman Cruz first acted in the 8mm short film “Kwentong Barbero” in 1991 by Jon Red. It was his appearance in the 2005 “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros” as the father of Maxi that earned him renown. A year later he starred as Judy Ann Santos' father in Star Cinema’s “Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo,” which was a commercial hit at the Metro Manila Film Festival. Photo by SHIRIN BHANDARI

In the years that I have been Sol’s friend, if one wanted to find him, he was always close to the Cultural Center of the Philippines and Manila Bay. He has a long-standing love affair with the ocean. It serves as a peaceful reminder of his father who served in the Philippine Navy as part of the Coast Guard. His father spent time on RPS Rajah Soliman (D-66), a destroyer that was sold to the Philippine government by the United States in the 1960s. The boat was originally used in the Second World War. It sank four years later during a storm surge and was sold for scrap shortly after.

At the tender age of 11, Sol lost his father who battled depression to an apparent suicide.

During a trip to China in 1975, then President Ferdinand Marcos and first lady Imelda were received by a well-rehearsed group of Chinese children dancing in unison. It made an impression on Mrs. Marcos. She returned to the Philippines and organized a batch of military and navy children to greet foreign visitors and delegates at the Nayong Pilipino the same way. Sol was part of the group of dancers. The Nayong Pilipino was constructed in 1969 adjacent to the Manila International Airport to serve as a one-stop destination for visitors to experience the diverse cultural features and landscapes of the country.

Renowned Ateneo drama teacher Dr. Onofre Pagsanghan, who conducted youth workshops at the time, saw great promise in Sol. He advised Sol’s mother to enroll him in the new form of high school which had just opened along a dormant volcano called Mt. Makiling. The Philippine High School for the Arts, the first of its kind in Asia, was inaugurated by Mrs. Marcos at the National Arts Center in 1977. It served as the Educational Arm of the Cultural Center of the country.

Balang araw, titingalain ang anak mo.” Sol coyly repeats the words his beloved mentor, Dr. Onofre, said to his mom, as we sit on the concrete ledge overlooking the sea. We laugh together at the thought. In some ways, the vision has pulled through. “I joined drama class because of the pretty girls,” he says. Sol beams as we watch the sunset. His smile is infectious. He has tried to rekindle his friendship with his old teacher who is now in his late ‘80s.

“Art is a part of the healing process,” Sol says as he opens the door. “People are being killed because of their addiction. We can change. There is hope and redemption for everyone.”

Sol first acted in the 8mm short film “Kwentong Barbero” in 1991 by Jon Red. It was his appearance in the 2005 “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros” as the father of Maxi that earned him renown. A year later, he starred as Judy Ann Santos' father in Star Cinema’s “Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo,” which was a commercial hit at the Metro Manila Film Festival.

Sol’s characters on set are brilliant and endearing — they have often reached cult status among independent film viewers. He has worked with critically acclaimed directors like Raymond Red in “Manila Skies” (2009) and as Wawak in Lav Diaz’s four-hour epic “Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan” (2013). Sol is also one of Diaz's go-to actors.

It is rare for an actor to be able to transition from theatre, T.V., and on to film. However, life has dealt him a few bad cards. His battle with methamphetamine took charge of his career over the past decade.

“Addiction is a disease,” Sol says. It is the first time I’ve ever heard him own up to it.  It was always the big elephant in the room that no one addressed completely.

Experimenting with recreational drugs is normal for people in the creative industry. Neither is it frowned or looked down upon. The goal is to allegedly heighten creativity or mask depression. Continuous use alters the brain and judgment. Quitting takes a lot more than a strong will or good intentions.

People who have a loved one battling addiction can become enablers. Sol and I would regularly meet on Sundays at a 100-year-old church on Vasquez Street in Malate. We’ve all been responsible for giving him a buck or two. Like the rest of us who value his friendship and well-being, there is a substantial amount of guilt involved. Before moving, he wanted to come to my apartment in Pasay to have his suit cleaned for an event. It was an option of getting the chore done or giving him money. Cash in the hands of an addict is not a good thing. It was a relief he did not show.

Sol landed in another artist’s house and was lucky to receive the help he so desperately needed. He has been living in a rehab facility to this day through a kind sponsor who chooses to remain anonymous. He also conducts acting workshops with those confined with him.  

Soliman Cruz is sober. He has learned to love himself and his craft again. It is close to a year since he auditioned for a part in the annual festival of unique one-act plays at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Sol has been offered a steady stream of work since, including appearances on GMA-7's News and Public Affairs show about overseas Filipino workers, “Tadhana.

We reach the end of the bay and stop at a pedestrian crossing. His phone rings. His agent gives him a booking for a television series for the day after. At a small café a few blocks away, we travel to gather and celebrate another friend’s birthday.

He tells me about his plans to attend an Open University with his eldest daughter Tala to finally earn a degree. “I’ve always wanted to teach children. I want them to learn everything I know,” he says as we stand outside the café.

“Art is a part of the healing process,” Sol says as he opens the door. “People are being killed because of their addiction. We can change. There is hope and redemption for everyone.”

***

Soliman Cruz stars in the upcoming films “Gusto Kita with All My Hypothalamus,” directed by Dwein Baltazar and "Hitboy" directed by Bor Ocampo. Both entries are in the 3rd CineFilipino Film Festival 2018 which will run from May 9 to May 15. For more information visit the Cinefilipino Facebook page.