Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In the upcoming Metro Manila Film Festival entry “Ang Larawan,” audiences can look forward to witnessing fantastic song and dance sequences — but one thing they won’t see is the titular portrait itself, which so happens to have found permanent storage in actor Paulo Avelino’s home.
“I brought it back to my place,” he laughs. “The actual painting from the film.” Glimpses of it are shown throughout, but never the whole thing. “If you want to see it,” Avelino offers, “nasa bahay.”
The Gawad Urian Best Actor winner’s taste in musicals leans more toward classics like “Singin’ in the Rain.” It’s fitting, then, that I first meet Paulo Avelino on a fire escape, the kind where Tony and Maria of “West Side Story,” in an homage to the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” would rendezvous to perform their star-crossed love duet “Tonight.” The photo shoot has wrapped, we are three floors up, and the stairs are steep with wide slats that provide a generous view of how high up we are. Looking down is a doozy.
“Let’s make the interview short,” he says as we make our way down, and then he tells me he’s kidding. During the actual Q&A, however, his answers are well-spoken and clear, delivered and thought through carefully, as though he really means it.
“I was half and half about it,” he begins, when asked why he was drawn to “Ang Larawan.” “I’ve always wanted to do a musical film, but not this early in my career.”
When he was asked to audition for it, Avelino did his research for the audition: it was first staged as a musical play in 1997, based on Nick Joaquin’s “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.” He eventually came across a video of the theater production on YouTube, and he was convinced. “I figured, it was done by a National Artist,” he says. “It’d probably be a pretty nice material to [work with].”
Set in pre-World War II Manila and directed by Loy Arcenas, “Ang Larawan” follows sisters Candida and Paula Marasigan (played by Joanna Ampil and Rachel Alejandro, respectively), whose father, respected painter Don Lorenzo Marasigan, has become reclusive and unable to create. Short of financial ruin, Candida and Paula’s siblings urge them to sell their house. Meanwhile, the ailing Don Lorenzo unveils a new painting, and it becomes the subject of curiosity and interest. That it may be Don Lorenzo’s final work only raises its value, and the sisters struggle as they decide whether to keep it or sell it.
The film competed earlier this year at the Tokyo International Film Festival, where it garnered glowing reviews.
Avelino describes the filming process with an exclamatory, “Deadly!” He took voice lessons from musical director Ryan Cayabyab, who wrote the original music with lyricist Rolando Tinio. Avelino got to wear “cool clothes” for the period-specific feature, including a fedora that he also brought home. “We had a million rehearsals for the shoot,” he adds. “But it was actually fun and it was actually quick.” He was able to hold his own among more seasoned co-stars, including Joanna Ampil, Rachel Alejandro (who had been a part of the musical play’s second run), Sandino Martin, Cris Villonco, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Celeste Legaspi, Robert Arevalo, and Nonie Buencamino.
He plays Tony Javier, a struggling pianist whom the sisters have taken in as a boarder for extra income. He votes to sell the portrait to an American for a hefty sum. According to Avelino, to Tony, the portrait is an opportunity. “It’s the easy way out, a way to get above everyone else in life,” he says. “But more than that, it’s for his dreams to come true. He’s always wanted to play the piano, always wanted to study music abroad, and he wouldn’t be able to do it because he’s lacking one thing, which is money.”
The film revolves around themes of family, art, materialism, and identity. “It says a lot,” Avelino muses. “In a way, parang sinasabi mo, ‘Ibebenta mo ba ang bansang Pilipinas?’”
In 2015, he had a small role in the monumental “Heneral Luna” as the young general Gregorio del Pilar, earning a mid-credits stinger teasing a continuation to del Pilar’s story. That follow up, “Goyo,” wrapped this year and is set for a 2018 release. It might be Avelino’s biggest film yet, the defining entry in his filmography.
Director Jerrold Tarog, who also helmed “Luna,” gave him plenty of room to make del Pilar a character of his own, which the actor gladly did. “Maybe the side of him that I wanted to bring out was his [vulnerability],” he says of the national hero. “He [appeared to be] so sure of what he was doing, but there was always that doubt. He masks it [in the way he acts], but deep inside he knows that there’s something wrong.”
“Someone asked me [kung] anong genre siya, and I couldn’t answer the guy,” he adds. “We know what the story is, but then is it a coming-of-age film? Is it a psychological thing with Goyo? So many factors. Is it a love story? Ang daming nangyayari, and you can’t really just pin it to one genre.” The film delves deeper into del Pilar’s existence, and according to Avelino, this leads to more digging. “[‘Goyo’] would bring up a lot of questions about our history, what happened during that era, who’s right or who’s wrong.”
He was an entrepreneurial management dropout from St. Louis University when he joined “StarStruck” at age 18. Over a decade later, he shows a willingness to keep learning and evolving through his craft. “Ever since, I’ve wanted to do something that’s good,” he says. “Or something that I’ve never done before, and that’s what attracts me to a role or a script. You look for something different, something new you could do.” He adds: “I’m not trying to stay on one track. I wouldn’t really want to be branded as just this guy who does this role.”
Filmmaker JP Habac, who directed Avelino in this year’s wistful coming-of-age anti-romance “I’m Drunk, I Love You,” thinks that his ambition is backed up by talent and an earnest conviction. “Hindi lang siya artista, hindi lang siya aktor,” Habac says. “He’s a musician, he writes, he wants to make films.”
Loy Arcenas agrees: “I have always enjoyed working with Paulo. I think he’d make a very good director someday.”
Habac shares that he initially had doubts in casting Avelino in “I’m Drunk, I Love You,” as he might have been too old to play college-age. “It was actually fun kasi when we were editing the project, sabi ko sa kanya, ‘O, Pau, OK na, tapos na naming i-edit.’ Sabi niya, ‘O, kumusta? Convincing ba akong college student?’”
As Dio, the unrequited crush of Maja Salvador’s Carson, Avelino turned out to be dreamy, compelling, and, if Habac has anything to say about it, perfect. “Sobrang natural niya kasi bilang artista,” the director says. The character is defined by his frustrations about his career, the future, and his lack of direction, and Avelino was able to channel it effortlessly. “Ramdam na ramdam.”
I ask Avelino if he has completed his own coming-of-age story. He thinks about it. “I don’t think I have,” he finally says after a bit of a pause. “Ewan ko. It’s so hard to understand myself and sometimes I wouldn’t even want to understand myself. I basically have an idea of it but I can’t really grasp [it all].”
He’s less capricious about how the last few years have factored into his acting. “I’ve learned that life experiences help a lot with your craft,” he shares. “Experiencing one thing firsthand is definitely the best coach for you when you get into a role.”
Avelino admits that he tends to be hands-on when shooting movies, doing everything he can to contribute to the production — this his directors readily confirm. “He is smart, inquisitive, totally giving to the process,” says Arcenas. “He doesn’t settle for second best, if he can help it.”
Having first worked with Avelino in Tarog’s 2013 Cinemalaya entry “Sana Dati,” Habac says he’s noticed a certain change in the actor over time. “Si Paulo kasi, when he’s involved in a project, he makes sure to be fully committed to it. All other aspects of the production, nakakatulong din siya somehow.”
He attributes this to Avelino’s honest love for cinema and filmmaking. “He’s always been serious about his craft,” he says. “Mahilig talaga siyang manood ng pelikula. Nag-aaral talaga siya [para] mas mapagpabuti pa niya.”
He’s come to view Avelino as a friend — he reads Habac’s scripts and offers his opinions, they exchange song recommendations, and they talk about collaborating. Habac is often surprised that Avelino knows all sorts of foreign indie films. “Para lang kaming kabarkada na gumagawa ng pelikula,” Habac muses. “Hindi lang siya basta katrabaho, hindi ka lang niya tinatrato na director. Nakakatuwa.”
Avelino doesn’t appear to be very talkative at first, but when the subject turns to cinema, especially our own, he becomes animated — passionate, even.
“It’s getting better,” he begins, citing Jaclyn Jose’s Best Actress win for “Ma’ Rosa” at Cannes and director Lav Diaz taking home the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival for “Ang Babaeng Humayo.” “We’re getting recognized globally. In a good way, it helps bring more inspiration to our filmmakers here and gives them confidence also na they’re on the right track.”
Still, he expresses frustration that despite global critical acclaim, most of these films tend to go unnoticed in their own country. Which is why, he says, “I’d like to see an actual law that prioritizes local films in cinemas.” He wants people, and production companies, to see the potential and artistry in movies, to learn from them, instead of just deciding what to create based on what sells.
He posits that “Ang Larawan” nonetheless has enough appeal to attain cult status, if not outright success. “Lahat [sa Pilipinas] nagka-karaoke, lahat kumakanta,” he says. “We hope to give them a different kind of cinematic experience.”
But Avelino has hopes beyond entertaining his audience, noting the universal qualities of “Ang Larawan” and “Goyo” from a sociocultural and political standpoint. “The thing about making films like these is, it actually helps the younger generation be aware of their surroundings, of what’s really happening,” he says. “You don’t just [sit back]. You have to be a part of the country and your surroundings.” He adds: “It’s up to the viewers to see how they could pick it apart or relate it to our current [societal and] cultural landscape.”
If Avelino has anything to contribute to Philippine cinema, it’s a call to further create for anyone who’s listening — whether it’s on paper, or on film, or onstage. “I hope to inspire people to write stories, to show something new, to express themselves,” he concludes. “It’s a form of art.”