The making of Ian Pangilinan

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Ian Pangilinan may have hit the mainstream with “Gaya sa Pelikula” but the young actor has been building his cred in theatrical productions such as “Tabing Ilog” and Ateneo Blue Repertory's productions of “Rent” and “Spring Awakening.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — "Are you sure you want to interview me?"

When I told Ian that I was to write a profile on him and his career, he was initially ecstatic. It was the closest we had to sharing the stage again. "I mean, I don't really think I'm anyone yet. I don't even have a movie or anything," he says, expressing his hesitation.

To describe the past three months of Ian's life as anything but a "whirlwind" would be an understatement: filming episodes of ‘Gaya sa Pelikula’, getting signed onto Cornerstone Entertainment, education sessions, photoshoots for magazines, live singing performances, banlaw sessions to raise funds for typhoon-stricken areas, and even a controversial appearance on “Showtime”. In a way, the world seems to enter the picture in medias res and very few know him from his earlier years. As the “Gaya Sa Pelikula” chapter of his life closes (I pray for a second season), I spoke to Ian and those who’ve witnessed all the different versions of him in this personal and artistic Odyssey of sorts.

This is a story a decade in the making.

Photo by JL JAVIER

Growing pains

"You like movies?"

That's how my friendship with him began.

It was dinner break during our music rehearsals for “Rent” in February 2018. We quickly discovered that we shared a mutual love for films, specifically Greta Gerwig's “Lady Bird.” It was an instant back and forth, quoting lines from the film as if we were any of the two characters at any given moment. As we were walking back into the rehearsal room, he said something that I would come to know to be his guiding principle: "I want to tell those kinds of stories."

"From the get-go, he was a pretty big weirdo and a dork, which I guess he still is even now," says Gio Hernandez, one of Ian's closest friends from high school and college. "I really appreciated that because I'm more on the reserved end and he was very approachable and super fun to be around."

Ian's love for films seemed inexplicably linked to his personhood. Film was a way for him to experience and connect to the world. He loved seeing characters who he could relate to and he sought to be that same force on a screen later on in life. Despite a rough personal description of his teenage years ("I was so angsty!", he told me about how he was attached to films like “Lilo and Stitch” (he was Lilo) in his youth and “Lady Bird” in his young adulthood (he is the titular role). "I was like — 'Oh my god. I love the art of creating stuff.'" His artistic outlet started with theater: watching the Ateneo Grade School plays and eventually wanting to be in them enough to audition.

He told me the story of his first production was when he was in Grade 7. It was a play called “Ang Nawawalang Kapatid” (based on the “Mahabharata”), his first role in Dulaang Sibol in “Hervacio Tubulan” (“I was one of the conyo kids. I was the Karen Smith in the trio”). His first lead role in Ateneo High School was Ponce in “Sa Kaharian ng Araw.” When I asked Gio what Ian was like during this time, he said: “I noticed he’d even spend his lunch breaks rehearsing his lines with his scene partner because he really wanted it to turn out well.”

Ian was a golden retriever in human form — energetic, humorous, and always so excited to be doing something. College was like a field he could run around in and it became a time of artistic exploration, self-discovery, and valuable rejections. He sang winning solos with MEAcapella (Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”), became a junior jock at RX93.1, hosted events and gigs, starred in Globe commercials, and even dressed up as a Disney prince on weekends at parties. It seemed never-ending and he loved it.

But his weekdays were filled with classes he didn't know if he wanted to attend. It was a well-known path that offered the least resistance, at least at first.

"During college application season, he was really discerning about what course he should choose,” There was pressure for him to apply for courses that would lead to high-paying jobs in the business world or even in the sciences because he had the aptitude for it." Gio says. Eventually, Ian got into the Management Engineering course in Ateneo and they became blockmates.

For Ian, his early college years were a lot of trying to fit in with different people who are actually good at his chosen course. “For a while it worked,” he says. “I was sort of good at a lot of things. It was a lot of trying to convince myself that that was enough." But Gio knew Ian's heart wasn't in it for the long haul. "For me, it wasn't really a surprise because I was confident he'd do well in whatever he put his mind to. In my head, it was really just a matter of: 'Is he going to go with singing or acting'?"

Photo by JL JAVIER

Reimagining the golden boy

Films seemed to arrive at the right time in his life. "This is gonna sound really stupid." He stifles a smile. In our friendship, "stupid" was code for "a great story." "The turning point for me was when I watched… ‘Moana’." We laughed. I guess Disney still inspires. He started singing ‘How Far I'll Go,’ insisting that he was serious.

"It's what 90% of the people want and all she has to do is live her life and there's nothing wrong with it! But, for some reason, she feels called to this other thing." He spat out the words so fast that it almost seemed like he was rapping. He took a deep breath and exhaled. "That was the moment where I was like, 'Oh my god. I don't know if I'm gonna be happy here. Not truly happy.’"

So in junior year, he tried to get back into acting. He auditioned for Ateneo Blue Repertory's “Rent” and got the lead role of Roger Davis — a struggling musician and ex-junkie who was HIV positive. But it was far from an easy return to his passions.

"I honestly don't know how to express into words how difficult that year was for me, in terms of adjusting; in terms of learning about myself." On top of school work and expectations, he struggled with remembering lines, blocks, and even harmonies. The rigor and demands of collegiate theater were a culture shock for him. "You'd have to be insane to continue wanting to be an artist after that year. But I came back. Because it's something that I fell in love with and, even if I was not the best at it, I was willing to endure all the humiliation I needed for the sake of being better at it."

"For me, the recognition of the characters as beautiful and as alive? That's the kind of fame I want — people caring for the characters, not necessarily me."

After “Rent,” he got to work. He enrolled in four acting classes in Ateneo under actor, director and assistant professor Missy Maramara: two fundamental acting classes, one textual analysis class, and one class on acting for the camera. She remembered him still as his warm, amicable yet awkward junior year self.

Ian says, "As an actor, the character was who you needed to care about rather than yourself; rather than like 'Hey! Do I look good in this angle?'. She was really who instilled that in me." I recall these moments during “Spring Awakening” rehearsals: where she drilled into him, as she did all of us, that all our flaws were somehow still perfections and that technique was necessary to consistently tap into our talents. "Missy was one of the first people who genuinely invested and believed in my talents. For her I'm still forever grateful," he says.

When I asked Missy why she cast Ian in “Spring Awakening” as Melchior, she abruptly interrupted me and screamed, "He is Melchior!"

"He [Melchior] has the courage to continue to live; the courage to make life better despite the loss and despite the rejection. And that takes a lot, a lot of…self-love, courage, hope...and I think Ian as a human being has that and can inspire that in people. … He wants to connect with his scene partner, with the audience. He wants to foster that connectivity to truth, to beauty, to love.”

On our second to the last show together in “Spring Awakening” — the most important night for Ian — the audience was filled with critics, but more importantly, his close friends and family. The pressure had started to get to him and he was losing his voice from exhaustion. When the show ended, he greeted everyone with a smile, as he always does. But when the lights went out and we packed our bags, he began crying in a secluded area in front of Arete.

Dar, our co-director, and a bunch of us castmates surrounded him. "Dar just asked me: 'Did the character live? Was it truthful?'" says Ian as he recalled that night, head resting on his arms. "Then I realized that was enough. That was the moment that concretized all of the points that I was trying to process."

Photo by JL JAVIER

A test of growth

When Ian graduated from Ateneo in 2019, it was a process of finding that same structure in the disorganized world. To prevent himself from losing the acting spirit, he started reading Ivana Chubbuck and watching MasterClasses online, learning from the likes of Natalie Portman and Helen Mirren. Soon after, he returned to Ateneo as a guest actor for one of Missy's thesis classes: the straight play “Reasons to be Pretty.”

When I spoke to Caisa Borromeo, the play’s director and an actress in her own right, she was delighted to talk about Ian and her process of directing the production. Her love for the material and the whole team was just immediately recognizable; like a warm memory flooded her. Ian was tasked to play Greg — a regular joe who emotionally lacerates his girlfriend by saying that her face is "regular," setting off a chain of events that disrupt their tight-knit circle and understanding of beauty.

“To be honest, the minute Ian auditioned, the minute he started speaking after a few lines, I already knew — that’s the guy I want,” she said. “There were so many things I was looking for that were hard to find in an audition right away. With Ian, he already had it.”

"There were a lot of nice surprises with Ian, which was welcomed." She describes her shock that it was his first straight play given that he seemed so comfortable and natural and how he immediately had chemistry with his co-actresses, even if it was a 'cold reading.' "I just assumed they had been long time friends from way back then. Then when I asked Bradly (her assistant director), he just said: 'No. They don't know each other.'"

Ian admits that “Reasons to be Pretty,” his favorite production to date, was like a culmination of all of the years of work. He attributed this to Caisa’s direction and compassion, as she created another environment for him to actualize all of the growth he's gone through and more. "It felt like “Spring Awakening” was all of the growth “Lady Bird” had to endure before getting on the plane and “Reasons to Be Pretty” was when she finally arrived in New York and realized that she needed to thank her mom."

Photo by JL JAVIER

Seeing and being seen

In 2020, we made a pact to see Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” together. We met up at Eastwood in late February and caught a noon screening before our respective rehearsals. He had just gotten into “Tabing Ilog” as one of the main characters — the John Lloyd Cruz of the group (literally). After the film, we debated, as actors always do, about which characters we were or who we'd love to play.

“I’m Amy. I want to be great or nothing,” he says as we drank milk tea. “I just want to be part of something like that someday, you know? Something that really moves people.”

Six months and several auditions later, “Gaya sa Pelikula” began filming. A month later, he was the internet darling because of his character Vladimir Austria (“Do I look like a Vlad to you?”, he asked me, to which I replied, “Yes”). Ian seemed to fall into these characters: good guys who were flawed, who did and said the wrong things. But you still, for some reason, wanted to root for them and forgive them for they were still clearly trying. It’s a difficult balancing act and a niche that he has crafted for himself onstage and onscreen. In Vlad, he has created a character that has helped people connect to their own truth; a space wherein people could accept who they were without judgment, flaws and all.

It was a rare thing to see — a friend turning into a phenomenon. His audience suddenly grew exponentially and unlike in a theater, he can see them and interact with them. Though he was forever grateful for the support and the fandom ("They are part of the storytelling, aren't they?"), he now considered fame and success as something different. "For me, the recognition of the characters as beautiful and as alive? That's the kind of fame I want — people caring for the characters, not necessarily me."

“What you see at face value with Ian just gets better." says Paolo Pangilinan, his onscreen partner in the show. It seemed to me that Pao had an incredible appreciation for him, like he arrived at the right time in the right circumstances to help through Pao's first acting gig. He told stories about their time on set ("He'd get me food even if I was on the fourth floor two buildings away!"), their conversations ("He's such a good listener, ano?"), the support they provided each other during tough scenes ("He helped me through it in the calmest manner"), and all the little surprises that seem to come with getting to know ("He cooks for me! Best spaghetti I've ever had.").

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"Whenever I watch him, the most common thing that runs through my mind pag scene niya is sobrang precise ng emotion na hinihingi sa character yung binibigay ni Ian. Ang daling maglapat ng iba't ibang takes with him because he does the same choreography in the scene but he delivers lines so differently."

When I asked him what he wished more people knew about Ian, he immediately talked about Ian's process. "There's a lot of work that Ian put behind the lens. If people would ask how Vlad would act in certain situations and how Ian would act in certain situations, I'm sure he could do it impromptu."

I asked Paolo what his wishes were for Ian. He paused, remained quiet for a time, and then smiled. "I wish he could acknowledge his own talents. He seems to be the last person to see it." He paused again, gathering himself. He continued, "I just want the world to see him and, luckily, they have."

Lucky us.


Photos by JL JAVIER
Styling by MYRRH LAO TO