COVER STORY

How Carlo Aquino is redefining the leading man

He has been a teen idol, half of a love team, one-third of a boy band, and lead singer of his own band. Now, his roles have shown what today's leading man can look like.

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I make the mistake of thinking Carlo Aquino is kidding when he tells me that he never read the script for the romantic comedy “Isa Pa with Feelings,” his new movie with Maine Mendoza.

It’s only when we’ve exchanged soft laughter that I realize he meant it: while there was a working script, production took it day by day and made changes as they went along. We’re only on the first question, and I’ve already messed up — but instead of making things uncomfortable, the slip-up breaks the ice. The actor becomes chattier and more relaxed as he tells me how the story was pitched to him and why he said yes to it.

In “Isa Pa with Feelings,” he plays Gali, a deaf man who becomes dance partners with and eventually falls for his neighbor Mara (Mendoza). “Inisip ko lang nun, parang wala akong dialogue, paano ko aarte nang ganyan?” he recalls. But he was told that if anyone could pull it off, it would be him. “Iba siya, eh. Hindi ko pa siya nagagawa.”

His interest in the role came down to wanting to empathize with someone like Gali and understand what deaf people go through. “Kung papaano ‘yung pakiramdam nila, kung papaano sila [makipag-interact] sa ibang tao,” he explains. “Natutunan ko na very insecure din sila, na may gusto silang patunayan sa ibang tao.”

Photo by JL JAVIER

Aquino, who describes himself as a naturally quiet person, spent about a month preparing for the film and learning the basics of Filipino sign language through instructors who also helped him on-set. It was nerve-wracking for him: there was no way for him to express lines through tone of voice or volume, only through body language. “Kailangan laging kita sa mukha mo kung ano ‘yung nararamdaman mo,” he says. “Mahirap talaga kasi iniisip mo ‘yung lines tapos sina-sign mo, tapos may facial expressions pa and emotions.”

Working on the film, he learned a lot about how communication factors into personal relationships, and how important it really is. “Kasi, ‘di ba, ‘pag nasa isang relasyon ka nga, parehas na hearing, nakakapagsalita, hindi pa rin nagkakaintindihan,” he says. “Papaano pa ‘yung isang deaf at isang hearing? Kailangan may effort din talaga. Kahit na nakakapag-usap kayo, kailangan pinapakita mo pa rin sa taong mahal mo nanage-effort ka at binibigyan mo siya ng time.”

Aquino was a shy kid but was encouraged by his father to pursue acting at age seven. It didn’t take him long to fall in love with the craft, first coming into prominence as an award-winning child actor before quite literally coming of age in the industry. He’s been a teen idol, half of a love team, one-third of a boy band, and lead singer of his own band after that. In his 20s, he admits, he strayed a little and busied himself instead with independent projects and supporting roles: “Ako, kahit artista ako, very insecure,” he says. “Nawalan ako ng confidence sa sarili.”

Photo by JL JAVIER

The last two years, in contrast, have seen him stepping back into the lead in projects like “Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral,” “Exes Baggage,” and “Ulan.” For Aquino, it all began with “Meet Me in St. Gallen,” which he says was a “chance” extended to him by Piolo Pascual’s Spring Films. “Actually, hindi ko naman talaga pinaplano na maging leading man or lead actor sa isang pelikula,” he says carefully. “Masaya na ako [bilang] support, basta nagta-trabaho ako, nakaka-arte ako, nagagawa ko ’yung mahal ko.”

In typically women-centric romantic comedies, the love interests mostly serve as a foil to the protagonist, more of a symbol of certain parts of who they are — what they want in life, qualities they lack, how they need to grow and evolve — than a living, breathing human being. Leading men are expected to fall into certain archetypes and stock qualities: charming, arrogant, troubled, nice. What you see is what you get.

But Aquino has never been one to stay inside the box. As a male lead, his characters are far from static, a quiet but discernible energy thrumming beneath every look in the eye, every line delivered with measured cool or raw vulnerability. He’s broody, he’s kind, and he’s surprisingly graceful. In “Ulan,” you want a rainstorm to send him your way so he can teach you that true love exists. In real life, he says he believes in second chances — and when you see “Exes Baggage,” you believe him. You root for him as a down-and-out frustrated musician in “Meet Me in St. Gallen.” When he appeared in the end-credits stringer in “Heneral Luna,” you squirmed in your seat and pointed breathlessly at your childhood T.V. crush, because you hadn’t seen him in a while, and now here he was again.

There’s always been a nuance to Aquino that sets him apart from his fellow actors, that instantly makes him the reason you’re even watching the movie. You wonder about him; you want to know more.

Photo by JL JAVIER

Through these experiences, he says he has become more open to whatever comes his away — especially if the projects are socially relevant. “Ngayon, mas nag-e-explore na ako. Kahit alam kong hindi ko kaya, susubukan ko pa rin, kasi mas maganda ’yung sinubukan mo kaysa sa bandang huli, ’di ba, manghinayang ka.”

It just so happens that the Filipino film industry has also been experiencing a renaissance, allowing him more options and opportunities as an actor. “Mas marami nang venue para makagawa ng pelikula,” he says. “Kasi marami talagang mahuhusay na walang pera, tapos ang daming magagandang materyal. Sobrang laking bagay na ang dami nang festival para sa mga filmmakers.”

Now, he adds, “mas confident na ako.” He’s still not always comfortable with going up onstage to perform, participating in mall shows, or doing press — the latter earns a wry laugh from both of us — but he says he’s lucky to be surrounded by people who understand and encourage him.

Photo by JL JAVIER

“Although may pagdududa pa rin, natutulungan ako ng mga friends ko tsaka ng mga co-actors ko na maging mas confident,” Aquino says. “Nung nilabas ko ’yun, nandun sila. Sinuportahan nila ako. Mas gusto ko nang gawin kahit alam kong nakakakaba.”

“Ngayon na lang ako medyo nakapag-adjust,” he continues. He does, after all, get to do what he loves, whether it’s hearing the director say “Action!” or having a hand in creating a character or story.

“Tumagal ako sa industriya,” he muses, out of so many talents who have come and gone. “Gusto ko ‘tong ginagawa ko. Feeling ko sa estado ko ngayon, sobrang happy ako with my career, sa buhay. More than manghihingi ako, parang mas nagpapasalamat ako sa nangyayari sa buhay ko.”

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Video by SAMANTHA LEE

Produced by CHANG CASAL

Styling by PATTY YAP assisted by GELO CRUZ

Cover design by THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA