Actor of the Year: Elijah Canlas

No other Filipino actor had it this good in 2020. Elijah Canlas, already an acclaimed indie actor, rose to prominence through the hit Boys’ Love series “Gameboys” and capped off his year with major acting awards. In between, he’s scored endorsements and grew an international fan base. But more than anything, he’s proven his mettle as one of the best actors — if not the actor — of his generation.

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Davao City (CNN Philippines Life) — On the evening of November 10, Elijah Canlas was getting nervous. He studied his script for a new T.V. series, for which he was under strict quarantine. He took a shower. In a room two doors away, members of his family gathered around a screen. That night, the 43rd Gawad Urian was streaming on YouTube. Like most events since lockdown, the ceremony that was usually held at the U.P. Film Center had been turned into a meager, prerecorded affair. Elijah was nominated in the Best Actor category for his work in Jun Lana’s “Kalel, 15.” He knew the awards ceremony was happening; his family had been bringing it up all day — “It’s at 8 tonight!” Earlier, Elijah was watching the livestream, rooting for movies he was part of in 2019, all of which had been lauded by the critics, including “Babae at Baril,” which won both Best Picture and Best Director for Rae Red; and “Kalel, 15,” which received Best Screenplay for Jun Lana.

He sensed his category was up when the best supporting actor winner was announced, and so he stopped. Later, while he was trying to distract himself with work, he heard screaming. He didn’t know if the family was cheering for someone else. And so he tried to find out in the way he knew best: he checked Twitter.

Messages were pouring in — he won. Soon, Jun Lana and Perci Intalan were on the phone telling him that it was all real. Elijah was in a daze, profusely thanking Lana and Intalan, telling them that he loved them over and over. “Paulit-ulit ka na,” they teased him. His younger brother JM, who was doing a livestream, would call to congratulate. Beside him were their parents, Lyn and Melong, who were beside themselves with joy. “Huwag lalaki ulo anak,” Lyn said in tears. “Say thank you to everyone.” In a corner, Elijah’s older brother Jerom quietly wept.

Photo by JL JAVIER

At 20, Elijah — known to his parents and siblings as Jelo — had been named Pinakamahusay na Aktor by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino for a movie he did when he was 18.

“When it comes to myself, I always expect the worst,” Elijah told me over Zoom, his manager Judith Bauer and “Gameboys” producer Perci Intalan listening in. Elijah sat in front of a T.V. set installed on the wall of a hotel room. He wore a sleek brown hoodie from Bench, hair swept over the forehead in a shaggy bowl cut. He was courteous, articulate. He could talk at length, but didn't waste words. He was also visibly focused, a quiet intensity emanating from him through the screen, but still alert to how others around him felt. When someone nearby started to operate a vacuum cleaner, Elijah paused the interview to ask if it was too noisy.

Much like in the show he’s perhaps most known for, only Elijah’s face could be observed. Sometimes, he’d shift his arms, showing the dark-colored beads on his wrist. A lot of things couldn’t be done in the time of COVID-19. But this was the year of making do and trying not to fret inside narrow rooms. In 2020, among other memorable scenes in “Gameboys,” Elijah gave an affecting portrayal of loss from the confines of his own space, launching a series of tearful reaction videos on YouTube. His win at Urian for “Kalel, 15,” which came after a previous one at the 17th Asian Film Festival in Rome, and another win at the 2020 FAMAS Awards (tied with Kristoffer King for "Verdict") officially capped the unlikely year of his ascent, not just as a star of a hit web series, but as one of the most promising performers of a generation.

Art and athletics

Born in August 2000 in Manila, and raised in his mother’s hometown Bacolod City, Elijah Luiz Madiclum Canlas grew up in a household where excellence and discipline were highly prized qualities. The son of a theater actress, Elijah began acting in plays when he was five. Lyn, his mother, did theater and ballet. His father Melong was into sports. They’d agreed that the kids could do theater on Saturdays and then join basketball and badminton clinics in the summer. For years they lived in Bacoor, Cavite, until they moved to Quezon City in 2018.

At first, it was just Jelo and his older brother Jerom who performed in musicals. Then came JM, who would become a voice actor at eight years old and this year, co-star with Elijah in Ivan Andrew Payawal’s web series “Unconditional.” “I live in a very competitive household,” Elijah pointed out as a matter of fact.

Photo by JL JAVIER

Because he is the second child, and eventually the middle child, Elijah became the quiet type. As proof, he mentioned that he’d received the Exemplary Conduct Award at school. “My brothers never got that,” he said. “Ang nakakakuha lang ’nun ay mga behave.” Of the three brothers, Elijah does seem like the more subdued one, and the more defiant. In one of his younger brother’s vlogs where they gamely answered questions from viewers, both JM and Jerom claimed that Elijah was the type who’d roll his eyes when being told off by a parent.

In sixth grade, Elijah found a barkada, but soon after, he was accepted into the Philippine High School for the Arts in Los Baños, Laguna. In Makiling, there was no T.V., no internet, only nature and art. Jerom, who at the time was a theater major in PHSA, encouraged Elijah to study there. Elijah wanted to be away from Cavite for a while, live “a different life.” He was able to visit the campus when they watched Jerom’s plays. His brother’s high school seemed like a lot of fun, even though back then he was only thinking about a good place to study. Elijah, who also eventually majored in theater, hadn’t considered becoming an actor. Since most Filipino movie stars looked a lot less like the rest of us, someone of Elijah’s innate abilities could not imagine a career in the movies. As a kid, he’d dreamed of going to outer space. “I thought back then that maybe when I turned 25,” he said, “there was a chance that I’d become an astronaut.”

And yet in grade school he became “obsessed” with movies. In one day Elijah would watch at least three. He had an inkling that he would become part of filmmaking, whether as a writer, cinematographer, or director. “When I won the Gawad Urian,” he said without the rehearsed humility that has become mandatory for other young actors, “I thought, maybe, I have a chance to make a living out of this.”

Playing parts

Elijah made his debut as one of the children spying for the guerrillas in Janice O’Hara’s World War II drama “Sundalong Kanin,” which premiered in Cinemalaya in 2014. He also has a small role in Ice Idanan’s “Sakaling Hindi Makarating” (2016). In Kaj Palanca and Celeste Lapida’s graceful short film “Contestant #4” (2016), Elijah and Joel Saracho play two men — one old, one young — who have much to learn from each other. Elijah was only 17 when he played the “Young Boy” in the short.

“I remember being very nervous since it was my first time on set,” Lapida said about working on the film, “while Elijah’s done this more, so he knew how to be comfortable around everyone.” When they shot “Contestant #4,” she and her co-director Kaj were around the same age as Elijah, though the actor already had considerable experience in films. They kept their direction simple, allowing Elijah to add a few of his own touches. Whenever Celeste Lapida watched “Contestant #4” again, she’d notice Elijah’s subtle tweaks. They worked again in Petersen Vargas’ “How to Die Young in Manila.” “[His] charm grew stronger,” she said, “seeing a much more confident Elijah. He’s always bibo, cute, and very charming.”

It was in “Sundalong Kanin” where Elijah was noticed by The IdeaFirst Company’s Jun Lana and Perci Intalan when they attended a Cinemalaya screening. Sometime later, the producer Ferdy Lapuz broached the idea of the Canlas brothers working under IdeaFirst. Back then, a project called “Our Father” was in the works. Elijah was one of those who auditioned for the role, but the story called for a younger actor. Nobody got cast as the production was eventually shelved. Over the next few years, the project became “Our Son,” shifting the story’s focus on the child, until it became “Kalel, 15.”

2019 also saw Elijah starring in supporting roles in two other notable films. In “Babae at Baril,” he plays a balut vendor being chased down by a sadistic policeman and a gang of miscreants. In Thop Nazareno’s “Edward,” Elijah makes a brief but indelible appearance as the roguish Renz who initiates darkly funny games with Louise Abuel’s Edward, including betting on whether a patient in the hospital would die or survive.

Elijah discusses his roles with his manager Judith Bauer, and of course with Jun Lana and Perci Intalan. He fully trusts their taste. If Elijah wants to accept a certain role, he’s able to reasonably talk to them. However, it took a bit of time before this synergy was reached. In the past, Elijah would say yes to most opportunities. Eventually, the team was able to help him select projects. “[We] don’t want him limited by labels like mainstream or indie, or film or T.V., or by any genre,” said Intalan in an email. “We’re simply looking for a good role in a good story in a worthwhile project that will keep challenging him. We celebrate his achievements, but we also need to keep pushing him to go further and break free from his comfort zone.”

A deeper understanding

On set, according to Intalan, Elijah is an “enigma.” What he described as Elijah’s politeness and likeability in person rang true during our Zoom interview, but behind this generally affable nature is a person who also doesn’t mind keeping to himself.

“But he is such a pro,” added Intalan. “He knows his lines, he develops character, he plans his performances. Even if you see him asleep in between set ups, you can wake him up and he knows exactly what he is supposed to say and do.”

Asking Elijah Canlas about how he prepares for a role is like touching a nerve. He goes into a zone, parsing something he cares so much about. His preparation, he said, is “rooted in script analysis.” In high school, he studied technique. At the top of his head, he could rattle off the names of Jerzy Grotowski, Konstantin Stanislavski, Sanford Meissner, and Anton Chekhov. After carefully picking apart his character, he studies the others too. He looks into these characters’ relationship to their surroundings. Afterward, he creates a character bio, complete with the character’s full name, birthday, age, zodiac sign, likes and dislikes. Afterward, he goes to the set. By then he has the intention down, the subtexts — he holds on to his character’s wants. Then after that “it’s all about being in the scene.”

Photo by JL JAVIER

“It’s a matter of [knowing] what technique suits you,” said Elijah. He combines these techniques and then comes up with his own. However, Elijah also knows that in filmmaking there might not be enough time to try on techniques for size. When he was just starting, he kept getting the note that he’s “too big” — too theater. This time around, an actor’s performance is magnified through the camera’s lens.

Aware of the potency and elusiveness of inhabiting the moment, he’s careful not to let preparation cripple him.

“Script analysis is the kind of thing I do in advance. When I get on set, I go back to basics. Reacting, listening to co-actors, listening to everything that surrounds you. And then observing. Whatever comes out of it comes out of it. As long as I am the character already at that moment.”

He laughed when I took a moment before asking the next question. “Sorry,” he said. “Ang daming sinabi.”

Work relaxes him. “That’s fun to me — knowing that I’m part of the story and people are going to get to know these stories.” When not working, he watches movies. He could watch anything, but the movies that have stayed with him are “Cinema Paradiso,” “In the Mood for Love,” “Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan,” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” “I’m a sucker for teen movies,” he confessed. He prefers watching movies in the cinema, but lately, he could only watch T.V. shows, such as “The Boys,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and at the time of our interview, he’d just begun with “The Queen's Gambit.” Other than these, lately he’s been watching recordings of his classes in the university.

Elijah is currently enrolled in the BA Philippine Arts program of the University of the Philippines Manila. Since the pandemic, classes had been delivered remotely, semesters shortened. Course packs were sent to those who didn’t have connectivity. Such is the premium Elijah’s parents put on education that even in this chaotic new setup, and on top of everything else going on in his acting career, he manages to go to school. Before the pandemic, he attended his classes, only to leave once the sessions were done. He wasn’t really able to hang out with his classmates. At present, he’s taking only his majors.

“I have the best profs,” Elijah said. “They’re very understanding.” Various forms of art — from contemporary Philippine poetry, oral narratives of indigenous peoples, to local films — enable him to attain a certain depth as a person and a deeper understanding of culture. “I’m able to empathize with my characters better,” said Elijah. He believes in the importance of knowing and learning from the country’s storytelling traditions and cultural practices.

On social media, he isn’t shy to express his views. At the height of protests against the Anti-Terrorism Bill, he joined the voices online in opposing a measure that threatened every Filipino’s right to dissent. In a tweet after his Urian win, he recognized the struggle of those living with HIV in the country. “Bilang mamamayan ng bansang ’to,” Elijah said when asked about his online presence, “we have the right to hold these people accountable. We’re not wishing for the worst, right? We just — all of us — want the same thing, we want what’s best for this country, what’s best for everyone in it. If I see that’s not happening, I have the right to speak.”

He used to keep his social media accounts private, but lately, he’s embraced his public persona more, which is not so different from that of the average university student who occasionally tweets. Only this time, his posts are placed under unusual scrutiny, whether from his fans or casual viewers. But Elijah doesn’t dwell much on it. Confidently, he could say that his supporters know that he values his privacy, and that he takes a stand on political issues.

Photo by JL JAVIER

As Kalel

After Elijah saw “Kalel, 15” for the first time at the 23rd Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia in December of last year, he was stunned. It dawned on him that he’d just witnessed the unfolding of his first lead role in a movie. His director Jun Lana was sitting next to him. Away from home, Elijah was overwhelmed by the experience of seeing what many people had worked on coming to life on screen.

Shot in austere black and white, “Kalel, 15” is about a boy who’s just found out he’s HIV positive. His mother (Jaclyn Jose) abandons Kalel and his sister for no good reason. The sister (Elora Españo) isn’t any better as she shacks up with her drug-addled boyfriend (Cedrick Juan) who spends what little money their mother has left them. An elderly priest, played by the late Eddie Garcia, sometimes visits their house, reluctantly offering support and terse counsel to Kalel. Things turn for the worse, but as misery piles on, Elijah’s hold on the character deepens. As Elijah plays him, Kalel is brazen, as slippery and reckless as any teen. In one scene, Kalel had to sneak into their house and finish off a can of spoiled food. It is remarkable to watch, in such a bleak picture, a performance that thrums with unmistakable integrity, even alongside performers such as Jaclyn Jose and Eddie Garcia.

Speaking about the late actor, Elijah only had the highest praise. He looks up to Eddie Garcia’s filmography as actor and director. “I want something like that,” he said, referring to the actor’s range and longevity.

“A thing that everybody holds dearly”

“Kalel, 15” was supposed to be the biggest story of Elijah’s year. When the pandemic left everyone under lockdown in March, a supposedly niche genre — which has roots in Japan and recently hit mainstream through Thai imports — suddenly found a huge following in the Philippines. By May, Elijah starred in The IdeaFirst Company’s acclaimed web series “Gameboys.”

In the country, creators of Boys’ Love series are perhaps more conscious now of the queer audience’s discerning eye, particularly when it comes to representation. While also incorporating elements of traditional T.V. dramas, Ash Malanum’s script for “Gameboys” is filled with positive depictions of acceptance, consent, and solidarity with women. Pearl Gatdula, played with panache by Adriana So, is a darling among BL viewers, so much so that The IdeaFirst Company created the spin-off “Pearl Next Door.” Ivan Andrew Payawal’s inspired direction of both “Pearl” and “Gameboys” makes the most out of social media interfaces, “selfie” shots, and plenty of close-ups. Gavreel and Cairo’s (Kokoy De Santos and Elijah, respectively) love story not only unfolds during quarantine, but is also greatly transformed by it. The risks of finding love at a young age are weighed alongside the consequences of government ineptitude and the nuclear family’s psycho-emotional grip over queer lives. “Gameboys” was able to encapsulate what took place in the year 2020. The web series expressed the country’s collective grief, and also its tremendous hope.

Being part of the country’s most acclaimed Boys’ Love series, Elijah recognizes the responsibility of being Cairo, the gamer who suddenly finds an admirer among his viewers, especially when “Gameboys” has audiences coming from places as far as Europe and South America. There is pressure: he wants to portray the character in such a way that actual queer people could feel that they are represented well. However, he could only do so much. “They are still entitled to their reactions,” Elijah said. “But things are changing now, the genre is changing, media is changing. I hope that with BL we are headed for better things.”

After the first run of “Gameboys,” more work followed. He and Kokoy were signed by Bench as endorsers. Apart from “Unconditional,” Elijah has “Paano Ang Pasko?” on TV5. Later in the year, Jason Paul Laxamana’s “He Who is Without Sin,” was screened online during the Film Development Council of the Philippines’ Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Elijah’s performance as a broadcast communication major befriended by a news reporter received a Special Jury Prize. Kokoy has Eduardo Roy’s “Oh, Mando,” Rod Marmol’s “Stay-in Love,” and other noontime T.V. stints. Next year, they’ll both have the second season of “Gameboys” and a movie.

Elijah confessed that he and Kokoy didn’t go through a “chemistry workshop.” In fact, on the first day working on “Gameboys,” Kokoy was so honed in on his role that Elijah had to catch up. From day one, Kokoy was game. Elijah gives him a lot of credit for the success of their tandem — “He always elevates his work.” Indeed, Kokoy’s playfulness compliments Elijah’s exacting style.

During a live meet with “reactors” — content creators who make video responses to BL episodes — Elijah would keep quiet in his box, as though he didn’t play Cairo, the boy whom the audience wanted to protect at all cost. Elijah would perk up when asked to share his experience working with the cast, or gush about Wong Kar Wai’s “Chungking Express.” Then he’d retreat into his quiet corner again. During the same reactors fan meet, Elijah cracked up watching Revil Oh — who turns BL “reacting” into zany performance art on YouTube — transform into a figure of bashfulness in front of Kyle Velino who plays Cairo’s rival Terrence. When not playing a role, he seems more comfortable watching from the sidelines. But he knows that part of the engagement in the BL genre is the extension of the dream. In their appearances online, he and Kokoy call each other “baby,” the endearment their characters Gavreel and Cairo have for each other. Whenever Elijah was quiet during online meets, Kokoy would coax him out, pulling off his now famous delivery of Gavreel’s line “Babyyy!”

Photo by JL JAVIER

Among the good things to come out of fandom is an altruistic impulse. Fans organize donation drives and activities that raise funds for those affected by typhoons and the pandemic. Elijah Nation, which is composed of Elijah’s supporters, raised money for People Living with HIV, taking after the advocacy of “Kalel, 15.” They gifted Elijah a certificate of donation during his birthday last August. He was moved by the gesture. He told me that it was the best gift he’d received from his fans.

“This is a thing that everybody holds dearly now,” Elijah said of Boys’ Love. “It’s a genre that’s supposed to normalize queer love, and that’s special.”

During Eddie Garcia’s last day on the set of “Kalel, 15,” Elijah walked up to him to say thanks. “Ano ka ba?” the actor swatted the air with one hand, downplaying the young actor’s gratefulness of having just worked with an industry legend. They had just finished watching a playback of Garcia’s scene. Nobody knew then it would be his last movie. To this day, Elijah remembers Eddie Garcia’s advice to him. Be considerate of everybody’s time. Study the script, including the other characters. Be kind.


Photos by JL JAVIER
Produced by DON JAUCIAN

Erratum: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Elijah's father Melong Canlas. We apologize for this oversight.