On Joel Torre

Joel Torre moves with the confidence of a man who is secure in his place in the firmament of showbiz stars.

After all, it's not like there's anything else left to prove. Torre has been part of such highly regarded productions like Lino Brocka's "Gumising Ka Maruja" and Peque Gallaga's "Oro, Plata, Mata." He's been in "I Love You Mama, I Love You Papa," with Superstar Nora Aunor and "Anak" with the Star for All Season Vilma Santos. He's done such challenging films like Lav Diaz's five-hour epic "Batang West Side" and Mike De Leon's "Bayaning 3rd World." He's also tried his hand at directing, and has even produced a number of films, from John Sayles' "Amigo" to Jon Red's "Ang Beerhouse." He's also won a slew of acting awards: a best actor award from the Philippine Movie Press Club for "Unfaithful Wife," two Urian Awards for "Batang West Side" and "Bayaning 3rd World."

There's also the fact that he has also managed to carve out another success for himself outside the entertainment industry. Torre owns "JT's Manukan," a chain of restaurants serving Bacolod inasal recipes in seven branches all over the metro, so he has something to fall back on if the acting doesn't work out.

"I decided to have this, isa lang, para I don't have to worry about putting food on the table. 'Yung hindi namin mabenta, kinakain namin," he jokes. "Dati ko pa napag-isipan magsimula ng restaurant. May food business kami sa Bacolod, my mom cooks for families na walang cook or kitchen."

But even the seemingly unflappable Torre also gets the chance to be excited about things every once in a while. One such thing he's excited about right now is Erik Matti's crime drama, "On The Job." In this 20th anniversary offering of Star Cinema, produced in collaboration with Reality Entertainment, Torre plays mentor to Gerald Anderson's hitman character.

"On The Job," or "OTJ," doesn't start playing in Philippine theaters until this Wednesday, August 28, but it has already garnered buzz abroad. It premiered in the Director's Fortnight section of the Cannes International Film Festival, where it was memorably given a standing ovation by the crowd. Torre even experienced being recognized on the streets of Cannes!

"We did not expect anything at all. I was walking in the streets of Cannes, nakikilala ako, even the French people," he recalls. "I was walking along towards my hotel and people recognized me. 'You're the Filipino actor. You're in 'On the Job!"'

Just recently, Torre won the best actor plum at the Puchon International Film Festival in South Korea for his role "OTJ," and the actor admits to being more than a little emotional.

"It's hard to absorb. You think you're ready but no. Kapag tinawag ka na sa stage, you really have to pause. Totoo talaga na you get emotional pero hindi naman hagulgol," he says. "Nag speech ako pero todo tibok ng puso. It's more about your emotions naman. Medyo naramdaman nila na heartfelt."

It's certainly great returns for a role that Torre says he has held on to for four years, ever since Matti asked him to star in a short for a pitch Matti was planning to show to producers.

"Ang unang akala ko, it's just to help them out, not knowing that there were brilliant plans for it. But nothing came of it until Star Cinema came along," he says. "I love the role, if you're asking me why I did it. It was a really good material when we were shown the script. Alam mo na may ginagawa kang maganda."

Torre says this constant search for a good story is what has made his career last as long as it has, starting from when Peque Gallaga first featured him as a nine-year-old in a movie shot on 8mm film. Add to that discipline and dedication, which he says he also sees in this new generation of actors and actresses.

"They're very dedicated, disciplined, and they know what it's all about. These are people who aren't here for just a fast buck. Ang kulang lang sa kanila is that they don't have as interesting material as we had back then. Mas marami kaming pagpipilian, so mapipilitan ka talagang gumaling," he says.

In this 60 Minutes interview, the actor whose voice had to be dubbed for his role in "Oro, Plata, Mata" talks about how he started as a performer, how he was overwhelmed by the reception "Amigo" got at a festival in Spain, and whether he thinks theater is a good training for young aspiring actors. (Ronald S. Lim)

STUDENTS AND CAMPUSES BULLETIN (SCB): You've already done so many different roles over the course of your career. So what attracted you to do the role in your upcoming film "On The Job"?

JT: Because I love the role, and because I will be working with friends. I knew that it was a really good material when we were shown the script. Kasi una ang kuwento niya lang is about these inmates who are being hired as assassins. That was it. It was interesting enough pero nung nabasa ko ang entire script or the last draft, I realized na maganda. They added more characters, the corrupt political system came in. Then wow, this became a more interesting material because they're not just confined in your prison cell and they're doing the jobs.

Actually, it was offered to me by a friend, Erik Matti, and we're both from Bacolod. So I said yes and the guy who portrayed my protege was my nephew. Ginawa namin 'yun right before "Amigo." I think it was November 14, birthday pa ni Ronnie Lazaro. So we did the shoot. Nung una, akala ko it's just for, you know, to help them out, not knowing that there were brilliant plans for it. I did it for free, but I think they gave me a talent fee for the day, an honorarium. I remember, I was able to buy beer after. Nothing came of it because I got hold of the CD given by another nephew who edited it.

In 2010, we had a big family reunion in Bacolod and they showed it. Akala namin that was it. It was a very good short film. Puwede mo gawing entry sa Cinema One 'yun. And then, sabi ni Erik we're producing this and this is for pitch material. So we pitched it. Tadd Brown of Twitch magazine got hold of it. That's why we were like, "Guys, do the film, do the film." We were really pretty excited because it has gained attention from just a clip.

When we were doing it, nobody really bought into it. Ang daming kuwento pero wala naman may interest when it comes to money down. Everybody was just like, "Maybe when we have money." Nothing came of it until Star Cinema came along.

We we started shooting December last year and we felt very positive about it. Alam mo na may ginagawa kang maganda. You could feel na this is another one.

SCB: So during the three years you were waiting, hindi nawala from the back of your mind 'yung role?

JT: It's been there. What kept me more interested is that namatay na ang action genre. There were no action movies, no action stars but politicians or bad comedians. Parang nawalan sila ng niche because action films are very expensive. It suffered, by comparison against big-budgeted Hollywood summer movies. But we knew that we had a pretty good story behind it. I realized, it's not an all-out action movie. It's a crime-thriller. Tapos I was so busy doing a lot of stuff. I was co-producing Amigo, we did all the prep. So I was away. I had a good sabbatical for a year for that movie. Even my TV series medyo nawalan ng focus because I wanted to help out as a co-producer and was offered a lead role for Amigo.

Nung pinalabas ang Amigo, si John (Sayles) came over again for the promotion. There was this incident that hit the headlines. Si John is a prolific writer. Sabi niya "You know Joel, I think I have a story for you. You should try to get hold of all these Filipino crime stories." Nag trigger yung idea sa kanya nung nagsuicide si Angelo Reyes, and there was so much story behind that. I told him not to spill the beans. Si Erik naman came over na baka we might be doing it anytime and I was just waiting. So we did it. Tama yun na we have a rich resource for Filipino crime stories. We should explore and exploit that potential. It's a good genre. Tapos si Jessica Hagedorn, we saw each other there in the premiere of Amigo at the AMC Theater in New York. It was a big event. Sabi ni Jessica, I have this great idea about Manila Noir. I've heard of it. I've heard about the Mexico Noir, etc. Tapos sabi niya, "Is it okay for me to talk to John because I would like to have him contribute something." We facilitated pero nothing transpired with that talk. Pero these two people validated the idea that we have a rich source of material for Manila crime stories. It could be the start of our next genre movement that is not necessarily action-packed. They're unrealistic but real stories about the dark side of Manila. You know, what's happening in the city. It's really dark and deep.

GAINING INTERNATIONAL ACCLAIM

SCB: Sabi niyo kanina, when you were shooting it, you realized that it was special. But did you realize it was Cannes-standing-ovation special?

JT: Oh no, we did not expect anything at all. We just got feelers that directors got interested. Lots of people like Twitch XYZ really worked for it. Remember may focus na sa Philippine and Southeast Asian cinema. Medyo saturated na rin sila sa new ideas and they are really looking at Asia for resource, especially China, business wise. Ang Twitch at XYZ binili nila ang "The Raid," 'yung Indonesian movie and they were able to sell it. These are the same people who latched on to our project. So with that resource, may American distributor who can sell the movie.

When we decided to go to Cannes, sabi ko, "of course, I'm going." What kept me was the soap opera. They told me that "you cannot leave." I said "No, I have to go." Once in a lifetime lang 'yung experience ng Cannes and probably the ultimate. So, they gave me five days, two days of travel, three days in Cannes. And it's all worth it.

SCB: We don't even have one day in Cannes (laughs).

JT: You can be in Cannes anytime but not at a movie. It's different. True enough, I was walking in the streets of Cannes, people there were (gesturing like shooting guns) "You're the actor!" Nakilala ako, even the French people.

SCB: Kayo ba ang tinuro?

JT: Oo, nakilala nila ako! It was the last day for the Directors' Fortnight and there was a big party in one tent by the beach. Maraming tao and I was drinking. There were these old ladies across the tent (gesturing like shooting guns with their hands). Kasi the poster of the film in Cannes was me. Pinili 'yun ng XYZ and it was what Cannes decided to use as a poster. Our posters were lying around everywhere.

Umuwi na ako and I was walking towards my hotel when people recognized me. "You're the Filipino actor. You're on the "On the Job!" 'Yung festival director of Montreal naman, "We watched your movie." I said, "I'm not the producer, I'm just an actor."

It's a very accessible film kasi with the art houses. We have new directors for the competition. We got a standing ovation during the last performance.

SCB: So ito ang first film niyo in Cannes?

JT: I think so. I'm not sure if I ever had a movie in Cannes. Maybe "Captive" was shown. This one, they bought the film. Ang editor ng Amigo was also my co-producer in Bacolod. Ang target kasi diyan is to sell or distribute the film and we did. So far, it's the most successful Filipino film in the international film market.

SCB: How about in the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) in South Korea, did you experience the same things you did in Cannes like the locals recognizing you?

JT: When I said I was going to Korea, again hindi ako pinayagan. I said I have to go. Pupunta ako dun kasi si Erik andun, pati si Richard Somes and other filmmakers. I wanted to be together with my friends in a film festival. There was a big Filipino contingent and the screening was sold out.

But then they decided to kill my character in "Juan Dela Cruz." So I went there just for a vacation and to have a good time. I didn't know that there was a category for best actor. I didn't even know that it was in competition. I've been to Puchon before, in PiFan in 2005 for another film. Walang expectations from me. So we were there, wala kaming agenda, wala kaming politics, wala kaming tension. We were just so happy. Then the other filmmakers started gravitating towards our group, kasi ang saya saya namin. Iba kasi ang Pinoy kapag nagkakasiyahan.

Tapos for the final two days, tatlo na lang kaming naiwan kasi umuwi na 'yung iba. We wanted to watch the closing. A jury member, who was the program director of the Directors' Fortnight, invited me for lunch. I met him in Cannes. Pagdating ko dun, I realized the jury head was there. I asked him, "Is it okay to tag along?" Ang akala ko may event ang movie because it's a no-no to mingle with the jury. So we had lunch, wala akong ka tensyon tensyon nun. I went back to the hotel at 3 p.m. Erik told me that we had to be at the lobby at 6:30 p.m., he got the news. He said, "Nominated pala tayo!" We looked at the program, nominated pala kami. May category pala sa Best Actor. After nun, medyo may kaba, may tensyon na.

We wanted to go to the closing of the festival na relaxed lang kasi relaxed lang ang mga tao dun unlike sa Cannes na talagang bow tie and suit. Pero nung nalaman namin na nominated kami, nag coat na kami. Kasi may feelers na sa akin na you might win. Pero ang iniisip ko, hindi ako mananalo. When we got it, that's it! Then more people gravitated towards our table during the party.

SCB: Totoo ba na naiyak kayo when you got your award?

JT: You get emotional eh. It's the same feeling when I was in San Sebastian, Spain, for "Amigo." In their theater kasi nasa taas kayo. May tradition sila na pagbaba mo andun 'yung audience waiting for you. Parang it's your curtain call. Tapos nung bumaba kami, pinalakpakan kami. 'Pag pasok namin sa kotse naiyak na kami. Tanong ng isang Spanish actor na kaibigan ko rin, "What happened to Joel?"

It's hard to absorb. You think you're ready but no. Ready ka na sa speech, what if, what if? Kapag tinawag ka na sa stage, you really have to pause. Totoo talaga na you get emotional pero hindi naman hagulgol. Nag speech ako pero todo tibok ng puso. It's more about your emotions. They don't understand English anyway. Pero medyo naramdaman nila na heartfelt.

SCB: So even after all these years of receiving awards, you still get emotional?

JT: Well, this is an international award and I know the jury, hindi 'yung pipitsuging jury lang, piling-pili sila. I've been to PiFan in 2005. Ang laki na ng change since then.

SCB: In Cannes and in South Korea, what's their perception of Filipino cinema?

JT: In the last Cannes, we were the biggest Filipino contingent to date. Maganda ang reception sa films natin. We had a varied spectrum of Filipino films, different genres. With four films there, it says a lot. We have art house ideas. Ito naman medyo indie. Somehow, may focus sa Philippine Cinema. May nagsabi nga baka next year, may pavillon na tayo. And On The Job is a good model, a benchmark on how to marry an independent idea with a mainstream team but you also have to spend sa technical.

Sa Korea din, there were seven filmmakers. There's this Asian film funding group, you pitch and if you're chosen you get a grant to do your movie. Natalo kami dun pero instead of being a bad sport, we were still laughing sa table. Parang sila, "Ano ba naman itong mga Pinoy ang iingay." But people have been telling us the movie was awesome. In the Q&A, they were listening close to details. Marunong sila manood ng pelikula. After we won, siyempre they were all going to the winner's table. We got three offers that night alone.

SCB: Are you open to producing more films like "Amigo?"

JT: "Beerhouse" was also a co-production. It's sometimes encouraging and discouraging, but a producer-friend of mine told me that I shouldn't feel bad if my first movie didn't make anything. The time will come when your movie will make money, kailangan lang mahaba ang pisi mo.

SCB: Have you tried directing as well?

JT: A lot of TV shows. Mga "Maalaala Mo Kaya". TV is a nice job, it's rewarding financially, but after a while you work so hard taping an episode, tapos tapos na. Hindi mo na mabalikan, that's it. I'd rather have movies that can maybe survive the test of time.

SCB: What would draw you to a film that would make you want to produce it?

JT: A good story, and then we go for the director and the people you work with. Ano 'yung potential nung film? I'm lucky I have this restaurant because I more or less have the luxury to choose. May fallback position ako.

SCB: Are you looking for a specific script? Are you looking for an action film, a drama film?

JT: There are movies in my mind that I want other people to direct, some of them I will direct.

STARTING YOUNG

SCB: How did you get into this profession?

JT: 'Yung ate ko pinilit ako (umarte) during summer vacation. Ayaw ko nga, kasi summer. "Sige na kailangan ng bata dun." "Okay, sige." I was seven years old. That was in 1969. First performance namin nanood pala si Peque Gallaga. After the performance, he went straight to the house kasi barkada siya ng kapatid ko. Eh ang laki laki ni Peque tapos bata ako, long hair siya na hippie so nakakatakot. He's like a biker. Sabi niya, "From now on, I'm moving to Bacolod, I want you to be in all of my plays, which I did. Tuloy-tuloy 'yung hanggang college. Pag graduate ko, nagsulat ako ng letter of intent to Peque for a job. I left Manila for "Champoy." Pagka graduate ko, my first job was a PA (production assistant) sa Champoy.

SCB: Is your first movie "Maruja" or "Oro, Plata, Mata"?

JT: Officially, it's "Gumising Ka, Maruja." They shot it in Bacolod in 1979, and Peque, I think, was the local casting director. But if you go official, official, si Peque made this 8mm movie, I think I was eight or nine years old then. Lumalabas na ako nung estudyante pa lang ako. I came out in "Pabling," a Bernal film. Peque was the production designer.

SCB: Naging mahirap ba ang transition from theater to movie and television?

JT: Hindi naman kasi that time we were following a school of acting, kay Eric Morri. Mga generations of acting teachers, mga methods, so it's an offshoot of that. Dun kami nahasa.

SCB: How about the way you do things in theater?

JT: It's still different. Well, you have to know your lights, and all. Pero 'yung proseso, the same, as long as you service the material truthfully, it makes it real.

SCB: Is your first award the Urian for "Oro, Plata, Mata?"

JT: I was nominated. I was over dubbed in the film. I had a very thick Ilonggo accent. When I was dubbing, tawa ng tawa 'yung mga nasa production. Ang lakas pa ng dubbing nun. They had to dub me because people can be discriminating when it comes to accents. Nakakatawa para sa atin 'yun. Eh ang mga French may thick accent 'pag English, bakit hindi tayo natatawa? Why is that?

SCB: So you had to lose the accent to get hired?

JT: Yes.

SCB: Was it difficult for you? How long did you have to adapt?

JT: After my third film with Marilou Diaz Abaya, pero ang role ko naman pipi (laughs). But for the third film, kumuha ako ng coach to remove my accent. I had to learn eh, until now. It's my second language so effort. Napilitan talaga ako. I'm a non-Tagalog speaker pero pinursigi ko. For me, that's an accomplishment.

SCB: Is that prejudice on accents still around?

JT: Yeah. They use it as a comedy relief. I think that's not fair. There are foreign actors who try to break into Hollywood but just couldn't. Bihira silang makapasok unless people there, somehow, were able to hurdle the language problem, di ba? (In an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent) Look at Schwarzenegger, until now, he speaks like that. But it's not funny, it's not discriminating.

Or even French actresses like Marion Cotillard, who won for "Piaf." When they go to Hollywood or the States, they have to learn to put up an accent. And there's a school for that, a speech class for actors. If you have an Italian role, you study Italian. Nakukuha nila.

SCB: Does that discrimination still exist here in the country even as more films from the Visayas and Mindanao compete in festivals like Cinemalaya?

JT: Because they know it's a Visayan film, and they have subtitles. But when your film is in Tagalog, nag-shoot ka sa Bohol, and the Tagalog is baluktot, nakakatawa, di ba? Look at the French actors before, like Alain Delon. They would speak straight English and they become accepted. At the same time, there are people who cannot learn the language so nalimit 'yung exposure nila.

'INVEST IN YOUR CRAFT'

SCB: Is there still a role you'd like to portray?

JT: Marami! I'd like to do Juan or Antonio Luna. They're interesting. I want to play a transgender. Ang first work onstage ko nga sa school play was a Can-can dancer (laughs). You can do anything. I'm still open to the possibilities and I'm sure marami pa 'yan.

SCB: Ano 'yung mas gusto niyo, acting o directing?

JT: Acting! It's my first job and it's less stress. Directing, maybe once in a while you want to do it because it's not compromising and at the same time there's a possibility that you get to work onsite.

As an actor, you can stop. Nung nagdi-direct ako sa TV, hindi ako makakain, kasi nakasalalay sa iyo lahat. Sabi ko ayoko, pa destress muna ako. I'll do acting. If I ever do go back to directing for the movies, it has to be my movie and somehow I should be writing the material. Mas madali ang acting eh, anytime you can do five films a year. As a director, limited na limited ka. I don't know about the pay, pero for directors, it's their vision, at the same time it's an ego thing.

SCB: Have you tried teaching young actors?

JT: Yeah, workshop and talks here and there. Once you teach, you learn more, kasi nakikita mo how it relates or how it transpires. Mas naiintindihan mo if you're following a curriculum. In fact, my first acting workshop as a teacher with Peque, Erik (Matti) were my students in acting.

SCB: You've worked with a lot of directors, but is there someone you like working with a lot?

JT: Peque, magkasama kami for a long time. Mike de Leon. People are scared of him, but I'm not. There's Lav Diaz and Richard Somes. I'm proud to have worked with a lot of great Filipino directors, starting with (Ishmael) Bernal, (Lino) Brocka, Gallaga, Mike de Leon, even to a point kay Eddie Romero. Doon ka makakakuha ng influences mo.

SCB: How about an actor or an actress that you like bouncing off with?

JT: Cherie Gil, we work a lot. Sina Ronnie (lazaro), Pen Medina, Bembol Roco. Ang saya-saya namin. It all depends on the producer.

SCB: Would you advise aspiring actors to start in theater first?

JT: Theater is a good acting school, but if you can learn good habits, it's also a place where you can also learn bad habits. Kailangan pag-aralan mo talaga 'yung craft mo. You go to workshops and you invest in it. You have to do further studies on your craft, para any time of the day na tawagin ka, you can deliver.

SCB: How was it working with today's young actors?

JT: They're very dedicated, disciplined, and they know what it's all about. These are people who aren't here for just a fast buck. Merong mga nandito na hindi nila alam 'yung work ethic. They don't know the craft or process. It's frustrating. Pero sila Gerald, ang kulang lang sa kanila is that they don't have as interesting material as we had back then. Mas marami kaming pagpipilian, so mapipilitan ka talagang gumaling. Ngayon, kahit nakapikit, kayang-kaya na.

Iba rin ang disiplina namin dati. The film was 35mm, so hanggang take two ka lang. You have to meet the mark. Kapag take three actor ka, baka hindi ka na kunin kasi mahal ang film. The perception will be bobo na artista 'yan, hindi niya kaya. You have to be on your toes and that's why we discipline ourselves. That's why they should invest in their craft, not only in fashion and cosmetic surgery (laughs).