John Arcilla: ‘For now, I want
to remember the smiles’

The first Filipino to win Volpi Cup—coming at a time he lost his loved ones—
talks about acting, memories, and the people he's portrayed

John Arcilla as corrupt media personality in On The Job: The Missing 8 (HBO photo) and as Ramon Hipolito in 'Probinsiyano'

(Clockwise from top left) Arcilla as Fr. Suarez,  Heneral Luna, and Renato Hipolito

First week of September was a time of joy and sorrow for actor John Arcilla.

When I got in touch and congratulated him, he replied, “Thank you, Pabs. You are all my inspiration.”

What I didn’t know then was that his youngest sister, whom he fondly calls Tetet, had passed away only a few days earlier.

That explains why he was on the verge of tears when he gave his thank-you speech at the awards night of the 78th Venice Film Festival last September 11. “Someone close to the family left us,” he merely said.

John Arcilla giving acceptance speech for Venice Film Festival awards on video call (Screengrab from awards night video by GR Rodis)

Still, he was able to deliver his message straight from his grieving heart. “I can’t find the right words about how I feel today! This Volpi Cup is such a symbol of a milestone in my work as an actor. Just like my cup of life, which is so full of blessings; I wish, though, I could share this with all my loved ones who have left us in this lifetime.”

He admits that the Venice Cup is his most prestigious award so far. It did a lot to lift his broken spirit.

His ultimate resolve: “I am transforming this achievement— victory or honor—so that the loved ones I am missing can feel my heart and its outpouring of gratitude for all who love me and inspired me to get to where I am today. I thank God for sharing their presence in my life. True, some of them are gone. I wish I could embrace all the people I love and my victory in one cup. For now, I want to remember the smiles and the joyful memories.”

Strange coincidence: a day before the awards night on September 11, the actor posted on Instagram a photo of 2007 Coppa Volpi for Best Actor winner Brad Pitt holding his trophy.

John Arcilla (center) with photo composite of some past winners of Volpi Cup Best Actor—clockwise, from bottom left: Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, George Clooney, Javier Bardem

He added a caption: “Here is the roster of some great actors who won the most coveted Volpi Cup at the Venice international Film Festival. I wish we could have one someday! If you dream, as they say, dream big!”

Fellow actor Dennis Trillo replied: “Hindi magtatagal ay mangyayari din yan, Heneral” (referring to Arcilla’s famous role as Heneral Luna).

Next day, September 11, on awards night, the actor fulfilled his fantasy.

He became the first Filipino to receive the Volpi Cup for Best Actor from the prestigious film festival.

He said in a video message to the awards night crowd: “If there’s one thing I will regret (tonight), I won’t be able to kiss my Volpi Cup in Venice. I’m the happiest actor tonight because I know we came from different countries, we have different cultures, but I can feel oneness tonight. I can feel that you understand me, and we understand each other because of the arts and cinema. Thank you so much.”

Director Erik Matti accepting Volpi Cup Best Actor for John Arcilla. (Screengrab from awards night video by GR Rodis)

He won for his role as a corrupt media person in On The Job: Missing 8 directed by Erik Matti.

Indeed, there are so many memories from his 55-year life.

He has had his share of losses.

Last year, in the middle of lockdown, his father, Dominador Gil Alemania Arcilla, who was born in Catanduanes, died, and Arcilla couldn’t attend his burial because of travel restrictions.

What stayed with him were memories of his parents, such as when he was brought to a moviehouse to watch The Sound of Music.

Our paths crossed in the early ’80s when I joined the Cultural Center of the Philippines and handled CCP’s Arts Monthly Magazine.

John Arcilla (middle) with the author and another guest at a premiere night of a foreign film in Manila

This was the time I saw the actor in his stint in Tanghalang Pilipino, up to the early ’90s, where he essayed roles in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and in Filipino classics such as Orosman and Zafira and Walang Sugat. 

After less than two decades in theater, he ventured into film, winning Best Actor for his role in Gil Portes’ Mulanay and Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Ligaya Ang Itawag Mo Sa Akin.

Some years back, he was cast as security guard in the Tony Gilroy action thriller The Bourne Legacy, and shortly after, was commended for his role in the independent film, Metro Manila, which won the 2013 Audience Award for Best World Dramatic Film at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, USA.

He could not have enjoyed what he is reaping had it not been for his love of theater 

After all these big breaks in film, Arcilla now admits, he could not have enjoyed what he is reaping now had it not been for his love of theater.

He once said, “I think the joy (of theater) is in the challenge of creating a different world right there onstage, in front of your audience. Of course, you are not just playing roles, you are continuously studying histories, cultures, human behavior, and bigger things than just a ‘boy and a girl, you and me’ stories. Every other play feels like the culmination of an event, and you can look at it on many levels—in human, communal, and global terms.”

The acting bug bit Arcilla as early as age seven when, before going to bed and staring at the ceiling of his humble home, he would imagine himself singing onstage before a big audience and reveling in the applause. It was the Martial Law years, and his family was living in the middle of his mother’s coconut plantation in San Luis, Aurora, Quezon, near the hacienda of former President Quezon.

In Baler, Aurora, in grade school, he had his early taste of theater watching the comedia, the moro-moro and the cenaculo in the town plaza. At an early age, he also got to read an illustrated book of Severino Reyes’ Walang Sugat.

At Mount Carmel College in the same town, he became a champion orator and perennial winner in declamation contests. On top of that, he was winning one amateur singing contest after another.

His formal introduction to theater was through his mentor and first cousin, Arnulfo Querijero, who was part of Imee Marcos’ Dulaang Kabataang Barangay in the ’80s. After being invited to perform excerpts from Broadway musicals, Arcilla began dreaming of doing the lead in stage plays.

This dream was realized when he joined Tanghalang Pilipino, the resident theater company of  CCP, then under theater director Nonon Padilla. He played the lead in the moro-moro-inspired Orosman and Zafira which he even got to perform in Paris. He was also the lead Temyong in Walang Sugat, as well as Crisostomo, Simon and José Rizal in Ryan Cayabyab’s Rizal musical trilogy Noli Me Tangere, El Filibusterismo, Ilustrado.

There were other memorable roles—in Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, among others.

He imbibed a lot from various teachers, starting with his high school mentor Rossana Palispis and Querijero, and later on from Bodjie Pascua, Rody Vera, Soxy Topacio, Zeneida Amador and Tony Mabesa.

‘Nonon is so respectable that you will do everything in your power to do what he’s asking of you’

But he considers his long TP training with Padilla as the major push that made him mature as an actor.

“It was our rigid training, the script analysis he programmed for us, that gave me access to the basics of theater technique. Nonon is so respectable that you will do everything in your power to do what he’s asking of you, without him having to nag you. But in between readings of James Joyce and Shakespeare, he would crack a joke, and it would really hit everyone’s funny bone.”

But while he was happy with theater, he was also aware of the sad plight of theater actors. He was deeply saddened when actress Adul de Leon died of cancer; the wake was held in her tiny apartment, and friends had to raise money to purchase the coffin. He also learned that Behn Cervantes, who passed away a few years ago, had to sell property to pay for medicine and hospital bills. Another theater colleague, Bong Embile, also said goodbye soon after, and it was fundraising time again for his hospitalization and burial.

“I felt so scared thinking that after a theater person has given everything for his art, he will die just like that and be unable to afford his own burial,” says Arcilla.

Fortunately, Arcilla has been kept busy by more lucrative work. His first TV commercial made popular the famous line, “Coffee na lang, dear,” and opened doors for him outside of theater.

Recently, Arcilla has also invaded television through the teleserye.

He couldn’t attend the Venice awards night because he was shooting episodes of the long-running Coco Martin teleserye, FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano, where he plays  Renato Hipolito, a former Cabinet member-turned-syndicate leader. The teleserye is now on its sixth year!

For him, there is only one source of acting: the truth within. “You can magnify it or make it subtle or subdued, depending on the medium and the genre. You tend to act big in theater, but on TV and film, it would look too magnified. But some theatrical gestures will sometimes add more to what is needed by the character you are portraying. Sometimes, both caricature and genuine emotion work, depending on the character you are working on.

 “But as much as possible, I try to veer away from caricature, unless it is really required. I think I am lucky that I don’t really get just one type of conventional character. I love them all, from Pangako Sa ’Yo to A Beautiful Affair. Most of the time, I usually look for and dig into each character to make my work more exciting, while still in context.”

‘You are a thousand times better than the best actor you want to be’

His advice to aspiring actors: “Every person is a special kind of artist. Be yourself. You are a thousand times better than the best actor you want to be. If you want it, it will come—for as long as you work hard for it.”

For now, the actor is associated with heroes and villains and at times, a subtle comedian.

He became a film history icon when he brought back to life the war odyssey of General Antonio Luna in the widely acclaimed film, Heneral Luna, written and directed by Jerrold Tarog.

To this cineaste, the film’s most arresting moment is General Luna playing the guitar as he contemplates his fate in this revolution, where some leaders want him out of the picture. With Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata playing in the background, this scene has flashbacks of his idyllic family life in Binondo, showing him enjoying a rare happy Christmas before the onset of the revolution.

This part provides much-needed quiet, the contrast to the battle scenes.

One of the last films before the Venice awards was his portrayal of the life and times of the late healing priest, Fr. Fernando Suarez.

He says the role was not new to him. He grew up in a convent in Quezon, where he served as an  altar boy. He is related to the Arcilla clan of Catanduanes, the most notable members of whom are the late Bishop Jose C. Sorra and Bishop Manolo de los Santos.

His father did not join the priesthood, but his mother used to be a nun.

He also told us about his St. Joseph’s College years, when some people mistook him for a free thinker. He probably didn’t believe in rituals. As he reviewed the religious sects  in his milieu, he concluded that priests and others who represent other beliefs had one thing in common: they are human too, prone to make mistakes and susceptible to human weaknesses.

Therefore, in preparing for his role as Fr. Suarez, he read everything he could find about the celebrated healer priest. Then he realized the man of the cloth had his earthly side even as he was equally drawn to serving God in his own way—by healing.

Arcilla didn’t want to mimic the character because he believes that true acting is achieved by imbibing the essence of the man.

He says acting is a journey he wants to continue. “So many things to explore and so many great characters to portray after Heneral Luna and Fr. Suarez. Given a chance, I can play Ninoy Aquino and yes, Digong Duterte. But I am still hoping I can portray the life and times of the late President Ramon Magsaysay.”

He admits that he veered away from the Catholic faith after the German pope, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, also known as Pope Benedict XVI, resigned on February 10, 2013. The move was unprecedented, as every Church head since Gregory XII in the early 15th century had fulfilled his papal duties until death.

Recalls Arcilla: “I was in New York and I was in this church, and there was this silence that felt like something had ended. I said, how can a leader of the biggest religious congregation be so weak as to admit he couldn’t lead anymore? As the days wore on, I realized that spiritual strength is also admitting your weakness. This did not come easy. Later in your life, you realize that admission of weakness can heal, and it should be seen as a position of strength. I kept this in mind when I portrayed Fr. Suarez. I know of his unwavering faith, but I also know his weakness. I like it that I can see life from the vantage point of many characters I have portrayed and people I came to know.”

The healing of John Arcilla didn’t come easy.

He had to tread on difficult paths and struggle to find the center of truth in his life.

To find out how he fared in his latest role as Sisoy Salas, the corrupt media person in On the Job: The Missing 8, we watched an episode on HBO Go after the awards night.

I could not imagine Arcilla as a small-town commentator inside the radio booth, pompous and self-righteous. But the actor had metamorphosed into a radio and TV person, an incredible cross between Ted Failon and Jay Sonza.

How his character evolved into a small-town demigod drunk with power is indeed a tribute to Arcilla’s incredible acting. By coincidence, other characters in the Erik Matti film look like contemporary government figures.

A reviewer noted: “As the aperture widens on the intensely corrupt landscape of a society under strongman leadership (Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s name is never mentioned, but the ruthlessly suppressive tactics he is known to employ are everywhere), the focus also narrows onto one man’s painful ethical reawakening.”

Too bad, Arcilla was not there to witness the five-minute standing ovation given the film in the Venice premiere night.

Also, his fellow actor Dennis Trillo got high ratings from no less than the jury head, Bong Joon Ho, the Oscar-winning director of Parasite.

The actor was content to just look at the photo of his Volpi Cup intentionally left on the floor by director Matti.

Matti posted the photo of the Volpi Cup: “Now, how do I bring this home, John Arcilla?  It’s one heavy piece of cup! Congratulations!!! You deserve it!”

Erik Matti’s photograph of the Volpi Cup of John Arcilla, purposely placed in the hallway of the awards night venue. (Photo by Erik Matti)

Read more:

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Philamlife Theater: A quiet death

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves the opera, classical music and concerts, and who has had the privilege of meeting many of these artists of the performing arts and forging enviable friendships with them. Recently he’s been drawing readers to his poems in Facebook, getting known as the ‘Bard of Facebook.’

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