Bembol Roco on the Drug Scene During Martial Law, Being Discovered in Rehab, and His Most Iconic Role
Esquire: What was it like seeing yourself onscreen in Maynila 38 years later?
BEMBOL ROCO: They did a very good job restoring the film. It felt really good seeing my young self. The beauty of the film is still there. That’s the reason why I feel really proud and I feel very good about it— because now the younger generation can see this magnificent film, this great film of Lino Brocka and hopefully that they will also appreciate it as much as we did almost four decades ago.
ESQ: The restoration really looks beautiful…
Bembol Roco: It is! It is! I was really very happy seeing it in that form. Ang galeng! It was really a flashback—and the beauty of it [is] this was my first major film, so I remember every detail of every scene, the day we were shooting it, where we were shooting, how I felt when we were shooting it, you know—and how much Lino took time to mentor me, make me understand my character and make me learn the important things that go into making a film as we went along. It was, of course, very relevant and very important to me, this film, up to now. In fact, it may still be the best movie I’ve made ever in the last almost 40 years now.
ESQ: Maynila is considered one of the best films in Philippine cinema ever.
Bembol Roco: And I tend to agree, in ways more than one. It has so much class, lessons to be learned. And the way it was done was near-perfect.
ESQ: What were the most memorable scenes for you?
Bembol Roco: The most memorable part of that film for me was the finale. We started shooting early in the evening for that particular scene that involved the running, my killing Chua Tek, and the running again before I finally got cornered. By the time we were at that corner, it was already past 3 a.m. and I was already exhausted. But Lino pulled me aside and said, “Okay Bembol, this is the finale, this is the most important scene for you. This is the culmination of everything important in the last four weeks. Think of all that you’ve been doing and give it all here. Concentrate ha. I’ll give you time, just tell me when you’re ready.” So okay ready na ako, they set me up in a corner of the street, he shouted, “Lights, camera, ready, ready…” You know Lino, he’s always so upbeat. And then after the first take, he screamed, “Cut! One more!” I was already so tired I protested almost in tears, “Lino no no no, ayoko na!” And he said, “Stand up, stand up! This is what we need! Come on, one more time!” I was already crying, saying I was too tired, saying, “Ayoko na, last na ‘to, please!” begging Lino to make me rest. But he insisted, saying it was the perfect time to shoot the scene. I was really crying, real tears. It was so memorable for me because the fatigue and frustration that my character needed to show was partly, really what I was feeling. Of course, [there’s] also the part where the character Ligaya was laid to rest in the cemetery. That was also tough. There were many other things actually.
The young Bembol as Julio Madiaga on the set of the movie that made him a star.
ESQ: Tell us about the scenes in the construction site…
Bembol Roco: That construction site is now actually the Bureau of Internal Revenue building in Quezon City, the one near the Post Office between East Avenue and Quezon Ave. It was just being built then. And yes, it was tough [doing the scenes there].
ESQ: Have you read the book 1,001 Films to See Before You Die?
Bembol Roco: Yes! And Maynila is the only Filipino film on that list! The still photo printed on that list was actually shot in Espana Extension near the riles. We shot Maynila in April of 1975 and it was shown shortly after.
ESQ: How much of Julio Madiaga is Bembol Roco?
Bembol Roco: A lot, I think. What he went through was not exactly what I went through but we are both from simple families, I came from a rather average family. We were certainly not wealthy. And I knew the ins-and-outs of the streets, alam ko talaga ang mga kanto-kanto, I was very much into the texture of the streets, I was very much on the ground, so to speak. So Julio Madiaga’s innocence as a young boy going through the city...well, I had that, the sense of not knowing what was in the next corner, what was going to happen—I was the same way. I was particularly shocked when we got to the scene of the call-boys, that scene that was shot in the casa. I was shocked! I always knew there were call boys in the street but that there was a casa for men?! I was, Wow, I did not expect that at all. Imagine, I mean, I was barely past 20 then.
ESQ: Did your director have a fun time showing you all that?
Bembol Roco: Oh, of course! He did. In a way para talaga akong tanga. So it was awkward in a sense, and yet it turned out to be very effective because the innocence was really there. I read it first and said, “Ayoko ‘to…!” I was so resistant. Imagine, I just found out that casas exist and now I had to play working in one of them! But I had to do it! I had to do the scene. And apparently, it opened my eyes to a bigger world, a world I never imagined.
ESQ: I imagine it was the first time you were ever remotely intimate with a man.
Bembol Roco: Oo naman! I shared that scene with Ricky Jimenez. He was very supportive. That scene was so difficult to shoot. The space was tiny, steaming hot, and the sound crew had a tough time placing boom mics where we were. Ang init-init no’n. Ang hirap mag-shoot. Naalala ko, ang lagkit.
ESQ: Alaskado ba kayo sa set about it, kasi first time mo maging intimate with a guy?
Bembol Roco: No, Lino was rather particular about not breaking my character, so he watched out for me that I wasn’t teased about it, so I don’t get awkward. “Wag niyo na alaskahin yan!” Syempre the gays had fun with me on the set. I was this young, innocent boy thinking the entire time, “What did I get myself into?!” I still consider myself an accidental actor. Back then and to this day.
ESQ: Is it true that they met you at a drug rehabilitation center?
Bembol Roco: Yes, they discovered me at a rehab. Sa DARE Foundation. But before that my dream was to be a basketball player, because my father was a coach in Ateneo de Manila and the Mapua Institute, and he was a professor there. So my dream went mostly around the university, varsity setting. In fact, I got to play for Mapua in the NCAA and I had that wonderful experience of enjoying a championship in what must’ve been the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. I played forward.
[Acting] has a lot to do with things I’ve experienced being involved in drugs and all these things. It was a dark side of my youth, really, it was an unbelievably dark time in my younger years.
ESQ: So after this basketball stint, by the time you’re 20—you’ve already gone through rehab and recovered?
Bembol Roco: Oh yes, it was so fast.
ESQ: Malakas ba yung drugs noon, Sir?
Bembol Roco: Ano ka ba, oo naman. Lahat meron! Lahat sinubukan. Uppers, downers, anything you wanted under the sun was available at that time. It was a crossover from the tomadors—mga mang-inginom, to the flower power, to the grass thing, then eventually to the rough hard drug scene.
ESQ: But this was the height of Martial Law…
Bembol Roco: Oh yeah, sure, kaya nga may Lim Seng [a drug lord tried, convicted, and executed by firing squad in 1972]. I was there. I was under rehab then. Early into my teens nagsimula na ako talaga and got deep into it. The coincidence about the whole thing—so I graduated from rehab, and I didn’t know what else to do, so after my rehab, I worked for the DARE Foundation as a mentor. Isa ako sa mga una doon. Of course, I was one of the first graduates of the drug rehab program. In fact, I was so in it, so deeply in it, you can’t imagine.
ESQ: So, no real nor formal acting experience prior to this discovery?
Bembol Roco: No. Wait, I had one! I was forced into joining an elocution-declamation contest in grade school. Because I hated Filipino, the subject—in fact, I flunked Filipino, the subject, in Grade 6. I was asked by my teacher to join a declamation contest, to recite “Ang Panday” I think it was, to make up for my grade. So I memorized six long stanzas in Tagalog. I really didn’t like the subject!
ESQ: Julio Madiaga of Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag flunked Filipino in Grade 6! Can we publish that?
Bembol Roco: Well, it’s a fact. Go ahead. In order for me to pass the subject, the teacher asked me to join the elocution contest. So I did. I did well in the rehearsals but on the actual contest date, I stood alone, onstage in front of all the classes, delivered two stanzas and froze. I froze! I forgot everything. I blanked out so bad that I just bowed and left the stage barely halfway done with the piece. It was so humbling! It was a very important incident in my life—na kahiyahiya. Sana binatukan na lang nila ako. But I told the teacher, “I did my part, so you have to give me my grade.”
ESQ: Where did the acting touch come from if there was no training in between? Do you think you were just born with it?
Bembol Roco: I think it has a lot to do with things I’ve experienced being involved in drugs and all these things. It was a dark side of my youth, really, it was an unbelievably dark time in my younger years. Up, down, side, side, name it. I was there.
ESQ: So how much of Julio Madiaga is not Bembol Roco?
Bembol Roco: I think I love as much as Julio Madiaga did—for others, not necessarily for a girl, I mean just for others in general. I think we were both simple and we’re both accommodating, very easy to deal with, simple wants, simple needs, no fanfare, I think in that sense we are a lot alike in character. But when I get mad, I really get mad, I can get violent to a point. And Julio was pushed slowly into that and even in the film you will see scenes that show Julio slowly becoming more capable of rage. Like nung hinarang niya yung hold-upper, di ba? I guess parang Julio was slowly becoming like me. I guess like Julio, I’m pretty easy going, but don’t get us mad. I’m a Scorpio, and we’re like volcanoes.
ESQ: During the course of the film, do you think you became Julio Madiaga completely?
Bembol Roco: No, it was a role I had to do. A very important role though! Being the first major role I’ve ever had to take in my life. So I had to give everything I had to playing the role. But I knew it was just that.
ESQ: Of course you weren’t the first cast for this role…
Bembol Roco: Oh yeah, it was supposed to be Jay Ilagan. In fact they already shot for four days with Jay as Julio Madiaga. Except I think the producers, the director thought he was a little too heavyset at that time, for the role.
ESQ: Was that strange? Especially since Jay Ilagan at that time was the husband of your co-star?
Bembol Roco: Ah yeah, there were a few things there. First of all, prior to Maynila, I was cast in a very short role in a film called Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa. I was with Jay Ilagan in that film, in fact. Lino was already discussing Maynila and how Jay and Hilda were the ones cast and that they were giving him time to be more physically fit for the role. That was October 1974 and Maynila was set to film six months later. I think when April came, Jay still didn’t quite look the part yet and he didn’t meet the expectations of Lino. I think they needed someone who looked hungrier.
ESQ: Did Hilda Koronel ever kid you about nabbing the role from her husband?
Bembol Roco: No, never.
ESQ: One of the most difficult scenes I believe was the scene in the motel….
Bembol Roco: Oh man, yes it was a difficult scene. Did you notice our sweat? Grabe yung pawis namin, totoo yon! Tanghaling tapat yon, ang sikip. Maliit yung room, tapos with the lights pa. Naku. And the emotion. Hilda, the beautiful actress that she is, at that time she was the pro, ako yung bago, sanay na siya. That scene was her scene. She had the monologue. I was just there listening to her.
ESQ: You’re being very gracious. You were really brilliant there.
Bembol Roco: Oh, thank you but then—I was really very focused on the scene. I was the new one. I was learning as we went along. Lino would teach me before every take. Hilda was almost a veteran already by then. So I was focused on just doing what they told me to do, on keeping up. Focused on portraying Julio Madiaga. Being a newcomer, it wasn’t that simple to portray a very complex, sensitive role with so much depth.
ESQ: And for someone so young!
Bembol Roco: The way I saw it, my capacity for depth was there, with all my real-life experiences of despair, and ranges of feelings, I think it was that I kept an open mind just absorbing everything that helped a lot.
ESQ: Were there times during the filming that you felt like quitting?
Bembol Roco: Oh no, no, no. I was very hyped up. I was very excited. It was, Wow, man, I knew what an opportunity it was, I had to give everything I had, and kailangan kong galingan. I had to perform.
ESQ: If you don’t mind us asking, how much were you paid for leading the cast in Maynila?
Bembol Roco: I don’t mind you asking but I’m not sure if it’s okay to be revealed now, kayo na bahala ha. But I was paid P8,000 for the entire film. In 1975 that was a decent amount. Not that big but decent. But I came from P200 a day as a bit player for Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa, and before that as a staff member in the rehab center I was earning P600 a month! And then here’s this fellow offering me P1,000 for five days’ worth of work! Then 8K for a film. I didn’t even think. I just said yes. It wasn’t even about “being an actor, or possibly being famous,” it was a decent amount for shorter days of work. Oh yeah, man. I’ll go there.
ESQ: You worked with two film legends, Lino Brocka and Mike de Leon, what was that like?
Bembol Roco: Wow, what a privilege. We had problems, not on a personal level, but we had those, of course somehow with Mike because he was such a perfectionist. Certain scenes there would be something amiss, he’d walk out of the set and go home, and Lino would go to him and figure things out and get a compromise. I think they complemented each other. These two great men, they listened to each other and made things work. Everyone was temperamental. But it worked.
ESQ: During the premiere, I spotted you and Mike de Leon at the premiere talking to each other.
Bembol Roco: Yes! Mike and I had a long conversation after the premiere of this newly-restored copy. It was so good to see him in a good mood. I don’t think we’ve talked as much since 1975. Imagine, for over 38 years, wala.
ESQ: What did you two talk about during the premiere?
Bembol Roco: First I congratulated him and thanked him, we agreed the restorers did a wonderful job. He mentioned something about Swerte. I think that they got the support to restore this film. He even said, “O sige, I’ll get in touch with you soon and we should do something together again.” Coming from him! Wow, so I said, “Sure, I’ll wait for your call anytime, Mike.” And I will.
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.