I tell Cruz about it because it just seems appropriate. The poem can say the same about character actors, too. They exude a quiet force that is vital to the makings of any piece of cinema. We don't appreciate them enough, really. Supporting roles aren't the sexiest or most glamorous of titles. But in many ways, these guys are the lifeblood of a production.
Cruz is one such talent who has managed to seamlessly integrate himself into whatever project he's been on. The performer, whose career spans more than 120 acting credits, has always been comfortable in supporting roles. He endeared us as Paco Oliveros in Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, catching his big break at the first Cinemalaya Film Festival. He was in Ang Anak ni Brocka, Liway, and Iska. In mainstream Filipino television, we've had him pop up as side characters in shows like Ang Probinsyano or Pepito Manaloto. Cruz has been a favorite of Lav Diaz, too, appearing in films like Kagadanan Sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto and Melancholia, among others. He's been everywhere, it seems. But he's rarely ever been seen.
Cruz might have reached the pinnacle of cinematic glory when he was cast in the Romanian psychological thriller To the North by Mihai Mincan. Its debut screening at the 79th Venice Film Festival earlier this year earned thunderous applause and it was eventually presented the Premio Bisato D’Oro 2022 for Best Film. And right there, sitting in the stands, was Cruz, who received a standing ovation for a hell of a performance. It's the same Venice-based critics’ group that had given National Artist for Film Nora Aunor her best actress citation in the festival back in 2012, when she starred in Brillante Mendoza's Thy Womb. Quite the company.
“Noong nag-premiere sa Venice, natuwa lang ako sa sarili ko dahil naging audience lang ako. ‘Yung nanonood ako ng isang pelikula tapos nahihiwalay ko ang sarili ko doon sa screen: ako bilang manonoood at ang mukha ko sa screen," he tells me. "Siguro dahil sa edad ko, puwede ko nang ipaghiwalay."
He continues: "‘Pag tapos ng pelikula, palakpakan na. Tapos ako pala ang pinapalakpakan. Doon lang pumasok sa isip ko na ito na pala ang ginawa namin. Doon na ako naluha. Naluha ako sa ligaya. Ang daming nagtatanong sa akin, hindi ako makapagsalita. Kapag nagsalita ako, tutulo uhog ko e.”
On the Director-Actor Partnership:
"‘Yung mga direktor na nakakatrabaho ko, sa tingin lang e. Wala kaming sinasabi sa isa’t-isa pero nauunawaan naming ito ang gusto."
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Cruz has no pretentions; he knows what he's about. We can tell by the way he carries himself. On the day of the shoot, he only has his trusted Kalinga-weaved satchel and a duffel bag of white polos with him. He has no assistants carrying his stuff around nor brands to flash. We had to book him a ride to the place, too. All in a day's work for an everyday man who plays everyday people for a living. He isn't used to photo shoots like these, he explains.
"Bakit hindi si Dolly?" he asks, referring to Dolly De Leon, a fellow thespian who is also having a breakthrough year. He appears to have trouble with superstardom.
It's been a long time coming. "Hindi pa rin ako makapaniwala," he says of the recognition he's finally gotten this year. It makes it all the more triumphant knowing that he's fought off some demons of his own. Success and sobriety sound good together. Cruz took a while to achieve both.
"Nasabit ako sa drugs. Naging sakit ko din e," he shares. "Along the way, kapag nagustuhan mo, yari ka na. It’s all about choosing the people you associate with. Hindi ko kino-condemn [ang users]. Sakit ‘yon at mayroong lunas. Hindi criminal issue."
That's empathy. There's some truth. No snobbery. All are essential qualities to being a great character actor. He says that these kind of people are those who knows how and when to stop pretending. And he's one of them. It's something he's taken to heart since his days in the theater. This year, Cruz, together with De Leon, Chai Fonacier, and Ruby Ruiz, have been recognized on the international stage, and all of them have, in one way or another, each gone through the scars and growing pains of our local stages.
Cruz, ultimately, is a theater man through and through. He's been this way since the fifth grade, he says, when he attended the Kasaysayan ng Lahi Summer Arts Workshop at Nayong Pilipino. After graduating from the Philippine High School for the Arts, Cruz would forego college and head straight to work at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. He went in as a propman and then became an assistant stage manager; then a stage manager, actor, and a would-be teacher to kids who wanted to follow a similar path.
On Younger Actors:
"Ang payo ko nga ay maging karpintero ka. ‘Yung mga ganoon. May ibang aktor, nagpapanday e. Hanapin mo ang sillouhete ng tao. Kung gusto mo maging master carpenter, kailangan mo mag-impok ng skill. Ganoon din sa pagiging aktor. Nakuha naming ‘yan sa teatro."
He's considered a consummate professional by co-stars, directors, and crew members alike. The man has been through the trials and tribulations of the business and has come out of it ironclad. Hence, the versality. He's willing to take on anything as long as there's that "stench" to it, he says.
Cruz can be the devoted father to a child struggling with their identity. He can play the deadbeat husband with a grandson who has special needs. Most people may know him as the loving father or uncle in a TV series, or a policeman with twisted morals in a Martial Law movie. A great character actor, after all, is a transformative talent who can internalize just about any context, and do it in the most colorful ways possible.
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On His Favorite Roles:
"Kailangan kong kumbinsihin ang sarili ko. Sa isang salita, ‘yung appealing na gagampanan ko ‘yung may amoy, ‘yung may stench, kumbaga, or purgation sa kanyang pagkatao. Mayroong sinulat [na characters] na one-dimensional. ‘Yung iba naman ay two-dimensional. Pero kapag naging three-dimensional, ‘yun talaga ang appealing."
The Romanian director Mihai Mincan, apparently, saw this in Cruz when he was looking for his To the North main man. Mincan had scouted Cruz in Diaz's filmography, specifically in Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan. There, he played Wakwak.
"May isang eksensa doon na kumakanta ako ng ‘Silent Night.’ ‘Tuwang tuwa siya sa eksenang ‘yon," Cruz notes.
It took nearly four years of negotiations for both parties to do the production. To the North is based on a true story from 1996, where a religious Filipino man named Joel found a stowaway in a ship that was in transit. It was a perfect role for Cruz. The stench was too pungent to ignore. Cruz reveals that he wasn't even sure he was really going to star in the film. When he read the first six pages of the script, his character didn't appear. "Seven hanggang dulo, andoon na e."
He would see it through. The film was shot in Bucharest the year prior, with a filming schedule that lasted three months and had two weeks' worth of rehearsals every single day. During the first week, Cruz had rehearsed with the Bulgarian actors. Another week was allotted for the Filipino team and then another for the camera, lights, and actual sequences. The system of the production wasn't entirely different, but the preparation was. It comes with the territory as the guy.
“Napakahirap pala maging bida kasi wala kang pahinga. ‘Yung mga kasama kong Filipino actor, pumupunta kung saan-saan. Ako lang ang nagshoo-shoot. Nagme-message pa sakin na andito daw sila, inuman, nagvo-vodka na sila doon," he quips.
Cruz says that he now has a greater appreciation for local stars. "Naunawaan ko ang kanilang mental health. Kaming mga supporting actor, hindi namin nararansan ‘yon.” For the sake of the interview, I had to get in one of those show business questions in there somewhere: when you ask a star what's in their future. I ask him about the possibility of more leading roles.
"Bakit naman ako tatanggi?" he says as we wrap up. I shake his hand and he books a ride. He leaves without much fanfare, except for some photos with people at the office who recognize him.