John Arcilla aka Heneral Luna: I am a Filipino first, an actor second | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

John Arcilla


John Arcilla
John Arcilla

THEATER stalwart John Arcilla has skyrocketed from semi-obscurity to, at the very least, semi-fame, thanks to the left-field success of the historical biopic “Heneral Luna.”


His feral performance as the hot-blooded revolutionary hero Antonio Luna has made him a recognizable public figure, specially when he goes out wearing Luna’s trademark handlebar moustache and military uniform on speaking engagements.


“Gusto nilang murahin ko ang mga barumbadong opisyales ng gobyerno,” says a bemused Arcilla, who’s happy to oblige his adoring public. Luna has become a touchstone of sorts for society’s discontents—from government corruption to the incompetence of public officials. And for many Filipinos, it seems, Arcilla is Luna.


In fact, he’ll be reprising the role in the coming Gregorio del Pilar biopic. Far from rebelling at being so typecast, Arcilla hopes to sustain the momentum of nationalist sentiment following the success of “Heneral Luna.” The best part about being famous, he says, is that it gives him a platform for expressing his thoughts and opinions on social and political issues.


Arcilla, who turns 50 next year, spent his formative years in Baler, Aurora, where his parents took refuge during the martial law years. At age 7, he began to show an interest in the stage, and joined the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) while still in high school. He earned a degree in Mass Communication from St. Joseph’s College of Quezon City, and was a scholar of the Actors’ Workshop Foundation under Laurice Guillen and Leo Martinez.


It was with Tanghalang Pilipino, the resident theater company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, that he got his stage legs, eventually graduating to lead roles. Since then he’s gone from strength to strength, expanding his range to include roles in film and television.


In 2012, he bagged a small part in the big-budget Hollywood thriller “The Bourne Legacy.” The following year he starred in “Metro Manila,” a British independent film which was entered in the 86th Academy Awards and earned Arcilla a best supporting actor nomination in the British Independent Film Awards.


Before all that, however, he was an activist, going to the barrios to teach children of peasants and laborers as a “cultural worker.” He broke with the orthodox Left when it opted out of People Power in 1986. Since then he has chosen to follow his own path toward social and political change.


Outside the stage and screen, Arcilla runs an environmental non governmental association called Care and Protect Life on Earth that he started in 2003. He also put up a community animal shelter called Stray Home, an outlet for his love for animals. (Arcilla shares his home with nine poodles, a Belgian Malinois and a Siberian Husky, and has an almost psychic connection with his pets.)


Though Arcilla’s current success has been decades in the making, there’s no denying that “Heneral Luna” has been a career breakthrough. Hopefully, the convergence of Arcilla’s art and his activism can continue in the future.


“I am a Filipino first… before I am an actor,” he says when asked about how he plans to choose future roles. “Makakatulong ba ako sa enlightenment ng audience o hindi? Makakatulong ba ako sa pag-evolve ng society o hindi?”


Has “Heneral Luna” changed you?


Not really. I think mas may chance ako ngayon na marinig ng tao, kung ano ’yung mga iniisip ko tungkol sa mga bagay, but pareho pa rin. Like, I’ve been very nationalistic since I was a kid, pero iba kasi ’yung tingin ko sa nationalism. Hindi naman siya ’yung bibili ka ng local products at tangkilikin ang sariling atin e nationalistic ka na. Mas practical ’yung tingin ko e, more on genuine na paglilingkod sa bayan bilang Pilipino. You don’t need to be a politician to do that, and matagal ko na siyang prinsipyo, bata pa ako, and I think my parents put that in me. Mas nasasabi ko lang ngayon sa mas maraming tao kaysa sa discussions ng barkada, kaibigan or special groups dati. Ngayon mas pinakikinggan na ako ng mas maraming tao, because would you believe, after the film, ini-invite ako ng different organizations, mga educators, businessmen, salesmen and all, and they want me to speak on nationalism and patriotism—with my moustache on!


Ano’ng gustong marinig ng mga salesmen?


Gusto nilang murahin ko ang mga opisyales na barumbado sa gobyerno. And then, pagkatapos noon, isisingit ko ‘yung prinsipyo—if you are a salesman, how can you serve your country, how can you serve your bayan?


The good thing is, I’m wearing my moustache and I’m playing Antonio Luna, and they allow me to do that, because that’s the image of Heneral Luna—’yung nakita niyo na mumurahin niya ’yung mga baluktot sa trabaho bilang supposedly tagapaglingkod ng bayan. I think ’yun ’yung dinepict sa kanya nung film, and ’yun ’yung inilagay na space ng audience for “Heneral Luna.” So every time they see me with my moustache on, they want to hear punyeta and all, especially kung mumurahin mo ’yung mga inaasahan nila na magse-serve sa kanila.


Aktibista ka rin dati?


Yes. My dad was active sa labor unions during the ’70s. I think ’yan ’yung reason kung bakit we had to transfer from Manila to my mom’s place in Baler, Aurora, kasi labor leader siya.


You started in theater and then you did movies, television, nagkaroon ka ng hit commercial, ’yung “Coffee na lang, dear.” You’ve been in the industry for so long pero it’s with “Heneral Luna” na parang you’re suddenly the actor of the year. Have you come to terms with that, have you wrapped your head around that idea? Mas busy ka na ba? Tumaas na ba ang talent fee mo?


Yes, mas busy, mas maraming invitations. Talent fee—as in double! Pero sila ’yung nag-o-offer e, so I think, “Ah, ’yun na pala ’yung level na na-reach nung status na na-create ni “Heneral Luna.”




You don’t have a manager to do that for you?


Tita Angge (Cornela Lee) is supposedly my manager but more as agent ’yung scope nung work niya; parang exclusive lang siya sa ABS-CBN. Most of my international invitations and productions na sinasalihan ko, direct sa akin. ’Yung aking mga speaking engagements, kay Anthony Pangilinan naman.


Would you say you need to have a manager at this point?


Yes—kaya lang ayoko kasi na i-recreate ako e or igagawa ako ng image. Kung ano lang ’yung na-reach ko at kung ano ’yung realistic na ma-reach noon, mas gusto kong i-push lang siya, ’yung natural evolution ba. Kasi in the first place, when I got the role and when I got to this place, parang culmination lang siya ng lahat ng efforts ko ever since. So, kumbaga, kung lalaki pa siya or tataas pa, mas gusto kong mas natural ’yung progression. Kasi this one is different, it’s not actually me—it’s Heneral Luna. Parang mas gusto nilang si Heneral Luna ang mag-guest kesa sa akin, ganoon ang nangyayari.


Hindi mo ma-shed ’yung character?


Well, that’s also one good thing, kasi hindi ako mata-typecast. Every time I’m going to wear my moustache and the uniform, it’s Heneral Luna. But I’m still free to do everything without my moustache. Ang ganda para sa akin, makakagawa pa rin ako ng kahit ano. Hindi ako makakahon doon.


What’s been the craziest response you’ve received form ordinary people or fans when you go out in public?


Pag nag-picture-taking gusto nila naka-ganon ako [points finger]. Tapos, “Sir, sir, sir, murahin mo ko, sir!”


Do people easily recognize you without the moustache?


Yes. Heneral pa rin ang tawag nila sa akin. At tsaka umaakap talaga sila. Inaakap nila ako. Parang, suddenly, “Thank God you’re still alive.”


Do you enjoy the attention?


Mas marami lang naman ngayon e. Dumami lang naman. Ang kagandahan lang nung attention nila sa akin, may relevance tungkol sa ating bayan. Hindi nila ako ina-idolize dahil ako ay guwapo, dahil matangkad, hindi ganon e. Nako-connect nila ’yung kanilang [values] doon sa naramdaman nila sa pelikula, and I’m very happy about that. In fact, ’yung na-iinvite na ako to give speeches on patriotism, gustong gusto ko ’yung role na ’yon, na somehow nakakapag-inspire ako ng tao, ng kapuwa ko, na hindi lang nila ako kinagigiliwan ng walang katuturan.


What’s your favorite moment doon sa “Heneral Luna”?


Almost everything. Kailangan kong maging paborito ’yung buong project.


But when you watch it?


Well, ’yung before the assassination, nung nagpa-plot na sila, kasi doon ko naramdaman ’yung mismong mga tao, they go, “Oh no, no, no, this is not happening. Oh no.” Ako din kasi ganoon ang effect sa akin.


But according to Ambeth Ocampo, that was even milder, the death scene?


Yeah. It was downplayed. The real account was, the arm was already dangling and the intestines were all coming out.




Saan mo hinugot ’yung ultra-machismo ni Heneral Luna, ’yung personality na ginamit mo para sa role?


I think may ganoon din ’yung family namin. I was brought up in that kind of environment. Ang clan ko may pagka-ganon. In fact, ang mother ko may pagka-Español ’yung kanilang pagpapalaki sa bata. My grandmother sa mother side is a cousin to the Quezons sa Baler. Mayroon silang ganoong klase—maboka at masalita ‘pag nagagalit. Pag bunso ka hindi ka kailangang sumagot sa sinundan mo, dapat ’yung second sibling hindi sasagot sa panganay, ’yung third hindi sasagot sa second and first. Once sumagot ka, sasampalin ang bibig mo, and that’s their right bilang panganay. May ganoon kaming upbringing.


Where do you think you would go from “Heneral Luna,” at least role-wise?


Siguro more historical characters na somehow iko-contemporize mo, like Rizal’s Kabesang Tales or Pilosopo Tasyo.


Gusto ko din gawin si Juan Luna, tutal magkapatid naman sila, magkamukha and very interesting din ang kanyang story—how someone can kill his wife and yet he was also a very famous and talented person. Saan nanggagaling ’yon, ’yung angst na ’yon? Magkaibang-magkaiba si Antonio at Juan Luna, extrovert-introvert. Antonio Luna was fire and Juan was water, and yet very powerful water like a wave. Ang sarap sanang gawin.


Pero ngayon, I’m doing “Birdshot,” environmental naman ang theme, which is also my advocacy. So, ok lang sa akin kasi from historical, environmental naman; ang ganda kasi ibang-iba siya. Although ’yung role kasi is another uniformed man, so sabi ko nga sa kanila: ‘OK, last na to ha? Pagkatapos ng uniformed man, OK na ako dito.’” Si Mik (Mikhail) Red, in-invite niya ako for this film. OK lang naman, pero sa mga next projects, parang ayoko munang mag-uniformed man.


Now that you’re getting offered all these things, what do you say no to now? How do you choose your roles? May mga tinanggihan ka na ba lately?


Yeah, ’yung mga parang walang makukuha ’yung audience talaga na value kahit kaunti, kasi somehow nag-provide kasi sa akin ng space ’yung audience e, kung ano ’yung kanilang nakuha from “Heneral Luna,” so baka ine-expect nila na sa next na pelikula ko may makukuha rin sila. Although sa lahat naman talaga ng pelikulang ginagawa ko, wala namang ganon talaga na commercial lang na walang katuturan.


You were cast in two international films, “Bourne Legacy” and “Metro Manila.” Noong nangyari iyon, inisip mo ba na magaling ka talaga, or that nahasa ka na ng years of working?


I was the first Asian to get nominated for best supporting actor in Great Britain in the film category [for “Metro Manila”]. Si Lea Salonga sa theater. Pero na-confirm or na-affirm? Hindi ko kasi tinitingnan na ganon e. I’m just doing my job. So na-affirm siguro sa sarili ko na I’m doing my job. Kung i-appreciate man siya o hindi, pareho pa rin sa akin kasi I have to do my work well, whether it gets appreciated or not.


Kumakanta ka rin, right?


Yes. I started as a singer when I was a kid, and then I was a singing actor at the Cultural Center of the Philippines through Ryan Cayabyab. I was one of the pioneers of Tanghalang Pilipino Actors’ Company, with Tata Nanding Josef, Shamaine and Nonie Buencamino—under Nonon Padilla. I was there from 1990 to 1997, seven years.


What do you recall of those early years?


They were one of the best stages of my career as an actor. We’d be doing a play now, then rehearsing for another play while having a script analysis for another play; so you’re working on three scripts at the same time. Ang laking factor sa training ko as an actor. At the same time, I was doing movement exercises, voice exercises, musicals, straight plays, script analysis, character analysis, so hindi siya acting-actingan lang, it was a rigid training for actors. I must say that Nonon Padilla is my mentor. Well, my first mentor was Tony Mabesa, but ang father ko talaga sa pag-develop nung aking knowledge sa theater is Nonon Padilla.


Have you been to a bookstore lately? Because one of the best sellers in the bookstore is this Ambeth Ocampo book. Did you ever imagine you would be on the cover of a best-selling book?


Hindi ko alam kung bakit hindi ako na-overwhelm doon sa lahat ng ’yon. Parang in-accept ko lang siya: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Kasi hindi ko naman siya makita na ako. I’m just depicting a character, but which is good for me, I think, kasi ibig sabihin wala akong tendency na magkaroon ng messianic complex.


That movie also brought to the fore how our heroes turned against each other, and betrayed each other. What did you think of that?


Well, lahat naman ng bansa may kani-kaniyang dark past, aminin na natin. Ang nakakalungkot lang sa atin, kung hindi pa naiisip ng mas maraming Pilipino, ilang taon pa lang ba tayong malaya? Nineteen forty-six lang tayo supposedly binigyan ng independence ng Americans, and that’s really very ironic because they were in our country and they were “giving” us independence…


E hanggang ngayon, nandoon pa rin ang mga foreign policies e. Malaya na ba talaga tayo? That’s the question…


How did you develop that kind of philosophy? Bago lang ba yan o matagal mo nang pinag-aaralan?


Matagal na. Martial law baby ako e. Ang sabi ko nga, siguro it came from my parents, kasi normal sa amin yung discussion na ganito since I was a kid sa dinner table. And then I was teaching kids noong college, mga anak ng magsasaka at manggagawa, bago ako naging scholar ni Johnny Delgado sa Actors Workshop Foundation. Well, I started my training sa Peta, so mga Theater of the Oppressed, and then nung nasa college na ko, I was a scholar of St. Joseph’s College of Mass Communication; naging coordinator ako ng Theater Arts sa kanila at ang siniserve ko ay ang community.


Noong People Power, gusto ko sumama sa Edsa pero ayaw sumama ng mga leaders ko at officers… Ayaw nilang pumayag, nakita ko ’yung hard line. Isa ako sa mga officers noon; hindi ko sila sinunod, sumama ako sa People Power.




Other than that kind of personal past, who is John Arcilla as a person? Huwag na philosophical. (Laughter)


Well I have this foundation. It’s called Care and Protect; it’s an acronym of two phrases, Care and Protect Life on Earth Foundation; it’s an environmental foundation, it’s my own. Itinayo ko siya in 2003. We’ve been helping disadvantaged people. I have this free tutorial program for in-school youth, kasi we discovered na sa public schools natin, hindi kagaya noong panahon natin na eight hours tayong nag-aaral, sila three shifts in a day, and 60 to 75 students in one classroom, so ang ginagawa ng mga teachers ipinapasa nila lahat ng estudyante. Kahit hindi pa marunong mag-spelling or mag-plus or mag-minus, nakaaabot ng Grade 6 at nakaka-graduate kasi pangit kasi sa kanilang record na maraming babagsak kasi may quota. Ang nagyayari, ’yung mga bata, Grade 6 na, Grade 4 na, hindi pa marunong mag-spelling ng Tagalog o Ingles, e paano mo ipapaalam ’yung Math o Science e parehong Ingles ang pag-aaral noon? So may isa kaming program, ’yung Complementary Education for Holistic Development program, nagbibigay kami ng free tutorial program on Math, Science and English. Mayroon kaming volunteers from different schools.


People don’t know that.


I founded it myself. I don’t ask for any help from any person, especially ‘pag may lumalapit na mga politicians, hindi ako pumapayag, kasi mage-expect sila sa iyo in return. So, kahit may mga kaibigan akong politicians, hindi. Isang program lang ’yon.


Ang second program is out-of-school youth naman; nagbibigay ako ng workshop on performing arts, tapos ’yung sa parents ’yung Fit Earth, Fit All, binibigyan namin sila ng training sa fitness. Kasi gusto naming mapaintindi na we cannot be totally fit if the Earth is not fit, so kailangang maging environmentally aware din sila. So kahit magpa-sexy, kung ang ini-inhale mo naman ay polluted air, useless, hindi ka rin healthy. ’Yung mga batang binibigyan naming ng training, ano’ng connection ng iyon sa environment? Binibigyan namin sila ng ecological situationer on the Philippines. Sa aking performing arts program sa Sining Kalikasan, pinag-aaralan nilang kanta saka mga plays at sayaw, environmental din. So magiging aware sila sa situation ng environment sa mundo, tapos ine-encourage namin sila na gumawa ng regular Operation Linis, green planting, so in a way ang bayad nila sa amin is actually social service. ’Yun ay naging offshoot ng pagkapagod ko na magalit sa gobyerno. Sabi ko, tutulong na lang ako, kasi pagod na ako’ng magalit kasi wala naming nangyayari.


How long has the program been going on?


I started it in 2003, but it was SEC-registered [Securities and Exchange Commission] in 2008, and it is also recognized by the DSWD [Department of Social Welfare and Development] now. I’m with a group of teachers, volunteers, my staff.


What are your other interests?


Well, I have dogs. Isa sa aking programs ay ang Stray Home. Stray Home is parang stay home, yung R is in open and close parentheses. Supposedly, maga-adopt kami ng stray dogs, kaso kung ilan lang ’yung kaya ko, ’yun ang ina-adopt ko. Ang ginagawa na lang namin, pag merong mga nanganganak na dog sa amin, sa neighborhood, nagkakaroon kami ng Puppy Turnover Ceremony. (Laughter)


So ang mangyayari, mayroon kaming open panel kung papaano mag-alaga ng aso at bakit ka mag-aalaga. You should treat them like family, tapos mago-oathtaking sila na sila ay mag-aalaga nito katulad ng pag-aalaga nila sa environment kasi sila ay bahagi din ng ating environment.


How many dogs do you have?


I have 11 dogs. Dalawa doon ’yung pina-adopt sa amin. Supposedly stray sila kaso in-adopt na lang namin. Isang Belgian Malinois at isang Siberian Husky, and then I have nine poodles. Medyo magulo, pero aksidente ’yung iba doon kasi supposedly magkahiwalay sila during mating season kaya lang ’yung isang lalaki nakawala, nadagdagan, ayun. (Laughter)


Do you name your dogs yourself?


Yes, ’yung mga project ko, like ’yung isa si Yuri Jeremy—si Jeremy Renner; ’yung isa ay si Yapyap Joseph.


Mayroon nang Heneral Luna?


Wala pa, pero malamang ang susunod kong dog ay magkakaroon ng ganon.


Uy, isang dosena na ’yon, that’s not responsible parenthood. (Laughter)


Kaya nag-stop na ako. Dati six lang talaga sila. Nung accidentally may na-tegi, inalagaan namin sila at hindi namin ma-let go. Hindi ako nagbebenta, ayoko kasing magbenta, so ibinigay namin sila as gift sa mga kaibigan. Ibinigay ko ’yung isa sa matandang dalagang friend ko kasi I thought I’d be doing her a favor. When I was in the States—huwag kayong tatawa pero ganoon siguro kalakas ’yung attachment ko—imaginine mo, six months na ako doon tapos napanaginipan kong umiiyak ’yung dog. Sabi ko sa pinsan ko, pakipuntahan mo nga si Yuri, I think malungkot siya. Pinuntahan niya, at wala na pala doon ’yung friend ko, lumipat na daw ng bahay, iniwan ’yung dog doon sa another friend kong doctor. See, I was in New York, pero alam kong may nangyayari. After several weeks akong nag-stay dito—I had to go back and forth sa United States kasi I needed my passport to be stamped kasi resident ako—nung kinuha ko siya hindi ko na isinauli, kaya naging nine.


You’re a green card holder?




Pero Filipino citizen?


Filipino citizen.


May mga groupies ka na din?


Yeah. (Laughter) But, remember, when I was with Tanghalang Pilipino, gumagawa na ko ng mga musicals, and ang mga estudyante noon would be really screaming and cheering for us. So kumbaga, this is not really something new. I did that for seven years, and these students were shouting for us every time we came out to bow. So, ngayon, pag may ganoon, naiintindihan ko. Bakit? Kasi kasi Nagustuhan nila ang “Heneral Luna.”


So it’s true, the world’s a stage?


I think, yes. Kaya lang mas gusto kong i-take advantage ’yung opportunity ngayon. Paano ko ito mata-transform—you can say I’m corny or whatever—or makakatulong ako sa transformation natin? Mas gusto kong maging role ’yun kaysa ’yung pagtititilian ka lang for nothing.


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