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Joel Torre: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS February 2, 2013

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Interview, Noypi.
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It must have been one of those rainy afternoons in September when I had the chance to speak with Joel Torre in his house in Mandaluyong. The interview took less than an hour, excluding the photo shoot, and it was a privilege to have a nice conversation with an actor whom I respect a lot. As expected, Joel was a gentleman, charming and never intimidating, and the pauses he made before answering some questions left an impression on me, as though I managed, in a few instances at least, to pose queries that allowed him to reminisce memories he had long forgotten and was then willing to share. The feature appeared in the magazine more than a month later.

One look at Joel Torre and there is hardly any hint of glamour. His presence rarely intimidates. His gray beard and mustache accentuate the smile on his face, and his afternoon get-up, a black polo and a pair of jeans, makes him a charmer, a handsome actor whose reputation has grown finer over the years. He seems very comfortable with interviews, however repetitive and intimate the questions may be. Sometimes he pauses to recall a long-forgotten memory, but most of the time he shares stories like a father speaking to his son about his fondest experiences: sweet and straightforward.

Growing up in Bacolod, he thought his name, Jose Rizalino, was a little strange. His classmates at school had more common first names: Angelito, Ricardo, Miguelito, Ronaldo. Whenever that usual debate about choosing a worthier national hero comes up, Joel remembers, like the smell of an old blanket, that he would always be on Rizal’s side. “I’d rather follow the footsteps of Rizal than Bonifacio’s. His beliefs are closer to mine,” he says. Not only do they share the same name but they also share the same birth date: he was born on June 19, 1961, exactly a hundred years after the revolutionary hero’s birth.

His face lights up when he recalls an anecdote during Ninoy Aquino’s burial in 1983. “I was with Mike [de Leon] and we were talking about changes brought about by the political climate that time. I told Mike, perhaps randomly, ‘You know, I think I am destined to play Jose Rizal.’ And I was right. The way I look at things now, nothing happens by coincidence.” More than a decade later, de Leon made Bayaning Third World, arguably the most clever film that tackles the Rizal myth, a postmodern labyrinth in which two filmmakers search for the hero, played by Joel, and pick up the crumbs of his identity.

This peculiar kinship has given Joel opportunities to play Rizal in a number of films, plays, and television shows, so numerous in fact that he has portrayed the life of the national hero in almost every genre and approached them from various point of views. His interest in the arts, not to mention his exposure to them, started early. His family owned a moviehouse in Cadiz, a town near Bacolod, which was called Ramona. They used to go there every weekend, and instead of going straight home, young Joel would pay a visit to the theater, which showed action and comedy films like Tarzan, Green Beret, and Tony Ferrer movies. At four years old, he was watching The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, smitten by the allure of the silver screen.

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Ramona was bought by investors and closed down sometime in the ‘80s, a few years after Joel graduated from college. He was already active in a theater group before then. He was seven when he joined the Genesius Guild, where he met one of the most important people in his life, Peque Gallaga. Peque had seen his first play, All the Way Home, and being friends with his family, the director went straight to his house after the show, congratulated him, and said, “I want you to be in all my plays.” It didn’t take long before Joel saw himself spending his summer, Christmas, weekends, and all his free time in the guild, participating in small community programs and large-scale productions, such as Fiddler on the Roof and The King and I. Young Joel had fun despite the busy schedule, and he was thankful for the rigorous training that became handy when he started being involved in making movies.

He completed his college internship under Peque’s guidance, learning the ins and outs of filmmaking first-hand (Peque was directing Champoy that time). Oftentimes he was assigned in the art department, helping out in the production design and running little errands. Before his breakthrough role in Oro Plata Mata, he appeared in Bernal’s Bilibid Boys and Brocka’s Gumising Ka Maruja, where he played bit parts. Asked about his first movie, Joel fumbles for memory. “It was in a short film also directed by Peque, shot in 1969 or 1970 when I was eight or nine years old. I can no longer recall the title. Basta I play a boy who accidentally shoots his brother. That’s the only thing I remember. In fact, I almost forgot about it, until the guy who plays my brother reminded me of it six years ago. He died last year.”

Forty years after the release of Oro, Joel constantly appears in movies and on television. The reason for his popularity even at present is that his image has become synonymous with permanence, almost to the point of being taken for granted, and his contributions to Philippine cinema have earned him the right to be called an icon. Along with fellow Ilonggo Ronnie Lazaro, he has become closely associated with the independent cinema that boomed in the early 2000s. Filmmakers attest to his professionalism, and how, without much effort, they are able to get the acting they want from him, sometimes more than what the roles require.

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But the term “independent” is nothing new to Joel. From the beginning he has always been an independent actor, deliberately shying away from the glitz of show business. His experience in theater productions has taught him to value every project he accepts, whether mainstream or independent, lead role or supporting role, 35mm or digital. “When [our group] arrived in Manila, we were so ready. We knew the standards and we aimed to raise the bar. Peque set it for us, 110 percent. We were an amateur theater group doing professional work. There was never a transition or adjustment. I always gave everything I could regardless of the project.”

His latest film, Amigo, which he co-produced, is directed by John Sayles, one of the leading figures in American independent cinema. Joel just arrived from the States after attending some film festivals and he was pleased with the response of the people, some of which were not even from the Filipino community. “Amigo taught me the other side of filmmaking. It’s an expensive movie to make, but it’s still independent because John had the freedom to do anything he wanted. He’s the director, scriptwriter, producer. . . he’s responsible for the distribution, editing, lahat. And all the hard work paid off because of the glowing reviews from the critics. Foreign writers singled out my performance in the film. So what’s there to ask? Come to think of it, there’s more pressure in Amigo than in Oro. Ako yung Amigo dun sa pelikula e. I have a bigger role than Chris Cooper.”

What he likes about the recent new wave in local cinema is the sheer number of films being produced. According to him, quantity is a good sign that the industry is doing well. On the other hand, what he doesn’t like about it is that there is no fixed distribution. There is also no venue to show these films, which leads to the sad reality that they don’t get enough support. “Dapat collective e. We need the audience to come in. Mahal mag-advertise. As you can see, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank is doing great, but it was backed up by Star Cinema in terms of promotion.” He is hopeful about the direction that Philippine cinema is taking at present, but he is disheartened by the system. “Kulang ang sistema. Walang unyon. Laging may unjust labor practice. Kawawa din yung mga maliliit na tao na laging napupuyat sa trabaho. At sana tinatangkilik din ng tao ang mga pelikulang ginagawa natin.”

As an actor, however, Joel considers himself lucky that he still gets to do things that he wants. When he’s not taping for 100 Days to Heaven, a hit primetime soap on ABS-CBN, he stays home until lunch. He runs some errands, goes to the bank, or calls the commissary. He’s also very busy with his business, JT’s Manukan, which is soon to open new branches in Katipunan and McKinley Hill. “Sa totoo lang, ayoko na magpuyat. I’m not getting any younger. Madalang na ang projects, so I spoke to my wife and we decided to open the Manukan. Sinuwerte at naging successful naman siya.” Managing a business is not easy, but he enjoys it. He now has more time to relax and spend with his children, sometimes even go out of the country on vacation. “Nothing to think about. Minsan masaya na nasa bahay lang,” he shares with a smile.

Word has also gotten around that he plans to direct a World War II movie, which will be co-produced by Mike de Leon. But it hasn’t materialized yet. “Matagal na yun, kaso wala talagang budget. I wrote a few scenes, but I need to take a sabbatical to concentrate on finishing it.” He says he can’t let go of the concept. As of the moment, the project is too big and ambitious, and titles such as Forgotten Heroes, Beterano, and Death March are being considered. For a man with such passion for the arts and whose career has spanned generations from the great Manuel Conde to the soon-to-be-great Xyriel Manabat, nothing seems impossible, given the right time.

Published in UNO November 2011; all photos from Bayaning Third World

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