Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The first time I saw the trailer of “Elise,” the pre-Valentines offering from Regal Entertainment directed by Joel Ferrer, it was like seeing a beautiful memory coming to life. Greeted by a familiar face that a lot of Filipinos grew up watching — Enchong Dee, the leading man opposite Janine Gutierrez — an added touch of potent, poignant nostalgia brews deep beyond its surface. And here, the aforementioned movie star that, once upon a time, was that teenage, chinito boy-next-door, has, well, undeniably grown up much like the rest of us. In fact, his 30th birthday meant was partly a rumination of what’s to come. He says, “Sabi ko nga doon sa birthday post ko when I turned 30, the last decade was basically [spent] working and working and working. But for this decade that I’m starting, it’s going to be 40 percent work and 60 percent life. So siguro, one teleserye a year, one movie a year.”
His acting career for 2019, then, might possibly be summarized in “Elise.” In the movie’s premiere night, Enchong even starts his welcome speech with, “We made this film for a year.” But the long, difficult process of creation could prove its worth. Film critic Philbert Dy would start a night filled with pronouncements of admiration over “Elise” following its premiere, with a tweet that boldly declares: “Low-key, I think I just watched a masterpiece.”
But it’s intriguing to point out that making the film started with a lot of doubts, especially for its director. The movie’s trailer claims that his film is “inspired by a true story.”
Asked about his casting decisions: “At first, paano kaya ‘to? Knowing Enchong, he doesn’t do comedy much. I explained the characters to him. We did line reading and rehearsals. Ang bilis niyang maka-pick up. Para sa akin, he’s really underrated. Lalo na ngayon. I guess he got better through the years. Feeling ko, hindi napapansin ng mga tao kung gaano kagaling si Enchong. Siyempre, he always gets the same role every single time. Pero ito kasi, counter-casting ‘yung nangyari. How would you make Enchong funny? But, he really is funny.”
The respect and admiration pays off throughout the whole process. Dee shares, when asked how it was like to work with Ferrer. “I keep on telling people that this is probably the easiest film that I’ve done in my entire life,” he says. It even came to a point that it was him, together with Gutierrez, who would volunteer conversations with their director, asking him in between shooting days about their approach to their respective characters.
Ferrer does have a lot of good things to say about his actors, especially the film’s two leads: “Malaking bagay talaga na you’re working with great actors. It’s easier. I really thought it would be a challenge. Sabi ko, ‘Mahihirapan ako dito.’ I really didn’t know [Enchong and Janine]. ‘Di naman talaga sila nag-cocomedy. Pero na-pull off nila. And we really had fun.”
Seeing “Elise” was more than just seeing a beautiful memory come to life. The work that its director allowed on-screen was an alchemy of a good story, great filmmaking, and passionate actors that knew the ins and outs of their flawed, complicated, but ultimately human characters. And it is Dee, the main anchor that evokes the full emotional weight of a life going through the motions of growing up, who proves on-screen that there’s much more brewing underneath his pretty-boy facade — a fully realized actor of his age and generation, performing at his career’s best.
We sat down with Dee to discuss his 12 years in the industry, saying goodbye to his good boy image, and his plans for the future. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
Would you say your real passion is acting? I'm sure you get asked that a lot.
I just realized, siguro a perfect term would be “performing.” Kasi parang nandun na siya lahat — acting, dancing, stage performance. So I just realized that I'm more inclined to performing. That's my comfort zone.
Is this your first time portraying a specific person? In this case, it's your director.
No, kasi like ‘yung movie namin ni Erich [Gonzales], it was based on a true story also. But this one, it's never gotten this close na ‘yung director ko mismo ‘yung kumbaga went through that process. So everything that I did in the movie is basically him. Because he would act it out for me. Kasi nag-research pa ‘ko. And then I just realized, hindi eh. Kumbaga, I would try to create something out of the character, kung paano ko siya inintindi. Pero lagi akong bumabalik doon sa, ‘Si Direk na ‘to eh.’ ‘Di ba? Bakit ko pa iko-complicate ‘yung things? Eh, basically, with Janine also, ganun din ‘yung ginawa niya. Parang he would act it out because he can really imagine it happening to him.
He always has the answers to all the questions.
Oo. So sabi ko, I surrender. I will just surrender myself to his direction. Kasi I trust him, he's very easy and fun to be with also, like Janine. So sabi ko, ang dali. So I would go to the set, wait for him to act, and then perform it.
That's very interesting to me because the way I've been making films is always personal. Kasi I've always been so interested in how an actor sees that perspective na parang, I'm always transparent that I want this to be really about me and this is something that I went through. Do you think that's a limitation?
Maybe because for the past 12 years that I've been working in this industry, I realized that every director is different. They have a different process, they have a different attack. So I was able to adjust to that. Kasi kapag pinilit ko ...‘yung sarili ko, ‘Ba’t ka pa nag-director?’ I would hear artists, like, they're so passionate. I mean, kudos to them that they're so passionate about their craftsmanship but, ako kasi, I tend to not listen to those kinds of artists, especially they're my contemporaries, na [parang], ba't pa kayo nag-director kung kayo naman pala gusto niyo tinuturuan niyo ‘yung kapwa artista niyo umarte?
For me, I think it's very important that you surrender and you put your trust to that particular director that you’re working with. Iba rin ‘yung natututunan mo sa bawat isa sa kanila, and at the same time, iba rin ‘yung nagiging performance mo. At least hindi ka paulit-ulit na ganun na lang parati ‘yung performance mo.
So what do you think makes a great actor nowadays?
I don't know. I don't know. I feel like there's no measurement … Kasi at a certain point ‘di ba, there was a certain year wherein mga artista feeling nila kapag nag-independent movie ka, “aktor” ka na.
And there's been this thing going on where actors who would do studio movies eventually came back to, you know, small budgeted, independent films.
And you did some of those, ‘di ba?
Yeah. Kasi, ako naman, ang gusto ko lang naman is to be able to create different kinds of stories every now and then. Kaya nga, like the last time I did, was it “Nay”? So parang horror siya. Tapos biglang dark comedy right now. Kasi at a certain point din parang na-stuck ako sa good boy, goody-goody, boy next door. Eh nakakapagod din. How many can you create in that particular genre, ‘di ba?
It's not retiring because you're sick of it or you're tired of it. [It's] because I just want to hold my time. I don't own my life, ‘di ba? I guess, I need to exist also. I need to feel alive. And I don't think I would be able to feel alive if I'm continuously looking for money, continuously looking for income.
Are you always surprised kung ano ‘yung nilalapit sayo na roles? Lalo na the past few years.
Medyo. Because it only shows how they perceive me. So that's why, for example, with Direk Kip [Oebanda], with “Nay,” and gusto niya kasi, parang anti-hero na mabait-looking, pero siya ‘yung murderer, siya ‘yung aswang.
So that kind of thing, was that a surprise to you na parang, ‘Oh, this is how a certain director thought [of me]…’
That one I liked. Kasi parang in one move in-evolve niya ako eh. Alam mo ‘yun? Trinansfer niya ako dun. Pero again, bumalik naman ako dito sa “Elise” na parang, he's very torpe, he's very nerdy, he's very quiet, he's very, parang, on the side, pero may pinaglalaban. Inside of him, he would try to win the heart of Elise. So for the measurement of what [you] can call a great actor? Siguro, for me if you're able to represent the country for a film, that's one.
Is that one of your goals? I know you're very vocal about a lot of things.
Of course. Definitely. I know the feeling of representing the Philippines in other countries. So if I will be able to do it through a film? That would be great. Tapos you will inspire also younger generations to just keep on doing what you do best, keep on doing what you love doing, and then eventually you will bring honor to the country.
In, let's say, 10 years, ano sa tingin mo ‘yung nakikita mong ginagawa mo?
Ako, I'll be out of show business.
Really? That's a statement.
You're so sure. How long have you been thinking of this?
I give myself in the range of 35 to 37 ... Pero my manager told me, “You can't exactly retire from show business.” So what will happen is you'll just stay low, you will be quiet, which I feel like is a luxury at this very time, at this very moment. Parang, everyone wants to be famous, everyone wants to be seen, everyone wants to be heard. And I've been doing it for 12 years. So sabi ko I feel like in the next five to seven years, I would take it slow, try anonymity for a change. But definitely I won't be able to.
Just like swimming. I retired from swimming. But every now and then, you will see me swimming, competing, ‘di ba? It's the same with acting. I feel like, after that five to seven years timeline that I'm giving myself, kapag may nag-offer naman sa’yo ng magandang-magandang script... yeah.
Siguro when people will read this, it's not retiring because you're sick of it or you're tired of it. [It's] because I just want to hold my time. 'Cos right now I don't hold my time. I don't own my life, ‘di ba? I share my life with a lot of people. So, I guess, I need to exist also. I need to feel alive. And I don't think I would be able to feel alive if I'm continuously looking for money, continuously looking for income. Maybe that's also the reason why I keep on investing my money properly right now. Because I don't want to be in the beg of anyone in 10 [years]. And do I really want to be puyat at the age of 40, ‘di ba? Do I want to be waiting on the set when you're 40 years old? I just want to hold my life.
Kasi sobrang interesting ng generation niyo na parang, the late 2000s was such a different time. And then ngayon it's so different.
It's a different phase.
Ikaw, how do you see the industry now? It's so chaotic.
It is chaotic, but because there are a lot of changes that are happening. For one, digital is getting stronger. Number two, I feel like the network wars are not that —
Like hindi na sila relevant in a way?
Medyo. ‘Di ba? It's irrelevant.
Tama. Because in the 2000s, it was all about ratings and network wars.
And who has the most billboards in EDSA. Right? Do you remember that time? Billboard in EDSA is the measurement of fame for us. Parang ‘yun ‘yung dream mo, ‘di ba? But now, I guess, ‘yun lang. It's chaotic because there's a lot of good and bad changes that are happening. I'm hoping that there's more good.
If you were to look back, ano ‘yung puwedeng sasabihin mo sa sarili mo? For example, you were on your first set, first film. Tapos nandito ka ngayon.
Siguro I won't say anything to that younger Enchong.
Do you still remember those moments very vividly?
Yeah. Siguro, one, I will not say anything that would discourage. Because when I was starting, it took me three years before I realized that I want the job.
Wow, that's a long time.
Yeah! Well, I mean, when you're starting at the age of 16-17, parang, ‘Ah, pera, pera, pera. Ah, pagdating ko sa set maglalaro kami ng mga co-actors ko.’ We didn't even call ourselves actors at that time. We were just celebrities. So, hindi ko ipe-preempt sa younger self ko kung ano mangyayari sa kanya. But for one, siguro, if there's anything I would say, it's be courageous. Be brave with everything. With the roles you're gonna take, with all the issues that will come to your life, with all the punches that you will take. Rise above it. Every time you fall, rise. Rise above it. Because, look at me, I mean, I'm not perfect but I feel like I'm happy where I am right now.
That's good. I'm always intrigued by this thought. For example, when you're a director, it's so easy to sort of pigeonhole yourself with what you want, with the kinds of films you make. Pero sa actors kasi, it's as if, sometimes, when you get all these roles, parang active ka ba doon sa pagpili nun or minsan you're spoonfed to all these roles? So do you ever get that mindset of building this sort of identity?
I feel like it's good also to have that particular identity. At least mas madali kang maaalala ng mga tao. But again, I don't think I would be challenged enough if I continue doing that particular genre lang.
Pero, I think iba-iba kung ano ‘yung purpose mo kung bakit ka nandito. Kasi for some artists that I know, it's all about the money. For some people that I know, it's fulfillment. It's food for their soul — that's how they let go of things. You know, when they perform. I respect those people who just do one genre, though. Kung action, action lang. Puro action, ‘Uy, ilang sabog ba kailangan mo?’
Yeah, FPJ, until he grew old, people remember him being a hero and punching people.
And that's how we had him as [Da King], ‘di ba?
So you don't think of yourself like that?
No. And for one, I don't like those those titles [like] King of like this, King of like that, Prince of like this, Prince of like that.
Did you ever have one of those, especially when you were younger?
Syempre meron. People were trying to [give me a title], but I tried not to [be pressured by it]. Kasi for one, [you'll just] pressure [on] yourself. For example, if you're branded like a “Multimedia Person,” what if your film doesn't work out? T.V. doesn't work out? Your social media is crap? ‘Di ba parang eventually ma-fefeel bad ka rin na, ah, there's a new “Multimedia Star.”
Ako, I'd rather stick to just Enchong Dee, you know, that works hard.
Styled by RIK RASOS
Hair and Make-up by DON DE JESUS
Produced by PORTIA LADRIDO and RAYMOND ANG
Special thanks to PHILIPPINE SPORTS COMMISSION / PSC SPORTS COMPLEX