In Samantha Lee’s new series “Sleep With Me,” queerness is the norm.
Described as “a tender romance for insomniacs,” the show, which recently won the Audience Award under the Episodic Program at the 40th Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQIA Film Festival, centers around two characters — Harry (Janine Gutierrez), a radio DJ offering late-night relationship advice, and Luna (Lovi Poe), a science textbook writer with a sleep disorder — who fall in love after a chance encounter at a radio station.
While other shows in the country have focused on the struggles that queer people go through on the road to self-acceptance, “Sleep With Me” isn’t preoccupied with those same problems. Instead, Lee imbues each character in the story with a deep desire for connection — to people and to the world around them.
Orbiting the protagonists like satellites are a bevy of queer characters who encounter similar difficulties: Wendy, a convenience store worker who befriends Luna and desperately wants to get back together with her ex; Kai, Harry’s brother and a physical therapy student, hopes to woo his emotionally unavailable crush Whammy; and Belle, Harry’s ex-girlfriend, tries to remain in Harry’s life even in the aftermath of their breakup. At each juncture, Harry and Luna find ways to help these characters out of their ruts and by doing so, also liberate themselves from their own troubles and insecurities.
These supporting characters help ground the complex world of “Sleep With Me,” and make the sleepless nights a little more vibrant. Here, we meet the actors behind these roles, all of whom are emerging young actors in the industry, whose performances in the series strive to move beyond shallow representations and towards truthful and empathetic depictions.
Born in Muntinlupa but raised in Laguna, Enzo Almario was brought up as a performer. Since he began winning singing competitions at the age of eight, Almario’s voice had opened doors for him — later performing as a member of SugarPop from 2006 to 2009, becoming Daily Winner of Tawag ng Tanghalan in 2018, landing a spot in the semi-finals of Idol Philippines in 2019, and now singing as one-third of the vocal powerhouse group iDolls.
Though life in showbiz beckoned to him at an early age, his internal life kept his potential at bay and unable to commit. “I struggled a lot with my sexuality, so I stopped with showbiz when I was 12,” he said.
Almario took a break from the scene under the guise of wanting to finish school, eventually completing a communications degree at Colegio de San Juan de Letran in Calamba. But only later did these fall away to reveal the truth. “A part of me [felt like] I couldn’t accept myself,” he said. When Almario reentered showbiz in 2018, it was with a renewed commitment to authenticity and in his appearances in Tawag ng Tanghalan and Idol Philippines, he began to openly acknowledge his queerness.
“Gusto ko lang i-try ulit [ang acting]. [Pero] yung role ni Kerwin was really heavy and for someone na bago lang ulit yung experiences na ito, kailangan ko muna ulit maramdaman kung paano ang dynamic ng tao sa set.”
Almario had already acted through small roles and cameos in GMA TV shows such as "Ay! Robot" and "Ina, Kasusuklaman Ba Kita?," eventually playing Young Henry Sy in a musical for the 50th Anniversary of SM alongside theater legend Audie Gemora. But when he returned, he started auditioning for queer roles and “Sleep With Me” seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. “Feeling ko nakapasok lang ako dito kasi marami akong talak kay Direk Sam,” he says, recalling how he explained how important it was for him, an openly gay man, to play one of the openly gay characters.
“I auditioned for Kerwin’s role,” says Almario, who believes it worked out for the best. “Gusto ko lang i-try ulit [ang acting]. [Pero] yung role ni Kerwin was really heavy and for someone na bago lang ulit yung experiences na ito, kailangan ko muna ulit maramdaman kung paano ang dynamic ng tao sa set.”
For Almario, this is just the beginning. He explains in a tweet: “I still look forward to the day where gender won’t be an indicator [of] someone’s ability… a time [when] people won’t generalize us.”
The first thing you notice about Gelai Penales is her ease. Having spent her college years playing softball for UP Diliman and modeling after winning an SM Youth Go-See, she walks with a presence, a comfort in her own skin, that translates well on camera. One would think that given these qualities, Penales had been acting ever since. But unlike the rest of the actors in “Sleep With Me,” she confesses that she was a first-time actor.
Penales, a graduate of the BA Film program in UP Diliman, heard about the role from Lee after working with her on Zack Tabudlo’s “Heart Can’t Lose” music video. However, she was initially intimidated by the idea of acting for a series. “She messaged me in December. Dinedma ko siya,” says Penales, smiling in hindsight. “Jino-joke ko siya na: Direk, I don’t act. I act up.” But when conflicts of schedule forced another actor to drop out of the production, Penales stepped in after sending in a few line readings, only a few days before the shoot.
“Feeling ko medyo ka-ugali ko [si Belle]. She’s very strong-willed. Kung may gusto siya, gagawin niya. Even in the manner of speaking.”
Though the process was sudden, it helped that Penales found similarities between herself and with her character Belle — Harry’s ex-girlfriend who struggles to find her place in Harry’s life after their breakup. “Feeling ko medyo ka-ugali ko siya,” admits Penales, who is also openly a lesbian and describes Belle as a Virgo Sun and Capricorn Moon. “She’s very strong-willed. Kung may gusto siya, gagawin niya. Even in the manner of speaking.”
When I asked her where her comfort in front of the camera comes from, she says, jokingly: “That’s because makapal yung mukha ko.” But after a while, she details the process: how she attended an acting workshop days before the shoot with Janine and Lovi, practiced in front of mirrors, and recorded her own voice whenever she could. Her modeling experience and prior work as a short film director helped her operate within the frame and give Lee what she needed. “It really taught me how to be expressive with my face, even if I don’t have prior experience as an actor.”
Few know about Kerwin King’s beginnings as a medical technologist, but his background in the field helped him understand his character Kai better. A physical therapy student, Kai cares for his sister Harry while acting as mutual confidante for their numerous heartbreaks. “I’m glad that I also have knowledge on patient care,” he says. “I guess it was a plus for me.”
More known to the public sphere as an artist, photographer, singer, and social media influencer, King started his acting journey in 2017. After a short stint of TV commercials, including one with Sarah Geronimo, he attended ABS-CBN’s Star Magic Workshops to hone his craft. “I stopped attending workshops because I prioritized school [at] that time,” he says. “Now lang nagkaroon ng opportunity to really act and it’s a huge part pa.”
“Like Kai, I do everything for the people I love.”
“Sleep With Me” is King’s first project as part of ABS-CBN Film’s talent management arm Rise Artists Studio. King took the opportunity seriously and immediately auditioned for the role. When he received the script, he printed immediately and began memorizing. “I made sure to throw lines with my best friend Miss Mela [Habijan] kasi the role that I’m playing here is a gay role.” says King. “Like Kai, I do everything for the people I love.”
King exudes the kind of boyish charm that makes him instantly endearing and his onscreen chemistry with Gutierrez is touching, enhanced by King’s own desire to have siblings. To help establish the chemistry between the two, Lee gave him pointers prior to the shoot and asked him to watch the ping pong scene in “The Half of It” by Alice Wu. “Since I’m also an only child, I’m very happy that I was able to experience having an actual sibling kahit through this show man lang.”
For King, “Sleep With Me” is simultaneously heartwarming because of its romantic core yet also extends beyond it towards other forms of care. “It talks about love [and] passions [but also] about the things we don’t really talk about here in the Philippines — like interabled relationships and the importance of taking care of persons-with-disabilities,” he explains. “I really hope that the audience will learn not just about the story but the characters as well. ‘Sleep With Me’ is something that we shouldn’t miss.”
When Nourijune Hooshmand auditioned for “Sleep With Me,” she was in the lock-in shoot for another film — Ma-an Asuncion-Dagñalan’s “Blue Room,” one of the box-office hits at this year’s Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival. Hooshmand had heard about the project through Project 8 Projects, one of the production companies co-producing “Sleep With Me, with whom she worked with in her onscreen debut “The Kangks Show.”
In all three productions, Hooshmand plays wildly different characters, with her character in “Sleep With Me” being arguably the most distant from her own personality. “Wendy is a young college student studying veterinary medicine working part-time in a convenience store,” says Hooshmand, pushing her hair back, her eyes focused. “She’s the opposite of me — extroverted, loud, makulit.”
At first glance, Hooshmand is effortlessly cool and mysterious, the epitome of a silent observer. But onscreen and in person, such coldness is nowhere to be found. With a background in acting, dramaturgy, lighting design, shadow play and puppetry, production management, and more, Hooshmand graduated cum laude from the BA Theater Program of UP Diliman and was influenced by stalwarts such as Tony Mabesa and Dexter Santos.
“It’s very important to my younger self because I grew up being told that there were no roles for kids like me. I was too masculine, too strange. I looked and acted way too different to be your typical leading lady.”
“Much of acting natutunan ko rin talaga from being a stand-in palagi sa shows ni Sir Dexter Santos,” says Hooshmand. “Pag stand-in ka for Sir Dex, you have to match the intensity of the actors. [You have to] try to pin down the nuances as much as possible para ma-rehearse ng other actors.” She narrates rehearsal periods for “Kundiman Party” and “Angry Christ” — observing and standing in for the likes of Stella Cañete-Mendoza, Frances Makil-Ignacio, Shamaine Buencamino, Missy Maramara, Jenny Jamora, and Nelsito Gomez.
“I feel like the stories I gravitate towards — meron silang ambag sa buhay ko.” says Hooshmand. “Laging may reflection sa buhay ko.” Her passion for storytelling translates in her commitment to find pieces of herself with each person she inhabits. For Hooshmand, “Sleep With Me” is an opportunity to represent her fellow misfits — people who look at life differently, who life looks at differently. “It’s very important to my younger self because I grew up being told that there were no roles for kids like me. I was too masculine, too strange. I looked and acted way too different to be your typical leading lady.”
Watch “Sleep With Me” now on iWant TFC.