Why Martin Del Rosario is one of the most electric performers of his generation

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Actor Martin Del Rosario considers Barbs of “Born Beautiful” to be his first major leading role. “Lalo na na series ‘to, so susundan mo talaga siya. Very complex ‘yung paggawa nila sa character ni Barbs,” he says. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When I ask Martin Del Rosario what kind of actor he’d like to see himself become, he says, “Gusto kong maging leading man na character actor at the same time — yes, ambisyoso ‘yon, no?” He laughs, then continues, “Gusto kong ma-prove na kaya kong mag-portray ng kahit ano.”

In interviews, Martin gives off this uncalculated warmth. He is cheerful yet attentive to questions, listening keenly before offering an off-the-cuff response. In sharp contrast, Martin’s performances have always had a unique intensity. On-screen, he’s at the height of his powers when his character must hold in an immense feeling. The magnitude of emotion builds in his eyes but the dam holds. It’s an attunement to the human truth he finds in these characters — that on the verge of breaking, they will dig their heels in and refuse to break.

Though he had his breakthrough performance in Joaquin Pedro Valdes’ “Dagim” in 2010, the first time I saw him was in Giancarlo Abrahan’s “Dagitab” four years later, where he played an undergrad caught in a coded love triangle between a married professor (Eula Valdez) and a handsome classmate (Sandino Martin).

Photo-4.jpg Cropped coat and printed slacks by RANDOLF. Photo by JL JAVIER

One of the film’s most striking moments is a long silent scene where Martin and Sandino stare at each other’s eyes, smoking cigarettes, struggling to contain their hunger for one another yet unable to express it in word or touch — a stalemate of desire.

The performance won him an Urian Award for best supporting actor. Since then, we’ve seen him across film and T.V., in “Ang Manananggal Sa Unit 23B” where he falls in love with an aswang played by Ryza Cenon, and in shows like “Hindi Ko Kayang Iwan Ka,” which ran for the first eight months of 2018.

But you never know how long you’re the golden boy for. He’s yet to find himself in a role with the same richness and intensity as his earlier work — right until being cast as the lead in “Born Beautiful,” which is out in theaters and on Cignal TV for the mini-series. It speaks of an industry that is volatile for actors, but one whose starts and stops make room for the possibility of reinvention. Martin’s turn as Barbs, a transwoman navigating transitioning and falling in love, has been his most challenging yet.

Martin has always run the risk of typecasting — again a hurdle for actors in the industry. Playing one kind of character leads to playing another of the same, until those are all the roles that are picked out for you. He’s worked actively against this, trying to build diversity in his body of work.

Photo-7.jpg Sheer top by RANDOLF. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Marami-rami na akong gay roles, pero I see to it na iba-iba ... ‘Dagitab,’ for example — feeling ko nga hindi pa ako gay, nasa gitna pa lang ako sa sobrang confused ko, immature, bata pa,” he says. “Parang siyang awakening. Tapos ito, transgender. Gusto ko ‘yung nacha-challenge ako, so tanggap lang ako nang tanggap ng role.”

The film, initially conceived by Perci Intalan and Jun Lana of the IdeaFirst Company as a series on Cignal TV, is a spin-off of Lana’s 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) entry “Die Beautiful.” The first film starred Paolo Ballesteros as Trisha, a transwoman whose life the film follows in nonlinear vignettes after her death.

The Intalan-directed “Born Beautiful,” which tells the story of Trisha’s best friend Barbs, went through some twists and turns in development. Christian Bables, who won a best supporting actor trophy at the MMFF for his performance as Barbs, relinquished the role and Martin took it on. Intalan shot 12 episodes with Martin over the course of six months. In editing, the director decided that the first five episodes held together as a film and decided to re-edit them to the feature length. Now, both the film and the series will get their release on different platforms.

Photo-2.jpg Luna Bow Blouse by GABBIE SARENAS, shirt by BALENCIAGA. Photo by JL JAVIER

Martin considers Barbs to be his first major leading role. “Lalo na na series ‘to, so susundan mo talaga siya. Very complex ‘yung paggawa nila sa character ni Barbs, kaya may pressure,” he says. “First time ‘yung medyo naka-concentrate ‘yung story sa ‘yo, so ikaw ‘yung magpapakapal nung character.”

Martin takes an immersive approach to each of his characters, slowly digging his way under their skin to become them. “Ako, binabasa ko ‘yung script parang ini-imagine ko na — medyo baliw ‘yung proseso — pero parang ipapasok mo ‘yung sarili mo sa kaniya tapos siguro punta ka sa mirror, try mo nang magsalita kung paano ‘yung interpretation mo kung paano siya magsalita, kung paano siya tumingin. Along the way, habang may natapos ka na na ibang scenes, makukuha mo na siya, e. Biglang ikaw na ‘yun, e.”

He describes the physical challenges of being a cisgender man playing a transwoman in the film — the full-body waxing, the tuck, the padding, the make-up, the heels, the wigs. He says it made for a physically uncomfortable experience, especially filming in tropical heat, but all these elements helped him immerse fully in the role.

Additional-3 (1).jpg Shirt by PROUDRACE. Photo by JL JAVIER

Of the performance, Intalan says, “Martin made a new and very three-dimensional Barbs. This Barbs is feisty yet fragile, beautiful yet vulnerable. I think what's amazing is Martin studied the original Barbs and found his own fearless interpretation and that allowed us to be bold with our story.”

There’s a question, though, that hangs over Martin’s casting. This is a time where we’re seeing more queer actors taking on LGBTQ+ roles, offering their own depth of experience to these characters and giving a face the community can look to on-screen for representation.

Iyah Mina recently became the first transwoman to win a best actress trophy in the Philippines for her performance in Rod Singh’s “Mamu; And A Mother Too.” Ryan Murphy’s “Pose,” a series about the New York ball scene in the late ‘80s, made a striking case for walking the talk, putting powerhouse trans actors Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, and Dominique Jackson in the lead roles and many more trans performers in smaller parts in the series.

Following that line of thinking, shouldn’t Barbs have been played by a trans actor as well? After all, there are even fewer opportunities for trans actors than cisgender men in the industry. Should the actor and the director have given way for someone else?

The casting feels all the more loaded in that cis male actors are celebrated and rewarded for the transformations they undergo to portray transwomen (Jared Leto won an Oscar for his turn as a trans woman dying of AIDS in “Dallas Buyers Club”; Paolo Ballesteros won best actor for “Die Beautiful”) while trans actors’ careers often feel like a flash in the pan.

Photo-3.jpg Cropped coat by RANDOLF. Photo by JL JAVIER

When I ask Martin about his casting, he responds graciously, if a little puzzled. “Bakit naman? Pero parang for me, ako, actor lang ako. May in-offer sa akin na role na gusto ko, na challenging and bibigay ko ‘yung best ko and I don’t think na parang baka naagawan ko ng role ‘yung totoong trans,” he says. “Eh, ‘yun nga ‘yung point ng pagiging actor na you become someone. Lalong mas maganda pag medyo mas malayo talaga sa personality mo.”

While director Perci Intalan acknowledges this, he’s hopeful for a future with more trans actors at the fore. “I think we are taking steps toward opening more and more opportunities for LGBTQ stories to be told and that will result in more opportunities for LGBTQ representation,” Intalan says. “Martin is a familiar face to the broad moviegoing audience and that allows us to take this audience into new and unfamiliar cinematic experiences. Very soon, this audience will welcome new faces to represent these new stories. Slowly but surely, we will get there.”

Film producer and writer Moira Lang, who is transgender, makes a case for believability as a necessary metric. “The bigger truths we are trying to tell through our stories are more important than tick boxes and labels,” she says.

“There are a few things I look for when I'm casting a movie. Chief among them are believability (do they look and sound right for the part?) and watchability (an on-screen presence that draws you to them and makes it hard to tire of watching them). Also, willingness to learn coupled with natural acting ability,” she says. “I always try to look for the best person for the role, not necessarily the best actor or the most famous one.”

“I would tend to favor trans people for these roles because believability is the first thing I look for. If someone doesn't pass that, there's no point considering their watchability and acting ability. But I wouldn't rule out cis people. If they pass the believability test, they should be considered. The other factors I mentioned would then come into play.”

However, she insists that based on these criteria, there still needs to be equal opportunity for transgender actors. “In the same way, trans people should be cast in cis roles, too, if, at the end of the casting process, they emerge as the best person for the job.”

Photo-5 (28).jpg Sheer top by RANDOLF. Photo by JL JAVIER

By Lang’s metrics of believability, watchability and acting ability, Martin’s performance holds. Martin is committed fully to Barbs, both physically and emotionally. The electricity he lends to every performance is undimmed. He powers through some shoddy body padding and wigs that often work to his detriment, flexing both his comedic and dramatic abilities in the film. As a transwoman grappling with her identity, caught in a love triangle between an abusive ex-boyfriend and a married man, his performance is so instinctive that you never doubt for a moment that you’re watching Barbs.

Martin adds that Intalan offered some guidance in his performance, in terms of what it means to be trans. Intalan notes that the performance was largely built by Martin himself. “He had to find his own Barbs. He didn’t have to replicate the previous incarnation of Barbs in ‘Die Beautiful’ nor did we give him a peg on how to act and who to mimic,” says Intalan. “I think that’s what made his performance so real. He defined Barbs and created a real character.”

Though there is a discussion to be had on how accurately the film portrays the transgender experience, Martin maintains as well that in telling an LGBTQ+ story, he’s in full support of the community. “tong movie na ‘to kasi is for the LGBT na until now lumalaban for equality at ‘di ba sa mga discrimination. Dito matutunan niyo kung ano talaga ‘yung buhay ng LGBT and they’re just people who love.”

How Martin sees himself moving forward is still very hopeful. “Happy naman ako sa track. Dahan-dahan lang siya but moving up,” he says. “Gusto ko ‘yung na-cha-challenge ako, so tanggap lang ako nang tanggap ng role,” he says. There’s a case to be made for Martin moving forward, that if he can give a role like Barbs this much watchability and empathy, there’s so much more he’d be capable of well within the realm of cisgender roles. There’s room yet for more of Martin Del Rosario — his electric screen presence and his commitment to craft — in more films to come.

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Produced by RAYMOND ANG

Hair and Make-up by SARI CAMPOS