John Arcilla’s happy, bumpy journey to the big time 2
John Arcilla on winning the Volpi Cup: “It’s a dream come true…I really want to be a global actor from the very beginning.” Photo courtesy of Star Magic.

John Arcilla’s funny, bumpy journey to the big time—from ‘Coffee na lang, dear’ to Venice Best Actor

The ‘On the Job’ star was once a regular extra in TV’s Goin’ Bananas but he was really made for the movies—just ask his mother
RHIA GRANA | Sep 20 2021

After playing the title role in the big-budget and box-office surprise of 2015, "Heneral Luna," some people may have pegged John Arcilla as already having reached the peak of his career. But his recent feat, winning the Best Actor plum at the 78th Venice International Film Festival for the political crime thriller,  “On The Job: The Missing 8,” has placed the actor on an entirely different playing field.

“[This award] means so much to me because it came from the oldest award-giving body in the whole world,” John tells ANCX in an interview. “And because it’s a golden cup, it signifies championship. It’s the most wonderful and prestigious award that an actor can have.”

John Arcilla as Sisoy in On The Job: The Missing 8
John as Sisoy in "On The Job: The Missing 8"

In “The Missing 8,” Erik Matti’s follow-up to 2013’s “On The Job,” the 55-year old John plays the role of a corrupt journalist who begins to question his loyalty to a politician when eight of his colleagues go missing. The actor says it was not difficult to find inspiration for the part. “I know a lot of Sisoy in different names,” he says, but the acting veteran also wanted to create someone original. “Sisoy is a small-town superstar. He’s not from the mainstream radio. Mas prone siya to idolize people kasi provincial ang kanyang principles and practice of his idealism.” 

How did this San Luis, Aurora native end up becoming one of the country’s most important actors?

It all began when John was a baby. Seriously.

His mother, Eustacia Arcilla, had been a cineaste ever since she was a teenager, and her love for the movies and the performing arts could only have rubbed off on John—the sixth of eight Arcilla kids—before he could even learn to speak.

John Arcilla
With Irma Adlawan in "Ang Buhay ay Pelikula," 1992

Mrs. Arcilla’s story goes that when the film “Sound of Music” was shown in the Philippines in the mid-60s, they couldn’t catch a screening as there was no nanny to leave nine-month-old John to. So what the parents did—it was already the musical’s final week in theaters!—was bring baby John with them to the cinema. They swaddled him in blankets, brought along bottles of milk, and off they went to the movie house.

“[My mother] literally begged the usher to let us inside the cinema. They promised na kapag ako ay umiyak, lalabas kami at once,” the actor shares, still quite amused with the story. “But the moment the screen lit up, [my mom said] I looked up at the screen and watched the entire three hours of the film. What happened was, imbis na manood sila ng pelikula, ako ang pinanood nila.”

John Arcilla in Anino Aninag
Tanghalang Pilipino's "Anino Aninag," 1992

At age three, John already possessed the moves of a performer. He loved to dance—even if it’s just the Philippine national anthem playing. One day, one of the Arcilla boys came home from school and began giving the young John a spanking, which led the latter to a major cry fest. Their puzzled mom asked what happened. John’s brother told Mrs. Arcilla that during their school’s flag ceremony, little John approached the flag pole with no pants on and danced without a care. “They could not stop me from dancing because the national anthem was playing, and everyone was laughing, including the teachers,” the actor recalls the story his parents told him. “That was my first bold public performance.”

John Arcilla
As Julius Caesar with Shamaine Centernera in "Calpurnia," 1991

Sneak peek

Looking back at his growing up years, the new Volpi Cup winner says God was already showing him hints of what his future will look like even then. 

The Arcillas would shuttle back and forth between Manila and Aurora back in the ‘60s. But when John turned six during the first year of Martial Law, the family decided to stay put in the province. At nighttime when John would lull himself to sleep, he’d visualize his possible career. “Every night I would look up at the ceiling and I can see myself singing, dancing, performing onstage, shaking hands with people, playing roles onscreen,” he shares.

John Arcilla
 "Sigalot sa Venetia (Venice)," 1992

When he turned 9, his eldest sister, who may already have recognized his interest in the performing arts, gifted him with a copy of Severino Reyes’ classic zarzuela entitled “Walang Sugat.” John remembers swearing to his young self never to be like Tenyong, the protagonist in the story who cheated on his girlfriend. Twenty years after, John had the chance to play the character he hated as a young boy, when the CCP mounted a production of “Walang Sugat.”

John Arcilla in Florante at Laura
As Aladin in "Florante at Laura" musical

It was when John started witnessing the annual komedya in San Luis, during the town fiesta, that his passion for the performing arts started to blossom. He remembered wanting so bad to play the role of Orosman in the zarzuela Orosman at Zafira. He could not join the performances though. The theater group mounting the play only tapped talents from inside their own barangay.

But John was able to fulfill that dream 20 years later, when he represented the Philippines in Paris and played Orosman. It was staged at the Royal National Theatre, where no less than acclaimed English actor and director Sir Laurence Olivier mounted his productions.

John Arcilla
As Bonifacio in "Anak ng Bayan" for the 1998 Manila Tour of Emmeus Theater Company

The actor becomes him

“I was never pushed to become an actor, it just grew in me,” John recalls, looking back at his high school days when he started to dabble in the craft. He began taking workshops thru the National Media Productions and later with the Philippine Educational Theater Association. He became active in campus productions at the Mount Carmel College of Baler, and also when he took up Mass Communications at St. Joseph’s College in Quezon City.

His plan was to work in media, and go back to Aurora to become—wait for it—a radio announcer. But he became an actor even before he finished his college degree. In 1987, he became a scholar of the Actor’s Workshop Foundation, under the tutelage of Johnny Delgado and Laurice Guillen.

John Arcilla in El Filibusterismo
As Basilio in the Japan tour of Ryan Cayabyab and Nonon Padilla's "El Filibusterismo" musical, 1993

It was around this time that he started to have a taste of showbiz life. ABS-CBN, particularly the show Goin’ Bananas, served as his playground. “Naging gag actor ako sa Goin’ Bananas. Tagatawa kina Boyet de Leon, taga-palakpak, dadaan kunyari,” he recalls to ANCX. “At that time, we would earn P500 per night, or P1,000 if we have a line.” He got a higher rate even for being an extra because he was trained by a legit acting school.

John Arcilla
With Mario O'Hara and Lorli Villanueva in "Mac Maliksi"

The young, idealistic actor recalled weighing the sense of fulfillment he was getting from playing bit roles in a gag show on television compared to portraying good roles in the theater. “Sabi ko, ano ba itong ginagawa ko? I am a college graduate. I was a Mass Comm scholar. I’m supposed to have a good job as a news anchor or whatever, not pass by the camera for a dime, or wait the whole night just to laugh on the table with my co-actors. Hindi ko minamaliit ang showbiz, nanghihinayang lang ako sa oras ko noon.”

John Arcilla in CCP's Ang Memorandum
With Nanding Josef, Lorli Villanueva, and Soliman Cruz in "Ang Memorandum," 1990

But the Bananas money helped pay the room rent. So he went with the gig until 1990 before he started taking theater seriously as a career. “Sa theater yung P500 or P300 was a two-hour job,” he remembers, “as opposed to staying on the set the whole night.”

He joined Dulaang UP under Tony Mabesa between 1988 and 1990, and then became a scholar of the Tanghalang Pilipino, the in-house theatre company of the CCP, under Nonon Padilla. From 1990 to 1997, he was a full-time theater actor, often playing lead roles in plays and musicals. His most notable performances include his turns in “Orosman at Zafira,” “Walang Sugat,” and Cayabyab’s musical trilogy “Noli Me Tangere,” “El Filibusterismo,” and “Ilustrado,” which toured all over the country, and also in key cities in Japan.

John Arcilla with Regine Velasquez
John as Crisostomo Ibarra, with Regine Velasquez-Alcasid as Maria Clara in the "Noli Me Tangere" musical by Ryan Cayabyab and Nonon Padilla staged at the CCP in 1995.

That ‘coffee na lang dear’ guy

But even with his theater work, John would still accept roles in indie movies and commercials every now and then. Two movies, in fact, earned him best supporting actor nominations—“Bayani” (1992) and “Sakay” (1993), both directed by Raymond Red.

The year 1994 can be considered a breakout year as well for John. It was the year he caught the attention of the larger Filipino public, thanks to the Purefoods Classic Honeycured Bacon commercial where he said the now immortal line, “Coffee na lang, dear.” 

“People from all walks of life, tricycle drivers to high-class people I bumped into at hotel lobbies would recognize me as the ‘coffee na lang dear’ guy,” John recalls of that time.  The 30-second commercial opened doors for him. He got paired with the likes of Snooky Serna, Maricel Soriano, and Dina Bonnevie in ABS-CBN drama anthologies. 

John Arcilla in Mulanay
With Gina Alajar in "Mulanay," which won for John his first best actor award at the Manila Film Festival

John also caught the attention of then top tier talent manager Douglas Quijano, who cast him as Richard Gomez’s brother in the movie “Sa Yo Lamang” (1995), also top-billed by Aiko Melendez. “[The production team of the movie] thought I was a big guy. They got me to play the role of Richard’s kuya. So every time na may scene kami, nakatingala ako kay Richard,” he says laughing. It was his first mainstream feature film. 

John Arcilla with Irma Adlawan
With Irma Adlawan in "Sa North Diversion Road," 1994

The following year, he would do the Gil Portes Manila Film Festival entry “Mulanay” which won for John his first best actor award. As he was making inroads into the movies, he was seen less and less onstage. It was around this period that he was let go by the CCP as he could no longer join some of their tours, and John was left with no choice but to focus on his movie and TV career.

John Arcilla with Irma Adlawan
With Irma Adlawan in "Oktubre," 1993

While his first acting award gave him the much-deserved career recognition, John had to deal with a demoralizing showbiz intrigue after that. “Nung nagka-award ako, nun naman nagkaroon ng tsismis na I was a swell-headed actor from theater who do not follow his directors and just does what he wants to do,” he tells ANCX. “I was so expensive na daw after the award. I was shocked. Saan nanggaling yun?”

Since he had no manager yet at that time, there was no one to defend him. He felt isolated and depressed, and it took a toll on his rising career. “Sabi ko kay God, if this is not where I belong, take this acting ability away from me now. I don’t need it. Just give me another job. I don’t need to be sad. I just want to be happy.”

John with Rosanna Roces in
With Rosanna Roces in Reyna Film's "Ligaya ang Itawag Mo Sa Akin," where John won the Best Supporting Actor Award

His heroes

What saved him from distress were his TV stints. Director Lauren Dyogi got him for the crime show “Calvento Files,” and later cast him as the father of Angelica Panganiban in the youth-oriented show “G-Mik.”

Another movie that brought back his joy and restored his faith in the mainstream entertainment industry was the 1997 movie “Ligaya ang Itawag Mo Sa Akin,” where he was paired opposite lead star Rosanna Roces, one of the hottest actresses then.

John Arcilla in Metro Manila
As Ong in "Metro Manila" which won Best Film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival

“At that time, nakabalik ako sa theater to do a Jose Rizal musical. Napanood ako doon ni Tita Midz (Armida Siguion-Reyna). Sabi daw nya nung pinapanood nya ako, “Wow! What will people think if this guy, playing Jose Rizal, is going to be on top of Rosanna Roces?”

Suffice it to say, his role as the honorable farmer Polding who falls in love with the sex worker Ligaya lent another layer to his depth as an actor. The part won for him his first Gawad Urian trophy for Best Supporting Actor in 1997.

John Arcilla with Jeremy Renner Racheal Weiss
John with "The Bourne Legacy" stars Jeremy Renner and Racheal Weisz

Heneral Luna

John has done a slew of memorable roles but one that made an indelible mark on Filipino audiences was his portrayal of Heneral Luna. He had the plum part from the get go. “Jerrold told me na wala siyang ibang actor na naisip for the role maliban sa akin,” John says. 

But when the actor said yes to doing a reading for the film, he admits he didn’t realize what exactly he was saying yes to. “I thought I was only going to help two students with their thesis,” he recalls. On the day of the reading, John made sure to give the “students” a good impression. He arrived at the venue wearing the costume of a general, which he had worn in his past CCP plays. “I memorized my lines kasi ayokong may suot ako ng salamin, para feel na feel kong ako si Heneral Luna.”

John Arcilla as Heneral Luna
John won the Best Actor Award for Heneral Luna in the 2015 Film Academy of the Philippines and at the Asian Film Festival.

After the reading, he met with Jerrold—who also wrote the screenplay—and was amazed to hear his vision for the film. John admitted to the Inquirer that he was at first adamant to play the role of Antonio Luna, given his notions of the national hero’s character. “He’s not so complex,” he told the paper in a 2015 interview. “He’s just outbursts and being a mad dog.” But the movie in Jerrold’s mind proved to be a revelation to John. It dug deep into the general’s persona. “I realized this was not an easy character, [so if I were] to make him a mere mad dog, binabastos ko ang kasaysayan at babastusin ko ang Pilipino, because Luna was apparently not like that,” he said then. “He is an artist and an ilustrado. He studied pharmacy. He’s a sharpshooter. He finished military science. He couldn’t be the type of person who would have an outburst just for nothing. I had to put different colors in all of his outbursts, which actually come from a genuine love of country, respect to his duty as a military leader, and as a son and as a lover.”

John Arcilla as Heneral Antonio Luna
Heneral Luna won over 20 awards from different local and international groups and Filipino communities.

The film made history, winning major awards at the Film Academy of the Philippines, Gawad Urian, the Star Awards for Movies, and the Asian Film Festival. It was also hailed the Philippines’ highest-grossing historical film of all time. 

After his stint in “On the Job: the Missing 8,” what’s next for John Arcilla? He may have clinched the Volpi Cup, but he’s definitely not resting on his laurels. “It’s a dream come true. Pero ang dami ko pang pwedeng gawin. I really want to be a global actor from the very beginning. I want to share our colorful culture, our hopes and dreams, with the rest of the world,” he tells ANCX. “I would like to explore all possibilities. I’m just hoping that this pandemic will not hamper that.”