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Fascinating Women 2023: Bela Padilla

Bela Padilla proves once more that there’s more to her than meets the eye with “’Yung Libro Sa Napanood Ko,” an upcoming film she wrote, directed, and stars in

Bela Padilla belongs to a new generation of artists in the Philippine entertainment industry—multitalented and multihyphenated, unafraid to take on challenges beyond their comfort zone and explore territories outside of where they’re usually boxed in.

Her propensity for making brave and unexpected decisions at work seem to translate in real life, too, as she has also decided to make London her new home amid the pandemic. She returned to the Philippines recently only to promote Spellbound, a remake of the Korean fantasy-romance classic, opposite Marco Gumabao. But, she was surprised to find out that her other film ’Yung Libro Sa Napanood Ko made it to the first summer MMFF (Metro Manila Film Festival) as an official entry, so she had to extend her stay in the Philippines.

“I was supposed to come over to promote Spellbound and watch the premiere. And then I ended up extending and extending because my latest film ’Yung Libro Sa Napanood Ko was accepted into the summer MMFF, so the activities related to it kind of moved all of my plans,” Bela shares.

“I just found out that my film got in on Twitter. I didn’t know that Viva was applying for the entry in my behalf. It was a very pleasant surprise,” she adds, smiling.

In her K-‘Mapanakit’ Era

Here’s a fun trivia: both of Bela’s latest films are not only Korean-influenced but are both related to Korean actor Lee Min Ki. The original Spellbound movie, released in 2011, starred the actor opposite Hallyu actress Son Ye Jin. And, ’Yung Libro Sa Napanood Ko was inspired by Lee Min Ki’s K-drama Because This Is my First Life

 “I actually first watched Lee Min Ki in Because This Is My First Life, and after that, I got so obsessed with him because his style of acting is so different from all the other oppas that we watch in K-dramas. He’s so subtle and simple, he’s just so sure of himself when you watch him. I was so drawn to his character and also the lead actress’ character. The show in itself had such a draw for me because there were no antagonists, there was no major or big event that would change their life, you really would just follow the journey of the four main characters which I love because that’s what life is,” Bela shares, saying that she started watching the show to give herself a relaxing day while working on a high tension show playing the schizophrenic lawyer on ABS-CBN’s Sino Ang May Sala? back then.

She said she fell in love with series and it talked about the book To Room 19 by Doris Lessing. The drama talked about a character in the book about a mom who couldn’t figure out who she was in the world because she’s busy being a wife and a mom that she lost her own identity. She eventually found solace in the Room 19 of a hotel which became her little space in the world where she could be completely herself and the husband supported it.

“I just loved the idea, the concept of that—finding your own place in the world but also having people around you support and understand that. I was so inspired by the series because they were also teaching a subliminal lesson. Aside from the narrative of ‘this is just our life,’ at the same time, they’re telling you a deeper story with a book. That’s why my working title back then was ’Yung Libro sa Napanood Ko because I literally saw this book in a series I’ve watched,” she laughs.

Bela and Lisa

“I wrote a character named Lisa Villamor which I’m playing. Similarly, she watches Because This Is My First Life and listens to the story of the book, and it inspires her to become an author and she starts writing her own books to talk about her journey in life. This Korean comes to her book signing played by Yoo Min Gon. They become friends. This is a journey of two people meeting at exactly the right time in their lives. It’s a journey of allowing yourself to enjoy life, to love yourself and at the same time we try to tackle also the mental health of OFWs which will be played by Ms. Lorna Tolentino. She plays my mom in the story. In our film, she’s the mother who had to leave,” the actress-director explains.

More than the story of people finding each other, Bela emphasized how the movie touched about the lives of OFWs after meeting so many of them while working as an actress or doing shows with TFC (The Filipino Channel). “I feel like in every family here in the Philippines, we have one relative that has to leave or flies or lives in a different country. What we hear on the news are such wide parts of the spectrum. It’s either they did really well or flourishing in their country or we see pictures of them being taken back to the Philippines and it’s always very graphic, and we get so scared of the OFW stories here. But we don’t look for the ‘in-betweens’ of that spectrum of how they actually feel when they’re there every day,” Bela pensively says.

“I know this because I now live in London alone and even if I live near the Filipino stores and I get to hang out with friends on the weekend, at the end of the day, I am completely alone by myself. So I wanted to tackle that a little bit in our story, so I would say the movie was very heavily inspired by the book in Because This Is My First Life. I always say Lorna Tolentino is the heart of the story because every character is affected by her and her decisions,” the actress explains.

On her co-actor, Yoo Min Gon

Meeting Yoo Min Gon and having him star in the movie was a blessing in a way for Bela. The project received the green light from Viva in August last year, but it had to be shot in Korea by October so the actress had to find a Korean actor who was not only available but also someone who can speak perfect English and willing to learn a few Tagalog lines.

Thankfully, Bela was able to get help from one of her co-actors in the 2020 Korean film Ultimate Oppa and was introduced to the Korean actor who grew up in Canada. “We got in touch, I spoke to him on Zoom and he fit the role so perfectly. Min Gon had such a nice aura and he’s very confident. I told him he could also try out for the supporting role just to see his mindset and he’s like ‘Yeah, sure but I would love to really throw my hat in the ring for the lead actor role.’ So I love that he’s so confident and really knew he could do the character. He’s super excited. He already had questions about certain scenes. You know he did his homework and I was very impressed by that. I like actors who do the work. On set, we were all very, very impressed. I keep saying this in my interviews, I hope Min Gon gets nominated for his character and his performance because he really did so well on this film. Even Miss Lorna kept gushing over him when we were shooting in Korea. We all acknowledged how good he was on set so I’m excited for him also to experience the whole festival process and for him to watch his first major role on the big screen,” the writer-director says, singing praises for her co-star. 

Bela adds, “Min Gon is like the compass of the story because he really carries you from the first moment you see him on the screen until the last sequence. Min Gon is pretty much the narrator of the story. When you watch the film, it would be from the POV of Min Gon and how much he dedicates himself to my character.” 

They initially filmed in the Philippines for a week then another three weeks in Korea. 

Bela: writer, director, actress

Truth be told, she actually didn’t intend to write, star and direct in ’Yung Libro sa Napanood Ko. “I did want to direct it because I wrote this awhile back, in 2017, but I didn’t want to act on it. I felt like the material was a bit young for me. But you know, what’s funny… I always say this, because when I write the script, I say this isn’t for me. I wrote this for someone else or I wrote this with someone else in mind but in reality when I’m writing, I have particular scenes where I go ‘Sana sa akin na lang ito’ because I want to see myself performing the scene,” she laughs.

Back then, another production house got the rights to the script and held it for two years intended for a different actress. However, the pandemic happened and the project found itself back to her hands. The decision to work on it as an actress, writer, and director wasn’t actually born out of ambition, it was out of wanting to be productive in the time of pandemic.

“I was able to reclaim the work after the pandemic. I think the whole writing and directing happened during the pandemic mostly out of necessity. I just wanted to work and keep my friends working as well. Okay, I have a responsibility in a sense to give people work. When I was still living in the Philippines, I was living alone also during the pandemic, I didn’t know what to do with my days,” Bela says. “I feel like all my processes in creating films are quite similar. It’s always what is needed of me right now and how can I serve better ways here and I will figure out if I can do it. I don’t second-guess myself anymore… I really just go for it—which is scary sometimes,” she continues.

Creative spirit

One of the striking things about Bela Padilla as an artist is she doesn’t stop at being an artist. In fact, while her latest film is written and directed by her, this isn’t her first time to be credited as a creative. She wrote the screenplay for the movies 366 and Last Night and is credited for her concept on Apple of My Eye.

Asked how she proposes and pitches for projects in an industry that largely values seniority, Bela shares her thoughts. “I wouldn’t say I’ve paid my dues but I’m slowly doing it. I feel like I’ve proven myself all the time to the people I work for like Viva Films. I constantly work with them. I feel like I have a track record with them naman that’s really good. I guess they’re happy with the results of my films, and they know how hard I’ve worked for every project even for films I’m not part of the production or part of the creative team behind certain films. If I’m just an actress, they know that I’ll stay extra for marketing meetings or stay up until post-production. I really like to help out where I can,” she begins.

“Personally kasi, I believe you put the work in and you’re paid as an actor for this set, but what’s the point of acting in a film if no one gets to watch it? I really like to make sure that the films work out and somehow people out there watch our film, our projects. I think our bosses in Viva like Boss Vic [del Rosario] and Boss Vincent [del Rosario], I think they see the amount of work that I like putting in. I actually enjoy doing what I’m doing. When I do pitch projects, I’m happy because they always greenlight it and I hope they keep doing that or I hope I keep coming up with ideas that are greenlit,” Bela smiles, looking satisfied and happy with her achievements but also excited for what’s to come.

She enjoys the creative process so much but sheepishly claims she’s also not quite organized with this. Bela arms herself with notebooks and jots down ideas but completely forgets about ideas until she revisits her notes. “I’m quite scattered with my thoughts but I know that the story is ready to be told when I have an idea and I can’t let go of it and I just immediately need to write the script. So when I’m not that excited or in a rush to write certain projects, I feel like it’s not time for it yet. No specific process. I do write quite quickly. I write between two and three days. What’s long for me is when I revise. I’m a very slow reviser. I like to justify the first draft all the time but I know that realistically speaking, no one actually uses just the first draft. It takes forever for me to revise,” she confesses.

Bela may have been acting on materials she worked on herself, but she would like to collaborate with three actresses, too. “Two of my best friends are two actors that really move me when I watch their films. I love Angelica [Panganiban] and Kim [Chiu]. They both have good filmographies. I respect their filmography. Eventually, I would love to work with them on something different. I want to see them in a different genre. I would love to work with either of them or both of them at the same time. I’d also love to work with Jennylyn Mercado. I love her performances as well. I find her really effective in all roles. Very natural,” she says.

Dreams for the Philippine entertainment industry

Having experienced working in front and behind the camera and seeing different working conditions here and abroad, Metro.Style asked Bela’s thoughts on her dream for the Philippine entertainment industry. She mentioned three things: working conditions and shorter hours of working on set, fair wages for everybody and correct funding for projects.

“Until we find actual solutions and all people on set from the top to the bottom agree, then there’s no point talking or ranting about it. I personally like to change the system when it’s my set. I try to maintain a very calm and chill set just so everyone’s creative. We try not to extend over the protocols right now of 12-14 hours. I’m very adamant about that for everybody. We try also to make sure that people are given actual breaks for lunch and dinner because that’s basic humanity. The little things I can change, I will and I do it on my set but I can’t change it for other people’s set because that’s not… I don’t want to overstep,” she explains.

Because Bela was brave in pursuing her craft and interests outside of acting, she also would like to inspire fellow actors and creatives to just go and conceptualize movie projects. “I say just go for it. I feel like this is one of the reasons I do what I’m doing because we need new voices and new material. Even myself, I feel like sometimes when I read the script, oh I’ve done this before so I don’t want to do this anymore. We really need fresh ideas. I always say even to co-actors, like, I remember having so many conversations with Jericho Rosales and he has so many good ideas but he won’t put pen to paper. Now he does. Just write it, don’t judge yourself and actually do it and write it down. Later on, if there are scenes you don’t like, you can edit it. Just actually get your thoughts down on paper. All of us have stories to tell, all of us have quirky perspectives of the world and it would be interesting to hear what you actually want to talk about,” she states encouragingly.

Life lately and lessons to take away

For both her professional and personal life, Bela has been going through many transitions and shifts but finds herself grounded with a mindset that helps her: Ho’oponopono. “I like to practice Ho’oponopono. It’s an old Hawaiian saying but also like a mindset. Especially on bad days when I’m feeling low or depressed, which I’ve been going through quite a bit in London because I’ve been transitioning to figuring out what I want to do there or who I am there, I try to practice Ho’oponopono as much as I can. It’s four simple phrases and you can address it to anybody, to yourself, cat or mom or dad or at someone at odds with or someone you just met: it’s just ‘Thank You, I’m sorry, Please Forgive Me and I Love You.’ Just complete the sentences.

“I could even address it to the universe or the earth. Something like thank you for being my home, I’m sorry we’re not doing better or not taking care of you well, please forgive me I’ll try to change and I love you and thank you for everything. Four easy phrases and it changes not just your day but how you see the world. I’ve been trying it as much as I can to everybody. What we put out to the world really affects people and our environment and it affects us most of all so I try to be conscious of how I think now. I try to not have too much negative thoughts,” she shares, explaining the thoughts behind the Hawaiian exercise for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Bela, ever the generous sharer of wisdom she picks up, also took the opportunity to highlight a lesson she learned from a podcast. “Be grateful about the things that nobody notices every night before you sleep—for water, for air, for the roof over your heard—things you usually disregard. You notice that you stop becoming grateful for and you start becoming grateful. Period. You’re not counting blessings anymore. You’re just blessed. Period. You just become a happy person. Easier said than done but obviously a progression,” the actress remarks.

The woman she looks up to

To cap off Women’s Month, we asked the actress-director on a woman who has inspired or mentored her. “My biggest mentor work-wise is Direk Irene Villamor. She directed me in Camp Sawi, Meet Me in St. Gallen and Of Vodka, Beers and Regrets. She was my creative producer in366. I believe Direk Irene so much because I love her work. I am a fan. I love collaborating with her and just throwing ideas with her. When you ask her to read the script, she’s just not the type who would say naokay, maganda, i-shoot mo ito or palitan mo itong sequence na ito…’ she would send you notes on scenes of why this worked, of how she imagined it and how it made her feel and I really appreciate that because it takes so much time to write materials and what it takes out of you. It takes so much. To have a mentor like that is such a positive influence in your life, it’s so rare,” she narrates.

Bela further demonstrates this importance of having a mentor and support like Direk Irene with what she learned from a recent talk she also guested in. “There was a talk with other amazing women panelists and all of them spoke about having somebody in the community believe in them. I truly believe in this kasi I feel like nowadays, we equate being a strong woman and of being empowered with a connotation na you’re an individual and independent and succeeded on your own from nowhere. For me, that’s very far from the truth. I really honestly believe that for you to succeed, you need to be humble enough to ask questions from other people, you need to be humble enough to learn from others’ lives and from how they treat and see the world. And you try to pick the best parts of everyone and try to apply it on yourself. Being humble enough to acknowledge that you don’t know everything and you need to learn more. If you live with that mindset, you’re open to all ideas and all blessings and all the help the world can give you,” she powerfully elucidates.

Looking back

With all the personal milestones Bela is currently experiencing right now and professional achievements that only other industry players can dream of, one can’t help but look back on the younger 20-year-old Bela who’s still new at the time in the industry.

“I was very chill as a 20-year-old. I was having fun. I was working hard but always happy to be on set. The advice would be to just keep going at it because you’re going somewhere. I remember there were days I was questioning myself if I actually belong in this industry because I stuck out like a sore thumb. I wasn’t in a loveteam, I was doing very different things and I wanted to write which no one was doing then. I was already writing for publications then. I felt different. In the entertainment industry, you’re always put in a mold because what sells is the formula that they have but because I didn’t fit in those molds, I always felt I stuck out nga. [But I’d like to tell 20-yeard-old Bela,] where we are right now is a good place so keep at it,” she smiles.

Bela, being the dreamer and the “make-it-happen” character that she is, concludes the interview with an anecdote that she feels reflects the minds of the other people living in this generation, too. “I’m currently pushing myself to be in territories I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I’m rushing too much and think I have to slow down a bit but at the same time, I still have so many dreams and so many things I still want to do. I can’t slow down just yet. I feel like if I slow down, it’s a disservice to myself. As Harry Styles said, ‘2023 is the year to shoot your shot!’” she happily encourages everybody.

’Yung Libro Sa Napanood Ko will be released in cinemas nationwide on April 8, 2023.

Lead photos by @sweetescape via @bela