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Being Raymond Bagatsing: From Ballistic Action Star To Manuel Quezon

He started as the Pinoy Karate Kid, the character who would throw in a few moves, a few kicks before getting shot. And then he was the very first actor who took home back-to-back Best Actor awards from the Gawad Urian for award-winning indie films Milagros and Serafin Geronimo. And now, he becomes the man—the icon—who we know to be Manuel Quezon.

Everyone starts from somewhere and for Ramon "Raymond" San Diego Bagatsing III, it was his back and forth from Australia and to the Philippines that set him on his path.

“I was studying in Melbourne, Australia that time and then I would vacation here every year. I would go to malls and talent coordinators would come, ‘Hey, gusto mo bang mag-artista?’” Raymond recalls.

And a particular memory when he was 14—prime teenage angst years, if he may add—comes to mind when asked how he came into terms with being an artist. “We were in the province in Nueva Ecija, and I fell asleep in the car. And then I woke up, I went to the window, and someone screamed. And then all these people started to rock the car. They were like, ‘Menudo!’” And nope, they weren’t so much too forward to call him a piece of meat. It was actually because the people thought he was part of the then Latino group Menudo, which Ricky Martin was a part of. “They thought I was one of those. So I was like, ‘Oh my god, is this how it feels like to be a celebrity? I can do this!’ The fame really felt good, to be paid attention to.”

For a long time, Raymond lived in Australia with his mother, Marilou San Diego, who was then separated from his father, Ramon “Boy” Bagatsing, Jr. who lived in the Philippines. But at 16, already independent and capable of feeding himself (“I was pretty independent at a young age, you know how to cook for yourself, it’s only eggs and fried stuff, but it’s still food!” he says), he decided to stay in the Philippines to embark on what would be the start of his acting career.

“My father—because he was friends with sina FPJ, sina Dolphy—got me on television for a day. And then I kept on guesting in small movies. I get a role, I get shot. And one of them was able to showcase my martial arts skills. And the director was like, ‘Okay ’tong batang ’to, ah! Magaling palang magkarate ’to! Isali natin sa mga film natin ’yan, action action!’ And my dad was like, ‘Isama mo nga sige wala namang ginagawa ’yan, eh, barkada ng barkada!’” Raymond recalls with a chuckle.

“I felt I had a taste of the acting bug,” Raymond says, which was the turning point for him that made him decide that he wanted to do it. He wanted to be in the business. And if his father was too busy, he would do it himself. “Being from Australia, I knew that everything was in the papers. So I opened the newspapers and looked at the classified ads, looking for commercial agents. And I remember finding Backroom Agency, and I called them up, ‘Hi, I want to be a model. I’m from Australia, what shall I do? Can I be a model?’”

Even though it sounded like the silliest thing in the world, calling people up to tell them you wanna be a model, it actually worked! “Do I have any experience? Not really. But then they asked me to come to their office and I found out that the owner of that advertising agency was Boy Abunda.”

When asked what his biggest break was, Raymond fondly recalls a project that he and his dad would work on. The father and son tandem sounded like a good idea, especially since both of them loved to act. So when a director approached his father and said, “Pareng Boy, produce tayong pelikula. Anak mo nalang ang bida natin. Karate kid. Pinoy karate kid! And he can act, he’s a natural.” They were sold. Raymond would be the lead Karate kid, and his father would play the villain.

“I remember being happy going on Edsa. There was my billboard, my very first billboard, the title was: Warrior of the Rising Sun: Heron Rapido,” Raymond laughs, remembering how silly the billboard looked but it was a great moment of pride for him. “I see someone looking at the billboard and I go, ‘Huy! Kilala mo ’yun? That guy? Ako ’yun!’ The next day, the billboard was gone. Because the movie didn’t last long in the cinema, maybe only 2-3 days. I was really high, and I was really low after that.”

Was the movie a failure? Not entirely. Because the film didn’t last, but it gave people a glimpse at his capacity as an actor and as an action star. And after a while, the big producers started hearing and talking about the name Raymond Bagatsing.

 

From action star to something more

Raymond lived the Ballistic Action Star life for a while, just as he was dubbed in a major newspaper’s headline. But then he found a new niche for himself after Milagros with the late director Marilou Diaz Abaya, which won him his very first Gawad Urian Best Actor award.

“I realized I could harness something inside of me. I had some kind of focus, and I loved the challenge of the cerebral drama. I started winning awards every year,” Raymond says. Indeed he found drama as his new craft and he became the first actor to bag the Gawad Urian Best Actor award for two consecutive years. He would also be known for his long-standing role in the iconic Mula sa Puso teleserye in the late 90s, and a dozen more roles on TV in different networks.

But looking back at his journey, his award-studded history and work-heavy life, he now realizes that he hasn’t been the best guy people wanted to work with.

“I could get really eccentric going into roles because I was so much into acting. So I got too obsessed that maybe people feared to work with me,” he says. “I learned from that because I did get recognition, praise, but I felt like I lost connection with the people of the production. I got too obsessed with acting and I forgot that it was supposed to be a family. Everyone’s important. And so that was a long road towards realization that it was not just about me.”

Raymond says it was a road to realization that was forged by spirituality and meditation. During the time that he had so many questions, he dabbled in different religions and read a lot of scriptures—Buddhism, Born Again Christian, Judaism, Mormon, Islam—until he found an ancient meditation technique from a monk in India that governs his way of life to date.

“I got into the Way of Tantra because it was the only thing that answered all my questions about life. I can be obsessive when I get into something. I would not sleep, and I would get so engrossed on how it revealed the universe to me that I devoured books after books,” Raymond says.

And then he was back at it, being obsessed about something so bad it governed his whole being. But then he found that going vegetarian would make meditation a bit easier because your body would be cooler. And he realized that achieving that balance in the things he did, the things he ate, the work he did, helped him arrive now at the best version of himself.

So now, he’s 90 percent vegan, only infusing salmon and eggs here and there because he needs the protein for his workout. He has also started practicing intermittent fasting to counter the amount of carbs in his body.

When you look at Raymond, you couldn’t even guess he had the body of a 50 year old. He is proof that once you know what you want and work hard to learn more about achieving what you want, you can do it. “It’s not easy maintain this body because as you age, you have to lessen the calories you take each day. But in hindsight, it’s easier now because I know the knowledge. You have to learn how to listen to your body. Know when you’re weak, know when you need to eat a little bit of something, know when to feed yourself.” In all things, balance.

 

Getting the game

All of this has led him to Quezon’s Game, a project he initially thought was offered to him but turned out to be another challenge for the cerebral actor.

“When they called me, I thought I was being given the part. I lacked sleep coming from taping, so I contemplated whether I should go or should I sleep because I was very very tired. So I talked myself into going, it’s an offer, just give it a go, understand what they have to say, and then go home and sleep. But when I got there, I learned that I had to audition. I was like, ‘You guys tricked me!’ I lacked sleep and now I had to work hard to get it!” he laughed, recalling how bummed he was having to wring himself for energy he barely had any left.

And so he read his lines, people were clapping for him, but he remember seeing the director’s—Matthew Rosen’s—face, and it was just blank, nothing. That, coupled with 2 months of radio silence, told him he didn’t get the part.

In the end, however, when Raymond was called back in for a “final audition,” he learned that the director who he thought didn’t like him was the same guy who fought for him for 2 months, convincing people that he looked the most like Quezon and could play the part best. Matthew Rosen, in the end, became the key to Raymond becoming the new face of Quezon.

For the award-winning actor who loved challenges, who loved cerebral drama roles, studying and being Manuel Quezon was big. “It’s very difficult because there’s a lot of things happening with him. He wasn’t just one-dimensional. He just wasn’t a politician, he wasn’t just an intellectual, he was a lover, a very social friend, he was a caring friend, he was a president. So I researched him. It was a bigger than life persona. I was lucky I didn’t have a television show that time so I had so much time to stay home, studying the script, studying his footages, reading about him, dressing up and fixing my hair, doing speeches in front of the mirror, the whole works.”

And so it felt like Manuel Quezon was born again, now in the body of Raymond Bagatsing.

Raymond and the whole production under Star Cinema and Kinetek worked for months on the movie to get it as close to perfect as Matthew wanted it, and indeed it looked like it paid off since Quezon’s Game, as of writing, has already garnered 23 awards in several international film festivals.

But the biggest question is, will Quezon’s Game capture the hearts of Filipinos, in a time where movie-goers would line up for hours Hollywood superhero movies or would rather stay at home and browse what’s new on Netflix?

Raymond says, “Quezon’s Game is basically about how Quezon was able to get the Filipino people behind him against a very powerful country and allow them to issue visas to thousands of Jews and save their lives. Thinking about it, he put the Philippines somewhat in danger from Hitler’s wrath because we were just under the US then. The US can basically blame us, ‘Why are you trying to get Hitler’s attention? What if he focused on the Philippines and what if he starts bombing you and you’re so small you won’t be able to do anything against him and it’s not even your country now, it’s ours!’ Quezon was just a puppet president at that time. But you know, it was really just an honor to know that we did something, a small developing country—it wasn’t even our country yet—we were always being taken over, but we were able to fight for what’s right. I believe the movie shows the greatness of the Filipino heart. We have Rizal, we have Bonifacio, they gave their lives for the Filipinos, and just as well, the Filipinos are worth dying for.”