Tony Labrusca, JC Alcantara Star In "Hello Stranger," Black Sheep PH's "Boys Love" Web Series!
Read everything that Tony and JC reveal about their first project together, filming under quarantine, and what it feels to be paving the way for more gender-inclusive shows in Philippine pop culture
"It was awkward at first. You’re saying all these lines and sanay ka na saying all these lines to a leading lady, tapos, bigla na lang na mayroon kang leading man," Tony Labrusca begins.
"I was like, 'Interesting,'" he smiles.
His co-star, JC Alcantara, doesn't stray from the sentiment.
"Nu'ng sinabi sa akin na si Tony 'yung makaka-love team ko, tinawagan ako nu'ng handler ko. [Sabi niya] ‘I have news; makaka-love team mo si Tony Labrusca.’ Sabi ko, ‘Seryoso po ba kayo?’" JC adds.
Their reactions are exactly what anyone might expect! After all, it's not just that Tony and JC were made co-stars for the very first time, but they were cast to become onscreen leads for a BL web series, one of the firsts in mainstream media. Tony plays his college varsity's athletic wonder boy Xavier, while JC steps into the shoes of Mico, a conscientious student whose time is devoted to academics.
And to the uninitiated, if the term "BL series" doesn't ring any bells, now is the time to learn that BL stories shine the spotlight on budding romances between two men, hence the acronym of BL, which stands for "boys love." As for the series itself?
Tony and JC star in none other than Hello Stranger, the very first web series produced and released by Black Sheep PH. The production house that celebrated its second anniversary this year has consistently brought original stories and beautifully acted performances to audiences with Hello Stranger bound to live up to the same standards. Living up to its name, Black Sheep PH doesn't shy away from the atypical and eccentric, yet in the end, always manages to mesh a project's elements to form a cohesive, seamless whole.
In an exclusive interview with these two leading men, Tony and JC share what the filming experience was like, the challenges of their roles, and what life under quarantine has been like for both of them.
The filming experience
Take note. Despite being Hello Stranger's official love team, Tony and JC didn't actually meet up in person during filming. Due to quarantine restrictions and health protocols, the series was shot in their own homes, leaving little to no boundaries between their personal spaces and an official set for a scene. Truly one of a kind and challenging for everyone involved, Hello Stranger was an ode to what creative minds can achieve and how media can really be a landscape for the products of imagination to materialize.
"Everything’s at home so ang hirap. Ako kasi, I like leaving work at work. I like the feeling na I travel to work and then I leave the set. It’s interesting na ’yung room ko, kwarto ni Xavier. Tapos ’pag tapos na ’yung shoot, doon din ako matutulog," Tony reveals.
"I realized that it’s very rewarding knowing that now, ikaw din kasama sa process. So ’pag nakikita niyo sa YouTube and sa Facebook page ng Black Sheep, kami din ’yun. So kahit papaano, nakaka-proud. It’s an interesting change, pero it’s worth it," he continues.
JC, on the other hand, laments the time he's spending away from the set but his gratefulness for the opportunity to dive deep into a fresh project eclipses everything else. Stuck at home with no family to keep him company (they're all in Nueva Ecjija while he spends quarantine alone away from all of them), working with Tony and the rest of the Hello Stranger film crew have been a real treat for JC.
"Mas malungkot lang sa akin na hindi pa ko makauwi. Alam mo ’yung feeling na wala; sobrang lungkot ko dito. Nahihirapan ako," he shares.
"Pero imagine mo, siguro, kahit paopano, meant to be iyon. Kasi kung nakauwi ka sa inyo, hindi ka makakasama sa Hello Stranger," Tony says back to JC, speaking like a true friend.
It becomes even more difficult on days when Internet connections are less than cooperative and technical difficulties get in the way. Not only can they cause delays, but they're also terribly distracting for JC who worked harder than usual to better understand his character's inner workings and communicate them as best as he could.
"Inaral ko talaga siya," JC reveals.
"May isa akong scene na nagpaturo ako kay kuya Christian Bables [he's known for his trans woman character in the movie Die Beautiful]. Nag-one on one kami, kasi hindi ako kumportable dito sa isang scene... Abangan na lang nila 'yung mangyayari sa scene na iyon. Sobrang bibigay ko ’yung best sa lahat-lahat. Lahat ng scene naman binibigay ko ’yung best ko para maging effective bilang isang actor," he says.
Speaking of their characters, of course, Tony and JC did have their hesitations about taking on lead roles for a show whose genre focuses on telling the stories of queer love between young men. It's not what you might call safe territory for two budding actors in the industry.
But Tony in particular has never been one to tread the known and beaten path, while JC saw it as a golden opportunity to showcase what he was made of as an actor worthy of more.
Tony says, "I always tell people, ’yung mga roles na ginawa ko, naging serial killer na ako, naging lobo ako. I played a ghost, I also played somebody who had split personality na addicted to sex. Grabe ’yung mga roles na nagawa ko which I’m very, very grateful for. So it was really nice because I’ve always wanted a role like this na rom-com."
"Noong binasa ko ’yung script and pinaliwanag nila sakin na sobrang light lang ng series, naging kumportable na rin ako," JC adds.
The challenges of the role
Believe it or not, for both Tony and JC, their roles' biggest challenges did not come in the form of playing characters exploring same-sex attraction.
They both found it more difficult to liven up the mundane lives of Xavier and Mico who, in the series, are stuck at home just like them and are forced to continue classes within the four walls of their bedrooms. Without any variety to location and a story that mostly takes place behind a screen (Xavier and Mico both get to know each other via Zoom and messaging apps, exactly like the actors who play them), Tony and JC manage to make a potentially lifeless and repetitive setting as kilig-worthy as possible.
"It’s different pala when you’re playing somebody who’s living a mundane lifestyle. It’s quite hard to bring life and character to that, to your portrayal of that person because you need to make the people fall in love with your character. Sa lahat ng mga ibang roles na nagawa ko, I never have to try for people to like me. Most of the time, 'yung mga characters that I play don’t care if the audience likes them or not," Tony explains.
JC similarly found himself re-calibrating his kilig strategies. While he's found the sweet spot for making his fans swoon over his on-screen moves and lines, he's never had to achieve the same effect with a male partner, and with an actor like Tony no less, who made his name with daring roles.
Despite their initial worries about the show, we're sure that Tony and JC will be nothing but electric on-screen, successfully introducing non-heterosexual love stories to a wider audience in a time when open-mindedness and acceptance have arrived in pop culture.
Life under quarantine
And finally, as Tony and JC continue to live life under quarantine for who knows how many days more, the young actors reflect on what the unique time in history has taught them.
Tony has learned to be more self-reflective and enjoy the simpler, slower things of his day, taking the time to pause and come to terms with parts of himself he would have otherwise ignored by immersing himself with work, parties, traveling, and nights out.
"'Yung quarantine life ko went through stages. So sa mga first two weeks, nababaliw ako. Hindi ko alam kung ano gagawin ko, inis na inis talaga ako. And then I went on this self-discovery stage where I was like, ‘Oh okay, quarantine is kinda nice.’ I have peace of mind. I found security in myself," he reveals.
But every day remains to be a struggle. He dreams of travelling to far-off places and even for just a few days, enjoy feeling trouble-free. Japan and Iceland are the top items on Tony's travel bucket list, and will definitely be on the agenda should international travel restrictions ease up.
And then there's JC who continues to cope with quarantine, solo. On non-filming days, he has Mobile Legends to thank. But the slowness is something he doesn't mind; before quarantine was imposed, he was at the center of a vehicular accident that could've turned out much worse. He has since spent his time allowing mind and body to recover, all the while wishing that his family members were around to take care of him.
In the end, both Tony and JC are glad about being able to keep other people like them company via their new show, and for themselves, they're definitely glad to have found the courage to take up this project that's sure to be loved by many.
Hello Strangers premiered last June 24 with new episodes released every week. Directed by Petersen Vargas whose filmography shines with work that tells the stories of queer and gay characters, the story is not solely a romance, but one about friendship, too. The web series also stars Gillian Vicencio, Vivoree Esclito, Patrick Quiroz, and Miguel Almendras, and is available for audiences from all over the world for free.
Photos from @imjacalcantara @tony.labrusca / Poster from Black Sheep PH