EXCLUSIVE: Bela Padilla Finds Purpose, Passion, And Self In A World Of New Realities
It's a whole new world out there waiting for us to live a "new normal"—and Bela is out to conquer it
The thing about finding yourself is, it can't happen unless you've gotten lost.
Learning who you are, what you want to be like, where you want to go, and how you want to get there can't begin unless you've found yourself running circles, turning the same corners over and over again. It's one of existence's biggest paradoxes.
And in these times of murky futures and extreme uncertainty, this experience of forced self-examination has definitely come to the forefront, and for many, has even defined their days under quarantine as they grapple with the idea of post-coronavirus life, of the "new normal" this pandemic has imposed upon us all. Questions about ourselves, our place in the grand scheme of things and if we're going in the direction meant for us, are more relevant than ever.
"So what now?" we ask.
We're not sure.
There is, however, someone we're looking to not only to inspire us, but to comfort us, too: Bela Padilla isn't quite sure about what happens next either, but what she does know is that despite the question marks looming over our heads, we must still make ourselves and each other feel a little less alone through acts of kindness and compassion.
"Right now, it is a breather but at the same time it’s getting me a little bit anxious as well... I am very aware that I feel like the entertainment industry is one of the last industries to start moving again when we all recover from COVID-19. So I’m trying to find my footing in the world again right now. I’m doing things little by little," she begins.
A recent Instagram post tells us so much about where she's at right now. It shows her in her high-rise home, dressed up in a black mini and a black t-shirt, matched with sexy dark lippie and loosely touseled hair. Where could she be going at a time like this?
That's the joke. She isn't actually going anywhere. She filmed herself moving from one spot of her room to a desk a few meters away, saying "Glad I left early for the office today."
The silly post speaks volumes about what people all over are experiencing; we're stuck at home missing most of the daily activities we've grown accustomed to with only our creativity and wit to keep things interesting.
For Bela in particular, the health house arrest was particularly jarring; 2019 was a crazy, crazy year of filming and working for her, and just like that, life had come to a screeching halt. A working girl like her isn't used to free-flowing, agenda-less time.
"Last year I would say was the busiest year I’ve had so far, career-wise. There was a time when I was doing two films and a series from Monday to Sundays, and it was very intense for me, and it carried over until the end of the year," she explains.
In place of taping days, guest appearances, and interviews, Netflix, HBO Go, and spending time with her dog are now her daily agenda. Save for her assistant, who got stuck in Metro Manila due to the lockdown and is bunking at Bela's, and a good friend-slash-grocery buddy who lives nearby, she's pretty much left to herself to ride this out.
"I try to pull back a little because I felt like the surge of activities stopped. And I was also guilty because I was suddenly so passive, suddenly so idle," she adds.
She also had big plans for 2020 that have pretty much evaporated. Switzerland and Hungary (and the beach of course, as required by Philippine summers) were on her itinerary, but these days, who knows when traveling for leisure can be a thing again?
It certainly wasn't something she could have anticipated, let alone imagined happening some 50-plus days ago when she went on her usual run at the UP campus. It was mid-March then, and talks of a "lockdown" were already in the air; the tension enough to scare all and any visitors from hanging out in UP's usually vibrant spots.
All she had for company were the school's vendor staples: students' favorite taho, fish ball, carioca and kwek-kwek.
As she went on her route, she wondered what would become of them should there be a city-wide lockdown. These hand-to-mouth citizens—what are they to do when no one come to them for merienda, when the measly P10 they earn per order is lost?
Lo and behold—the day after, the government mandated a Luzon-wide quarantine, thus taking away the opportunity of Filipinos just like them to make a living. She wondered if buying snacks from each of the vendors she saw that day could have made a difference. The painful truth was, it wouldn't have. The reality check made the thought of them living through a jobless quarantine all the more heavy to bear.
It was a picture that kept her up for nights and nights, bothering her to no end.
And then, a bright idea hatched: she organized a fundraiser.
"I tried to do the fundraising as quickly as I could. It was Go Get Funding, which is quite tricky to do," she recalls.
By the end of it, Bela had raised P3 million, making national headlines for the impressive feat.
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Salamat po ❤️ ps: the bags in the middle were the ones left at 7:30pm. Also, we didn’t keep all the donations in this bus but on the huge truck behind us. The bags in the bus are just for people we see on the streets and not the bulks we dropped off, that’s why we kept reloading. 🤗
"I’m happy because people responded really well to it. In three days, we reached the target. On the second day, someone made a big donation. On the third day, we [already had] the supplies and we were repacking and handing out," she describes.
Now, you would assume that Bela's efforts would be nothing but praiseworthy. She was one of the first celebrities who took concrete action to help Filipinos in need during this COVID-19 crisis; with the help of a phone call with Matteo Guidicelli whose military connections allowed her to reach as many people as possible with the help of the Philippine Army, Bela was still the one who had called the shots, making sure that her spirit would be satisfied with the work she'd done.
And it was. She had slept much better after doing her rounds, having traveled from city to city knowing that she had played her part as an able-bodied citizen during these trying times.
She was proud of herself, too, and rightly so. Thousands of people were.
Momentarily, the confusion about who Bela Padilla was outside of show business dissipated. She discovered a new purpose, a new mission, something to get her out of bed in the morning—until the criticism came.
"If the fundraiser had 90 percent positive reactions, there was the 10 percent who had questions. And it’s really sad, to be honest, because [you're] physically and emotionally, tired, and also a little bit financially depleted from doing something like this then [people still ask], 'Where are the receipts?' And I’m like, 'Hold your horses because I will post them. Give me some time to catch my breath.' And when I did post them, they still had something else to say and I really felt bad about that," she confides.
It's not that Bela had wanted a crown, or a medal, or a trophy for her initiative—not in the least bit!
But how Filipinos could have appreciated the good that had come out of her work, and the encouragement it gave to others when it came to the possibility of doing more for their kababayans—she wondered why her critics couldn't have focused on those, instead.
"I hope Filipinos see that sometimes—and this is such cliché—that if you were about to say something you that you couldn't say to someone’s face, behind your phone or your laptop, then don’t say it all. If you’re hiding an anonymous name or you're being paid to react negatively to the world, this is really not the time," Bela says.
And as Filipinos, now is peak time to ask ourselves: is there ever really a time for that? Are instances like this something we wish to be characterized by as a people? Life under quarantine is prime opportunity for deep self-examination and reflection. We can even treat it as a do-over for ourselves where we shed the bad, exposing the good, and the better, that lay underneath—something that the business of previous everyday living wouldn't have had room for.
In this sense, it also our chance to find ourselves as a nation; as Bela says, a quick browsing of headlines and social media commentary will reveal that we are much more divided than we are united. Negativity abounds when it should be a time of empathy and open-mindedness.
"It’s obviously very rewarding after and I always tell this to everybody, that when you help out, it helps you more. But it’s the comments after that made me jaded or tired. And I know that the world is bigger than that, and I should see the bigger picture, but after, we took a step back because I felt like there are other ways I could help out anyway," Bela shares.
Even so, the experience had awoken something in Bela.
Seeing the state that underprivileged city dwellers were in—it's something that will never leave her, and it taught her that the need to help is a never-ending one. Pandemic or no pandemic, there will always be those who need people with a heart like hers. Perhaps, this major discovery of her desire to be of service could stay with her, too, long after COVID-19 is gone.
She tells us, "One of the first places we went to was Manila Bay. And my god, the amount of people lying down on the boardwalk... They were all on the floor, lying down with each other because they had no energy anymore. Imagine—it’s so hot, days without food, days without clean water... You know, for weeks maybe that mental image will stay with me for a long time after this."
"I don’t know where to place all of this in my life right now. In the day time, you can be learning a new recipe, and then in the night you read your book, you go on Netflix. But also, you see there’s a bigger picture and a bigger problem out there—how do you help out? I don’t know right now how I can spread myself, so I could help out more people. I’m trying to figure that out more as days go by," she continues.
Finding herself while in the middle of a pandemic—she's not quite sure whether she's just begun, in the middle of the process, or reaching the finish line, but in the journey of self-discovery, that matters little; one only has to get moving, and life's compass will be there to pave the path.
However, discovering new things about herself and what she's capable of isn't equivalent to her closing the door on her acting career—not at all! Her emerging identity as a budding social advocate can definitely co-exist with her being an actress.
In fact, Bela has quite a special on-screen project to look forward to once life has settled down.
One of the films she wrapped up last year was shot in Korea, and for a K-Drama-obsessed gal like Bela, it was an absolute dream. Literally, it looked like a dream; one of their major filming locations was atop a mountain where snow would fall, wind would blow, and temperatures would drop as low as -35 degrees. A popular ski resort, the venue had log cabins that housed spas and and indoor pool areas, and outdoor areas any explorer would love to see.
But the cherry on this sweet slice of cake was the dreamboat that Bela starred alongside: Korean actor Kim Gun-woo. On top of that, this movie's director is Hwang In-roo, the director behind the famous 2006 K-Drama Princess Hours, which Bela absolutely loved.
"Gun graduated from his university, top of his class and his batch. For that year, he was number one in drama and arts, so he's an amazing actor. I learned so much from him. I love that our acting styles are very similar. We're both reacting actors. There are actors who can do stuff on their own, but it's so beautiful when a scene works really well and all you have to do is react, so it becomes more natural," she explains.
Though Bela quickly discovered that her overseas experience held much more promise than just amazing on-screen exchanges.
Bela took home a hundred and one memories from filming with a Korean crew, as she transcended language barriers and immersed herself in a culture far different from her own, discovering that in this great big world, making connections—and not creating divides—with others is one of the most beautiful things one could ever experience.
Her memories of Korea are powerful enough to help her through this period of strained interconnectedness; in a time when what is highlighted is what sets people apart, instead of what pulls them together, these experiences have become valuable emotional and psychological reserves for Bela.
She tells us more about her heart-opening experience—how she had found paternal figures in her director and lighting director, the friendships she formed with other crew members, the inside jokes, the cultural crash course, and the awe she felt in Koreans' reverence and respect for the art of filmmaking.
"Even without knowing Korean, I bonded with them," she remembers.
She'll never forget her little "coffee club" with the film crew's more senior members, for instance.
In Korea, she explains, merienda isn't a tradition in the same way it is in the Philippines, but what they do have in place of it is an extended coffee session after every meal. And within their little filming crew, the director was their coffee group's leader—which means that the coffee club came with degree of exclusivity.
"Five minutes before the afternoon shoot, we would drink coffee together... The other Koreans were so shocked that I was welcomed into that club because first of all, I don't speak Korean! So I just nodded while we're drinking coffee and agreed. Sometimes they asked me things which I'm sure I answered wrong, but they'd accepted me really well into their little coffee club. I loved that, it was so cool," she laughs.
And she certainly hasn't forgotten about how everyone knew her as the girl who couldn't stand the cold, yet was filming a movie that set in the dead of winter, on top of an icy mountain. The remedy? Layer upon layer of hot packs, which at one point, made her look like a turtle as tons of the stick-on variety were stuck on her back.
"There was one shooting day when it was the windiest. We had a really important scene there... I had brain freeze, nail freeze, hair freeze, everything freeze! My cheeks, nose, and ears were just constantly red. They would always let me run indoors really quick, put hot packs on my cheeks, then run back outside bago mag-red ulit 'yung buong face ko! It was a deep scarlet. It wasn't even cute anymore," she laughs.
And in the instances when her Korean friends flew out to Manila (the movie had a handful of scenes shot in the Philippines), Bela made sure to return the favor—like that time she took full advantage of rare days off and whisked her friends out to the beach on a whim.
"I kind of kidnapped them from their hotel rooms and took them to La Union. They had the best time! They surfed for the first time! Ngayon gets ko na 'yung memes na 'yung nanay tinatawag 'yung anak to get out of the water kasi maglu-lunch na. Sobra silang na-excite!" she recalls.
As for her coffee club, she returned that experience by introducing them to local beers, something reminiscent of Korea's popular chicken and beer culture.
"They all drink pretty heavy drinks, so they loved that," she smiles.
But above all her personal experiences, Bela's biggest career takeaway from all this was something she so deeply wishes Filipino filmmakers and actors to learn from: that Koreans treat filmmaking as an art, almost a sacred vessel of cultural and creative expression, and overall, a pursuit to be taken seriously.
Being fully aware of the international success of K-Dramas and Korean films (read: Crash Landing on You, Parasite) not only in parts of Asia but in the west too, Bela makes valuable commentary: they're great at what they do thanks to their art first, box-office numbers and publicity second approach to entertainment.
"They're doing something right! In 2018 when I started watching a lot of K-Dramas, I went to Hawaii, and the layover was in Korea. It was the first time I set foot in Korea," she narrates.
"In the airport, there were standees of all the biggest stars. When you fly Korean airlines, 80 percent of the [media] content is Korean. When you watch K-Dramas, they make you crave for Korean food, because they make it look like it's delicious—and it is—but even how they act it out, the Korean stars, they make it look like it's worth the calories to eat this much rice. They make us believe it. It's such a holistic thing—their food, entertainment, aviation, tourism industries are all in line with each other. We can learn something from that," she continues.
As an actress who's been in the industry since her teens and just turned 30 years old on May 3 (a birthday spent under lockdown, no less), Bela knows just how wide the gap is between Korean and Philippine film industries.
"If we had the same advantages they did, we would also produce more work that would appeal to a global audience. I really believe that. Our stories are beautiful! That's why I work in film and TV; we have so many amazing writers and good stories. It's just that we don't have that push yet, that help yet, to go onto the global stage and market. We could learn from them," she says.
They're beautiful ambitions to have (besides, many great things in this world were born out of ambition) but for now, those are dreams that will have to wait. But not for too long, we hope, as the day we see a Filipino-produced film or series be at par with its international counterparts will surely be a good day. And in the time of COVID-19, we could sure all use a good day or two.
At the moment, Bela—and all Filipinos, at that—have other things on their plate, and they're unfortunately not kimchi, galbi, tteokbokki, or ramyun.
"So what now?" we ask.
We're not sure.
But with kind of life she leads, the premium she puts on seeking and creating good, and the hope she carries within herself in spite of adversity, maybe Bela does know, after all.
The actress' participation in the online event #LabanKapamilya, where she spoke about her sentiments towards ABS-CBN's shutdown alongside other artists from the network, should also be enough to show everyone where she's at these days. It's a good place–a place of strength.
The kind of person she is is the only map she needs to find her bearings in this tough and tricky road, but we're confident—lost, she is not, but brave and inspiring, she truly is.
Photography by Shaira Luna
Interview by Grace Libero-Cruz
Makeup by Justine Navato
Hairstyling by Paul Nebres
Styling by Adrianne Concepcion
Special thanks to Viva and Caryl Paraico