Row­ell San­ti­ago as Pres­i­dent Os­car Hi­dalgo: It’s be­come a re­spon­si­bil­ity

Now the man on the street walks up to him

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - LIFESTYLE & PEOPLE - By Po­cholo Con­cep­cion

Row­ell San­ti­ago laughs af­ter re­count­ing a re­cent in­ci­dent at Milky Way Café, a short walk from the Swatch & Swatch build­ing in Makati where he spends time as cre­ative di­rec­tor. Join­ing a group of friends whowere hav­ing lunch, he or­dered gin­u­mis, a shaved ice dessert sim­i­lar to halo-halo.

Af­ter ev­ery­one had fin­ished eat­ing, he thought his or­der had been paid for by his friends. As the group was leav­ing, a waiter ran af­ter him and said, “Mr. Pres­i­dent, hindi niyo

pa ho nababa­yaran ’yung gin­u­mis.”

And on the morn­ing of the in­ter­view, at 7 a.m., while hav­ing break­fast at McDon­ald’s, he re­calls, a mother with her tod­dler ap­proached him, and the child ut­tered, “Si Pres­i­dente.”

For the past eight months, Row­ell has been play­ing the role of Os­car Hi­dalgo, the Pres­i­dent in the long-run­ning ABSCBN ac­tion-drama TV se­ries, “FPJ’s Ang Probin­syano,” cur­rently the No. 1 tele­serye in the coun­try.

Row­ell finds it amaz­ing that peo­ple on the street rec­og­nize him and call him “Mr. Pres­i­dent.”

He at­tributes this to the power of TV as mass medium. It seems the whole coun­try is watch­ing “Probin­syano”—not just the coun­try, but also Filipinos based abroad who are con­nected to The Filipino Chan­nel (TFC).

“OFWs look for­ward to watch­ing it every day,” Row­ell says. “It’s like how they sur­vive the lone­li­ness of work­ing far away from their fam­i­lies. It serves as their life­line. The masses re­gard Cardo (the se­ries’ lead char­ac­ter played by Coco Martin) as a hero.”

Row­ell adds that in Baseco Com­pound in Port Area, Manila, one of the big­gest

ur­ban poor com­mu­ni­ties in the coun­try, “si Os­car Hi­dalgo parang ta­la­gang pres­i­dente na du­madalaw sa kanila.”

Show-biz fam­ily

Row­ell comes from a show­biz fam­ily—the San­ti­a­gos were be­hind the film in­sti­tu­tions in the coun­try, Pre­miere Pro­duc­tions and Larry San­ti­ago Pro­duc­tions, and his fa­ther, Pablo, was a di­rec­tor, his broth­ers, Randy and Ray­mart, are ac­tors.

How­ever, he hasn’t been act­ing for some­time. He’s known more as di­rec­tor of TV com­mer­cials, con­certs (e.g. Sharon Cuneta, Mat­teo Guidi­celli) and cor­po­rate events.

“As an ac­tor, noth­ing seems to ex­cite me,” he muses, even as he has ap­peared in three re­cent movies.

Join­ing the cast of “Probin­syano” came at the right time, he says, “be­cause I wanted to go out of the box, out of my com­fort zone. It’s the No. 1 show. I took the chal­lenge.”

He had played the role of a Pres­i­dent in an­other ABS-CBN tele­serye, “Tang­ing Ya­man,” but he says that’s dif­fer­ent from the thrilling, ac­tion-packed “Probin­syano.”

The role of Pres­i­dent was first of­fered to Row­ell in 2017 for “Ang Probin­syano Book 2,” but the script changed and the char­ac­ter was scratched.

Early this year, the show’s pro­duc­ers again made an of­fer, and tap­ing was to start in March.

“I got in­ter­ested be­cause it had a com­plete (pres­i­den­tial) cast,” he points out. “Dawn Zu­lueta would play First Lady, there’s a VP (Edu Man­zano)... and their re­spec­tive fam­i­lies.”

Row­ell says his char­ac­ter is “ap­proach­able, kind, hon­est, fam­ily-ori­ented, makatao, straight­for­ward, an ideal Pres­i­dent, but com­pletely the op­po­site of the Vice Pres­i­dent’s badguy char­ac­ter.”

He ac­tu­ally finds it more in­ter­est­ing to play a bad guy: “In ‘Probin­syano,’ the vil­lains stand out.”

But he also re­al­izes that por­tray­ing Pres­i­dent Hi­dalgo could be a game-changer in his ca­reer, and for that, he gives credit to Coco Martin, who is also the di­rec­tor in Row­ell’s scenes.

He smiles upon be­ing re­minded that he was the di­rec­tor when Coco was start­ing out as an ac­tor.

“Coco knows the ma­te­rial well enough,” Row­ell says. “I’m awed at how he works on the set. He’s hands-on and he’s very pas­sion­ate. There are scenes when he in­structs the cast, ‘Sup­port lang tayo rito, Pres­i­dente ang bida. D’un sig­uro ako na­pansin ng tao.”

In re­cent episodes, Hil­dalgo finds him­self down and out. “Nakita ng tao ang Pres­i­dente bum­aba nang husto sa lupa,” Row­ell says. “Peo­ple em­braced me as the char­ac­ter, more than be­ing Row­ell San­ti­ago.”

Im­pro­vised lines

Work­ing with Coco has led Row­ell to dis­cover some­thing dif­fer­ent: “Coco is very or­ganic. There is no script (for Row­ell’s scenes). He just sig­nals who among the char­ac­ters in the scene will de­liver im­pro­vised lines, which will have to be mem­o­rized in a few min­utes be­fore the cam­eras roll.

“It’s like what tran­spires at the mo­ment, kung ano ang mararam­daman namin sa ek­sena, ’yun ang sasabi­hin namin.”

But Row­ell adds that there’s a se­quence guide and Coco ex­plains the scenes he wants to shoot and what will hap­pen in the scene.

He has to be on his toes, and he likes the method be­cause it al­lows the ac­tors to have in­puts and sug­ges­tions.

Re­flect­ing on how “Probin­syano” has evolved, Row­ell says: “Parang nagig­ing rel­e­vant ang show with na­tional is­sues. There are scenes like the ‘Talk to the Pres­i­dent,’ tinatanong siya kung saan na­pupunta ang buwis ng bayan, kalin­isan, edukasyon.

“We’re not re­fer­ring to a par­tic­u­lar Pres­i­dent or ad­min­is­tra­tion, but the is­sues men­tioned in the show are re­ally long­time prob­lems that have hounded the coun­try.”

In­dif­fer­ent to fame

Look­ing back on his life, Row­ell ad­mits that grow­ing up around movie sets has made him in­dif­fer­ent to fame. His fa­ther, film­maker Pablo San­ti­ago, and mother, for­mer ac­tress Cielito Le­gaspi, raised him well.

In high school at La Salle Green Hills, Row­ell was the leader of group re­ports. Back then, he was al­ready cre­ative, “may in­flu­ence na ng tatay ko.”

But he chose to study mar- ket­ing man­age­ment in col­lege at De La Salle Univer­sity (DLSU) be­cause he wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent.

Yet he still found him­self in show biz. Joey Reyes, his pro­fes­sor then at DLSU, was writ­ing scripts for live shows and he would ask Row­ell: “Hindi ko gagawin ito kung hindi ikaw ang magdi- direct.”

The sec­ond of six si­b­lings, Row­ell says he keeps in touch with the fam­ily through an on­line chat group. “Some­times I go to Randy’s house. The fam­ily gath­ers dur­ing the Christ­mas hol­i­days.”

Be­ing in the lime­light, he says, en­tails re­spon­si­bil­ity: “I have to dress and act prop­erly in pub­lic.”

For fit­ness, he used to go to the gym, but got bored with pump­ing iron. Seven years ago he got into yoga: “I do Bikram and Vinyasa. I need to tone my body and yoga helps a lot. It re­lieves me of stress, by know­ing the right way to breathe. You can do yoga alone, you just need a small space.”

He says that be­ing in “Probin­syano” has given him a sec­ond wind, and that he con­sid­ers ev­ery­thing as a mat­ter of luck and tim­ing: “It’s great that I’m some­thing I con­sider rel­e­vant.”

Life, to him, is “right tim­ing”—just like play­ing the Pres­i­dent.


Join­ing the cast of ‘Probin­syano’ came at the right time, Row­ell San­ti­ago says, ‘be­cause I wanted to go out of the box, out of my com­fort zone.’


The tele­serye has given San­ti­ago a sec­ond wind. He con­sid­ers ev­ery­thing as a mat­ter of luck and tim­ing.


Row­ell San­ti­ago, Coco Martin and Edu Man­zano off the set of “Ang Probin­syano.”

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