THEN CAME KITA KITA
But it was in July of this year that Empoy would find his world taking a 180- degree turn. After 14 years in show business playing sidekick roles and eliciting laughs from the audience in gag shows, Empoy became a leading man in a romantic-comedy film opposite awardwinning actress Alessandra de Rossi. That movie was Kita Kita. Its title literally means “I See You,” and the movie’s screenwriter and director, Sigrid Andrea P. Bernardo, got the idea for the movie’s cute Tagalog title—pronounced as KI-ta ki-TA— because she had to shoot scenes in a Japanese foot spa, known in that country as an ashiyu. Sounds like “I see you,” right?
Kita Kita is currently the country’s highest-grossing independent film of all time. And the Pinoy audience has found a new love team in the unlikely pairing of Alessandra and Empoy, whose teamup is now known by the celeb uni-name “Alempoy.”
In the film, Alessandra, who’s also known by her nickname Alex, plays the role of Lea, a tour guide suffering from temporary blindness. She develops a connection with Empoy’s character, Tonyo, her neighbor, who brings her Pinoy food and asks her to tour him all over Sapporo, Japan.
The story of two OFWs, or overseas Filipino workers, falling for each other amid the picturesque backdrop of the Hokkaido capital tugged at moviegoers’ heartstrings, but it was Alex and Empoy’s effortless acting and magnetic chemistry that got people talking. Word of mouth spread, and social media was abuzz with praise for the film.
Certain elements in Kita Kita made their mark and got inserted in everyday conversations. First, there’s saging at puso, referring to the costumes the main characters wear on the night they meet. Then there’s Sapporo beer, one of the things the city is famous for, which Empoy drinks in the movie. Empoy’s ways of addressing Alex are also on the radar: he calls her Kabayan, the term most Pinoys use abroad when seeing a fellow countryman; his term of endearment for her is “baby dragonfly”; and his hugot line for her is “It’s now, it’s never.”
The movie’s theme song, the kind that induces LSS, or last song syndrome, also got into the heads of moviegoers as they left the cinemas. That’s KZ Tandingan’s beautiful version of Air Supply’s “Two Less Lonely People in the World.” KZ’s cover topped the Billboard
Although he already has a house-and-lot to his name, Empoy still has a dream house in mind. “Simple lang na up and down,” he says. “Basta gusto ko, ’yong pamilya ko kasama ko. ’Tapos, kunwari may laruan sa loob, basketbolan sa loob, gano’n. ’Tapos, may pool. Gusto ko, may bukid, ’tapos overlooking. Makikita ’yong bukid mula sa bahay. Bukid, pero may swimming pool, hehe.”
Philippines charts on the week of August 14, the film’s last week in theaters.
On its second week, Kita Kita, made on a shoestring budget of 10 million pesos, went up against the big-budgeted Star Cinema movie Finally Found Someone, starring box-office stars John Lloyd Cruz and Sarah Geronimo. On the third week of Kita Kita, a pirated copy circulated online. But positive reviews from both critics and the public kept the cinemas filled with moviegoers. After almost a month in theaters, Kita Kita grossed a total of 320 million pesos.
The film’s success brought Alempoy’s stock shooting through the roof. Suddenly, they were back everywhere—on TV shows, online vlogs, magazine covers—and making more rounds of interviews, which they had done just a few weeks earlier, while promoting the movie.
Empoy as a leading man might have sounded like an idea out of left field, especially in an industry filled with young, fit, and conventionally good-looking matinee idols. But the role of Tonyo was actually tailor-made for the thirtysomething comedian (following showbiz norms, he prefers not to reveal his real age).
The film’s co-producer, Spring Films, already had Alex and Empoy in mind when they gave Direk Sigrid the go-signal to write and direct the film. One of the founders of Spring Films, actor Piolo Pascual, had worked with Empoy in the 2005 sitcom Bora. Empoy says he felt honored to have been chosen by PJ (as Piolo is known in certain circles, since his given name is Piolo Jose) and by Spring Films co-founders Joyce Bernal and Erickson Raymundo. Erickson is also the president of Cornerstone Entertainment, which oversees Empoy’s showbiz career.
“Nagulat ako,” Empoy says. “Kasi ang daming artista, di ba? Ang daming komedyante. Bakit ako ’yong napili nila? ’ Yon pala, karapat-dapat pala na magkaroon ng pinakaguwapong ano ngayon, leading man. Parang it’s time na. Hehe, biro lang.
“Siyempre, tuwang-tuwa ako kay Kuya PJ, kasi matagal ko na siyang kasama, sa Bora days pa lang. ’Tapos, hindi naman dahil nasa kabilang istasyon na ako, ’tapos sila nasa Dos pa rin, ay na-cut ’yong pagiging friends. ’ Yong friendship namin, continuous pa rin.
“Pero ang nakakatuwa do’n, dumating pa rin ’yong time na eto na nga, naging producer na siya, ’tapos ako ’yong naisip niya. Kaya sobrang natutuwa po ako do’n. Big heart, one big heart po ’yong naramdaman ko.”
Empoy reveals that he didn’t have to internalize the role so much: “Nag-prepare
po ako, as is po, wala pong kakaiba. Basta sinabi lang ni Direk Sigrid na ‘Dapat ganito kayo ni Alex, kung ano kayo.’ Gano’n. ‘Bibitawan ko kayo.’ Ganyan. ‘Dapat ilabas n’yo lang kung sino kayo.’ ’ Yong freedom, may freedom.”
A skeleton team went to Japan for 20 days, and shot the film in 15 days. Several revisions in the script were made even while they were already in Sapporo. That’s why Empoy himself was surprised with how the movie came together.
“Hindi ko nga alam na gano’n pinagtagpi-tagpi ni Direk Sigrid ’yong mga eksena. Kasi ’yong kinunan niya, ’yong dulo. ’Tapos, ’yong sumunod, ’yong pinakaumpisa pala, so nagitna. Parang nalilito na ’yong utak ko kung paano. ‘Ano’ng ginagawa ni Direk, ano bang inaano nito?’ ’Tapos, no’ng napanood namin sa premiere night, hindi ako makapaniwalang gano’n ’yong kinalabasan.”
Empoy’s quick wit worked to his advantage, as he admits that he often has a hard time sticking to his lines and sometimes resorts to ad-libbing.
“I hate scripts e,” he jokes. “Sinabi ’yong totoo? Hehe. Ayoko talaga. Kasi, bukod sa maliliit ’yong sulat, hindi ko makita. Mas okey na batuhan kayo nang batuhan no’ng mga kaeksena mo. Kasi, sa script, hintayan kayo, gano’n. Pag hindi mo sinabi ’yong nasa script, hindi niya na bibitawan ’yong kasunod. Parang gano’n.”
Given Empoy and Alessandra’s shared chemistry onscreen, we ask him if he fell for her during their shoot in Sapporo. Ever the funnyman, Empoy jests, “Hindi, mabaho paa niya, e.”
Turning serious, he quickly adds: “Hindi, joke lang. Mabait ’yon, sobra. Para ko siyang kapatid, gano’n. Kung magturingan kami, kung magbiruan kami. Kasi kalog din siya, e. ’ Yong mga gusto niya—iisa lang gusto namin, e. Parang magkapareho kami ng wavelength, gano’n. Nagkasama kami sa movie noon— One Night Only, do’n sa Octo Arts— pero hindi kami nagkaeksena no’n. Ngayon lang kami naging close, dito sa movie. Sobrang bonding namin sa Japan.”
The breakout love team of Alempoy has now been snapped up for new projects. On Kita Kita’s last day in theaters, it was announced that Alex and Empoy would star in a yet-untitled primetime series on ABS- CBN, together with JC de Vera, Arci Muñoz, and Piolo Pascual. The show will be directed by Antoinette Jadaone.
“Two weeks ago, nag-story-con kami,” Empoy says. “Ando’n ang ABS bosses, pati lahat ng artists. Nagulat ako sa role ko. Maganda siya, swak ’yong character.”
A follow-up movie for Kita Kita is also in the works.
Empoy has also earned new career highs separate from his pairing with Alex. ABS- CBN Publishing signed him up and got him into its roster of authors, and his part-autobiographical-part-comical book Bakit Nakakakiliti ang Bigote was launched on September 16 at this year’s 38th Manila International Book Fair. He also shot his first solo commercial for San Miguel Beer Oktoberfest 2017, and signed up as Mang Inasal’s latest endorser. He has been temporarily pulled out of Banana Sundae because he is busy shooting two films simultaneously, The Barker and Ang Kuwento ni Money. And while he didn’t get to realize his dream of becoming a DJ, he was the featured celebrity VJ on the Myx music channel for the whole month of September.
Empoy the leading man is also looking spiffy these days, courtesy of Ton Lao’s styling team, who was also responsible for his preppy outfits in Kita Kita. Pullovers paired with longsleeved shirts, matched with loafers worn without socks, have become part of Empoy’s signature style. The long, shaggy haircut and his trademark mustache complete the look.
taking things in stride
With titles like The Millennial Leading Man and The New Pogi being thrown his way, Empoy is trying to take things in stride.
“Nakakapanibago madinig sa tenga, pero nakakatuwang pakinggan,” he confesses. “Maraming salamat sa kanila, kung gano’n po ’yong tingin nila sa akin.”
And while he is one of the first to poke fun at himself, Empoy reveals there was a point when he felt self-conscious about his looks. “Pag haharap ako sa salamin dati, mas tingin ko, ako ’yong pinakapogi sa loob ng classroom,” he begins. “Pero no’ng nakita ko ’yong mga kaklase ko, ’tapos hindi ako kinuhang escort, umiyak na ako no’n.”
As he laughs together with the YES! team, who think that this is another one of his punch lines, he adds: “Pero totohanan ’yon. First year high school ako.”
We ask Empoy if he agrees that, while comedians make people laugh in front of the camera, they lead quiet, serious, and dramatic lives off-cam. The actor turns pensive before he answers.
“Para sa akin po, totoo talaga siya. Kasi, based on my experience, gano’n talaga. ’ Yan, ’yong parang seryoso ’yong… Ang nakikita lang ng mga tao sa entablado o kaya sa harap ng camera is etong tao, personalidad na ito. Pero out of camera, hindi nila alam kung ano ’yong bawat problema. Actually, hindi lang naman mga komedyante. Lahat halos naman ng tao, meron. Pero mostly siguro komedyante, gano’n. Kasi ’yong mga komedyante, do’n nila natatakpan ’yong kalungkutan nila kapag nagpapatawa sila.”
In Empoy’s case, his humor also masks his fear and his fatigue, as his harrowing work schedule seems to be taking a toll on his health. “Masakit ito,” he says, pointing to the left side of his face. “Medyo namamanhid no’ng nakaraan.”
He says he has been taking medications and has already been to a hospital for an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging, a medical test that uses “a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to make pictures of organs and structures inside the body,” according to the webmd.com website). The comedian, who has a fear of enclosed spaces, couldn’t remain still while lying inside the MRI machine.
“Thirty to forty-five minutes ’yon, e. Ang tagal. Wala kang galaw. ’Tapos, ’yong huling tunog, ’yong ‘Two Less Lonely People’ ni KZ Tandingan. Naiyak ako.”
Fortunately, nothing medically serious turned up in the MRI results.
Although Empoy knows he must rest, he also knows he must strike while the iron is hot. He also remains thankful for all the blessings coming his way.
“Hindi pa rin ako makapaniwala hanggang ngayon kung nanaginip pa rin ako, pero pasalamat ako siyempre kay Lord, dahil sa Kanya galing lahat.”
Empoy’s Mommy Cecil knows that her son deserves all the blessings. As she has done throughout the interview, she tears up now as she talks about her son. “Kasi nakita ko naman sa kanya talaga, dami niyang tinutulungan. Super. Baka kako siguro bini-bless siya ng ganyan kasi ang bait niya.”
While Empoy has certainly been raking in profits for all his hard work (he won’t confirm the rumors that he, Alex, and Direk Sigrid received a one-million peso bonus each for Kita Kita), what he longs for are things that money can’t buy.
“Wish ko, magkasundo na ang lahat. Peace lang. ’ Tapos, maging maayos lang ’yong family, ’tapos ’yong work. Especially ’yong health ko. Para makapagpasaya pa tayo ng tao.”
Empoy Marquez is another proof that in this gritty dog-eat- dog world, it is still hard work, kindness, and perseverance that get you forward. And no matter how many wrong turns, stumbles, and falls one takes, the journey and the destination will be worth all the trouble.