YES! (Philippines) - - COVER STORY -

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 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.

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