By Gerard Ramos / Lifestyle & Entertainment Editor
IN an entertainment landscape where even the most distant relations leverage their showbiz connections to a career in the spotlight, it would have surprised no one had Benjamin Alves really worked the Piolo Pascual association when he decided to take another shot at acting as a profession, following an earlier, seemingly half-hearted attempt.
However, when Alves returned to the Philippines in 2012 after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Guam, he signed not with ABS-CBN, where his uncle reigns as arguably its most prized star, but with GMA. Since then, he has studiously earned his stripes as an actor in a variety of dramas, including Katipunan, Dading and Hiram na Alaala.
Now, Alves gets his biggest challenge yet, starring opposite Heart Evangelista, Lovi Poe and Rocco Nacino in Beautiful Strangers, GMA’s new prime-time soap, which made its debut on Monday. In the soap, Benjamin plays Lawrence, the happy-go-lucky only son of the powerful Alejandra and Ronaldo Castillo (Christopher de Leon and Dina Bonnevie), and the half-brother of Kristine (Heart Evangelista). As is typical of the genre, there are plenty of scheming and intrigues and criminal behavior punctuated by floods of tears, jaw-dropping slapping and hair-pulling, and verbal grenades gleefully thrown in all directions anytime and every time.
Here, Benjamin Alves talks about life in the spotlight and creating a sanctuary.
How did you initially regard your character in Beautiful Strangers? Several weeks into filming, has it changed?
I’m always excited when I am given a role—even one that, on the surface, seems like a character I’ve done before. The challenge is making the character human every time. With all the characters I have played, I would always relate to them at a very human level. No bull: the longer I portray the character, the more I get to know him—and ultimately I get to know myself more.
Is this new soap your most challenging to date?
Every role is challenging, but is there more at stake? Yes, that’s probably correct to say. Given that the drama marks the return of some of the most respected names in the industry to GMA, there’s a lot riding on the success of this show. But I’m excited. I recently finished a workshop with the award-winning director, Laurice Guillen, and also one with Leo Martinez, and the challenge now is to apply all that knowledge into this soap and whatever future assignments are given to me. The ratings game is beyond your control, but the consistency and the authenticity of your work—that’s always in the hands of the actor.
Being related to Piolo Pascual, it would’ve been no surprise had you signed up with ABS-CBN. Why GMA?
While being able to see my uncle more consistently, certainly was a draw, I have always felt at home in GMA. They have always done right by me since day one. I was never coming back here after I tried being an actor for the first time.
They picked me out from the crowd and gave me an opportunity that people work hard for. And I hope I’ve shown my appreciation by doing my best in all the projects given to me. I’ve always felt the growth, both professionally and from the personal relationships I now have with coartists and even the network executives, the crew, and the staff. They’re now my family, and I really believe that they have my best interest in mind and vice-versa. I don’t dwell too much on the what-ifs. Besides, there are other ways to work with my uncle and my cousin (Iñigo Pascual, Piolo’s son), as we all want to work together anyway.
Has it been difficult to get out of the shadow of a popular relation? Would you say that you already have?
Not at all. And that’s not to toot my horn. It’s just…I never felt it as a hindrance, and it was never a goal to set myself apart from my uncle. I always knew I had my own path to carve, with its own struggles and surprises and accomplishments. To become bigger than my uncle as a goal is something that I will never achieve, simply because I will always love my family and will always want them to reach new accolades in their careers. The goal for me isn’t to reach a particular mountaintop, but to make the journey as authentic and as mine as possible, which ultimately makes it enjoyable.
Since coming into show business, how has it been for you thus far? What is the thing about a career in the spotlight that you find most unnerving or insufferable? Have the upsides made the downsides worth the trouble?
At first, I really struggled with it. I’m an introvert at heart. And being in the limelight is something I was never comfortable with. The funny thing is, the intrigues never get to me; they actually amuse me because of how obviously fabricated they are. You can really ruin your day by giving such issues much thought, but I don’t hang my hat on intrigues. Now, having a new perspective by just seeing people as people and trying to connect on a human level—that helps me.
For example, I don’t see a writer as a writer; I see them as a person I can connect with. That helps me open up more and answer as truthfully as possible. Has this sometimes resulted in backlash? Yes, but overall it’s given me peace by relating with everybody in this line of work. Everyone is unique, with their own stories and their own struggles, and the thing I love the most is listening and connecting to them at this level. It’s made me appreciate our audience even more, to be able to add their story to their faces. It’s enabled me to open up more about my family and other personal stuff through social media. True, a sunny day can get ruined by a spell of rain, but we need both, so it’s really just how you handle yourself whatever the weather.
You recently opened a café with books for a theme, Books and Borders along Tomas Morato in Quezon City. Why so?
In college, my favorite spot was the library. We had a little book for all things Japanese, and our library was open 24 hours. I lived there literally. In my last semester, I spent whole nights there and go straight to class the next day. I always wanted this experience for other people—and to also be able to eat, which I also love.
So when the opportunity to partner up with a few key people to launch this café presented itself, I couldn’t say no. They’ll find me there, reading or writing, but always eating. You will never see me in a bad mood there, because that’s my sanctuary.
You also trained as a barista. Why was it important for you to do so?
I’m still training. Chef Ed (Edward David Mateo) has been very patient with me. I wanted to know the ins and outs of our business, and this is why I felt I needed to learn. I want to be able to roll up my sleeves and man the shop when need be. I did, by the way, work the concession at our local movie theater, so the food service isn’t new to me. Plus, for selfish reasons, I want to be able to make all sorts of artwork on coffee. (Chuckles)
Given how entrenched global café brands are around here, wouldn’t have been less trouble to get a franchise?
Maybe. I’m sure there is success in that, but there’s no reward in it for us. Listen, we wanted to open a café because we love the experience of reading while drinking coffee. We wanted to share this, and the result of Books and Borders. The best thing for me is when our customers tag us in their photos and talk about how personal the experience was for them. The combinations they have—from the food to the coffee, right down to the seat they choose and the book they’re reading—that’s all unique every single time. There’s beauty in that experience that I just never had from other places.
What is a typical downtime day for you, and what do you like to do on such days?
More and more I’ve gone back to writing. It gives me peace. We have this geekish club—me, Glaiza (de Castro) and Chynna (Ortaleza)—where we have typewriters and write from there. This is therapy for me. And we have plans in creating and sharing this with people. Sometimes I catch myself making a poem out loud in the shower. Cadence is very important to me, so I love the process of hearing it out loud, making sure a reader can read it in the way I intend for it to be read by the choice of words and meter. But I’m also a human pig—or potato, what have you: laying down on my bed and watching TV is always an escape for me too. Films. I’ve always loved films. And having candy on my bed. There’s always candy on my bed.
Would you like to have more of such days?
I’m good with a few days of that. Any more than that, I would go crazy and look for work. Or workout and run. I’d love to travel too. With friends or with someone special…especially with someone special. There’s so much to want, but there’s plenty of time. To quote Frost: “In a minute there is time, for decisions and revisions….”