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Paulo Avelino Reminds Us That Heroes Are Humans Too

Don't let the 'Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral' actor's cool demeanor fool you—he's made of flesh and blood just like the rest of us

by Anton D. Umali | Sep 7, 2018

As Gregorio del Pilar in Jerrold Tarog's historical retelling, the 30-year-old leading man makes a case for killing our idols

Spoiler alert! At the end of Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral, Gregorio del Pilar dies.

Unless you were too busy smoking badly rolled joints and making out with your ex-girlfriend under the bleachers of your gym, this is a high school history lesson you should already be aware of before entering the cinema to watch direk Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna follow-up. It was a pretty inglorious death, too. While fighting against the 33rd Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Battle of Tirad Pass, the young general took a fatal sniper bullet to the neck. Ouch. His corpse, which was left for Mother Nature to feast on (his handsome mug was not spared—sorry, ladies), was then ravaged by American soldiers—petty thieves who made sure they laid waste to the remains of their enemy.

Unlike the fallen hero, however, Paulo Avelino (actor, heartthrob, motorcycle aficionado), the man who plays Goyo in the highly anticipated historical retelling, is very much alive. The quiet confidence he exudes has been written about so much in the media lately that it’s become a signature for the 30-year-old: an unassuming, almost non-showbiz demeanor that’s the antithesis of what it means to be part of such a glitzy industry. But his presence in the studio for our shoot can’t be denied—it elicits giddy giggles from the females present and makes all the other guys (FHM staff included) wish they could rip off his beautiful face and borrow it just for one evening.

What can we say? The dude has moxie.

Cool as he may seem, Paulo Avelino is the type who’s jittery during interviews. His hands shake and his answers come in polite waves rather than in brash streams of assuredness. He’s not perfect and it’s refreshing. And despite having such a restrained yet commanding aura both on celluloid and in real life, and with a filmography that boasts of 47 acting credits, Paulo still admits that putting on the uniform for Goyo involved a mix of excitement and nervousness.

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“Given the success of Heneral Luna, of course there was pressure,” he says. “I was really excited when I got the go signal because I knew I was going to be working with a very young and passionate production team. It’s my biggest project to date.” Familiarizing himself with the psyche and physicality of Gregorio del Pilar entailed preparation: research that involved immersing himself in heavy texts and physical challenges that would elevate his performance for the period piece. Aside from plunging into the deep well that is our country’s past, he had to undergo horseback riding training and lose weight—processes that both challenged and nourished his abilities as a professional actor.

“Paulo was among a few invited to audition for the role,” director Jerrold Tarog shares. “I had him read an old love letter addressed to a certain girl. He passed that one quite well, but more importantly, I already knew Paulo was good in portraying characters with internal struggles, which is what I wanted for the character.” Jerrold first directed Paulo in 2011’s Aswang, but it was in the 2013 indie gem Sana Dati—a bittersweet, melodramatic tale that pits the past against the present, and is set during a wedding where a reluctant bride begins questioning her decisions when an old flame suddenly reappears—that their efforts seamlessly coalesced.

It’s amazing work for both director and leading man—cathartic and nuanced and far from the sappy, saccharine drivel Filipino audiences have become used to. It also showcased Paulo’s strengths as a thespian capable of delivering the unsaid, a quality Jerrold remembered and tapped into for their latest collaboration: “Although Gregorio del Pilar was known to be an arrogant ladies’ man, I didn't want an actor who played the role with overconfidence. It was enough that the actor had a self-satisfied air, which Paulo has. I was looking for the doubt and fear hiding behind the shiny veneer of Goyo's accomplishments and stature.” According to Jerrold, Paulo has grown into an actor who listens well and has ideas of his own, receptive and capable of bringing substance to the script. It’s this potent combination of true grit and indubitable talent that has led to this milestone role in his career—one that could have a tremendous effect on Pinoy pop culture, just as its predecessor did.

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PHOTO: Paolo Pineda

Conquering Mountains

Filming a movie like Goyo, whose scale can be considered revolutionary for Philippine cinema, was no easy feat. Production authenticity aside (costumes, set design, and immense CGI work), contending with the elements of Mt. Balagbag, one of the film’s major locations, was a challenge for both the cast and crew. Despite the scenic, almost serene vibe visitors of its summit were afforded, Balagbag could get nasty when the weather was uncooperative.

“Only 4x4s could go up the mountain,” Paulo remembers, a smirk brought about by sudden nostalgia revealing itself as he does so. “When it rained, it got really slippery so once a car got stuck in the middle of the path, no one could go up or get down. So, you’d have to walk, traversing the mountain in those conditions.”

Direk Jerrold echoes Paulo’s sentiments, confessing that at one point, he even questioned his own sanity. “Having to shoot around huge sets and trying to show the scale—that was challenging. And spending two months shooting up Mt. Balagbag during rainy season was hell for everyone. How do you bring 200 to 300 people up a muddy mountain and shoot before fog or rain sets in? How do you block actors when your camera is placed on one hill and the actors are on another hill, which was 30 minutes away on foot? How do you keep doing that every other day for two months? I kept wondering if we'd all lost our minds when we decided to do this project.”

When asked what the most rewarding thing about playing Gregorio del Pilar is, Paulo says that he’s just happy and grateful that they were finally able to complete the film. It’s as simple as that. He owes the pragmatic nature of his realizations to the grandiosity of the Goyo team’s undertakings. “We had a lot of shooting days and considering the weather, how big the sets were, I was kind of nervous that something might happen to me or I might get sick. And now that it’s finished, now that I know what to expect from an experience like this, I’m pretty excited for the final outcome.”

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PHOTO: Paolo Pineda

History as Art

It’s still important to acknowledge the fact that although Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral is a biopic, creative leeway has been taken by the filmmakers in order to tell a compelling story. This isn’t a doctoral dissertation—it’s cinema.

In an email interview with, historian Ambeth Ocampo, who stresses that he has not seen the movie Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral as of writing, sees that there is a one-dimensional understanding of Gregorio del Pilar in pop culture, and that needs to change: “The problem is not misconception but stereotyping and oversimplification as Goyo has been reduced to a playboy hero (like Rizal) and a martyr who gave up his life delaying the enemy in hot pursuit of Emilio Aguinaldo, then President of the First Republic. Goyo is much more than these and that’s why we need more research to round him out. To date, all we have is a prewar biography by T.M. Kalaw. I was hoping the interest generated by the film would inspire a young historian to take up the task.”

“My point is not to cut heroes down to size or to degrade them, but to remind those who need reminding that it is in our heroes' humanity that we recognize our own capacity for greatness”

The humanizing of heroes is a theme Ocampo has explored before, best championed in his bestseller Rizal without the Overcoat, a book he created in order to change the public’s view, helping these figures evolve from images and memories fossilized in bronze and marble and return them to what they were—humans of flesh and blood. “Some people are more comfortable with unreachable heroes,” Ocampo says. “My point is not to cut heroes down to size or to degrade them, but to remind those who need reminding that it is in our heroes' humanity that we recognize our own capacity for greatness.”

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Ocampo also believes that art can be a vessel for communicating history: “From its root word ‘history’ is a story, a narrative,” Ocampo notes. “We see that in the Western words for history: ‘histoire’ (French), ‘historia’ (Spanish), ‘geschicte’ (German). In Filipino, we have two words for history: ‘(h)istorya’ from the Spanish and ‘kasaysayan’ that is rooted in salaysay (narrative) and saysay (meaning). History is not just a story of the past, it must have meaning. Art is a good way of doing both.”

Cinema is a medium capable of invoking emotional responses. And as you’re reading this, Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral is already screening in theaters nationwide (it's actually pretty good). Pinoy moviegoers would have already posted their personal Facebook reviews and the Twitterverse is probably raping the hashtag #Goyo as we speak. It is, after all, a movie about one of our nation’s more notorious heroes. And the enormous responsibility it bears is not lost on the movie’s main star, who recognizes the gravity of the work and the need to look back in order to move forward.

“It’s important to know where we’ve come from to better understand how our country ended up in the position it’s in right now,” Paulo shares. He understands that, naturally, events of the past have shaped our inevitable future. And films like Goyo show us a different side of history, which might not be available in textbooks. “They remind us of mistakes that we keep repeating—things we did back then that we’re still doing now.”

PHOTO: Paolo Pineda

Human, After All

“He’s serious about his craft,” says actress Empress Schuck, who plays Felicidad Aguinaldo in Goyo. When describing Paulo Avelino’s disposition while filming, she recalls how he was hard to read, but had a playful side that made itself known in between takes. “Tahimik siya. He’s very mysterious, but when you get to know him, makulit din pala. He’s a bully and he’s full of surprises.”

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During one trying dramatic scene that needed to be shot over and over again, Empress says Paulo would play with a prop sword when the cameras weren’t rolling, pulling it in and out of its sheath to make a grating brandishing sound to annoy his costar on purpose. It’s the type of anecdote rarely heard about the oft-reclusive leading man, who has built a persona founded on a silent (some would argue, steely) air. It’s fun hearing about Paulo’s hidden boyish self—one that’s tucked away from the clawing questions of the press, the blinding power of studio lights, and the sometimes-overwhelming eagerness of fans—from those who have worked with him closely.

It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that Paulo is the kind of artist who takes pleasure in having an earned sense of solitude. You see, when you give so much of yourself to the work, to your art, having some time to clear your mind is necessary. You need it for the wheels to continue turning so the engine within doesn’t conk out. Nowadays, Paulo finds his personal peace in motorbiking.

PHOTO: Paolo Pineda

“The first bike I owned was a Harley Davidson Street 750,” he recalls, joyous when explaining how he purchased this big boy toy and eventually sold it to actor Jake Cuenca. “I was nervous. It wasn’t easy to maneuver. It’s a heavy bike and back then, I had a tendency to overspeed so I crashed it. I even broke my knee and I wasn’t able to walk for three months. I crashed a lot of bikes and I learned my lesson the hard way. I’ve done a lot of training and I’m definitely more careful and more equipped. Most of the time errors come from yourself, from your lack of skill or wrong assessment of the situation. All my crashes on the bike were basically my errors. You can say it’s an accident, but I could’ve gone slower or done something to avoid it. I guess the biggest lesson it’s taught me is that, if something bad happens, there’s no one to blame but yourself.”

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Like the young general he plays on the silver screen, Paulo is a man who is still learning as he goes, patiently facing each hurdle as it arrives into his life. Like most, he handles one battle at a time. He may come off as effortless to some, but it’s clear from the way he articulates his poignant thoughts on his hobby that he is picking up lessons of his own, filing them in his head, and charging them to experience.

“Riding motorbikes calms me,” he says. “I get to think when I’m alone. I just course through traffic or go out of town. I get to assess and process so much about myself—something I wouldn’t really be able to do when I’m at home. Once you’re on a bike, you focus on the road. It’s like therapy for me.”

It’s no wonder people keep saying Paulo Avelino is cool. It’s because he is.

Produced by Khatrina Bonagua Photography Paolo Pineda Styling David Milan Grooming Peps Silvestre

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