"Okay naman kami," said Benj Manalo of his father, comedian and TV host Jose Manalo. "As in sobrang okay kami."
Benj, who turns 29 in July, is one of Jose's two sons who are also in showbiz. The other one is Nicco Manalo, 30.
Viewers may know him as James Reid's sidekick Axl in ABS-CBN's teleserye On the Wings of Love. This time, he transforms himself into the lovestruck boatman Tolits in the hit original Filipino musical Rak of Aegis. He has also appeared in other drama series such as The Story of Us and My Super D.
Benj explained to PEP.ph in a recent interview: "Siguro ang parang difference lang now is that we don't get to talk that much like before. Kasi dati, sabay-sabay kaming kumakain. Lagi kaming nakakapag-usap kung ano'ng ginawa namin sa araw.
"Ngayon, medyo nahihirapan na. But it's still the same. Na-limit lang talaga kasi parang pare-pareho kaming naging busy. Plus 'yong kita namin is parang pag pinupuntahan ko lang siya sa show niya. Pag binibisita ko siya do'n just to check on him kung okay siya.
"Gano'n din naman si Kuya [Nicco], nagti-text-text kami kung kumusta siya. Pero I think wala namang nagbago, 'yong ano lang, time na nagkikita kami. Pero relationship-wise, still the same. Mas naging tight pa nga kami kasi mas nakita namin ang bigger side ng picture, unlike before."
In 2012, Jose and his wife Annalyn Manalo parted ways amid problems reportedly involving money. Since then, the man of the house had been estranged from his family.
Benj said he's used to getting reactions of disbelief when he tells people that his father is the hilariously funny guy in the longest-running noontime show Eat Bulaga!, as well as in the musical-variety program Sunday PINASaya and in the sitcom Hay, Bahay!, which premieres tonight, June 19.
"Karamihan po, nagugulat sila kasi parang di nila ini-expect," Jose's second eldest child related with a grin. "'Yong looks ko more on nakuha ko sa mom ko. Si Kuya po ang mas kamukha ni Daddy. Pero may mga angles na 'tinatago ko lang na kamukha ko si Daddy. Kasi nahihiya ako, e! Pero I'm proud of it. And happy naman po ako."
Unlike Jose and Nicco, Benj is tall and brawny. But the comparison among the three men end there. Father and sons are all gifted performers. They sing, dance, and play different characters.
Benj thought about the abundance of talents in their family: "Actually parang ang understanding ko po kasi ang family sa side ni Mommy at saka ni Daddy, pareho pong performers.
"No'ng mga bata kami, lagi lang akong inggitero kay Kuya. Nakikita kong may talent siya, ginagaya ko lang siya."
He recalled that back in 1997, a dance instructor would go to their house to teach his Kuya Nicco how to dance to the "MMMBop" tune written and performed by the Hanson brothers.
"'Tapos ako, napasunod lang. 'Yan ang favorite naming sayaw. Parang personal instructor namin, na pumunta, tuturuan si Kuya. Ewan ko, just to dance. 'Ta's ako, parang nainggit. 'Ba't siya lang ang tinuturuan? Ako din!' I think [I was] seven or six."
Eventually, Benj discovered his own gifts and pursued them. In 2005, he auditioned to join the third batch of GMA-7's reality talent search StarStruck, which was eventually won by Marky Cielo and Jackie Rice. (Marky passed away in 2008.)
The then 18-year-old showbiz hopeful didn't tell his father Jose about his audition.
"Wala siyang idea," he said. "Kasi meron kami nila Daddy na if you wanna do something, gawin mo siya on your own. I don't want to help you kasi ayaw din niyang maramdaman na, 'Andiyan ka, tulungan mo kami.' Ganito-ganito.
"Kumbaga we want to make our own way, kaming dalawa ni Kuya. Actually no'ng nag-join ako sa StarStruck, nakapasok na 'ko sa StarStruck, 'tapos do'n niya lang nalaman na parang sumali ako.
"No'ng parang tinawagan sila na, 'Uy, pasok po ang anak ninyo.' So, do'n lang nila na-figure out na, 'Uy, sumali ka pala. Pasok ka na.' So do'n niya nakita na papunta din kami do'n without him knowing."
After his stint in StarStruck, Benj appeared in soap operas like Agawin Mo Man ang Lahat, starring then a newbie Marian Rivera, and Daisy Siete, with the Sexbomb Dancers.
"Then nag-focus po ako sa dance," he pointed out. "Dumating po kasi sa point na nagkaroon kami ng usapan ni Kuya [Nicco], na masyado kaming naba-box in, since anak kami ni Jose Manalo kaya kami nasa industry. We want to make our own ways. Si Kuya, nag-theater talaga siya. 'Tapos ako naman, sa dance."
Benj trained with and later joined the esteemed hip-hop dance group, Philippine All Stars. Then, he formed his own college-based dance group.
"No'ng na-figure ko na namamatay ang pagiging artist ko as a whole, bumalik na po ako sa pag-a-arte—sa pagkanta, sa lahat-lahat.
"Kasi parang nasayangan po ako na puro dance ang ginagawa ko. So it's about that time na after eight years na tuloy-tuloy nag-dance ako."
In 2015, Benj had a major theater debut. He was chosen by the people behind Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), which produces Rak of Aegis, to play Tolits as a third alternate, along with the role's originators, Jerald Napoles and Pepe Herrera.
Benj shared his own approach to the Tolits role: "Actually, nakita ko at inaral ko rin talaga 'yong pagiging Tolits. Si Je [Jerald's nickname], 'yong Tolits na matipuno na feeling gwapo na bargas. Si Pepe naman, parang natamaan sa ulo na cute and adorable. Oo, shy siya.
"So what I did with Tolits—with the help of 'yong mga tao sa production, si Je and si Pepe—I based do'n lang sa character ko na feeling ko, ang pogi-pogi ko dahil medyo hindi ko kamukha si Daddy.
"Pero 'yong may pagka-Mr. Suave. I wanted to fuse my dancing skills din. Hindi ko lang masyadong nagawa last year kasi parang 'yon 'yong time na nangangapa pa ako. Pero this year, I'll be more parang mas swabe. Pero 'yong comedic side, wala naman akong question do'n. Sabi nila, I'm funny daw.
"Basically ang benchmark namin, with Pepe and Je, is lahat kami, mga loko-loko. Iba't-ibang atake lang. Kung sino kami as human beings talaga, 'yon din kami as Tolits. So hindi kami masyadong nahirapan. 'Yon lang ang nagdi-differentiate.
"Kasi last year, medyo nahirapan pa 'ko, e! Na-fusion ko 'yong Je and Pepe. Half of the run last year or after five shows, do'n ko pa lang na-figure out na, 'Okay, I can do my own.' Kasi 'yon 'yong time na nangangapa pa 'ko since it was my first theater experience. Once I get hold of it, 'yon na, nakuha ko na siya [own characterization]."
Rak of Aegis has been hailed by critics and audiences alike for its high creative, production, and entertainment values. Many of those who've watched it have found the Tolits character as delightfully funny and quite a scene-stealer.
REQUEST FOR JOSE MANALO. Benj gives credit to his Daddy Jose for passing on to him the humorous genes. He only wishes that the workaholic comedian-TV host would be able watch him perform on stage.
"Meron pa siyang chance," he announced, smiling. "Sana manood na siya because this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
"He wanted to," he added. "Kaso masyado lang busy ang schedule niya. Minsan, binibigyan ko siya ng ticket. 'D, nood ka na!' Meron akong ganito-ganito.'
"So hindi ko rin mapipilit. Siyempre, meron din siyang trabaho na kailangan ko ding intindihin. Pero kung manonood siya, magseselos si Kuya. That's for sure!"
On the occasion of Father's Day, Benj—also a father of a 10-year-old boy named Nathan—shared his thoughts on being a father:
"The lesson I've learned from my dad: be responsible, be professional, and be who you are no matter what other people might say. Kahit hindi sila bilib sa talento mo, as long as there's one person na naniniwala sa 'yo, you can do it. 'Yon ang parang nakuha ko sa kanya. Kasi career-wise, parang sa industry, may magsasabi, 'Ba't andito 'yan?' Ganito-ganito. Pero sabi n'ya sa amin, as long as may naniniwala sa 'yo, ibig sabihin, tama ang ginagawa mo. And keep doing what you're doing.
"Pero in real life, just be yourself. Huwag kang magtatanim ng galit sa ibang tao. And, medyo networking, be open-minded. 'Yon ang sabi n'ya. Kasi pag masyado tayong sarado, tinitignan natin ang mga bagay-bagay sa isang perspective lang. But when we see the bigger picture, mas nakikita natin kung bakit nangyayari ang mga bagay-bagay.
"And, higit sa lahat, matakot sa Diyos.
"'Yon din po ang para sa akin, parang I want to be an example. Hindi naman lahat ng tao, perpekto, pero as much as possible, I want to inspire people na hindi lang dahil sa talent ko, pero kung ano 'yong natututunan ko kay Lord. Kasi once na na-touch ka Niya, at naramdaman mo 'yon, do'n mo mare-realize 'yong true meaning of life, which, now, mas naiintindihan ko. Because I'm a dad."
"I wanna cry," he concluded, feigning drama in his voice but eventually laughing.
The fifth run of Rak of Aegis is being staged until August 28 at the PETA Theater Center (No. 5 Eymard Drive, New Manila, Quezon City).
For tickets, visit ticketworld.com.ph or call Tel. No. 891-9999. Interested parties may also call PETA at Tel. No. 725-6244 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.