Coco Martin: The Street Kid Who Made Good

IMAGE Raymund Isaac

Coco Martin recalls his fond memories growing up, and how his simple goal to help his family financially eventually led him to become one of today's A-list actors.


DATELINE: 2015

Coco Martin flashed his signature smile and greeted mallgoers at the Power Plant in Rockwell, Makati. He did not discriminate. Men, women, and children—he greeted them all. He was affable and approachable.

From afar, he saw a familiar face. It was Kapamilya actress Angel Locsin, whom Coco had known since their younger days, when they were both auditioning as models for commercials. “Pababa siya ng escalator,” Coco recalls. “No’ng malapit na siya, tumalikod na ako.”

Coco was not being a snob. He was just flustered to see an old friend who by then had made a name in show business—while he himself was still working at the mall as a “promodizer” for a telecom company, giving away flyers, smiling for everyone.

“Si Angel, biglang sumikat na sa Click,” Coco explains, referring to the now-defunct GMA teen
show. Honestly, bilang tao, parang meron ka pa ring ‘Ay, siya artista na.’ Kumbaga, may narating na. ’Tapos, ako, eto, namimigay ng flyers. Nahiya ako.”

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Back then, Coco was not aiming to be a sikat na artista like Angel. He just wanted to make something of himself. He just wanted a job that would bring in regular income.

“Ang hinahanap ko naman, totoong buhay,” he says. “Whatever—artista, waiter... Kumbaga, kahit ano, basta pagkakakitaan. Kahit na anong raket.”

This was early 2000. Coco was not asking for much.

 BATANG KALYE

For as long as he can remember, Rodel Pacheco Nacianceno—now better known by his screen name Coco Martin—was always looking for ways to make money. It was not surprising that he turned out to be this way. Enterprise was in his genes, after all. His paternal grandmother, Matilde Nacianceno, a housewife, got into all sorts of rakets, too, to augment the income that her husband, the late Popoy Nacianceno, was bringing in as a jeepney driver in Sampaloc, Manila.

“Nagtrabaho siya sa sabungan,” Coco says of his Lola Matilde. “Dalawa ang sideline niya—takilyera at nagpapautang sa mga nagtitinda sa labas ng sabungan.”

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Lola Matilde also took on occasional jobs as a cook, a hawker of women’s dusters, and eventually a seller of jewelry. She was able to save enough money to buy a lot in Novaliches, where she built a small bungalow and, later, three narrow apartments at the back.

“Nagsumikap siya,” Coco tells YES! “Siya ’yong naging takbuhan ng pamilya.”

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Aside from striving for a better life, there was another compelling reason why Lola Matilde was bent on getting her family out of Sampaloc. She was particularly anxious for her son Ramon, who would become Coco’s dad.

“Ang father ko no’n, takaw basag-ulo,” Coco says. “Gusto ng lola ko, ilayo ’yong father ko sa mga gulo. At that time, bundok-bundok pa po ’tong Novaliches.”

Not one to rest on her laurels, Lola Matilde bought another lot in Novaliches a few streets away and had a row of apartments constructed.

“’Yong mommy ko naman, pinag-aaral siya ng tita niya,” Coco narrates. “Kumbaga, ’yong mother ko ’yong tumutulong-tulong nag-aalaga ng mga pinsan niya, gano’n. Nangupahan sila sa apartment ng lola ko. Do’n sila nagkakilala ng father ko.”

Ramon Nacianceno and Marites Pacheco went on to have a family of their own. On November 1, 1981, their first child, whom they would name Rodel, was born.

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“No’ng ’pinapanganak ako, ang sabi ng nanay ng lola ko, ang ipangalan daw sa akin, Rodel. Kasi pag sinasabi daw ’yong Rodel, nakangiti ka.” Coco tells us. He then challenges us, “Sige, sabihin n’yo nga ’yong ‘Rodel’ nang hindi ngumingiti!” We concede.

Growing up, Rodel—who was nicknamed Deng—was a “normal na bata.” The not-so-normal thing about him was that he rarely celebrated his birthday with a party. That was because his birthday fell on All Saints’ Day, and instead of throwing a party for him, the Naciancenos trooped to La Loma cemetery to visit the tombs of their dead relatives.

“October 31 pa lang, nasa sementeryo na kami,” Coco recalls. “Ikot kami nang ikot. Gano’n naman ’yong mga bata, e, nangunguha ng kandila!”

When Deng was nine years old, his parents separated. He was made to stay with his Lola Matilde, while his siblings were divided between the parents—his sister Michelle went with their mother to San Fernando, Pampanga, and his brother Ryan, with their father in Sampaloc, Manila.

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“Hindi ako nagalit sa kanila pareho,” Coco says, talking about his parents’ separation. “Kasi, siguro, gano’n lang ka-open ako, na parang mas better na nagkahiwalay sila. Kasi, mula pagkabata ko, as in talagang away, e. Hindi sila magkasundo. Better na parang magkahiwalay na lang sila. At least, mas okey. Mas mabubuhay sila nang mas maayos.”

In his lola’s house, there were strict rules to be followed. In the morning, Deng had his chores, which included cleaning the house. When he didn’t have to go to school, he played with his friends outside the house until 11 a.m. Then he went back home to set up the dining table for lunch, and to take a nap—or, at least, pretend to take a nap.

“Pag hapon kasi, patutulugin ka pag bata ka, di ba?” he recalls. “Patutulugin ka kahit di ka inaantok!”

He would stay in bed until 2 p.m. and go out again with his friends. They would usually play basketball or sneak out to the nearby river to swim.

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“Maliligo kami sa ilog hanggang five o’clock ng hapon,” he reminisces. “E, bawal kaming maligo sa ilog. Siyempre, baka malunod, ganyan. May tinatawag kaming paltok—parang bundok ’yon na maliit. Do’n kami nagpapatuyo muna, kasi pulang-pula ’yong mga mata namin, ’tsaka dry skin.”

Coco describes himself as “batang kalye,” a street kid. But taking to the streets didn’t mean just going out to play or to hang around. It was also a job for the kid: his lola would often ask him to go out and collect the payments in her informal lending business.

“Nine years old pa lang ako, nagpupunta na ako sa Blumentrit sa Manila. Ako ’yong naniningil ng mga pautang niya do’n sa mga nagtitinda do’n. May listahan ako. Actually, do’n nga ako naiinis. Dinadaya kasi ako.”

Coco had a log of the borrower’s payments. The borrower also had his or her own list. Every time a borrower paid an installment on a loan, Coco would have the borrower sign his log and, in turn, he would sign the borrower’s list as a form of receipt. Both lists were supposed to match.

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“Ginagaya ’yong pirma ko! Siyempre, may listahan kami pareho. Bakit sila may sobrang bayad na may pirma? Paano nangyari ’yon? ‘Alangan namang nagpunta ako dito na hindi ko kayo napapirma, ’tapos may pirma ako?’ Bata pa lang ako, nakikipag-away na ako. Hahaha!”

The batang kalye was not one to back down from a fight. Coco admits getting into a lot of trouble in his younger years, not only because of his lola’s lending business, but often because his looks brought him unwanted attention.

“Takaw-basag-ulo ako kasi may itsura, ’tapos maliit pa. Takaw-kursunada ka. Hindi ko alam bakit parang minsan prone ako sa away. Iyong lagi akong nakukursunadahan na wala naman akong ginagawa. Hindi naman sa akin uubra ’yon. Parang katwiran ko nga, wala akong gagawing masama sa ’yo, pero huwag mo ’kong gagawan ng masama dahil hindi ako uurong.”

Being laking-kalye made Coco street-smart early on. By the time he was 10 years old, he could already commute to his mother’s place in San Fernando by himself.

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In school, he excelled in his Filipino subjects. “Basta’t Tagalog. Natatandaan ko no’n, laging ako ’yong number one sa classroom, kasi naiintindihan ko, e. Nakakapag-recite ako, nakakagawa ako ng homework ko nang maayos.”

Coco turns somber. “Siguro, matalino rin sana ako kung meron akong magulang na nagturo sa akin ng tama, para makapagsalita ako ng maayos na Ingles.”

Being a college graduate, Coco can actually understand English pretty well, but he says outright that he has a hard time conversing in it. And although his lola was there to support him and put him to school, he still wished that he had his parents around—parents who would teach him stuff, so that he wouldn’t have to discover things on his own most of the time.

“Siyempre, minsan nalulungkot ako na parang ako ang naka-discover kung paano pumunta ng Makati. Ako rin naka-discover kung pa’no ako mag-drive ng sasakyan. Ako naka-discover para makakuha ako ng license.”

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Looking back, the 33-year-old Coco Martin feels that he was forced to become independent at an early age. “Natuto ako nang mag-isa, na minsan may kakulangan sa pagkatao ko na hinahanap ko, na sana ang parents ko andiyan. Kapag nakakakita ako ng pamilya na buo at nakikita ko ’yong parents, napaka-supportive sa mga anak nila, naiinggit ako do’n.”

LOCAL: RAKET MAN

Standing at 5-foot-6 1/2, Coco Martin has the kind of face that makes you remember that one boy in school who had an easy charm and a quiet confidence about him. Armed with an infectious smile, Coco is the ultimate boy next door.

In school, although he claims that he wasn’t a heartthrob, he was “isa sa mga napapansin.” When he was a sophomore in high school, he became the overall escort of the whole campus—winning in his class before going on to compete with other escorts from different batches.

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“Honestly, alam ko na may itsura ako,” he says candidly. “Pero marami akong sablay. Marami akong, kumbaga, kakulangan. Di ba, maliit ako? Hindi ako kakinisan. Wala sa consciousness ko na puwedeng maging artista, kasi nga mahiyain ako.”

Still, he knew he could use his looks to earn him some cash. After auditioning for a television commercial, he was cast as one of the leads. It was his first foray into acting.

“Ang eksena ko lang, nagmo-motor,” he recalls. “Next shot, ito na ’yong camera sa harap. Dahil wala na ’kong nakikita kundi camera, ang likot ng mata ko. As in, talagang alam mong natataranta ako. Lahat ng mura, inabot ko sa direktor!”

He ended up being cut from the succeeding frames. It was then that he realized he didn’t know how to act. Still, showbiz came knocking.

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Coco was then a college student at the National College of Business and Arts (NCBA) in Quezon City, taking up hotel and restaurant management (HRM). During his on-the-job training at a restaurant, where he waited tables, he was spotted by Rene dela Cruz, a floor director on the ABS-CBN variety show ASAP.

Rene arranged a meeting between Coco and Johnny Manahan, better known as Mr. M, Star Magic’s head honcho.

Mr. M told Coco to audition for the then-upcoming Star Circle Batch 9, which would produce the likes of Heart Evangelista and Rafael Rosell. Out of the hundreds who auditioned, 30 got short-listed, and Coco was one of them.

Before he knew it, Coco was attending workshops five times a week, which meant he had to skip classes a lot. He soon found himself juggling his studies and his workshop sessions. One thing was bound to give.

“Hindi ko sinasabi sa lola ko na nagwo-workshop ako para mag-artista,” Coco tells us. “Nahiya ako, e. Siyempre, dito, ordinaryo lang naman ang itsura ko. Sino’ng maniniwala na mag-aartista ako? Unang-una, wala akong talent, hindi ako marunong sumayaw, hindi ako marunong kumanta, hindi ko naman alam na marunong akong umarte.”

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Coco recalls telling his grandmother: “La, puwede ba akong magtrabaho? Gusto kitang tulungan. Ayoko naman na pang-tuition ko, hihingin ko, baon ko, hihingin ko pa sa ’yo.”

But Lola Matilde dissuaded her grandson: “Hayaan mo na, tiisin na lang natin. Ilang years na lang naman. Ang importante, matapos ka ng pag-aaral. Pagkatapos ng pag-aaral mo, gawin mo lahat ng gusto mo.”

Although he already had the chance to become an artista, Coco yielded to his lola’s wishes: he got his college degree. But after graduation, he had a hard time getting a job in his field. He got into different rakets, waiting tables in restaurants, appearing in advertisements, distributing promotional materials from companies.

“Minsan, namimigay ako ng alak sa bar, mga sampler ng yosi. Pag may laban ang La Salle ’tsaka Ateneo ng basketball, namimigay ng pom-poms. Namimigay ng candy sa mga gasoline station.”

But he also gave acting another shot, as an extra in the now-defunct TV5 gag show Teka Mona, starring Joey de Leon.

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“Hindi ako marunong magpatawa, pero sabi ko nga, magkatrabaho lang,” he comments. “Sobrang mahiyain talaga ako. Halimbawa, kahit nga ngayon, hindi mo ako mapapakanta. Mapapakanta mo ako kapag alam kong trabaho. Pero pag katuwaan, nahihiya ako, e.”

He was not choosy. He went where the money was. At the same time, he was dabbling in student theater productions, although he was already a graduate. It was at one of these stage productions that he met actor-director Ihman Esturco, who started managing him and who introduced him to indie films.

ABROAD: HOUSEKEEPER, JANITOR, COOK, MOWER OF LAWNS

Early in 2005, when he first heard that he was being cast in a movie titled Masahista, the first thing that came to Coco’s mind was that he was going to portray a hilot. “Unang-una, siyempre lalaki ako, e, hindi ako gano’n ka-aware do’n sa masahian na gano’n,” he explains. “Alam ko may gay and lalaki, pero hindi ko alam na may gano’n palang klaseng trabaho.”

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When he pitched the project to Coco, Masahista supervising producer Ferdinand “Ferdie” Lapuz told the newbie that the film had the potential to compete in film festivals abroad.

“Tinanggap ko ’yong movie hindi dahil gusto kong mag-artista, kundi dahil sinabi sa akin na malaki ang chances nito ilaban abroad,” Coco admits. “Pangarap ko makapagtrabaho abroad, kaya grinab ko talaga ’yong opportunity. Ni hindi ko tinanong kung anong klase ba ’yong pelikulang gagawin ko, gaano ba kalalim, di ba? Ang tema pala, maselan. Basta ang narinig ko na lang, ’yong ‘abroad.’”

The actor, in truth, had a secret plan: he would do the movie, attend the filmfest abroad, and become a TNT (tago nang tago), that is, an illegal immigrant or undocumented alien, working in a foreign country without a working visa.

For the film Masahista, helmed by director Brillante Mendoza, Coco played the role of a young masseur who provides “extra service” to his gay clients by performing sexual acts with them. To research his character, the actor, who was only 23 years old at that time, went with the movie crew to different massage parlors catering to a gay clientele, so that they could meet real-life masseurs.

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“Nagpamasahe ako, kasi kailangan kong gawin ’yon, dahil kailangan kong maalala at malaman ’yong technique na ginagawa at anong klase ba sila,” Coco says. “Kasi ibang klase ’yong kuwentuhan, iba yong actual na nae-experience mo kung ano’ng nangyayari.”

Coco had earlier appeared in small roles in the movies Luv Text (2001) and Ang Agimat: Anting- anting ni Lolo (2002), in both of which he was billed as Rodel Nacianceno. For Masahista, talent manager Ed Instrella, who helped out in the film, gave the young actor a new screen name: Coco Martin.

It was a blend of the names of two pop singers—the Hong Kong-born American Coco Lee (female, actually) and the Puerto Rican Ricky Martin. The newbie did not think much of his screen name then. He was, after all, just doing this one film—his ticket to working abroad.

In Masahista, Coco delivered a raw performance, but one that turned out to be life-changing. It won him a Best Actor award from the Young Critics Circle. The film also got invited to several international film festivals. First stop: Switzerland, for the 58th Locarno International Film Festival.

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Upon his arrival in the European country, Coco, who had brought along a big traveling bag, put his TNT plans in motion. He befriended a Filipino family that was willing to take him in, but he was warned that it would be hard to get legal papers. Still, he was willing to take the risk.

When the Locarno awards night came, Masahista, to everyone’s surprise, won the Golden Leopard, the top plum, awarded to the best film in the international competition. During the victory party, Coco, after a few rounds of drinks, confessed to Direk Dante and producer Ferdie that he was planning to go TNT in Switzerland.

“Ayaw nila akong payagan,” he recalls. “Kasi nga, hahanapin ako sa kanila, kasi siyempre nagpunta kami do’n as a group, ’tapos biglang sa’n ako napunta?”

Coco abandoned his TNT plan and went back home. Then the film got invited to more filmfests, including the Toronto and the Vancouver international film festivals in Canada, both in 2005. After the first leg of the trip, in Toronto, Coco told the film crew that he would no longer join them in Vancouver.

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“Naisip ko na kung ayaw n’yo ’kong payagan, aalis akong mag-isa,” he says. “Ayun, pumunta sila ng Vancouver. Ako naman lumipad papuntang Alberta. Nakituloy ako sa mga kamag-anak ko do’n.”

Staying in the Canadian province of Alberta on a tourist visa, Coco couldn’t get work legally. For the first few months, he stayed in his relatives’ home, cooking and cleaning. “Siyempre, nakikisama ako, e,” he says. After a while, he was able to get odd jobs from fellow kababayans.

“Gagawin ka nilang boy. Basta may maabot lang sa akin kahit magkano, kasi wala akong ginagawa sa bahay, e. Kumpuni-kumpuni ng kung ano-ano, linis-linis ng bahay nila.”

Coco also experienced working as a janitor at a bingo gaming center. Using his kitchen know-how, he also offered his services as a cook whenever there were special occasions.

“Ang nangyari, pag may okasyon, ako lasing na lasing, kasi ang saya-saya ko that time, kasi may kausap ako. After kong magluto, pupuwede na ’kong uminom. May kakuwentuhan na ’ko. Kasi sa abroad, sobrang lungkot, kasi ang tao do’n, walang ginawa kundi magtrabaho nang magtrabaho nang magtrabaho.”

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Pinoys in Alberta, he tells us, were juggling up to four jobs. He himself learned other ways to make money, including collecting used plastic bottles for recycling. “Iniipon namin. Kada buwan, ibebenta namin. Kaya nakaipon ako no’n, e. Nakaka-one-hundred Canadian dollars ako.”

Every Saturday, Coco worked as a housekeeper. He worked from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., for which he earned 12 Canadian dollars. “Matagal din ’yon, kasi wala namang nagpapalinis ng gano’n-gano’n lang. Iyong ipapalinis talaga do’n—halimbawa, magulo ’yong bodega nila—ipapaayos nila sa ’yo ’yon.”

One time, Coco even got a raket mowing the lawn of a big housing complex, for which he was offered 50 Canadian dollars for a two-day job. He thought he could finish the work in a day. He was, after all, using a riding mower. But it turned out to be tough.

“Mahirap pala siya. ’Yong dadaanan mo, madali. ’Yong sulok-sulok, ’yon pala ang mahirap! Siyempre, lilinisin mo lahat, pupuliduhin mo, e. Siyempre, pag umaga, sobrang lamig, ang kapal ng jacket ko. No’ng tanghali na, hinihimatay na ’ko, kasi nga sobrang init na, ’tapos wala ka pang kain dahil gusto kong matapos nang isang araw.”

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He shakes his head at the thought. “Akala ko, madali. Akala ko, naka-jackpot ako sa fifty dollars. Hindi pala!”

Although he was having a hard time finding work, Coco would still send money back home to his family. “Ang alam ng pamilya ko, ang ganda-ganda ng buhay ko do’n. Ang laki-laki ng napapadala ko, e. Hindi nila alam, ’yong kalahati ng naiipon ko sa isang buwan, ’yon ’yong ’pinapadala ko sa kanila.”

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The whole time he was in Canada, Coco had a firm resolve to make things work. He had his six-month tourist visa extended for another three months. “Hoping pa rin ako, e,” he admits. But it seemed that his fortune lay elsewhere.

“Lumapit ako sa embassy, nagtatanong ako kung paano ma-convert from tourist to working visa. Walang chance, sabi nila. Kailangan kong umuwi ng Pilipinas at do’n ayusin ang papeles para maging working visa.

“Do’n ako napanghinaan ng loob. Ang nangyari ngayon, no’ng wala na talaga, sabi ko lulunukin ko na ang pride ko, kailangan ko nang bumalik sa Pilipinas, kasi wala ring mangyayari sa akin do’n. Ano’ng gagawin ko sa Canada kung wala naman akong trabaho?”

INDIE PRINCE

Coco didn’t have a choice but to fly back home. Being an HRM graduate, he applied for a job as a waiter at a casino in Rizal province. While he was attending to the employee requirements, he received a call from his Masahista director, Brillante “Dante” Mendoza, who got word that he was back in the country. Direk Dante wanted Coco for another film project.

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“That time, hindi pa naman ako papasok,” Coco recalls. “Kinukumpleto ko pa lang ’yong requirements ko. Sabi ko, ‘Sige.’”

The film was Tirador, where Coco would be playing a pickpocket who steals from devotees of the
Black Nazarene in the midst of the commotion of the annual procession in Quiapo. The shooting conditions were less than ideal. They would be filming, not on a production-design set, but on location, semi-documentary style, during the actual procession attended by millions of devotees.

One scene called for Coco to dive into the thick crowd and somehow make his way to the karosa carrying the statue, so that he could touch any part of the robed statue.

It is believed that the Nazareno grants the prayers of devotees. The actor, who has actually been a devotee of the Nazareno since his younger days, was lucky enough to touch the statue on his first try.

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“Hindi ko makakalimutan no’ng nahawakan ko ’yong Nazareno,” Coco says. “Kasi, mula noon hanggang ngayon, nagdire-diretso na ’yong trabaho ko.”

Coco didn’t really pray for anything specific. He just asked that he be given the chance to find a job. “Basta sabi ko, kahit hindi pa ako matulog, basta may regular akong trabaho. ’Tapos, hindi ko akalain na ibibigay Niya pala sa akin ito.”

The newbie actor soon found himself doing one indie film after another with different directors. Sometimes he would shoot up to four films in one month. He forgot all about completing his requirements for the casino job he was applying for.

From his home in Novaliches, he would ride a tricycle, then a jeepney, and finally a bus to get to his shoot locations. The trip would often take more than an hour because of the heavy traffic. He didn’t mind. He fell in love with the process of making films.

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“Kapag nagmimiting ang mga director at production, nando’n ako, nakikinig ako.

Later on, isa na ako sa nagmimiting. Isa na ako sa bumubuo ng istorya, isa na ako sa naghahanap ng location, isa na ako sa nagka-casting...”

He was able to hone his acting by constantly observing and talking to his co-actors. “Lalong-lalo na sa mga veteran actors—ang dami mong matututunan... Noong nag-uumpisa ako, ‘Paano ba umiyak?’ ‘Isipin mo ’yong nanay mo namatay,’ sabi sa aking gano’n. Siyempre, maiiyak ka naman.”

Through time, Coco learned how to develop the characters he played and how to actually immerse himself in the characters’ lives. “The more na isinasabuhay mo ’yong character mo—halimbawa, ’yong character mo nabigo—mararamdaman mo na siya. Hindi na kailangang mag-imagine.”

Coco also adapted Direk Dante’s technique on how to make acting a scene raw and genuine. “Hindi ako nagbabasa ng script,” he admits. “Si Direk kasi, ikukuwento niya lang sa ’yo ang istorya. Bubuuin niya ang pagkatao mo. And then, after that, never mo makikita ang script.”

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It is a method that works for him and that he still applies until now.

“Halimbawa, binigyan mo ’ko ng script ngayon. Binasa ko na ’yan dito. Nai-imagine ko na ’yan. ’Tapos, kung sa script ang ganda-ganda ng location, pagdating sa set hindi gano’n, madi-disappoint ako. Sa acting, kapag binasa ko ’yan, nai-imagine ko kung paano ide-deliver ng co-actors ko ’yong linya. Kaya ang nangyayari, hindi ko siya binabasa, para lahat pure.”

Before filming a scene, Coco asks an assistant to throw his lines at him, which he memorizes quickly. He reasons: “Parang tsismis lang ’yan, di ba? Pupustahan kita, pag tsinismis ko sa ’yo, matsitsismis mo sa iba, lagpas pa sa ’kinuwento ko sa ’yo. ’Yong gano’n lang, ’yong pakikinggan mo lang ’yong pinaka- thought no’ng sa line, mage-gets mo na.”

The time came when Coco was enjoying making films so much that he didn’t care how much his talent fee was. “Minsan, kinakapa ko ’yong envelope. ‘A, makapal!’ Minsan naman, manipis, lugi pa ako sa gas, kasi that time, may kotse na ’ko no’n.”

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Although the talent fee started out small, the actor was able to save up because most of the films he was starring in were competing abroad. By then, he was already being dubbed the Prince of Indie because of his body of work. In attending the international filmfests, aside from the free airfare and accommodation, he was given an allowance per diem.

“Ang ginagawa ko, hindi ko siya ginagastos,” he says. “May budget kami—kunyari, one hundred dollars per day. Halimbawa, five days kami do’n. E, di, may five hundred dollars ako. Inuuwi ko ’yon.” He adds: “Iyong kinikita ko, ’binibigay ko na sa lola ko, para ’yon na ’yong way ko para makatulong.”

Besides, what money can’t buy, he says, is the experience of being able to travel and to represent the country.

Sometimes, his films competed with big-budget entries from countries like South Korea. “Catering pa lang ata nila, ’yon na ’yong budget namin para sa buong pelikula,” he jests. Most of the time, though, his low-budget films got critical acclaim from international critics. Coco himself was getting a lot of attention from foreign film producers, who made offers for him to star in their films. But the actor turned them all down.

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“Unang-una, mahihirapan ako sa Inglisan diyan,” he reasons. “Huwag na. Pahirapan pa ako. Okey na ako sa Pinas. Hahaha!”

Ironically, locally, he and his crew got zero recognition from the mass audience. “Pag lumalaban kami abroad, napapansin kami. Nananalo kami. Dito, kung sino pa ’yong kasama natin sa industriya, sila ’yong mga nanlalait, sila ’yong mga nagda-down sa amin. ’Tapos, later on, gagawa rin sila ng indie! Kaya nga sabi ko, sana walang gano’n. Trabaho tayo, kasi tayo-tayo rin lang magtutulungan, e.”

GOING MAINSTREAM

Although he was already making a name for himself in the indie circuit, Coco was still hoping to make a breakthrough and go mainstream. He was cast in the now-defunct GMA afternoon series Daisy Siete, which starred the Sex Bomb dancers. He was even made part of an all-male group called The Studs, together with Kapuso stars Mike Tan, Dion Ignacio, JC Cuadrado, Lance Oñate, Kevin Santos, Felix Roco, and Edgar Allan Guzman.

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“No’ng time na ’yon, uso ang boy group,” Coco says. “Ayaw ko talaga, dahil hindi ako marunong kumanta’t sumayaw. Pero sabi nila, ‘Kailangan mong sumali dito, dahil kung hindi, hindi ka mabibigyan ng soap.’ ‘Talagang ganyan ba ang kalakaran?’ Sali naman ako. Bahala na.”

He says, in hindsight: “Gano’n kabuo ’yong determinasyon ko na kahit ano ’yan, basta trabaho ’yan, gagawin ko ’yan. Pero siyempre, hindi ko ilalagay ’yong sarili ko sa alanganin, ’yong parang feeling ko mapapahiya ako or ’yong ikakahiya ako or ano’ng magagawa kong mali.”

For his performance in Tambolista in 2007, Coco won his first Gawad Urian for Best Supporting Actor.

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Soon, a talent coordinator from ABS-CBN called Direk Dante with an offer for Coco to be the third corner of a triangle in a soap opera starring the Shaina Magdayao-Rayver Cruz love team. Coco thought that was finally the big break he was waiting for.

“Siyempre, honestly, that time, ’yong kinikita ko sa indie, maliit lang. Hindi enough na pang-ano ko talaga sa family ko, na parang ako na ang tatayong padre de pamilya kasi ako na ang kumikita, e. Parang abot-abot lang, parang raket-raket lang, e.”

Two days later, however, the talent coordinator called Direk Dante again and told the award-winning director: “Direk, bold star pala ’yang si Coco Martin, e.” Coco was taken out of the cast.

“Nasaktan ako no’n,” Coco tells us. “Kasi, siyempre, lumalaban kami international. Ang tinitingnan namin ’yong proyekto, di ba? Hindi ’yong image. Porke’t nagpakita ka ng konting katawan, may tag ka na agad na bold actor? Nakalimutan na nila ’yong pagiging actor. Na-tag ka na agad?”

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He adds: “Siyempre pag sinabing bold actor, parang ‘Wala bang sense ’yong ginagawa namin?’ Samantalang sa abroad, the more na nagpapakita ka ng katawan, napapakita kung gaano ka katapang bilang actor. Di ba mas lalong tumataas ’yong respeto? Dito naman, bumabaligtad. Ba’t gano’n?”

Another inquiry and offer soon came up. That time, he was being asked to play a part in
a teleserye starring Judy Ann Santos. He was supposed to play a gay role. He readily agreed
to do it. But again, the same scenario happened. The caster got wind that Coco was a “sexy actor.”

The actor heaves a sigh. “Whatever na! ’Yon na ang tingin nila sa akin. Ayoko na. Kumbaga, parang, kung hindi ako nirerespeto ng TV at ’yon lang ang tingin nila sa akin, okey lang. Dito na lang ako sa mundo na ginagalawan ko, kung saan binibigyan ako ng halaga.”

In 2008, Coco was given the honor of attending the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France for the world premiere of Serbis, an official entry for the festival’s main competition. The film, once again helmed by Direk Dante, also starred Gina Pareño, Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, and Mercedes Cabral.

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At the red carpet in Cannes, Jaclyn mentioned to Coco that her director friend, Andoy Ranay, wanted to cast Coco in a role for the ABS-CBN afternoon soap Ligaw na Bulaklak, topbilled by Sid Lucero and Roxanne Guinoo. Having previously received job offers that never got anywhere, Coco declined the indirect offer outright. He remembers telling Jaclyn: “Ayoko na. Ilang beses na akong ni-reject diyan. At saka, ang baba naman ng tingin sa akin ng TV.”

But Jaclyn proved to be persuasive. She told him: “Hindi, isa na lang talaga, promise. After nito, kung hindi pa rin matuloy, wala pa ring mangyari, huwag na. Kalimutan mo na ang TV.”

Coco was cynical, but agreed to do the project. He attended the story conference and found out that his role was that of a supporting character who was not really integral to the story. The cast and crew had already been taping for weeks before Coco was called in to shoot his first scene.

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“Ang humawak pa sa akin, backpack director, hindi pa si Direk Andoy,” he recalls. “E, ang role ko, konsehal. That time, mas bata ako, mas lalo akong totoy. Para lang akong totoy na pinagbihis ng barong.”

When the director saw him, Coco heard the director telling the crew that he looked too young for the part but that they didn’t have a choice since he had been chosen for the part. The actor thought, “Eto na naman, rejection na naman aabutin ko, a.” Still, he did what he was tasked to do.

“Ang gagawin ko lang, nakasakay ako ng kotse, bababa ako ng kotse. Babarilin ko ’yong kasama ni Sid na pulis para magbigay ng babala kay Sid na ito ’yong pagkatao ko.”

When the cameras started rolling, Coco shot the policeman. But then he did something that surprised the crew.

“Pagbaril kong gano’n, tinutukan kong bigla si Sid. Nag-moment kami na parang ang motivation ko no’n, subukan mong magsumbong, papatayin ko buong pamilya mo. ’Tapos, di, titigan-titigan. ’Tapos, sakay ako ng kotse. Nakatitig ako sa kanya. ’Tapos, inangasan ko. Exit.”

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After the scene was finished, Coco heard the director saying, “Sino ’yon?”

A STAR IS BORN

In 2009, ABS-CBN executive Deo Endrinal and his unit, which included Biboy Arboleda, was cooking up a new teleserye called Tayong Dalawa for the popular love team of Kim Chiu and Gerald Anderson, together with Jake Cuenca. The team wanted to cast award-winning actors in supporting roles.

“Nag-research kami sa mga indie,” Biboy tells YES! Magazine in an interview. “Nanood kami ng Cinemalaya. Napanood namin si Coco sa Jay ni Direk Francis Pasion. ’Pinatawag ko siya for an audition, among other indie actors.”

Coco got the part of Ramon, the kontrabida to his half-brothers Gerald and Jake.

“The anti-actor,” Biboy describes the Coco that he saw. “The maitim, na madumi, na jologs na instant contrast to Gerald Anderson and to Jake Cuenca.”

During the promo shoot, Biboy recalls, Coco was just sitting in one corner. He was “tahimik lang.” He seemed to be observing everyone around him.

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Biboy tells the story: “Lahat ng tao, ang tawag sa akin, ‘Mother Biboy.’ Mamaya, lumapit si Coco. ‘Puwede ko rin ba kayong tawaging Mother Biboy?’ Tumawa na ’ko nang bonggang-bongga!”

Coco broke the ice and asked if Mother Biboy could be his manager. At that time, the actor had parted ways with his manager, Noel Ferrer, and had no representation.

Biboy used to manage stars, such as the late Rico Yan, but had decided to give up talent management after he decided to migrate to the U.S. When he came back to the Philippines, he became a creative consultant for the Kapamilya network. He opened a flower shop. He also became a magazine editor. He had no plans of going back to managing talents, so he had his reservations about Coco’s proposal.

“Sabi naman ng mga baklang sisters, ‘Alam mo, Bibs, core mo ang pagiging nanay, e. Core mo ang pagiging manager. Malay mo, maka-create ka ng Pinoy version ni Rico Yan na mas masa.’ Sabi ko, ‘Medyo pandak ’tsaka maitim. May lisp!’ Hahaha!”

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Biboy was being realistic. Coco did not fit the typical physical characteristics of a matinee idol—tall, mestizo, and muscular. But something inside Biboy told him to go for it. Besides, he was also concerned for the young actor. Coco was already in Tayong Dalawa, yet he didn’t have a manager. After two days, Biboy called Coco to a meeting.

He agreed to be the actor’s manager. They didn’t have a contract—just a verbal agreement.

Biboy’s first move was to get a product endorsement for his ward. He asked his friend, Ben Chan, to give Coco a clothing sponsorhip from Ben’s apparel brand Bench. The businessman had no idea who the actor was, but trusted Biboy enough to sign Coco to a one-year contract.

Tayong Dalawa was supposed to run for six months, but was extended for another three months due to high ratings. Overnight, it seemed that Coco became a household name.

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During an event attended by ABS-CBN employees, the members of the teleserye’s cast were all invited. Not surprisingly, the crowd went gaga over Kim, Gerald, and Jake. But unexpectedly, when Coco went up the stage, he too received loud cheers and applause. Biboy and Deo were surprised.

Deo teased Biboy: “Hoy! Anong gimik mo, ha? Ang lakas-lakas ng sigaw sa anak mo kanina. Siguro, lahat ng empleyado, in-email mo ’tsaka tinext mo.”

Biboy jested in reply: “Nagpabili ako ng maraming mamon sa Goldilocks. Tinanggal ko ’yong wrapper, ’nilagay ko, Mamon ni Ramon!”—referring to the name of Coco’s character in the teleserye.

That has been a running joke ever since. But the clamor for Coco was not an isolated incident. Biboy was surprised to receive calls from advertising agencies, inquiring about his ward. They wanted to get Coco to endorse a canned food product and an alcoholic drink.

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“Endorsements?” Biboy recalls. “Call ako sa mga ad agency friends: ‘Anong meron? What’s the research?’ Sabi nila, ‘My God, Bibs! Type namin siya.’ Type nila kasi masa, baduy, jologs. Nakaka-relate.”

Since his ward was beginning to have a following, Biboy signed a co-management deal with ABS- CBN talent arm Star Magic. He knew he had a diamond in the rough. He wanted to polish up his ward’s image.

“Ang una kong problema was to reinvent him and recreate him, in the manner na gusto ko,” he explains. “Siyempre, sanay ako noong araw, nagma-manage ako ng Rico Yan, so kailangan glossy, kailangan nag-i-English, kailangan may diploma ka...”

Biboy enrolled Coco in a personality development program, teaching the actor how to dress, how to conduct himself, and how to speak proper English. The course cost more than P100,000, paid for in full by the talent manager.

“Pag ang isang bagay inaral ko, nae-enjoy ko,” Coco tells us. “Kailangan pag na-enjoy mo ’yan, siyempre isasabuhay mo ’yan. Aaralin mo talaga ’yan. E, no’ng nando’n na ’ko, nag-e-enjoy na ’ko. Nararamdaman ko.”

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Coco was beginning to be conscious of how he conducted himself and was beginning to apply what he was learning in school. He realized that he was changing. He asked for a meeting with his manager. He wanted to quit the program.

Biboy tried reasoning with him: “Iyon ang point! Kailangan mag-iba ka. Look at the polished Piolo Pascual! Dapat ’yon ang inaasinta mo. The stardom of Papa P, di ba? Look at John Lloyd Cruz! Na-polish na din, na-acquire nila, di ba?”

For all that, Coco had a valid point. He explained to his manager that everything that he was learning would come to nothing if he didn’t absorb it fully, if it was only for show.

“Unang-una, hindi ako matututong mag-English kung hindi ako magsasalita ng English. Kailangan, kahit dito sa bahay nag-e-English ako, di ba? Ang damit ko, kailangan hindi dahil pag may okasyon lang. Kailangan, kahit nasa bahay ako, pinagmi-mix-and-match ko na ’yan.

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“Mawawala sa akin ’yong minahal sa akin ng tao, ’yong pagiging raw ko. Mamamatay ang trabaho natin. Hindi ko naman kailangan mag-pretend, kasi hindi ko naman gustong achieve-in na maging sikat. Happy na ako sa pagiging character actor.”

Needless to say, Coco won the argument.

GOING MAINSTREAM

Tayong Dalawa opened the doors for Coco to become one of the Kapamilya network’s top leading men. Soon, he was topbilling teleseryes, starring in movies, endorsing more products, and appearing in shows here and abroad.

It is 2015, and Coco's raket days are over. He now has an almost 24/7 job.

“Sa sobrang pagod ko, umabot talaga ako sa point na, alam mo ’yong naliligo ako, ’tapos hindi ko na maibuhos ’yong tabo? Gusto ko nang umiyak, kasi straight two weeks, wala akong pahinga.”

There have actually been times when the actor has been hospitalized because of exhaustion. There was a time too when he thought that a freak accident on the set was the end of his career.

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The show was Tayong Dalawa. It was one of the last takes of the last scenes in the teleserye. Coco was supposed to get shot. The production team placed a squib, a small explosive device, on his shoulder. Because the actor was wearing a leather jacket, the team rigged the squib to make it more powerful, so that it would break through the leather.

“Biglang pagbaril sa akin, pumutok sa mukha ko,” Coco recalls. “Ang alam ko, all throughout, sunog mukha ko. Kasi apoy ang nakita ko, e. Para kang naputukan ng labintador sa mukha. ’Tapos, puro dugo ’yong mukha ko. Naghalo ’yong dugo sa squib ’tsaka ’yong dugo sa mukha ko.”

Coco was immediately rushed to a hospital. On the way, he had his face in the palms of his hands. He was sobbing uncontrollably.

“Humahagulgol ako. Para akong bata. Akala ko talaga no’n, wala na. Kasi, siyempre, kahit ano’ng sabihin naman natin, di ba puhunan din natin ang mukha natin. ’Tsaka sino ba naman ang gustong masunog ang mukha? Hahaha!”

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The doctors treated his injuries and removed pieces of wire and leather from the actor’s eyes. Luckily, he recovered—but that wouldn’t be his last accident on a set. While filming the 2012 romantic comedy flick Born to Love You with singer Angeline Quinto, he had another mishap.

“Ang eksena, nagwawala ako. Binasag ko ’yong mga diploma, kasi nagalit ako. Sa sobrang intense, pak! Tumalsik ’yong bubog sa mata ko. Nagasgasan na naman ’yong mata ko.” He shrugs. “Takaw-disgrasya.”

But he takes the good with the bad. Whether it’s accidents or exhaustion that he experiences, Coco can’t bring himself to complain. He always tells himself that he prayed for this for a long time.

“Ginusto mo ’yan, di ba? Panindigan mo. Kasi ang katwiran naman namin, ang daming naghahangad na magkaroon ng ganitong trabaho,” Coco muses. “’Tapos, ngayong ’binigay sa ’yo ’to, pag nagtamad-tamaran ka o nagpetiks ka, madali ’tong mawawala. Kahit sobrang pagod ako, iniisip ko lagi na ‘Baka bawiin sa ’yo ito.’”

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Because of his fast rise to stardom after his first major teleserye, Coco, like many popular male stars, has not been able to escape unsavory rumors. We ask him if he has ever received indecent proposals from gay television executives.

“Wala naman,” he replies. “Kasi—hindi naman sa hindi kanasa-nasa, pero hindi ako hunky, e. Hindi ko sila market. Kahit pumunta ako sa gay ano, nakyukyutan sila sa akin, pero hindi sila naa-attract.”

For him, these issues are beyond his control.

“Hindi mo maiiwasan ang tao mag-isip ng kung ano-ano.” What is important, he says, is that he doesn’t waste the opportunities being given to him.

“Maraming nabibigyan ng break, pero depende ’yon the way na paano mo i-handle ’yong trabaho mo. Siguro, puwede akong pag-isipan ng gano’n [indecent proposals], kung halimbawa ang break sa akin, from nothing biglang bida ako sa isang soap opera. Lahat naman ng tao, nakita nila the way na kung paano ko drinive ’yong sarili ko kung nasaan man ako ngayon.”

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Coco also chooses to stay away from politicking in showbiz. Issues on who gets more work or who gets the support of the management are mere nuisances.

“Hindi ’yon ang kinalakihan ko. Sa amin sa indie, basta ang importante, makagawa ka ng isang proyekto. Pagalingan kayo do’n. Parang every project, ’yon ang magsasalita para sa akin.”

Coco is just thankful that he gets to do a job that he loves. “Alam mo ba ang pinakamasarap sa trabaho namin bilang artista? Lahat na-e-experience mo.”

He gets to fall in love, to experience what it’s like to be rich, and, sometimes, to die in a scene. “Marami kang buhay na nagagawa.”

FOR NOW, SAME OLD DENG

As much as possible, and whenever his schedule permits, Coco tries to accept indie film projects. For him, that’s like taking a refresher course on acting. He sees it as going back to his roots.

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“Ayokong iwan ang indie,” he tells us. “After ng soap opera ko, gagawa muna ako ng isang indie. Kasi, kailangan kong ibalik ’yong pagiging raw ko.”

Although he is already a prized Kapamilya talent, Coco says he remains open to all sorts of roles, including the risqué ones. It’s no longer new to him, he reasons. He has already done nudity and sex scenes in his critically acclaimed films.

“Hindi ako magiging Coco Martin kung hindi ko pinagdaanan ang lahat ng ’yon. A few actors lang ang kayang gumawa ng gano’n. At kapag binalikan mo ang history niyan later on, ’yan ang magpapalalim sa iyo as an actor.”

He jests: “Diyos ko! Pag nakita mo ako, ako pa ang nagdidirek ng [sex scene] namin, kasi alam ko na kung paano proprotektahan ang leading lady ko.”

But there is one thing that has changed: today, the actor joins the indie project sans talent fee. “’Yong budget na nakalaan para sa ’yo, doon mo na lang ibigay sa production nila, para mas mapaganda ’yong pelikula ninyo. Pagbabalik ko na ’yon, dahil kung nasaan man ako ngayon, ’yon ’yong nagbukas ng pinto.”

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Coco has truly come a long way from being an enterprising young man to a bona fide big
star. Wherever he goes, he is stopped by people asking for a photograph with him. He obliges as much as he can.

“Naging fans din naman ako,” he reasons. “Naranasan ko no’n si Robin Padilla, nasa malayo pa lang siya, tumango siya sa akin. Hindi ko nga alam kung ako ba talaga, kasi ang dami namin, pero kinilabutan ako. Naisip ko, ‘Ang bait niya, grabe!’”

Coco always keeps that incident in mind whenever he interacts with his fans. He recognizes how a simple gesture like that can affect the lives of people. “Ang mga tao, simple lang naman ang kaligayahan. ’Tsaka minsan lang ’yan sa buhay nila.”

Now that he is a big star himself, the actor makes it a point to give his fans good memories to remember him by. Whenever he is invited to provincial shows, he usually does more than what is asked of him.

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“Ang rule niyan, dalawang kanta lang,” he tells us. “Pag tatlo, bonus na ’yon. Pag sumampa na ako, lalo na pag malayong probinsiya, minsan lima o pito ang kinakanta ko. Minsan, pinagtatawanan ako ng mga nauna o ’yong susunod sa akin, ‘Concert!’

“Okey lang na pagtawanan ako, kasi ayoko naman ’yong parang dumaan lang, ’yong hindi ko napasaya ’yong tao. Ipagkakait ko ba ’yon? Ang tagal nag-antay ng mga ’yon... Sagarin ko na!”

Although he says he doesn’t know how to carry a tune, Coco has a prepared set whenever he performs onstage. “Una, ’yong ‘Pusong Bato,’ ’tapos Eraserheads medley—tatlo na agad ’yon. May Apo medley pa! Hahaha!”

Coco finds it hard to turn down his fans since they are mostly composed of children, men, and the elderly. His manager explains that he is endeared to the lolos  and the lolas because of his doting grandson role to his grandmother, played by Gina Pareño, in Tayong Dalawa.

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“Hanep ’yong timing nila, hanep ’yong bond,” Biboy comments about Coco and Gina. “Feeling ko, reflection of what he’s really like in real life, kasi lola’s boy siya.”

The actor does not mind if his audience consists not mainly of the “bagets.” He says: “Kung sino ’yong mga fans ko ngayon, sobrang happy ako, kasi alam kong loyal ang mga ito. Anuma’t ano ang mangyayari sa akin, kumbaga, kahit hindi na ako ganito kainit sa mata ng tao, alam ko nandiyan pa rin sila. Kasi ang nakita nila sa akin e ’yong talento ko, more than ’yong kasikatan ko.”

For Coco, being an actor is just like any other job that needs to be done to the best of one’s ability. Being on the marquee is “not a big deal.”

“Kung ako mahina, kung ako madaling malunod, hindi ako ganito. Siguro mayabang ako. Pero hindi ’yon ’yong nakakapag-justify sa pagkatao ko, e. Sa akin kasi, trabaho ’yong ginawa ko, and then nagawa ko siya nang mabuti. That’s it.”

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Coco believes he is still the same Deng, the same Rodel Nacianceno. He just moved to a bigger home and happens to appear on television and in movies.

“Ito pa rin ako. Parang sinuwerte lang. Para akong nanalo sa lotto. Ayoko ng tinatrato nila akong artista.”

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Published in PEP.ph May 2019
Adapted for PEP.ph by Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon 

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in YES! JANUARY 2015
TEXT: CANDICE LIM-VENTURANZA
INTERVIEWS: JO-ANN Q. MAGLIPON, ANNA PINGOL, CANDICE LIM-VENTURANZA & BAM V. ABELLON
PORTRAITS: RAYMUND ISAAC                                                                                           
EDITOR IN CHIEF: Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon                                                                          EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Jose F. Lacaba

CIRCA 2019

Coco Martin is among the prized stars of ABS-CBN, and is the lead actor of FPJ's Ang Probinsyano, where he is also one of the directors.

It has been nearly four years since action series aired its pilot episode on September 28, 2015.

It reached a record-high rating this year when it aired its March 28, 2019 episode, which registered a 46.8% nationwide rating, according to ratings provider Kantar Media.

Its all-time high rating remains 47.2%, which it registered on October 4, 2018.


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