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Elijah Canlas Explains It All

“With great power comes great responsibility” is an old saying popularized by Marvel’s “Spider-Man” in films and related media. It’s the kind of line that stays with you after you hear it. And while Elijah Canlas may not be as big a comic book fan as we are, it definitely took root in his heart and mind. 

Aside from having a large social media following, Elijah is an internationally acclaimed actor. He has been referred to by critics and fans alike as the best of his generation. Elijah knows he has great power and is determined to use it responsibly. He’s not afraid of taking some heat if it means he did what he could to make the world a better place.

“We owe it to this country. Lalo na kung artista ka, kasi artista ka ng bayan,” he tells us emphatically during our exclusive interview for FreebieMNL Spotlight. He says of his participation in the recent elections: “I knew there would be backlash, pero I wasn’t scared. Naniniwala kasi ako na everyone wants the Philippines to be a better country because pare-pareho tayong nakatira dito. Plus, as an actor, you play characters from different walks of life kaya lumalalim empathy mo. So when I had the chance to speak up, to fight for other people and for what I believe in, that’s what I did.”

International acclaim

Elijah has always been fearless. He has pushed past his frightening internal monologue—which told him he didn’t have what it took to become a successful actor—to reach for the stars.

He got into acting at a very young age. In her youth, Elijah’s mother was a ballerina and theater actress in Bacolod. Naturally, she wanted her kids to follow in her footsteps and get into something artistic. She encountered some opposition from her husband, who wanted his three sons to pursue something a little more traditional.

“My dad wanted us to do basketball or any other sport. But he gave in to my mom din. Sabi lang niya, ‘Mag-theater na lang sila instead of ballet.’ So ang napagkasunduan nila was that we’d play sports in the summer and focus on theater on Saturdays during the school year,” shares Elijah.

He and his brothers played competitive badminton during their younger years. But as they grew up, they spent less time on the court and more time treading the boards. Eventually they all became so good that they won scholarships to the Philippine High School for the Arts. But when the time came for Elijah to go to college, he chose to study film instead of theater arts. At that point, he felt like he had a better shot at a career behind the camera rather than in front of it.

He had some success before, notably a lead role in the 2014 Cinemalaya entry “Sundalong Kanin.” He hoped it would allow him to begin building a real career, so he went on as many auditions as he could. Unfortunately, things didn’t go his way, and this gave him some self-doubt.

“I wasn’t getting the roles that I wanted. I’d do a film tapos I’d only be in it for, like, 10 or 15 minutes. Ang konti pa ng lines ko. I honestly wasn’t happy with that, because I knew I was capable of more. Pero wala akong magawa kasi that’s how the industry works. Wala na rin akong pag-asa at the time. I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it, because hindi ako mestizo at wala akong kamag-anak o kilala sa industriya,” says Elijah. “So I decided kung ganun lang yung roles na makukuha ko, I’d rather not act at all.”

But in 2018, fate dropped in. Filmmaker Jun Robles Lana offered him the lead role in the film “Kalel, 15.” Direk Jun told Elijah it would address the HIV epidemic in the Philippines through the eyes of its titular character. It would also touch on other important issues, including drug abuse. Hungry for a chance to prove that he could shine, Elijah pushed through his self-doubt and accepted the offer.

The subject of “Kalel, 15” didn’t give him pause; it actually contributed to his desire to do the film. “Kapag ganun yung projects na gagawin ko—anything heavy, anything na may advocacy or yung story niya is something I find really important to tell—lalo akong nae-excite. Lalo akong ginaganahan to do the research, to prepare. Hindi ako natakot.” 

Elijah threw himself into the role. As soon as he got the script for “Kalel, 15,” he broke it down using techniques he picked up in his theater days. “Yung usual process ko pang-teatro talaga. I analyze the script, I do a character sketch, things like that. But Direk Jun asked me to throw all that away kasi he wanted me to be as raw as possible,” he shares. “Ang problema kasi sa akin sometimes is I overprepare. Kapag ganun, nagiging mechanical yung performance ko. Nagiging masyadong rehearsed, masyadong studied. That’s what he wanted to avoid.”

At first Elijah wasn’t sure how he could do without his usual routine. But he pushed himself to do his best anyway. Before he knew it, the film had been completed, then screened at festivals all over the world. He won Best Actor at the 43rd Gawad Urian Awards, 68th FAMAS Awards, 17th Asian Film Festival, and the 16th Harlem International Film Festival. (Meanwhile, Direk Jun won Best Director at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia.)

Elijah was surprised. Not too long ago, he was questioning his ability to succeed in showbiz. And then he became an internationally acclaimed actor.

“I worked hard on the film, but I didn’t really expect to win anything. So when I did, it was surreal. I had quit acting two years before, so winning gave me a sense of validation,” explains Elijah. “Bigla kong naramdaman na maybe I am meant to be in this industry. Baka tama na ito ang ginagawa ko, and baka may chance ako to do more important projects in the future.”

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Going the extra mile

After the success of “Kalel, 15,” Elijah had the world at his feet. He was bursting with optimism when 2020 began. But COVID-19 came along and knocked all of it right out of him.

“I had just completed a new film with Direk Jason Laxamana, wherein I also played the lead, and ang dami ko pang ibang offers. I was going to do a couple more films and some TV work. I was hoping na magtuluy-tuloy na yung work,” recalls Elijah. “But nagka-pandemic, nag-lockdown, and everything just stopped. All my projects were canceled. I felt hopeless, like the pandemic would never end.”

Adding to Elijah’s weariness was the knowledge that showbiz moves at light speed. He was worried that whatever momentum he had built before the pandemic would be worthless once things went back to normal.

“Pwede kang makalimutan agad. Kaya pakiramdam ko wala na ulit yung career ko. Dumating ulit ako sa point na I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should just focus on my studies.’ Nalungkot kasi talaga ako,” shares Elijah. “Before COVID-19, I was looking forward to so many things, then everything became nothing. I struggled to figure out what to do next. But acting is really my passion. So I decided to wait for any opportunity to present itself. I told myself na kapag may dumating, I would take it no matter what.”

In April 2020, Elijah received a text from director-producer Perci Intalan asking him if he wanted to do a BL (Boys’ Love) series. At the time, the genre was exploding in popularity thanks to GMMTV and “2Gether the Series.” An adaptation of the 2019 novel of the same name, the series followed the story of two college boys who go from being in a fake romantic relationship to dating for real.

“It was such a hot topic. Ang dami kong friends na nanonood nun, and I got to watch it also. So alam ko what BL was,” says Elijah. “When I was asked about the possibility of starring in a BL series with Kokoy [de Santos], sabi ko, ‘Game.’ Kating-kati na kasi ako umarte. I wanted to go back to doing what I love the most kaya um-oo ako agad.”

He assumed that the show would only begin production once COVID-19 was a thing of the past. That was his first mistake. Soon after he signed on to star in the show, he found himself helping out with an ocular inspection of one of their locations—his very own condo. Looking back, Elijah says that was his first clue that “Gameboys” would be unlike anything he had ever done or seen before. Luckily, his family was supportive of his decision to accept Direk Perci’s offer, because they knew how much having something to do at the height of the lockdown meant to him. So the night before his first taping day, they helped him set up the equipment. An exhausted Elijah collapsed into bed at 2AM, only to be woken by an alarm he had set to make sure he wouldn’t be late for his 8AM call time.

Working on “Gameboys” proved to be much harder than Elijah expected. For one thing, it took them a month to finish the pilot. The entire cast—which, in the early days, was composed only of Elijah and Kokoy—had to go the extra mile to make things work. 

“We did everything on our own. Kami yung art department, cinematographer, hair and makeup artist, wardrobe, lahat. Sariling damit ko ginamit ko. I’d take pictures of what I wanted to wear in a scene, then I’d send them to the crew for approval. At the same time, hindi ko pa kaharap si Kokoy kasi nga we had to tape remotely. I’d film my scenes with my phone while staying in contact with everyone on Zoom. So I could hear Kokoy, but I couldn’t really look at him. Sobrang hirap nun because acting is reacting. Eh paano ako magre-react to something na hindi ko nakikita? We pulled it off naman, but a lot of what we did at the time was really experimental and, in a way, revolutionary.”

Thankfully, their hard work paid off. Soon after “Gameboys” premiered in May 2020, it attracted an audience of BL fans from all over the world. In November 2020, it won Best Web Series at the Indie Shorts Awards Seoul. Less than a year later, it got an International Emmy Kids Awards nomination.

“None of us knew it was going to be such a hit. I remember when the first episode premiered on the IdeaFirst Company’s YouTube channel. Not even a thousand people were watching,” he recalls. “But I didn’t really care. I was just happy that I got to act again. Then the views picked up the following week, and they kept climbing with every episode we released. Siguro kasi maraming naka-relate sa kwento.”

In the two years since he first brought gamer Cairo Lazaro to life, many have told Elijah that the show became their lifeline during an especially dark time. “It melts my heart every time someone says ‘Gameboys’ saved their lives nung kasagsagan ng lockdown. You know, it gave them content to watch and emotions to feel.”

Elijah understood where people were coming from because the show saved him, too. It opened doors that he thought had closed due to the pandemic. Inquiries and offers came pouring in again when the show’s popularity reached an all-time high. Even “Kalel, 15” enjoyed a second wind when Netflix added the film to its extensive library.

“I was and still am very grateful,” he says. “Because when I do something, I put one hundred and one percent into it. Kaya if it works out, hindi ako magugulat kasi binigay ko lahat. If it doesn’t, hindi ako manghihinayang or malulungkot kasi nga binigay ko lahat. So when the show succeeded, gratefulness lang talaga yung naramdaman ko. I told myself, ‘Don’t look back. Keep going.’ That was my mindset at the time.”

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A thrilling ride

A lesser actor would’ve been afraid of getting typecast after a breakout role, but Elijah didn’t let fear prevent him from accepting projects. After “Gameboys,” he played another gay character in “Misis Piggy,” an iWantTFC original series headlined by veteran actress Sylvia Sanchez. He believes playing someone who isn’t straight is an honor and a privilege. That said, he doesn’t see himself going back to the BL scene anytime soon (except maybe for a third season as Cairo).

“I think there’ll be another season of ‘Gameboys.’ If meron, I want it to be my last time playing a gay character. Hindi ako takot ma-typecast. But as much as possible, kung may magandang queer role out there, I’d like it to go to an actor who’s actually queer,” explains Elijah. “Sa akin lang, what’s most important is maging pantay-pantay lahat ng artista. Alam mo, hindi tama na ma-blacklist ang isang actor because he’s gay. Hindi tama na hindi siya mabigyan ng opportunity because of how he identifies. Kasi as actors, we’re all just instruments kaya kailangan mabigyan tayo ng equal opportunities. Kaya kami ni Kokoy, marami na kaming na-decline na queer roles because we want to do our part as allies. We want to give others a shot.”

Right now, Elijah prefers to turn the page over rereading a previous chapter of his career. That’s why he’s excited about his upcoming movie on Vivamax Plus, “LiveScream.” Elijah is back with Direk Perci, and it will be available on November 9 for only P499. According to Elijah, audiences will see him solo for 70% to 80% of the horror film. 

“I play a vlogger na mahilig mag-post ng prank content online, and marami na rin siyang nae-exploit at nasasaktan, including his own girlfriend. When the film starts, makikita niyo siya na mag-isa sa isang kwarto. It’s just him and a wall of torture devices. Kaya it should be so fun for people to watch kasi all the pain he’ll endure in this movie, iisipin niyo, ‘dasurv’ because he’s an asshole,” begins Elijah. “Pero mapapaisip ka rin na, ‘Up to what point does a person deserve to be tortured, even if he is an asshole?’ So oo, it’s a horror movie, but it’s also fun and thought-provoking.”

“LiveScream” is Elijah’s most taxing project to date—emotionally, mentally, and physically. He got hurt many times during filming; he was attacked by sand mites and suffered injuries from doing his own stunts (like Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible film series, he says). Despite this, he says: ”Pero it was fun for me because I love what I do and sadista ako sa sarili ko.”

Many actors say that fear is the hardest emotion to portray. In “LiveScream,” Elijah had to play with different levels of fear and pain, so he was forced to stretch himself creatively.

“In the wall of torture devices, there are eight different holes,” he explains. “Hindi naman pwede na first hole pa lang ang lakas na ng sigaw ko or ang taas na ng level of fear ko. Hindi rin pwede na same level of fear and pain ang ipakita ko as I go from one hole to the next. Kailangan paiba-iba. Kung may pain na mapapasigaw ka, may pain din na wala kang masabi—as in sobrang tindi nung nararamdaman mo that you can’t form any words at all. I wrote so many notes in the margins of my script. That’s how I kept track of everything I had to do.”

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Elijah never thought he’d do a project like “LiveScream.” When he was younger, he stayed as far away from horror movies as possible. But he learned to appreciate them the longer he stayed in showbiz. He realized there was more to horror movies than jump scares, and just how much work went into them. So when he showed up on the set of his latest collaboration with Direk Perci, he was determined to pull out all the stops to make it a thrilling ride for everyone—the cast, the crew, and especially the moviegoers who would stream it in November.

“We actors want to be part of special projects. ‘LiveScream’ is special because it’s fresh. It’s unlike anything in Philippine cinema these days because yung pacing niya is very fast. Para kang nanonood ng video game. Our cinematographer also made sure na the way it’s framed is different. I can say that pinaghirapan naming lahat itong pelikula na ito. I hope people have as much fun watching it as we [did] making it.”

The work continues

As passionate as Elijah is about work, he knows there’s more to life than grinding 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it’s why he opened his heart to actress Miles Ocampo. He’s been dating her for a while, but they didn’t make their relationship Instagram official until recently.

“I’m a very private person,” he says seriously. “It was only because of ‘Gameboys’ kaya nag-public ako ng social media accounts ko. Si Miles is also very private. Nag-match kami in that aspect. May things na OK lang sa amin i-share sa ibang tao, pero may mga bagay din na we just want to keep to ourselves para mas special. But it’s not like nagtatago kami. It’s just that sometimes, we’re in the moment too much that we don’t care about anyone or anything else.”

Elijah has long since come to terms with the demands of his career, which includes a certain degree of fanservice. But he still doesn’t want to think of himself as a celebrity. Instead, he sees himself as an artist. He’s still working on accepting the fame that comes with doing what he loves. He puts up with the less appealing parts of being an actor by keeping his eyes on the prize. For him, the chameleon-like aspect of acting is what it’s all about. 

“There’s an infinite amount of characters I want to do. My acting bucket list is endless. But I’d love to sink my teeth into something that I’d have to emotionally and physically manipulate myself into. I think the character that’s closest to that is a mentally challenged person. I loved Dustin Hoffman’s work on ‘Rain Man.’ I also loved Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ and Sean Penn in ‘I Am Sam.’ Mahilig ako sa ganung klaseng characters, and the good news is I’m finally about to play one soon. So I’m excited.”

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Thanks to the combined success of his many projects, Elijah Canlas has been proclaimed the best actor of his generation. Many who came before him buckled under the weight of similar titles, but Elijah isn’t one to back down when faced with pressure.

“I like it because I thrive under pressure. Competitive ako as a person. When people say things like that about me, I want to prove them right. Or if they say the opposite, I want to prove them wrong. Basta regardless of what anyone says, whether it’s positive or negative, the work continues.”

Photography Stephen Capuchino 

Final Art Alexandra Lara

Interview and Cover Story Julian Mauricio

Transcript Marc Daray

Styling Omar Sortijas and Jona Ballaran

Makeup Chao Lilio

Special thanks to Judith Bauer and Perci Intalan

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