TOM Rodriguez is a budding artist with a wild imagination. What he has never imagined, however, is the life he’s living right now
“Wag mo kalimutan ha, i-search mo yung video,” Tom Rodriguez reminds us as we wrap up our interview for this cover story. The Fil-Am actor is referring to the popular quirky website College Humor’s version of Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” music video, which he has talked about at length during our chat. “They took out the music and then re-dubbed the audio so that may sound pa rin—yung music lang talaga ang wala,” he says. “And it looks like a creepy horror film. It was so surreal. Ang creepy nung video.”
Google the keywords “Miley Cyrus college humor” to see for yourself what Rodriguez is all excited about: a surreal montage featuring the infamous twerking done in silence, dancers with giant stuffed bears strapped on them so it looks like the bears themselves are cavorting in the middle of a disco set, and muted midnight pool parties with the occasional laughter and splashing. There are strange slurping sounds and, without the music, even stranger-sounding butt-slaps. It looks ridiculous, disturbing, and, if we may say so ourselves, even more WTF-inducing than the regular video itself.
This is Tom Rodriguez’s idea of horror. His imaginative mind is very much on hyperdrive here, and there seems to be plenty more going on in his head. At one point during the interview, he tells us about his one big story idea that he wants to turn into a children’s book or a graphic novel—about a girl who gets a summer job in a library. “And the librarian tells her not to enter this one room, but of course she does. It turns out that this room’s full of thoughts, of every thought in the world,” Rodriguez describes with enough excitement to light a dark room. The girl, he continues, stands in the middle of the room, a myriad of thoughts swishing about her.
He interrupts himself. “Teka, binubunyag ko na yung idea ko,” he laughs. “Sana walang kumuha.”
SLAVE TO ART
In a lot of ways, the central image of his story is exactly what it feels like to talk to Tom Rodriguez—like you were caught right smack in the middle of all his thoughts, ideas, and imaginings. To let it all out, he turns to drawing, his chosen outlet for those times when his mind is cluttered and he needs to clear his head. “Katulad kanina,” he muses as he examines the sketch he started working on as soon as he sat down on the makeup chair. “Hindi ko pinaplano, pero parang [naging] very interactive siya.” Thinking out loud, he draws his pencil thickly across the face he’s sketching. “Siguro okay na ganito ang buhok niya—bibigyan ko siya ng sideburns.”
This is his mental exercise, and his brain has been getting plenty of workouts since he was a kid. The eldest male and the third child in a brood of six, he has been drawing since his childhood days in Samar. “Ginagaya ko lang yung sister ko,” he says of his older sister, whom he considers the real artist of the family. But unlike her, who was serious in joining art clubs and competitions, Rodriguez was drawing for fun’s sake. “Puro anime, yung mga text cards na nabibili sa kanto lang yung kokopyahin ko. For fun lang talaga.”
For a kid who was, in his own words, makulit, gusgusin, and a mainstay at the principal’s office, the allure of the arts was tantalizing. “Kung may checklist ng gawain ng isang pilyong bata, siguro nagawa ko na lahat ng andun,” Rodriguez recalls. In his pen and paper, he found a productive medium for his mischief—making his own world in his own rules. “It just fascinates me that with just your imagination, you can transport yourself anywhere, create anything—different worlds, creatures, characters,” he goes on. “The only limit is your imagination. It’s the most liberating way of self-expression.”
The love affair evolved from an avenue of self-expression to something deeper when he hit high school. “People were complimenting me and telling me I should pursue it. Pero ako naman, I was just enjoying [what I was doing so much, then] nakita ko yung professionals sa [illustration and conceptual art and] na-inspire ako,” he shares of the time he found his calling. “It wasn’t until high school na sineryoso ko talaga at nag-umpisang aralin [ito].”
By then, his shenanigans had become fewer and farther in between as he set his sights on improving his creative skills. Rodriguez straightened out and was responsible enough to pass his classes even as he drew through them. “Hindi ko alam kung paano ako nakakapasa,” he admits.
Art took up so much of his life that he thought he’d pursue it and carve out a career for himself in the field. He studied digital animation in university, with the hope of becoming one of those behind-the-scenes guys who draw up magical, fantastical worlds for films and video games. “If you look at the [visual-effects work] of The Chronicles of Narnia, mga ganung movies, buhay na buhay,” he relates. “And bago pa lang gawing 3D, may mga artists na nag-iisip ng details, so it’s nice to think you’ll be part of that magical process.”
He was doing all right after he graduated, landing one internship after another until the recession hit the US in 2008. Rodriguez had just flown back to Arizona after a 6-month internship in Hong Kong, and was ready to start a new gig in a new city when the financial meltdown happened. “I couldn’t afford an unpaid internship in a new city. I was gonna need two jobs just to live,” he points out. “I needed to find some stability and make ends meet.”
With a heavy heart, he put his artist dreams aside and signed up for the military. It was a field hardly hit by the recession, Rodriguez explains, and “it’s a nice place where you get to learn discipline, and you get to serve your country.” Besides, he grew up in a military town where “all my classmates signed up for duty right away.” And his father, too, was a military man. On the surface, he was ready for a life in uniform, governed by strict rules, “but my heart is still in art kaya masakit yung pakiramdam,” he reveals. “It was one of my first lessons in adulthood. You really have to let go of some things muna, make some sacrifices.”
Fortunately for him, it was a sacrifice he didn’t have to take. His older sister—the same one he’d idolized for her artistic skills—found out about his resignation, and it was something she could relate to because she had also shelved her artistic pursuit for a more stable nursing career. It was she who first saw the Pinoy Big Brother ad on TV and she showed it to her brother, egging him to go for this one last shot.
Fast-forward to the present, and during downtime at tapings, rehearsals, out-of-town shows, and photo shoots, you can see Rodriguez is still hard at work on the visual arts—drawing, and then drawing some more. He shares some of his artwork on his Twitter and Instagram accounts (@akosimangtomas). To see his deeper character sketches, though, you’ll now have to take a look at his acting.
ART TAKING SHAPE
Admittedly, Rodriguez had never really cared much for acting; in fact, he’d thought it was kind of baduy. “Safe to say, everyone who saw me as a kid is surprised at how I ended up,” he says, laughing. But the pull of the arts is so strong in the man that he couldn’t resist taking this daring leap. He and his family migrated to the US in 1999, and “nobody has gone back in 10 years,” he tells us. “So ang mentality namin, walang mawawala [if I join the auditions]. Pagpunta ko rito, I stall time. And maybe when I return, tapos na yung recession.”
So the man born Bartolome Alberto Mott flew back to the Philippines in 2009, entered Big Brother’s house, and lost to Melai Cantiveros. He was then ready to pack his bags when he got intrigued by what would become a life-changing acting workshop with veteran actor Pen Medina. There, the most unexpected happened: Acting blew him away.
“I realized ang sarap pala nito,” he says excitedly. He quickly drew a connection between his old craft and his newfound one. “Ito rin yung ginagawa ko pag nagdo-drawing ako—gumagawa ako ng character, except [this time] ako mismo ang nagiging instrument. And I’m so happy that I’m given new opportunities to discover new things about art even in acting. I never would’ve thought it’s a beautiful art.”
He eagerly took on whatever roles came his way. “I always had bit-roles, sa likod lang, and I was really enjoying it,” Rodriguez recounts. He had it in his head that maybe he’d become a character actor. In his first two years in show business, he took part in at least five movies and three regular TV dramas, and even had a lead role in the musical-theater version of Disney’s Aladdin.
“I’ve never grown up to be a singer, never dreamed to be one. When I got exposed to musical theater here, I really fell in love with it,” he says, once again showing his artistic inclinations. “It’s another good medium that you really have to connect with the people onstage and you get immersed with the story. I’ll attribute it to my eagerness to learn. If I’m [especially] interested in it, I would really pursue it.”
His admirable work ethic stems 35from a mature and responsible outlook he has developed abroad. “When we moved to the States, it really opened my eyes to a lot of things. Nawala yung innocence and obliviousness to a lot of responsibilities,” notes Rodriguez, who moved out of his sheltered life with his family once he turned 18. “I’m the eldest male so I have to learn how to be the man of the house, and I won’t learn that while I’m [in a place] where everything is given to me. That’s when I learned that this is life—you have to put in work in order to get the rewards.”
If he was going to be a character actor, Rodriguez had to keep himself busy trying to be good at it. He put in the work, and eventually, GMA 7 came knocking with the reward—the role of Vincent in the surprise television hit, "My Husband's Lover".
MAKING A STATEMENT
It was obvious that, from the time the first trailers and billboards came out, MHL was going to be anything but controversial. Central to the plot of the show was a love triangle unlike any local soap opera has done before: Carla Abellana portrays the loving wife who finds out that her husband, played by Rodriguez, has an affair with Eric, Dennis Trillo’s character. It was a touchy topic, to say the least, in a country that fancies itself as conservative.
If Rodriguez knew the show’s premise alone would both rile up the conservatives and break new ground in the depiction of same-sex relationships in mainstream Philippine television, he didn’t give much of a thought to it. “Everyone was telling me not to do it,” the actor states, “but my mentality was [that] at least I’d have a stable job.”
After all, that was exactly why he’d put on hold his application for the US military and taken his chances here: to find a more artistic avenue where he can make ends until he can resume his career in digital animation. And here was a huge opportunity to make his gigs regular and stable. He wasn’t thinking about what the more timid folks among us feared about the show. What he saw was a challenge.
“The fear na I won’t be able to portray [the role] right because I’m a newbie, it overwhelmed me. I had so little experience, so I asked, ‘Kaya ko ba ’to?’” he remembers. It was his first lead role, so naturally, he had to contend with self-doubt. “I wanted people to see Vincent and not [me] trying to be Vincent. Ayoko marinig ang tao saying, ‘Si Tom lang yan na nagba-bakla-baklaan.’ I didn’t want to offend a whole group of people. I wanted to represent them right, the story right. I wanted to be truthful to it.”
The show instantly defied naysayers, rocketed to popularity, and made Rodriguez a star. It also gave him a more grounded and responsible perspective about his craft. “Initially, I thought of it as just a performance meant to entertain,” he begins, “but after realizing that many were moved by the character I was portraying, I felt an obligation to have a message or growth with my character. Hindi ko nga alam [kung] bakit ako natakot dati na hindi maka-relate sa character, e [Vincent] is just like everyone else. Lahat ng experiences natin parallel. And there’s this lola who looked frail but parang [na-energize siya] when she saw me. Paulit-ulit niyang sinasabi, ‘Beh, beh.’ We thought we only had a certain market, but nagulat ako kay lola. That reminded me that MHL really surpassed expectations.”
Life has taken Rodriguez on a surprise detour via show business, giving him a chance to take on a new art form and make a stable living out of it to boot, with two lead movie roles and huge endorsements already under his belt. For all the crazy thoughts and wild ideas jostling around in his brain, it never once crossed his mind that he’d one day join show business, become an actor, and be the object of so many people’s affections. It never entered his strange mind that one day he’d be here, like this.
He still dreams of becoming an artist; he hasn’t forgotten the reason he’s here in the first place. In the meantime, however, Tom Rodriguez will keep carving characters out of his own person as he tries to empty his cluttered mind. For all he knows, maybe the most important character he’s sketching is himself in the biggest story he can imagine: his life.