JM de Guzman has a new tattoo. It’s an unmissable letter “X,” a blood-red figure, sitting weightily on his upper-right arm. It’s a barrier of some sort, he says, or a warning: “Touch me not.” It’s not the physical touch, no. It’s more like, “Don’t touch my soul,” unless, he says, you’re a good soul.
This is the JM de Guzman, 30, that we spend one very hot Saturday morning with: a contemplative one. Every word this JM speaks is like a sneak preview of how he feels or what he thinks. He is in introspection mode most of the time. On the makeup chair, eyes closed, he has on his headphones. He is quiet. We feel the quiet. When he answers, he whispers, we had to put our recorders in full volume during transcription stage. Quiet.
And rightfully, so.
For years now, the celebrated actor has divulged his battles with his demons. Today, he makes the effort to put those kinds of conversations on the sideline—not totally forgotten, but this time, maybe, he tries to keep his mood in almost in sync with the summer’s very bright sun. He also tries to mimic what he has been trying to attain all these years: peace.
“I am,” he pauses for like a minute. “Okay. Fighting a good fight.”
HIS MANY CHARACTERS
Any follower of JM’s body of work knows that he morphs into his characters with so much passion, he becomes his characters. He started working on commercials at the age of six, before bagging the audition for Ang TV 2 (2001), a re-launch of the kid-oriented comedy variety show, which came out on television in the ’90s.
“Nagbago na ’yong thinking ko about acting,” JM recalls the first few years of his career. “Before, puro commercials. No’ng time na ’yon, hindi ko rin naman gusto ’yong TV. Gusto ko lang nakakatulong ako sa pamilya ko, kahit papano kumikita ako. Pero ayaw ko ’yong showbiz. Pagdating ko doon sa ABS-CBN, parang gusto ko pala—no’ng bata ako, ha. Parang bigla kong nagustuhan, gusto ko napapansin, napupuri. Lahat naman tayo di ba? Nandoon din ’yong pera. No’ng bata ako, gano’n.”
But it wasn’t until JM entered college at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, taking up Theater Arts, that his passion for acting began to take shape. In UP, JM joined the Dulaang UP theater company, where he met people who treated this craft as fuel and food. JM was inspired, impressed. But his acting journey had only begun—and it was not an easy one, to say the least.
In 2009, JM starred in the independent film, Last Supper No. 3, which got nods from award-giving bodies. It won Best Film at the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival; was nominated for several awards, including Best Picture, at the Gawad Urian Awards; and was nominated for several awards at the Golden Screen Awards, Star Awards for Movies, and Young Critics Circle Philippines, to name a few.
JM, too, got a few nods from film critics. Soon, the movie world got curious about this charming moreno who commanded big screen with his raw and intelligent kind of acting. Slowly, people started to hand him good roles. “I faced a lot of rejections din sa career ko,” he recalls. “May mga depression din nang maaga, since bata pa. Pero ’yong naramdaman ko, tina-try ko i-convert ’yon to something, ’yon ang ginamit kong energy to find my passion.”
Then, 2011 came, the year JM started becoming a household name. This year, he won the award for Best Actor in the New Wave Category at the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) for his portrayal as a drug user and drug dealer in the film Pintakasi. It was also the year that brought him to mainstream television via the hit TV series Angelito: Batang Ama, which premiered in July 2011 and ended in April 2012. But because the series was such a hit, ABS-CBN decided to launch its sequel Angelito: Ang Bagong Yugto in July 2012.
But JM, amidst the success, remained focus on his craft. He wanted to be good, he wanted to be better. He tells us, “Before ’yong fame, I was really just focusing on truth sa work ko. Merong factor ’yon na nakakabahid ng work ko. The awards, those things, pag nasa utak ko siya, it will reflect on your work.”
To add to his piling success, in 2011, the widely successful Ang Babae sa Septic Tank—directed by Marlon Rivera and written by Chris Martinez—premiered at the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival. The film won several awards, including, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture at Cinemalaya.
Indeed, it was a great year for JM—or so everyone thought. The madness of show business, the sleepless nights, the seemingly endless number of people hunting through his personal life proved too much for the young actor. Angelito: Ang Bagong Yugto ended its run in December 2012, with rife rumors of its lead actor exuding bad behavior because of illegal drugs. In June 2013, JM went into rehab for the first time.
Time spent at the facility slowly diminished the noise in his head. When he left the facility 11 months later, JM hit the ground running—and run he did into the ground. In 2014, he starred in the cult favorite, solo-travel-inducing, hugot film That Thing Called Tadhana. It was, to say the least, a box office draw. Soon, people were talking about JM as the pliant leading man who can make hearts melt with a look. But deep inside, JM was not smiling, not fully.
He needed to take step back, and he couldn’t do it in front of the kliegs. In 2015, JM went into rehab again. He was on showbiz hiatus for two years.
By this time, people, his fans, and showbiz enthusiasts, know of his story. In brief: In 2017, JM signed a contract with Star Magic, ABS-CBN’s talent management arm. In 2018, he starred in another hit TV series Araw Gabi, under the Precious Hearts Romances Presents program (which turns into TV series the stories from the romance pocketbooks, Precious Hearts Romances).
His fans didn’t think twice about embracing him again. A comeback, in whatever field, is a tricky place to navigate in. In it, people immediately put their score boards out: they assess the subject. Is he rusty? Does he look good still? Will he make it? No. Yes. Yes.
Immediately after the series premiered, a chorus was heard. The man still got it. “I always think about it, acting,” JM says. “Kahit no’ng nasa rehab ako.” While in there, he tells us, he still joined short plays. And there is an unintended consequence, a good one, that comes out from taking a break from your passion: hunger.
JM reveals, “’Yon lang siguro maganda na rin ’yong matagal akong nawala kasi nagutom din ako, at nabuhay ulit ’yong utak ko. Para bang nag-enjoy na ako, na-start ko na ulit ma-enjoy. Kahit to the point na mahirap, nakakapagod, na-e-enjoy ko na siya.”
He won’t be a hypocrite and say he is unflustered by the prices that come with fame. He is human, after all. “Thankful ako sa fans,” he reiterates. “Thankful ako sa perang natatanggap ko. Nakakapag-ipon ako to buy my family a house. Hindi lang din kasi about fame, e. Madaming bagong artista diyan, ila-launch, maya-maya makakalimutan ka na rin.”
Smiling, he says he doesn’t want to be the sino-nga-siya guy. “‘Siya ’yong sa ano…?,’ o ’yong ‘Saan na nga ba siya?’ o ‘Basta ’yong sa ano..?’ Na-experience ko na ’yon, so ngayon, nakaahon ako ulit, iniisip ko more on sa responsibilidad ko na bilang nandito ako sa posisyon na ito. So for now, meron akong opportunities. I will at least try to be the best version of myself.”
Since he walked into the spotlight again, JM has learned to go through a different process when he bites into a role. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.
He shares: “Recently nakakapag-try na akong every other day nagsi-switch ng characters. After no’ng movie o ’yong teleserye, meron akong reflection. Nagre-reflect ako do’n sa character na ’yon. ‘Ano ’yong dadalhin ko?’ Kasi nagiging part siya sa akin. ‘Ano ’yong mga bibitawan ko?’ Mga dinadala ko may be forgiveness, understanding, pagiging mature, or letting go.”
Many people, his colleagues included, have mentioned repeatedly that he is a good actor—one of the best of his generation. He looks uncomfortable after hearing the declaration.
“Nape-pressure ako!” he laughs, his eyes turning into a happy pair. Then he explains, “I’m thankful s’yempre. Sino ba naman ang hindi papalakpak ang tenga pag nasabihan ka, lalo na pag veteran actors. Pero tinatanggal ko ’yon sa isip ko. Kasi importanteng pag nagki-create ka ng character, importanteng grounded ka. So mas pure ’yong sincerity. Hindi ’yong, ‘A, kaya ko na ’to. Galing naman ako, e.’ Kailangan baliktarin mo. ‘Paano ko ’to ita-tackle?’ Kahit hindi ka pa nasasabihang magaling ka.”
HIS OTHER LOVES
No, it’s not that kind of love. It’s not romance, which he talked very briefly with all smiles. His heart, he says, “is protected,” nowadays, “by millions of barricades.” His heart, he says, is also being surrounded by “angels and tamed demons.”
Can anyone break those barricades?
“Someone tried to,” he looks down. “I opened the gates,” he adds, meaning it was a decision he made.
Can those gates be opened again?
He laughs. “May doorbell.”
To whom do you respond?
“Mararamdaman mo naman ’yon, e,” he expounds this time. “Someone who will make you feel safe. Your mind feels safe. Emotional health mo is safe. Bubuksan mo naman, e. Pero pag hindi ka rin sigurado, feeling mo, ‘Masasaktan lang tayo dito. Mag-aaway lang, masisira lang pagkakaibigan natin dito,’ huwag na lang.”
And that’s all he can say about that for now.
But speaking of love, there is one other love that he will never let go of: music. This love won’t hurt him.
He is currently finishing an album with around seven songs—four of five of which are original songs, and most of them were written by him.
JM learned how to play the guitar by himself. He was 13 years old at the time. “Song Hits lang ’yon,” he recalls. Song Hits are terms used to describe pamphlets that contained lyrics of popular songs, with their corresponding guitar chords and notes. “’Yong may dots lang kung saan mo ilalagay ang fingers mo sa gitara.” At the time, he still found it confusing to play the guitar and sing at the same time. But, one day, he was able to sing one full song while strumming. The song was “Ako’y Sa ‘Yo at Ika’y Akin Lamang” by First Circle.
“No’ng nakanta ko siya nang buo, sobrang proud na proud ako,” he says. “‘Mommy! Daddy! Lola! Insan! Pakinggan n’yo ’to!’” He also learned how to play by ear. Eventually, his love affair with music grew deeper. Now, it’s part of him; now it’s where he finds redemption.
“Music saved my life,” he tells us. “Mga music na pinapakinggan ko, they talk to me.” He mentions Jeff Buckley as one of his heroes, “May pagka-hopeless-romantic din kasi siya.”
For his current album, he wrote most of the songs while he was in rehab. He describes songwriting as a sort of urge that comes to him unannounced: “Hindi ako nagsusulat kapag hindi tinatawag. Hindi parang patche-patche. Bigla na lang na gusto mong magsulat. Non-stop na ’yon. Minsan, nakakalimutan ko kung paano ko ginawa ’yong music. Nag-iiba ’yong atake kasi. ’Tapos simple lang din naman ako. Di naman ako ’yong aral na songwriter.”
While working on his music, the busy man is also working on another TV series, called Project Kapalaran. It’s a family drama, he says. “May kaunting love story, conflicts between couples, infidelity, sibling rivalry. Maraming ita-tackle na issue na importante. Mamumulat ’yong audience, lalo na family oriented tayo. ’Tapos na namin ’yong pilot. For management preview na. They will decide if they will air it, or kung anong time slot siya na mas bagay sa audience.”
And while he feeds his mind and his soul with his artistic endeavors, he is well-aware, too, that his body will also have to go through a lot of work. After Araw Gabi, he says he gained almost 30 pounds—“laki ng tiyan ko, wala na akong leeg.” But the natural athlete—he was in the wrestling team in college, lest we forget—knew how to get his target weight back.
He went on intermittent fasting (the most popular form of intermittent fasting is the 8:16, where the person eats for eight hours a day and fasts for 16 hours). But it didn’t work for him, he says. “Nalungkot ako. Nilaban ko siya for two weeks lang, para at least bumaba appetite ko and detox na rin.” He now refrains from eating too much rice (two scoops a day, per meal is sometimes enough for him), and his meat intake is portioned. Fortunately, he doesn’t have sweet tooth.
He also works out a lot, and his favorite form of sweat-inducing work is martial arts. It’s not just for his body, he says, it’s an exercise of the mind, more than anything. “Sobrang malaking factor sa confidence, self-esteem ang martial arts,” he reveals. “And nakakaganda siya ng disposition kasi you’re training your mind to handle physical pain. ’Tapos ’yong utak mo, pag ayaw na, ite-train mo siya. Magagawa mo rin siya sa work mo. No’ng bumalik ako, recently, laki ng change na nakikita ko sa sarili ko. I became sharper, calmer, more peaceful. Parang biggest na experience kong mahirap, nagugulat ako na naha-handle ko siya nang maayos, because of martial arts.”
But through our conversation with the man, we found out that it’s really his faith in himself and in God that keeps him standing and hinders him from falling apart.
“Feeling ko designed siya ni Lord sa palad ko—lahat naman tayo—kung ano ’yong nangyari sa akin, sa personal na buhay ko, naniniwala naman akong may rason,” he says with conviction. “Pinagdadasal ko lang dati lagi—no’ng zero ako, hopeless, na wala kang nakikitang futures—sabi ko, ‘Lord, kung saan mo ako dadalhin, kahit saan, doon ako.’ So feeling ko nasa tamang lugar ako.”
And with that, he thanks everyone and leaves the studio. He puts on his headphones again and gets inside his car. It is now mid-afternoon, and he can’t call it a day just yet. He and his team are on their way to the province of Pampanga for another gig—it’s how in-demand celebrities work. But, at least, for a few hours again today, he gets to have a little silence, and he gets to share it with his music.
TEXT & INTERVIEW: M.G.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Edward dela Cuesta
SHOOT PRODUCER: Irene Mislang & Anna Pingol
ART DIRECTOR: Stephen Jan Cruz
GROOMING: Muriel Vega Perez
STYLIST: Myrrh Lao To