Sino sa kanila?”

Arci Muñoz, a woman of 30, clad in white shirt and trousers, joked when she was instructed to jump from one character to another for her cover shoot. She was referring to the version of herself we want to see for the shot—who among the voices in her head she should listen to, in order to get the layout we want. And why not? This, being the Cinema Issue, someone who can pull off that many faces is but a welcome requirement.

In between shots, she talked about her love for Sailormoon and cosplay. In another, upon the prodding of the day’s art director, she gamely channeled her inner rocker—which she pulled off effortlessly, her being a member of a rock band.

As the photographer continuously clicked, almost instantaneously, she shifted from one character to the next with ease. We got seductress, fierce model, stoic woman, and, her favorite, the carefree goofball that lets out hearty, “awkward” laughter in between shots, as she freely described in numerous interviews before this.

With her for the day’s shoot is JC Santos, an actor bred and trained in theater before getting his shot in the scene with an overly-popular young love team as vehicle for mainstream attention. It was in 2016, at 28, when he was propelled to transition from his theater days to roles that quickly snowballed from being James Reid’s gay best friend in the Till I Met You, to numerous lead roles on the big screen, opposite a diverse lineup of leading ladies.

Now at 30-years-old, the Pampanga-native has lived a life of transitions, putting utmost importance on the concepts of adaptability and grit as arsenal to build his lasting power in the industry he now calls home.

One look at the two, it is easy to spot that they are two very different persons. Santos is reserved, polite, and a self-confessed shy guy with stage fright. On the other end of the spectrum, Muñoz is bold and ferocious—unedited but relatable in every sense. She’s very self-aware and authentic, and yet there’s enough mystery in her person that keeps people enamored and intoxicated, even.

And yet, the unmistakable thread that unifies the two is their sense of character, that continues to fuel their every outing on television and on films and their slow, steady ascent to showbiz prominence, free from any other machineries that made careers of their contemporaries. No frills. No drama. Just pure love for cinema, and for their craft.

Muñoz’ shot at fame came from her attempt to join reality talent competition, Starstruck in GMA 7. Her berth in the industry may not have come from a win in the TV show but the roles she gamely took on since is a long arduous road to say the least.

From her “avenger” days in the talent search, to multiple support roles from the same network, to her baptism in lead roles in TV5, down to her string of surprise successes in ABS-CBN and Star Cinema, her road to stardom may not be all be that quiet and free from controversy, but it is one that didn’t subscribe to trickeries that may have been a common methodology in an industry as fickle and noise-based as entertainment—no fictions of romance with co-stars, no feud with other celebrities, no nonsense. And it is this unapologetic, devil-may-care, attitude that has allowed her to be heels-above the industry’s and the country’s conventions of the “bida” or the leading lady.

Same goes with that of Santos’ journey. His career is not one embellished by multiple showbiz flings, nor a series of “Are they or are they not” sensational tabloid drama, but a repertoire of roles that made him a favorite not just on television but on the silver screen.

Not only did he break into the mainstream current with a role that would easily box him into playing the gay stereotype, he quashed it and excelled, that even before the series ended, he was already primed as the next big thing.

For a time, he was simultaneously doing a play, an independent movie, a digital series, and an afternoon soap. To him, it was a life plucked out of a film’s dream sequence. But it didn’t come to him easily. It didn’t come from happenstance, nor luck. He worked long and hard to do what he loves—from rigging lights to cleaning toilets in the Dulaang UP, to becoming a singer-dancer at the Universal Studios in Singapore, to playing three times a day-five times a week for Mulan in Hongkong, to a six-month stay in New York for a supposed two-year musical theater course, before getting his series of bad-guy roles on television that paid the rent before joining the league of sought-after leading men we see these days.

In Open, Black Sheep’s entry in this year’s Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, Muñoz and Santos play roles of modern-day couples that are in the midst of an experiment—not one born out of curiosity but of necessity. Rome (Muñoz) and Ethan (Santos), albeit in various levels of disarray in their respective lives as adults, reach a rather unorthodox agreement—to give an “open” relationship a try.

Complicated as it sounds, the arrangement simply gives each other a pass to meet other people for the thrill of it, where each encounter is allowed but to remain meaningless. That very freedom came with a price. The set-up, in the long run, proved to be cathartic—opening a deep well of realizations for each of their characters.

Muñoz, in their media rounds to promote the film, opened up about her hesitation to take on the role. “When I read the script, I was surprised because personally, I wouldn’t do it. It was a concept that I have never thought off in my past relationships. If there are problems, I would want it fixed within the relationship,” she shares. “But then as I continued to understand the character I was to play, it’s a measure explored by Rome and Ethan in order to save a relationship, not to destroy it. And so, I realized, upon hearing other people’s stories about this particular kind of set up, it is happening. And it is a story worth telling.”

In a separate interview, when asked about the concept of relationships, including marriage, Santos drew from personal experience to note his leaning for the “ideal”. “Separate parents, so ako naman, I want what’s ideal. To me, isipin mo pa lang, marriage is the most wonderful thing that could happen to you,” he shared.

“But then again, for Ethan and Rome, their relationship has stagnated so much in the course of 14 years, that they needed to find out how they could salvage it without dismissing the years they’ve been together. That kind of dilemma is so difficult and it made playing the character of Ethan more rewarding for me,” Santos continued.

Open runs until September 19, as part of the ongoing 2019 Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino.

Produced and overall direction by Leo Balante
Photography by 
Advan Martin Ramirez
Art Direction by 
Marl Castro
Assisted by 
Dee J Rieza
Photo manipulation by 
Bhernn Saenz

Videography and editing by Jico Umali at QuickFilms
Additional video clips by 
Mark Valido

For Arci Muñoz:
Styling by 
Paris Roxas
Makeup by Ramona Thornes
Hair by Jocelyn So

For Jc Santos:
Styling by Abby Paulino

Special thanks to Austin De Guzman at ABS-CBN Film Productions Inc. (Star Cinema) / Black Sheep