Over the past 16 years, independent film viewers have seen veteran actor Soliman Cruz portray a wide range of unforgettable characters onscreen.
He was a crook and loving father to a teenage gay son in “Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros.” He was a worthless womanizer in “Iska.” He was a lonely, middle-aged widow with lustful desires in “Gusto Kita with All my Hypothalamus.” He was an oppressed worker in the film “Manila Skies.” In Lav Diaz’s epic, “Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan,” he exemplified vileness by playing a convict who liked to terrorize his fellow prisoners.
In more mainstream productions, viewers will surely remember him as PNP Chief Alejandro Tarante in “Ang Probinsyano,” as Judy Ann Santos’ flawed but endearing father in “Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo,” or as Aga Muhlach’s best friend in “Miracle in Cell No. 7.”
In all his years as an actor, Soliman—Sol to friends and coworkers—has always been part of an ensemble, holding his own among a bunch of veterans or younger stars. But now at 58, he is finally lead character, and in an international picture, no less. Sol was recently handpicked to play the lead in the psychological thriller “To the North,” which is being shot in Romania as we speak.
The film is helmed by Romanian film director, Mihai Mincan, who is known for the documentary features “Emigrant Blues” and “The Man Who Would Be Free,” which both earned nominations in his home country’s Gopo Awards. “Graduate sya ng pilosopiya, aral sa literatura. Intelektwal na tao at saka bata pa,” Cruz tells ANCX from his hotel room in Bucharest.
According to Cine Europa, “To the North” is one of Romania’s biggest co-production efforts to date. Four other countries are helping to make this film happen—Greece, France, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. Playing significant roles in the film are two other Filipino talents—Bart Guingona, and Noel Sto. Domingo.
Sol arrived in Romania on March 17 and had since been in the thick of rehearsals and shoots. Rehearsals for a week at the hotel, then rehearsals again on the shoot location —a shipping vessel in Constanța)—before finally starting to film.
First shooting day was physically challenging. There were scenes where he had to cross a long hallway of a ship numerous times. “Merong isang eksena umabot ng 16 takes,” he shares. He also had to adjust to the freezing temperature by wearing thick layers of clothing.
In this film, Cruz plays a religious Filipino sailor working in a transatlantic vessel. He’s a bosun, or the officer-in-charge of the vessel’s crew. The story unravels when he meets Dumitru, a young Romanian stowaway, portrayed by German-Romanian actor Niko Becker. Moved by the sight of the young man clutching a Bible, Cruz decides to find a way to save the young man’s life.
“Pinahalagahan nya ang paggawa ng mabuti at paniniwala sa Diyos, hindi na nya inisip ang mga pwedeng mangyari sa mga kasamahan nyang seaman,” Cruz says about his character. “Na pag natuklasan yung stowaway na yun, unang-una, mawawalan kami ng trabaho, pangalawa magkakaroon kami ng kaso. Kaya pag may natutuklasang stowaway sa barko, hindi na pinaparating sa port—kundi itinatapon nila sa dagat para wala ng usapin.”
In an article published on Cine Europa, Mincan, who also wrote the screenplay, shares that the film is inspired by a true-to-life event that took place in 1996, involving a Filipino sailor on a Taiwanese container ship and an Eastern European stowaway. He also based it on the experience of his own cousins who illegally sailed to the United States on board a similar ship. “He told me that the huge fear he felt at that time, the fear of being discovered and thrown into the ocean, transformed him into someone completely different, sort of a human beast, ready to renounce all his moral values for one single purpose: survival,” says the director.
Four years in the making
It took four years before the Romanian production finally started filming “To the North.” It was through Lav Diaz’s four-hour epic “Norte” (2013) that Mincan took notice of Cruz’s acting chops. Mincan is a big fan of Diaz’s work, notes Cruz.
“Nung nakita nya ako sa pelikula ni Lav Diaz, sinabi nya sa producer, ‘this is the guy I want to portray the role,’” says Cruz. They had Zoom meetings to discuss the material. But the project was pushed back as Mincan’s team had to plan and make arrangements with their co-producers. The pandemic delayed production even more.
Despite all the delays, “Hindi sila bumitaw sa akin,” Cruz tells ANCX. So one can just imagine how everyone felt when he wasn’t able to catch his initial flight to Romania last March 15 due to visa problems.
In an interview with PEP, Sol said the film’s producer had to call the airline officer, the embassy, the border patrol in Romania. “Pagdating ko sa immigration, dalawang beses ako na ininterbyu... Grabeng stress, tumaas na yung boses ko,” admits Cruz.
“Nung dumating na ako sa hotel at nakita ko ang director, talagang masayang-masaya kami, nagyakapan kami ng mahigpit,” recalls Sol.
Cruz is happy to note that the Romanian production have been very pleased with the performances of the Filipino talents. “Natutuwa sila kasi mabilis ang shoot kapag eksena na namin. Mabilis kami mag-memorize,” he shares.
When the director asked them how they’re able to memorize their lines so fast, Cruz told him it’s because of their experience in doing teleseryes in their home country. “[Dito kasi sa Pilipinas] ibibigay sa iyo ang script two days before. Tapos pagdating mo dun, dapat three takes lang. Pag lumampas na dun nagiging cause of delay ka na. Kapag naka five takes ka, hindi ka na kukunin sa susunod,” Sol says with a soft chuckle.
How did he memorize his Spanish lines so quickly? “Ang Espanyol kasi nila parang Chavacano. So ang ginawa ko, binigkas ko muna [ang mga lines] para alam ko ang tunog. Along the way, nalalaman ko na din ibig sabihin ng mga salitang ito kahit hindi nagtatanong,” the actor explains.
Sol says he didn’t need to make any extraordinary adjustments just because it’s a foreign production. “Kung paano ka nagtatrabaho sa ating bansa, ganun dun,” he adds. “Kasi kung iisipin mo na ito ay international production, magiging iba ang pakikipagkapwa mo. Kaya kung sino ako, yun lang ang ibinibigay ko.” He is as friendly there as he was in film sets here. “Nakikipagkapwa ako sa mga crew, nakikipag-biruan, nagpapasaya bago ako pupunta sa cabin kasi doon ang aming waiting area. Then doon ako magfo-focus sa gagawin ko.”
They work 12 hours a day, six days a week. Observing Covid-safety protocols, the production team works in a bubble, and they do swab tests twice a week (Monday and Thursday). Everyone’s call time is 8AM and work lasts until 8PM. But Cruz had requested to be brought to the shoot location as early as 6AM so he can make his necessary preparations and warm-ups.
He tells ANCX he’s actually done shooting his scenes in Romania and is just waiting for their trip to Greece by end of April. “Dire-diretso ako for two weeks and two days. Ngayon pahinga ako,” he shares in our interview which took place on a Saturday. He returns to the Philippines in June.
Cruz’s versatility and adaptability are products of decades of training. He started acting when he was in Grace 5. His teacher recommended him to study at the Philippine High School for the Arts where he got trained by respected Ateneo drama teacher and screenwriter Dr. Onofre Pagsanghan.
What followed was an apprenticeship at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, first as a propman and later on as an assistant stage manager. He eventually joined Bulwagang Gantimpala, where he got to perform in numerous stage plays.
It was the award-winning “Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Olivares” (2005) that opened doors to more acting projects.
He feels blessed that there are people who never cease to believe in him, never gave up on him, especially when he was at his lowest. Cruz has been open about his dark past—his struggle with drug use. For a year, he wandered the streets of Roxas Boulevard, or what he jokingly refers to as “Seabreeze Condominium,” finding rest in its cold pavements.
“Yung struggle ko, winawasak niya ako,” he admitted in an interview with PEP. “Yung pagiging homeless ko noon, it was drug-induced. Grabe yung hirap noon ng mga tao na nakapaligid sa akin,” he recalled.
That episode in his life was an eye-opener—he realized he could look at life as either a glass that’s half empty or half full. “Nung pinili kong mabuhay sa Roxas Boulevard, wala akong nakitang tao na iniiyakan ang kahirapan e. Wala akong nakitang malungkot sa kanila. Humahanap sila ng katatawanan sa mga bagay na nagaganap sa buhay nila. Hindi sila melodramatic,” he says. “Dahil mainit sa eskinita kung saan sila nakatira, lumalabas sila. Doon na sila [sa seawall] natutulog. Kinabukasan gagawa sila ng diskarte—mamumulot ng mga basurang ipagbibili nila...Tinitingnan ko yun as poverty, pero hindi pala. Ang poverty pala ay minimalism. Nabubuhay sila ayon sa kanilang kakayahan at pangangailangan.”
Through the help of well-meaning friends, Sol underwent rehab and has been sober for years now. He would always look back at that experience as a lesson to not wallow in failure and self-pity. “Nakatulong sya sa aking pagkatao—hindi na ako nagiging emosyonal sa mga kaganapang hindi ko inaasahan. Hindi na ako nalulugmok sa isang pangyayari na kaya ko palang solusyunan,” he says.
Before he left for Romania, once in a while, Sol would find himself back in Roxas Boulevard, having a cup of coffee by the sea wall. He remains friends with some of the people there. And while they are happy to see him visit, they are much happier to see him go. “Pag nakikita nila akong tumatambay doon, ayaw nila akong magtagal,” he says, laughing. “So dadaan lang ako doon, magkakape, tapos maglalakad na lang uli ako pauwi.”
At 58, the man is starting to dream again, but he’s also planning his retirement. He says he’s looking forward to finally going to college, and eventually teach children’s theater. “Ang pangarap ko, pag dumating na ako sa edad na 65, doon na ako mamamalagi sa Silliman University,” Sol says. “Makapag-kolehiyo, mag-masteral. Kung gusto ng mga anak kong sumama sa akin sa Siliman, okey lang,” he says.
But in the meantime, he’s in a hotel room more than 5,000 miles away from home. He admits to homesickness but there’s work to be done. He’s thankful for this chance.“Nararamdaman ko ang paniniwala nila sa aking kakayahan,” Sol offers. “Ibig sabihin, itong ilang dekada ko sa pagganap…tingin ko, I’m on the right track.”