‘He breaks my heart’: Arjo Atayde earns raves for nuanced portrayal of autism

Miguel Dumaual, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 22 2019 08:27 PM

‘He breaks my heart’: Arjo Atayde earns raves for nuanced portrayal of autism 1
Maricel Soriano and Arjo Atayde are first-time co-stars in ‘The General’s Daughter.’ ABS-CBN/Dreamscape

MANILA — Even Maricel Soriano, the “Diamond Star” regarded as one of the finest actresses in local showbiz, can’t help but sing praises for her co-star Arjo Atayde’s portrayal of a young man with autism.

The 28-year-old actor plays Elai, the son of Soriano’s Isabelle, in “The General’s Daughter,” their first acting project together.

“Bihira ako makatrabaho ng napakahusay, ‘yung talagang saludo ako,” Soriano said of Atayde’s performance in the series, which premiered on Monday.

The Dreamscape production debuted to strong ratings and raves among viewers online. It dominated Twitter trends, mostly in relation to lead star Angel Locsin’s long-awaited primetime comeback.

Atayde’s name, too, was among the trending topics. Like Soriano, viewers of “The General’s Daughter” found themselves moved by Atayde’s endearing portrayal of Elai in the pilot episode.

The only child of Isabelle, Elai found the injured Rhian (Locsin) washed ashore in their coastal village of Sto. Francisco. Smitten with the stranger, who appeared to have no memory even of her identity, Elai settled with calling her “Diyosa,” because of her beauty.

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In a scene that touched viewers, Elai’s happy streak was shattered as Rhian volunteered to leave, despite not being fully recovered, after her presence caused unrest among suspicious residents. Realizing he had no control of the situation, Elai quietly retreated to the shore and cried.

Soriano, in a press conference leading up the premiere of “The General’s Daughter,” shared that Atayde’s take on Elai has had an emotional impact on her.

“Sobra akong tinatablan ‘pag umaarte,” she said. “Kasi siya ‘yung anak ko na every time na makita kong umiiyak ang anak ko, he breaks my heart. Totoo. Kaya hindi ko mapigilan ‘yung sarili ko na ‘yung paghanga ko sa kanya, na-bi-verbalize ko talaga.”

Director Manny Palo similarly lauded Atayde for his dedication to the character, which required unique preparation.

“Kasi ‘yung ibang characters, immersion sa mga kampo, training in terms of handling equipment, protocol,” Palo explained, referring to the military milieu of the series.

‘He breaks my heart’: Arjo Atayde earns raves for nuanced portrayal of autism 2
Director Manny Palo (left-most), Arjo Atayde (center, top row), and Maricel Soriano (in blue) pose with the rest of the cast of ‘The General’s Daughter’ after a January 15 press conference. Michael Bagtas, ABS-CBN News

“Pero si Arjo, iba. He comes prepared every day. In character na siya. Minsan nalilito ako which is the real Arjo and ‘yung character niya. Siya talaga ‘yung tumawag sa ’kin asking for pegs. We identified some films, and we contacted people who we can talk to. The next time na nakita ko siya, I saw him already in-character,” the filmmaker said.

A “visual learner,” Atayde said a significant part of his portrayal was drawn from his experience interacting with individuals with autism.

Atayde recalled he had sought Palo’s input on how to mold Elai’s character, leading them to visiting a Quezon City restaurant where “kids who have the same condition as Elai, of the same age, are serving up to a certain time.”

“I observed. I was talking to them. Thankfully the owner was open to the idea,” he told ABS-CBN News.

Also part of his preparation was watching films about behaviors associated with autism. “My assignment to myself, ‘yung pampatulog ko every night, I would watch a lot of videos and I would be just studying the character from head to toe if I can,” he recalled.

The task had been daunting for Atayde, he admitted. On his first day on set as Elai, he was “nearly palpitating” over the pressure of doing justice to the role. 

But going by first-day feedback to “The General’s Daughter,” it appears Atayde achieved just that — a feat he at one point thought “impossible.”