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Paolo Montalban: The other Pinoy star on Broadway

ent1Here for a week-long visit is Paolo Montalban who played Prince Charming to Brandy's Cinderella in the $12-million musical version of the famous fairy tale produced for ABC Television by Whitney Houston (who played the Fairy Godmother). Paolo, 26, also appeared on Broadway as understudy for Lunta and member of the ensemble in the re-staging of The King and I, topbilled by Lou Diamond Philips as the King. And then, Paolo flew to Florida to shoot the action movie Mortal Kombat.

Paolo is as Filipino as adobo, proud of his Filipino heritage unlike some Filipino talents desperately trying to make it in America who pass themselves off as "Latinos" (the nerve, no!?!).

ent1According to a People magazine article, Whitney Houston was impressed the first time she saw Paolo who was the last to show up on the last day of the auditions for Cinderella. "He had to be gorgeous, but he also had to have a heart," was how Houston described the actor they were looking for. Paolo has "it." Much later when she got to know Paolo more, Houston confessed, "We all absolutely adored Paolo. He's gracious and graceful. Strong but tender. He has Cary Grant-like charisma."

When the following Conversation was conducted at the Gourmet's Cafe in Megamall, Paolo was nursing a bad cold, still a bit groggy from jet lag (having flown in from L.A. only two days earlier). But just the same, he was, to quote Houston, "adorable" and engaging, smiling in-between sniffs. He's going back to L.A. tomorrow, hinting that he might come back in March next year... for a movie? Read on.

Is this your first visit here?

"No. The first was in 1993 when I visited my relatives here. I stayed for three weeks. That was even before I started my first acting job."

Is this a pleasure trip or a business trip (to negotiate for a project here, maybe)?

"A little bit of both."

Do you have a lot of relatives left behind?

(Sounding serious, but actually joking) "Fifty thousand!"

That's a lot! Is Ricardo (Montalban, the Hollywood actor) one of them?

(Faintly smiling) "No, he's not."

I remember when you were featured in People magazine as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World last year, it was mentioned in the write-up that you and Ricardo were not related. Were you born here?

"I was born in Metro Manila, in a hospital somewhere in Makati. I was about a year and a half when our family migrated to the States. I grew up in the States with my sister Gloria who recently got married. We're the only two children in the family."

How much of you is Filipino and how much is American?

"Everything of me, from head to foot, is Filipino. I always make it clear in interviews that I am Filipino."

How were you (and your sister) brought up?

"The Filipino way; it's as if we were here. We first went to New York where we lived in a small apartment, near Julliard because that's where my aunt was taking lessons in violin. I've always been a homebody; I didn't go out much. My sister has always been my best friend."

Are your parents (Paul Montalban and Vivian Santos) both into medicine?

"They both started out in chemistry research, in cancer research. They made a lot of money from that. Now they've shifted to computer-programming; they've been in computer-analysis for the past 14 years."

Where did you have your early education?

"In New York where my family migrated in 1974. I enrolled at the Lincoln Square Academy, a school specializing in the arts. When our family moved to New Jersey, I studied at the St. Peter's Prep. By then, I had already mastered the piano and violin, and learned to play the sex, bassoon, flute and piccolo. In 1989 when I was 15, I entered Rutgers University on an academic scholarship."

You started in theater early, didn't you?

"Oh, yes, back in school where I acted in plays. I was in grade school when we did Jesus Christ Superstar. I was only six then and I played Jesus. After that, I didn't do any acting until I was in high school where I did a lot. And then I stopped when I entered college, until I was in my junior year at Rutgers University in New Jersey (where the Montalbans are now staying)."

Did you join any theater group in school?

"There was this cabaret theater with which I did musicals during my junior and senior years."

Did you study theater arts in college?

"No. I was taking up pre-med, but I shifted to a course in psychology during my junior year when I also started attending acting classes and music lessons. Psychology is a big help to an actor like me." (Laughs) "Helps you deal with all the crazy people in theater."

Did you dream of becoming a doctor (that's why you took up pre-med)?

"Yeah. I wanted to be a pediatrician or a cardiologist. Why? I was intrigued by certain human-rights laws. It's important to save a life, you know, and to help nourish a baby when it's so young."

How did you get into mainstream theater after college?

"I signed up with an agent who came to see one of my plays in college. I signed the contract before I graduated. I started working right after school. First, I went on a theater tour put up by the agency. But soon, I was on my own. You know, there comes a time in your life when you want to make decisions of your own, without other people making decisions for you."

What was your first major play?

"The Man of La Mancha which went on a national tour of the United States, covering 49 different states all in all. The producer was Niko Associates. I was 19 then, too young to play the lead role. I played one of the supporting roles. I did various plays after Man of La Mancha, also on tour all over the United States. One of the plays I did was Kiss Me Kate. I did some shows in Malibu and in Florida, before I went back to New York where I auditioned for The King and I. That was in 1996. I was in The King and I until 1997."

Did you audition for a specific role?

"Yeah. For the role of Lunta for which I ended up as an understudy. Auditions were conducted both in New York and Los Angeles and there were, I think, hundreds of us who auditioned. We were asked to sing songs from the musical and read some parts. I played the role of Lunta in another regional theater a year earlier so it was quite familiar to me."

The actor who played the King, Lou Diamond Philips, is part-Filipino.

"Nice guy. He was such a nice guy! He knew that I was a Filipino and we had this big joke among us. You know, that I was technically the tallest Filipino. At 6'1", I'm taller than Lou by a hair."

It must have been a wonderful experience being on Broadway.

"Oh, yeah! It was amazing! There's nothing like doing a show on Broadway. You know what I mean? When not playing Lunta, I was with the ensemble carrying a torch. The first time my Mom saw me on the Broadway stage, she cried and cried. Tears of joy! Even if I was just part of the ensemble carrying a torch."

Have you seen the movie version, the one with Yul Brynner as the King?

"I saw that one and even the one before that, the black-and-white version (with Rex Harrison as the King)."

How soon after that did you audition for Cinderella?

"I was still with The King and I when I auditioned for Cinderella. How did the audition go? Well, as usual. They gave you the music and the sides four days before the audition. You go in and you sing the songs and if they like the way you sing, they ask you to sing with another actress."

How was it working with Brandy and Whitney Houston?

"Oh, fantastic! I was star-struck fo rmuch of the 28-day shoot. I was completely slack-jawed meeting Whitney Houston in person. Whoopi Goldberg wassuch a swonderful person, too. How beautiful it was to look into those eyes so honest and so true!" (In turn, in a magazine interview Brandy described Paolo as "so kind," recalling that when her throat was hurting ,Paolo brought her a whole bag of lozenges. -- RFL)

And then you were chosen one of The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World by People magazine (in distinguished company led by Leonardo DiCaprio).

"My manager told me to call up one of the (People) editors but he didn't tell me what for. The editor was the one who broke the news to me. For the shoot, we went to the Malibu Canyon in L.A. They asked me to pose on top of a horse."

Do you ride horses?

"I do now. I started taking horseback-riding lessons after the People shoot."

You look very Filipino in that photo, especially with your camisa tsino.

(Smiling widely) "Do I? Oh, I'm happy to hear that!"

Are you into sports?

"I try to. I didn't do many sports when I was younger, although I was an avid cyclist. I learned how to play basketball only last year. Why did it take me time to engage in sports? Well, think of New York City and New Jersey. When you're a kid and you go to the basketball court, chances are that a bigger kid will grab your basketball away from you so you'd rather play it safe and stay home."

How do you keep yourself fit?

"I work out regularly. I do weights. I'm not really into a diet but I'm strict with my nutrition. I make sure that I eat a lot of protein."

Back in the States, do you associate with Filipinos?

"Yeah, when I get the chance to. Being an actor, I keep on moving from place to place. You find friends everywhere. I'm pretty comfortable with everybody, though, whether with Americans or with Filipinos or with any other nationalities."

How does your being Filipino show?

"In every way, I guess."

What's your favorite Filipino food?

(Breaks into smile) "Honestly? Turon." (Pronounced with American accent. -- RFL)

Is there anybody else in the Montalban Clan with showbiz inclination? Somebody you must have taken after?

"My aunt. The one who studied at Julliard. She's a concert violinist. Her name is Divina Gracia Montalban, my father's sister. She was some kind of a child prodigy."

It's such a feat for an Asian, specifically a Filipino, like you to have broken into Broadway the way you did.

"Maybe I was just lucky. I just did what I had to do. Positive thinking, you know. Because if you go in thinking, `Oh, God, they'll never hire me because I'm Filipino or whatever,' then you'll never make it. Just be yourself and do your best."

After Cinderella, you went to Florida to shoot for Mortal Combat. Did you have to take up martial-arts lessons for your role (as a martial-artist, what else?)?

"Oh, yeah, I did. I started training (in martial arts) even when I was still doing Cinderella."

After Mortal Combat, what's next?

"There are many projects but I still have to find out if anything's definite as soon as I get back to L.A. where I am now based. Yeah, I'm living by myself; my family (parents) are still in Jersey City. I have to live alone; I can't imagine myself living with somebody."

How did stardom affect you (if it ever did)?

"It's not like it was given to me on a silver platter. I worked my way up the ranks and it's nice to be proud of what you've done, what you have accomplished."

Do you have any role-models, actors that you admire?

"Many. If I say I like one in particular it will be unfair to the others."

What's Paolo Montalban like away from the limelight?

"The same way; not any different from anyone else."

What are your likes and dislikes? Food and films, etc.

"Oh, I really like turon. I love it! I watch all kinds of films."


"Inspirational books and novels. Anne Rice novels are pretty good. Deepak Chopra books are also good. The author I like best is Paulo Coahlo; he's excellent! One of his works is The Alchemist."

Girls. What is it that you first notice in them?

"All parts of a girl's body! Nothing specific. All parts. Girls are beautiful creatures. You know what I mean?"

Do you have a girlfriend?

"I'm dating, but not going steady with anybody."

At home, do they treat you like a star?

"No. Not at all. I help clean the house and do the dishes at home -- whenever I'm home."