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With Pivot to Indie Films, Filipino Actor John Lloyd Cruz Shows Wide Range On Screen

Filipino actor John Lloyd Cruz

John Lloyd Cruz, 33, is the first Filipino and Southeast Asian winner of a Star Asia Award at the New York Asian Film Festival, according to the festival. Valery Perez

When it comes to promoting his work, John Lloyd Cruz takes a more direct approach than most film stars might.

"I walked around New York and practically had to beg my countrymen to watch my movie," Cruz told a crowd at New York City's Walter Reade Theater with a chuckle.

The 33-year-old Filipino actor accepted a Star Asia Award on Saturday at the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) before the New York debut of his 2015 film "Honor Thy Father," a thriller that tackles religious hypocrisy and get-rich-quick schemes in the Philippines.

According to the NYAFF website, the Star Asia Award will be Cruz's first international award. (Cruz is also the first Filipino and Southeast Asian actor to receive the award; the Star Asia Award was also awarded this year to Hong Kong actress Miriam Yeung and South Korean actor Lee Byung-hun.)

But Cruz is no stranger to being on camera. The actor and television personality has appeared in nearly 30 movies and TV dramas since he was 15. As a teenager, he starred in the popular Filipino TV drama "Tabing Ilog," which led to a breakthrough role on the soap opera "Kay Tagal Kang Hinintay," where he first began working with actress and frequent co-star Bea Alonzo.

"We were doing something that was making people happy, so we kept riding it," Cruz told NBC News of his on-screen relationship with Alonzo, who he has worked with for more than 10 years as part of the ABS-CBN network. (In the Philippines, TV networks like ABS-CBN have its talents appear in its TV dramas or variety shows first, which gives them the opportunity later to appear in the TV networks' film outfits.)

The pair's recent film, the 2015 romantic drama "A Second Chance," is one of the highest-grossing Filipino films of all time.

Despite his success in commercial films and productions, Cruz also chose to pursue two independent films in 2015 - one of them being "Honor Thy Father" which Stephen Cremin, NYAFF senior programmer, praised for Cruz's performance in the indie hit.

"Cruz was actually our first choice for this year's Star Asia Awards," Cremin told NBC News. "'Honor Thy Father' captures Cruz at a very interesting moment in his career, when he is changing audience pre-conceptions of him."

In "Honor Thy Father," Cruz sheds his heartthrob image to play a man who turns to a life of crime to pay back debt and keep his family safe from harm. During one pivotal scene, Cruz shaves his head on camera - a move that Cruz denied was a symbol of his transition into more serious films. "I was totally immersed in my character. There was no opportunity to think of it as symbolic [of anything]," he said.

Cruz adds that he plans to accept more mature roles without giving up the roles fans are used to seeing him in. "I have become more personal with my choices," he said. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to stop working for my network, my 'mother studio' [ABS-CBN]. That's just me."

John Lloyd Cruz at the New York Asian Film Festival, July 2, 2016
John Lloyd Cruz at the New York Asian Film Festival, July 2, 2016. Valery Perez

But "statement films" are not an easy task in the Philippines, Cruz said. "Filipinos have a problem facing reality. We've suffered for so long facing the truth," he said. "It's easier for most Filipinos to turn around and not mind the real issues … I really believe ['Honor Thy Father'] mirror the real state of the country. [Religious hypocrisy] is a common [issue] in the Philippines."

Despite the difficulties Cruz outlines, he admits he prefers watching smaller independent films, and he hopes someday to direct a small film - a goal that can be supported by his work in larger commercial films.

For now, "Honor Thy Father" continues to be an award-winning success (last month, Cruz won Best Actor for his role at the Philippines' prestigious Gawad Urian Awards), which Cruz says is part of his journey in an industry he's called home for nearly two decades.

"As an actor, you continue to evolve," he said. "You don't want to limit yourself."

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