LOS ANGELES – A child actor whose great-grandparents came to the United States from the Philippines in the early 1900s stars in “Bless Me, Ultima,” film adaptation of a novel regarded as the most influential contemporary Chicano fiction work. Luke Ganalon, who said that his paternal great-grandfather is an Ilocano, plays Antonio Marez, a central character in the book by Rudofo Anaya—the father of Chicano literature in English.
The 12-year-old actor, who has appeared in TV commercials and shows, said that he ran through their house screaming when he learned that he had landed the role. Anaya co-wrote with director Carl Franklin the adaptation of the controversial story set during World War II in New Mexico, which portrays the relationship between a young boy (Antonio) and Ultima (played by Miriam Colon), a mysterious healer or curandera who cures with herbs and magic and comes to live with his family. Under Ultima’s wing, Antonio awakens to the concepts of spirituality, divinity and fate, and grapples with the eternal battle between good and evil in his village.
Already singing and dancing even as a toddler, Luke has YouTube videos showing him crooning tunes of Fil-Am Bruno Mars. He also loves Legaci, the Fil-Am R&B band, and roots for boxing champ Manny Pacquiao.
He has been described as an “old soul,” and Luke indeed sounds like one. He’s already talking about becoming a director someday so we were amused when he mentioned that he enjoyed learning about “setting up a scene” and “scene continuity” from director Franklin.
He is looking forward to the showing of “Bless Me, Ultima,” which opens in the United States on Feb. 22. This young boy is busy— he’s also starring in a psycho-thriller, “Model Home,” and no less than Eva Longoria directs him in her short film, “Out of the Blue” (she also acts in it), part of Ron Howard and Canon USA’s Project Imaginat10n.
Below are excerpts from our email interview with Luke:
The novel is usually read in middle and high schools and college but maybe you’ve read it to prepare for the movie. If you have, what did you think about it?
The book is great! I think people can relate to the story because of its themes on questions about religion, family and life. Many people have a person in life who helps guide them like Ultima. Also, “Bless Me, Ultima” took place during WWII and today, Americans can relate to a shared experience from being at war.
How many auditions did you go through?
I auditioned twice each for Antonio and for Cico (another child character). And then I read a fifth time as Cico in front of the producers. Then I found out later that I had been hired as Antonio.
Who told you the good news that you got the big role?
We heard through a phone call from my agent. I was so excited. I ran through the house screaming!
Can you or your mom or dad tell me about the Filipino side of your family?
My great-grandmother (dad’s maternal grandmother) is from the Philippines. She moved to America in the 1900s. She had 14 kids, including my grandmother (Dad’s mom). My great grandmother’s oldest son (Felixberto Serrano) was the only child to live in the Philippines, and he lived in Quezon City. Some of his children and grandchildren may still be living there.
My great-grandpa (dad’s paternal grandfather) is Ilocano. He came to America and served in the US Navy aboard the USS Nevada. My dad and his parents were born in California.
Have you been to the Philippines?
I haven’t, but I’d like to go someday. My dad was there when he was only seven years old. He has told me what he remembers.
Has your family told you that there’s quite a number of curanderas—we call them herbolarios—in the Philippines?
No, I wasn’t aware of that, but it is interesting to know.
How many siblings do you have?
I have two brothers—Shane, 20, and Miles, 10.
In what ways are you like your character, Antonio? And in what ways are you different from him?
We’re alike: We both believe in God; have questions about life and religion; strive to do well in school. We have similar personality traits: We are both serious and thinkers. Antonio is an old soul, and I’ve been described as being an old soul.
We’re different: I haven’t experienced what Antonio did—he witnessed five deaths, including three murders and the death of two close friends.
What did you enjoy best about shooting on location in New Mexico?
New Mexico is beautiful! I loved the food; it is amazing! I liked the art and jewelry. I liked the landscapes and the tourist attractions.
What were the hardest to do in your scenes?
One of the hardest parts was doing the scenes with my gang in the movie (Abel, Horse, Bones, Florence and Ernie) and not being able to laugh; having to stay in character and in the moment of the scene.
Did you meet the writer of the novel, Rudolfo Anaya?
Yes, we met on the set when we were filming at Garson Studios in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We talked about the story. Señor Anaya gave me a great compliment. He said when he wrote the story, he imagined Antonio to be just like me. That was a huge compliment! When we spoke at the film’s second showing in Santa Fe (the first was in El Paso, Texas), Señor Anaya mentioned that he hoped the film will get to Hollywood and make it!
What did Rudolfo tell you about your performance after watching the film?
We never spoke about my performance. But I do remember him saying that when he wrote it with Carl Franklin, he knew it was going to be good. Overall, he likes the film.
What was your own reaction when you watched the film?
It’s crazy and I feel like pinching myself, seeing myself on screen and it’s not a dream. It was fun. I enjoyed it! At the premieres in El Paso and Santa Fe, the audiences were cheering during the movie, like when Tenorio (the bad guy) died, they cheered.
Who is the curandera (your mentor and protector) in your own life?
My parents and grandparents, who give me a lot of advice and support.
I enjoyed watching your videos where you sing several songs, including “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars (who is part Filipino), and dance. What do you like best about singing and dancing?
I can’t live without music, really. I go around the house singing and dancing.
What is your earliest memory of performing?
I remember getting a toy guitar and singing along with The Wiggles when I was about two or three years old. I wore sunglasses.
What made you want to sing, dance and act?
I love singing and dancing. I like the escape of it and it’s fun! I remember being about five years old, watching movies, and thinking that one day someone would pick me up in an airplane, and take me to film a movie or TV show.
You are also starring in a thriller, “Model Home.” What do you play? How scary is this film?
I play the son of a bipolar single mother, and I take care of her; making her take her pills. The film will be very scary and creepy. My mother in the movie goes crazy, gets violent and commits murder. There are many heart-stopping events, one after the other.
If you still go to a regular school, what do you like best about it?
I go to a regular public school. I like school because of my friends, great teachers, counselor and staff.
What do you remember best about working with the late Ernest Borgnine in “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez”?
It was an honor to meet him. I told him that my grandpa enjoyed his work and liked him. And I got to take photos with him. My dad showed me a clip of Mr. Borgnine’s acting in “Marty,” for which he won an Oscar for best actor. I asked Mr. Borgnine what it was like to be in “Marty,” and he said, “I was Marty!” I told him someday I hope to be nominated for an Oscar like him. Mr. Borgnine told me, “Luke, don’t hope for a nomination, hope for a win! Work that hard!”
Who among those you’ve worked with—actors, directors and so on—gave you the best tips or ideas about acting?
I learned so much from everyone, especially Carl Franklin (director), Benito Martinez and Miriam Colon (fellow cast members). I learned much about the technical aspects of filming: Using the camera, setting up a scene, lighting and scene continuity.
This was my first major dramatic role so I learned a great deal of acting techniques—how to prepare for a scene and practice reading scripts.
Which do you like to do more—sing or act?
I like both, but I prefer acting. I also hope to be a director, aside from being a singer and actor.
Among the actors, who do you like to watch the most? And among the singers, who do you listen to often?
Among the actors: I like Will Smith, because he’s a great actor, and he is a good businessman and family man; Leonardo DiCaprio: great actor; Eva Longoria: great director and actress.
Singers: I listen to Bruno Mars. I have a lot of respect for Brian McKnight—he’s amazing! Maroon 5: I like their music.
Are you aware of any performers—singers or actors—in the Philippines?
No, I’m not familiar with any, but I do follow Manny Pacquiao, and the Filipino group Legaci, which is from California.
Is performing something that you’d still like to do when you grow up?
Yes, I’d like to act, sing, dance and direct.
So far, in your early but very promising career as a performer, can you tell me what were the best breaks, events, or opportunities that you’ve experienced or received?
“Bless Me, Ultima”: Getting the role of Antonio.
“Out of the Blue”: A project directed by Eva Longoria, who is also the lead actress, as part of Canon’s Project Imaginat10n, and executive produced by Ron Howard.
“Model Home”: Getting one of the starring roles as Jaime. Another big break was my very first audition. My parents told me that on my first year of auditions, I would get good auditioning experience, but not likely get the jobs. They said it would take a long time to get my first job. Then, on my very first audition ever, I got the job for a national commercial.
Whose career would you like yours to be like?
The three actors I mentioned earlier, and Carl Franklin. He was an actor, and he is a great writer and director. It was easy to work with him since he was a former actor. He understood how to direct actors.
(Email the columnist at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)