Liza Soberano gamely lets us in on a secret: Romantic comedies aren’t actually her thing. The 25-year-old star of Just the Way You Are, My Ex and Whys, and Make It With You—all hits in the Philippines she fronted—has established her acting career portraying the love-interest leading lady, among other roles. But the real Soberano would much prefer to watch horror flicks or psychological thrillers.
Romance is big business in the Philippines, and it is what catapulted Soberano to prominence at age 16, in the lead role of the spunky strawberry farmer Agnes in the 148-episode television series Forevermore. The series went on to achieve a national TV viewership of 39.3 per cent for its finale, launch the popularity of Soberano and her co-star Enrique Gil—from then on known collectively as the on-screen duo LizQuen—and establish her as one of the country’s top young talents.
Soberano is among the most followed Filipino actors on Instagram and one half of the Philippines’ most admired “love teams”—acting partnerships publicly portrayed and perceived as potential romantic couples—and the Filipino-American actor is now on her journey to explore new avenues of expressing her creativity, artistry and ambition. From Star Magic, the biggest talent agency under the Philippine media powerhouse ABS-CBN Corporation, she moved to the startup management agency Careless Music last June, and is now splitting her time between the Philippines and the US to pursue a wider variety of acting opportunities.
Her first foray into Hollywood, the horror comedy Lisa Frankenstein—what she describes as “one of the best filming experiences of my life”—is currently in post-production, and the film directed by Zelda Williams and co-starring Cole Sprouse and Kathryn Newton could be released as soon as the second half of this year. And she has bold dreams of directing and producing in the future, telling heartfelt stories of overcoming personal struggles to audiences, and eventually building her own company.
Though Soberano has proven herself a ratings and box-office draw in the Philippines over her acting career spanning 13 years and counting, heading to Hollywood has landed her in the role of a rookie again, but the benefit of hindsight and experience is giving her a new lens through which to perceive this phase of her life. “I feel like I’m getting a second chance at introducing myself as an actress,” she says via video call from Manila. While there’s still a lot on the line, this time around, the pressure to consider her every move has eased ever so slightly, and in its stead she’s relishing the experience of working on a film set where she was awed by feeling “like a small piece of a very big puzzle.”
“I’m just allowing myself as an artist to feel, to enjoy the process, to explore, to try things out that I would never have dared to try out when I was building my career in the Philippines,” she adds. “This time, I’m a lot braver and more self-aware, so I’m able to make decisions or take on projects that people would’ve never imagined me doing.”
Even before the Covid pandemic hit, Soberano was beginning to recognise the growing rift between her aspiration and the track she had been on for close to a decade, and her yearning for change. Once lockdowns and movement restrictions hit, the floodgates opened. “There was no clear goal; I had no idea what I was building towards. I wasn’t practicing my craft anymore—I was on auto-pilot,” she recounts. “I realised how easy it was to forget my personal goals and visions for myself when things got busy. I got stuck in the routine of doing things because that was what I thought people expected of me. I wasn’t fulfilled: I forgot to do things that make me happy and what I was working so hard for.”
But Soberano came up against the weight of public opinion when she published her reflections through a 14-minute vlog titled “This Is Me” on her YouTube channel late this February, detailing her thoughts on her life up till then, her pursuit of a new direction, and “a career that in many ways wasn’t mine.” Even though she emphasised in the same clip that “this is not a story of bitterness or regret…it’s a story about growth and gratitude,” critics reacted to her way of communicating her reasons for wanting a change, framing it as being ungrateful to her former management and for past opportunities. And even though she has been a public figure since her early teens, it didn’t make Soberano impervious to the blowback that ensued, from flagellation by social media, to articles stitching together the reaction comments of her longtime manager and ABS-CBN corporate executives, to a flood of internet hot takes on “utang na loob”, the Filipino value that encompasses a debt of gratitude, reciprocity, and a sense of obligation.
Soberano knows her words carry weight. Even though she doesn’t shy away from speaking about what transpired, there’s a palpable tinge of wariness that slips out every now and then from underneath her upbeat and personable manner. “I’m getting lost with my words. I’m scared of speaking now, because I feel like everything I say becomes misconstrued and the narrative changes,” she admits, a little uneasy with how she is making her point. “When people started taking my message the wrong way, that started making me question myself, even.”
Taking time off to reconnect with herself and her family—“I needed affirmation that what I was doing wasn’t wrong,” she explains—Soberano got the assurance that built her back up. “This is who I am. I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes. I never said anything bad about anyone. I would never intentionally try to hurt anyone,” she says.
“I’m not gonna let the noise affect me anymore.”
There’s been plenty written about parasocial celebrity relationships by now, and Soberano has experienced firsthand how they can influence an actor’s potential and creative choices, from the types of projects they sign on for, to the co-stars they work with. “For some reason, I think people forget that celebrities are human beings, just like everyone else—we constantly change and grow. When fans express their disappointment in their idols, no matter how much we like to say it doesn’t affect us, it does,” she says. “What they don’t realise is that by [projecting these expectations on celebrities], they’re not allowing space for the artist or their talent to grow. It scares us to experiment with our artistry.”
Growth is what Soberano seeks. The Filipino audience loves love: the only two domestic movies that have grossed more than 800 million pesos (S$19.1 million) are both romance dramas. “As a society, I think all Filipinos are kind of hopeless romantics,” she quips with a smile. Her oeuvre so far has predominantly been a permutation of romance, comedy or drama—and in some instances, all three genres. But she’s looking beyond those, and Lisa Frankenstein is just the latest expression of that intent and interest. Recalling her childhood in her grandparents’ home in California, Soberano discovered Kill Bill and Final Destination at a time when the family television’s parental control settings restricted it to screening Cartoon Network, Disney and Nickelodeon. “There was an appeal, especially with Kill Bill since the protagonist is a female character and she’s portrayed as this badass woman,” Soberano shares. “I think that’s what drew me in. I’m really into stories that have strong female leads who aren’t confined to gender stereotypes.”
Her inspirations today include the American actresses Zendaya and Angelina Jolie, whom she looks up to for their versatility, their savvy with selecting roles and projects, and their prowess as producers. Like Jolie, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Soberano is dedicated to humanitarian causes and advocacy: since April 2021 she has been the Philippines ambassador of Save the Children, which she has supported by lobbying for the passage of the Raising the Age of Sexual Consent law, and participating in the #SaveTheChildrenFromHunger fundraising campaign. Amplifying her visibility beyond the Philippines, she has also made trips over the past year to South Korea, where she filmed an interview at Dive Studios, made a guest appearance on the variety programme Not Hocance But Scance, and shot TikTok dance videos with members of the K-pop groups IVE, Winner and iKON. But she’s still focused on making the most of her acting career, before possibly trying her hand at other roles in the industry.
What would a career and a life that Soberano gets to completely control look like? “I’m still working towards it, but where I’m at right now is exactly where I want to be in this season of my life,” she replies. Her decisions in the past were determined by how they would affect the people around her and the people looking up to her, she shares, and less by the impact on herself. Now, it’s a different story. “I’m the architect and I get to build that plan. My life is mine, and I’m living it for myself now.”
Photographer BJ PASCUAL
Stylist PERRY TABORA
Hair RAYMOND SANTIAGO
Makeup ROBBIE PIÑERA
Producer KIMI FELICES
Set design JUSTINE BUMANLAG
Stylist’s assistant KRIS DELEON
Production assistants CLARK MANCAO, JUSTIN SOBERANO
Set designer’s assistant ELAINE BOBADILLA
On set assistants JONEL NAVARRO and JR NALA
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