On going back to what you love
On going back to what you love
Words: JB Tadena
Photos: Leslie Alejandro
Styling: Kimmy Erin Kertes
Grooming: Becca Yribe using Make Up Forever
Photo assistant: Alexis Negrete
It's a strange thing. This idea that your life can begin while you are, in all likelihood, halfway through your existence on this planet. You think you have so much figured out and that you truly know yourself, only to discover that you really know nothing at all. It’s terrifying—but also exciting and beautiful. As cliché as it may sound, once my life shifted in the direction that spoke true to me, my heart and mind opened to the eventual tough and positive changes that abound. I've found myself trying to find the beauty in the proverbial "moment". It's led me to appreciate all the experiences that have formed me up to this point and, honestly, to just take everything one day at a time.
My early life wasn't quite the harrowing past. In fact, I very much enjoyed my childhood. I'm the son of two Filipino immigrants who worked to the bone so I could have an enjoyable life. We weren't rich. Our vacations consisted of double movie headers on Saturdays at the Merrifield Multiplex Cinemas in Fairfax, VA with a heavy dose of arcade gaming followed by a family feast at Taco Bell. The $2.99 new release movie day at Blockbuster was the best. Gradually, I developed a love for film, and those were some of the most memorable times in my life.
Another thing that remained memorable was when my parents told me that pursuing any creative or artistic career was absolutely not in the cards for a happy life. At the time, I didn't make too much of it, but the fact that it's a vivid memory means that it left an indelible impression. Thus began the path most of us in the Asian-American community take—the one to make our parents proud. In a way, we do the things we do for validation from our families while knowing that what they want for us is the means to take care of ourselves as adults. So naturally, I pushed forward.
I still had creative endeavors as I grew up. Surprise, surprise, I played the piano. When my mom got me a load of Spider-Man comics and books of Jim Lee's spectacular X-Men run, I started to draw comic book characters. I even joined my high school show choir called Touch of Class. So I wasn't devoid of the arts. Although the hopes of being discovered somehow existed in the back of my mind, I knew that it was not in the cards to do any of them as a living.
And as time went on, I eventually settled into a comfortable gig as a Satellite Systems Engineer. It was fine. Money was good and I was constantly around my family. To complain about living a good life with a decent job just didn't feel right. I should be grateful to have this opportunity—and I was—except I wasn't happy. We all know the feeling. And it's a very real and valid feeling.
A few years into engineering felt like waiting to die, interlaced with some good times. I desperately needed to find something that, as Marie Kondo would say, “sparked joy” in my life. That’s when I found theater. Washington, D.C. has a wonderful theater scene, and I made my way through the conservatory program at the Studio Theatre (now Studio Acting Conservatory). Eventually, this led to me working as a satellite engineer during the day and moonlighting as an actor in the DC theater scene. I wondered to myself if I had found the formula to a happy life.
Despite not loving my day job, I enjoyed working as a theater actor in DC. However, the amount of time and stress involved in doing both consistently started to wear on the body. Work 9-to-5, drive in traffic to DC for rehearsals until 11 pm or midnight. Rinse and repeat. Although it became unsustainable after a while, I was willing to do it to fulfill what my soul needed.
And then my father got sick.
When Dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer, my focus shifted to my family. I continued working as an actor, but less consistently. Life is short, and this life event helped me take note of the little things.
One morning, my father lost his ability to walk. Cancer had metastasized and spread to his spine. I carried him from my parents’ bedroom to the car, so my mom could take him to the hospital. I can remember the look on his face as they drove away. As much as you want to believe that miracles can happen, this was the beginning of the end.
After work that day, I went straight to the hospital to see him. My sister and her husband were there, and their faces told the entire story. When my dad saw me, he called me over to his bedside. I moved close to his face, knowing he wanted to tell me something. My dad told me he knew how much I loved acting and that I should pursue my dream. Life is too short, and I shouldn't resent him or my mom. So in the end, more so than financial security, my father wanted me to live my life the way I wanted to. Seeing such a change in his worldview was a profound moment.
It's incredibly bittersweet. The idea that my dad's death was the catalyst for me moving to Los Angeles. Would I be here if he hadn't passed? It's an impossible question, but it's also why I'm not regretful of all the events that have helped shape me. That is why I'm passionate about doing the absolute best work I can while I'm here.
The pursuit of my dream had its natural ebbs and flows. As artists, when things are going well, you're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. When things aren't going so well, it can be full of despair, and you think, “did I just make the biggest mistake of my life?” Maybe? I don't know. But if your heart is pure and you really love it, all you really can do is your best and hope things work out. I know I've been given this incredible opportunity. Regardless of the ups and downs I’ve experienced, I wouldn’t change a single thing about my life.