Of the Filipinos who have made their mark in Hollywood, some of the most prominent, influential — and overlooked — are those on the other side of the camera. We have Lea Salonga, Jon Jon Briones, Jo Koy and the other actors onscreen, but we also have scores of cinematographers, composers, animation artists, and other behind-the-scenes luminaries.
Ruben Nepales is a familiar name for Smile readers: He’s been doing our Hollywood interviews for years, and photographing A-listers in hundreds of press events. Based in Los Angeles with his wife, Janet (also an entertainment journalist), Ruben is a prominent figure in the industry — the first Filipino to become a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, he was elected to head the board of the HFPA in 2012, and to the position of executive secretary in 2019. (You might know the HFPA from a little show they put on, called the Golden Globes).
Ruben has won honors from the National Entertainment Journalism Awards and the Southern California Journalism Awards, both presented by the Los Angeles Press Club. His first book, My Filipino Connection: The Philippines in Hollywood, published in 2012, won in the Print Journalism – Book category of the Migration Advocacy and Media Awards, presented by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.
Ruben’s long-awaited follow-up is now out: Through a Writer’s Lens is an impressive coffee-table book that collects about one thousand photographs of Hollywood luminaries accompanied by quotes from 241 interviews — including those from Smile.
To celebrate, we’ve turned the tables on the talented and tireless interviewer, and had him be on the answering side of a Q&A for once.
Q: How long have you been in the (show) business? How did you end up doing what you do?
It seems like since Charlie Chaplin’s days! It feels like I’ve been writing about show business that long. In the late 70s, I was contributing entertainment pieces, including cover stories, to Manila’s leading newspapers and magazines.
That was my side gig – my main job was as a publicity writer, first for Vicor Music Corporation (I first saw Sharon Cuneta, in her St. Paul grade school uniform, eating her late lunch in Vicor’s Cubao office). Then as the publicity manager for the Philippine franchise of WEA (Warner Elektra Atlantic). I saw Mick Fleetwood suddenly walk into WEA’s Binondo office, unannounced! That was surreal. I mean, who’d expect the cofounder of Fleetwood Mac to show up in this dingy office building in front of Santa Cruz Church?
Q: A Cebu Pacific flight attendant once told us, “The guy who does your Hollywood interviews must have the best job in the world.” That’s probably true, but you also put in a lot of hard work. Tell us about the parts that your readers don’t see.
Many people have told me that in their next life, they want to be Ruben Nepales. They’ve offered to carry my computer bag, coffee, camera bag, anything to be able to join me in my interviews. I feel very blessed and do not take all this for granted.
But what people didn’t see were my struggling years as an immigrant in the States, having to start all over again. From having a good career in Manila to being a virtual nobody in America. The constant rejection in my job searches because I didn’t have a “local” experience.
There’s the night shift job I toiled which required me to commute by bus at midnight in the dead of the winter and walk through dangerous (back then) parts of downtown Los Angeles. All the hard work, the determination, the discipline to get to where I am now.
Q: You and your wife, Janet, have always championed Asian performers in Hollywood. Would you say that Asian-American representation has improved over the years?
Asian-American presence in Hollywood has definitely progressed. But we’re a long way from getting where we want to be. What we need are Asians in crucial key positions — writers, producers, directors and studio heads — to greenlight projects that reflect our voices, our talents, our experiences.
Q. I’m sure your readers have always wondered — which actors or actresses are great interviewees?
Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Hugh Jackman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Sandra Oh and Will Smith — as in their screen performances, they are great storytellers in person as well. They genuinely connect with you as a human being. They are focused on you in that interview.
I miss the late Robin Williams, who gave a virtual one-man show for you at interviews. It was like being the sole witness to his hilarious anecdotes – complete with his genius imitations of voices and impersonations of various personalities that he was telling me stories about.
Q: Are there any memorable interviews that stand out for one reason or another?
Barbra Streisand brought her own photographer and lighting — she knows her angle. And the late Carrie Fisher was a hoot! Princess Leia was very, very naughty!
One actor walked out of the interview and came back about 10 minutes later. This actor has since matured considerably and become a much more engaged interviewee.
Q: You’ve put out a huge book of celebrity photos from over the years. Are there any favorites in there that readers should look out for?
Meryl Streep’s playful shots are priceless. It’s rare to see the world’s greatest living actress captured in these very relaxed moments. Another great actress, Judi Dench, throwing her head back in laughter — that’s pure, unadulterated joy caught by my lens.
Jack Black stripping down to his striped boxers — what can be more unexpected than that? The Crown star and creator, respectively — Olivia Colman and Peter Morgan — making un-royal, funny faces for my camera.
Esteemed French actress Isabelle Huppert and Brillante Mendoza dancing in his Mandaluyong home. Speaking of surreal, in one of my visits home, I walked into The Captive wrap party and found Huppert dancing to the Filipino novelty song, “Spaghetti Song,” with gusto. That is one of my favorite photos in the book.
The pairings or combinations of stars on opposite pages by Bessie Badilla, my publisher who was also the art director and layout artist, are tantalizing. Even I was fascinated by the unexpected connections that resulted from Bessie’s pairings of the celebrities in each spread.
Q: What have you learned from being around celebrities?
The biggest stars tend to be the most down-to-earth, charismatic and engaged. I guess those are precisely the qualities that helped them rise to the top – the natural empathy and the charm made them win fans along the way.
The most successful talents are comfortable answering my questions even as I am taking their photos. They are relaxed in their own skin and completely trust me and my lens.
To find more information on Through a Writer’s Lens, or to order a copy of the hardbound, limited-edition coffee-table book, visit facebook.com/ThroughaWritersLens
Photograph of Ruben Nepales with his book by Janet Nepales