Be it the sight of an old man sitting on a bench, a beautiful lady passing by, or a carefree child playing in the rain, international theater actor Rufino “Junix” Inocian Jr. will always stop in his tracks and take time to marvel at the human behavior.
According to the proudly Filipino thespian, who made waves in London’s West End as the Engineer in the original cast of Miss Saigon, this profound interest he has in people has greatly helped him in pursuing his passion for acting. How he is able to breathe life onstage to a character from the mere words from a script and in doing so, affect the audience in a journey of emotions.
“The show is not about you [the actor]; it’s about making the audience believe that the role you play is you,” said Inoxian in one of his alma mater Silliman University’s “Albert Faurot Lecture Series,” where his talk was fittingly titled “Junix Inocian on Life in the Theater.”
It was at this quaint university town in Dumaguete, Negros Occidental that the would-be thespian steeled his passion for the stage as he worked for a degree in Theater Arts.
Graduating in 1975, he has never stopped acting, and to this very day considers his life on stage as “a wonderful and beautiful job.”
Thanks to ‘Rowena’
Born March 17, 1951 in Iligan City, Lanao del Norte in Northern Mindanao, Inocian was an only child who was expected to inherit and manage the family business. Their family owned an umbrella enterprise comprised of such businesses as trucking, lumber, and a printing press, among others.
After graduating high school in his hometown, his father sent his unico hijo to Manila to study Business and Commerce in De La Salle University.
“I spent the first semester in Manila studying. I didn’t know anyone and there was nothing to do but study, so my grades were good. But come second semester, that’s when I met my barkada [friends]and that’s when my grades plummet,” Inocian confessed laughing during a one-on-one with The Sunday Times Magazine.
This led to a “university-hopping” stint for Inocian in the capital, until his father threatened him to go home to Iligan City if he “didn’t get his act together.”
Having experienced freedom in Manila, the teenager, just like any other who had a taste of independence, dreaded the idea of living with his parents all over again. That was when he made the random decision to leave the temptations of Manila but yet live away from home in Silliman University.
Little did Inocian know that everything indeed happens for a reason because it was in Dumaguete where his curiosity for the arts—specifically theater—came about. The spark came in the form of a lady named “Rowena.”
One fateful day when Inocian passed by the university library, he was mesmerized by “a cute girl” in rehearsals for the Siliman’s Drama Club. Bent on meeting her, Inocian jumped at the chance of auditioning for the club, which was then looking for new members.
It turned out Rowena (whom The Sunday Times Magazine later found out from a source was Rowena Tiempo, daughter of National Artist Edith Tiempo and acclaimed writer Edilberto Tiempo, both Silliman alumni), was already seeing someone else.
Stuck with the drama club all the same, Inocian had no other choice but to participate in its activities, which he surprisingly came to enjoy.
“From my performances, I was advised—strongly advised—to shift my course, and so I did,” he recalled.
But as he seemed to have found his calling, a whole new conflict began to brew.
“Since I’m from the south where there is a heavy Muslim influence, being in theater for them meant you were gay. And so when I told my father about shifting courses, he pulled me aside and asked me if I was a homosexual—of course I said no,” Inocian laughed.
His father was upset by his decision and made it known to his only son. But many years later, Inocian was touched to find out that despite his father’s apparent disapproval over his choice of career, the old man was very proud of his eventual success as an actor.
“It was only after my father died that my mother told me that through the years, whenever he saw my name in newspapers, he would clip the article and even keep it in his wallet.”
The world as a stage
It was in 1978 that Inocian, along with his best buddy and fellow acting hopeful Paul Palmore, went to Manila to sing in three different bars across the city.
“It was quite fun, but we weren’t earning enough to support ourselves,” Inocian recalled.
“That was part of the reason why Paul and I talked and finally admitted we weren’t headed anywhere, so while he decided to go back to school, I went and auditioned for Repertory Philippines.”
It was with The Rep that Inocian gained his theatrical expertise as part of the company for almost 11 years. He started off playing small roles such as a butler, to lead roles as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. He counts working in over 60 productions before he broke into the international theater scene.
“Zenaida “Bibot” Amador [Repertory Philippines founder] and is considered the terror of Philippine theater; she was really strict. I was just saying that theater then was a dictatorship and was not a democracy at all. You did what Bibot told you, no questions asked. She would sometimes get physical. I almost had a chair and an ashtray thrown at me!” Inocian laughed again.
“But for me, it was all good because theater in the Philippines that time was very young, and it needed a really strong hand to raise it. So what we did is to sit there and listen to Bibot because she was actually saying something good—well, aside from all the swear words that came with her lectures,” he added affectionately.
“When I got into the regular season of Rep, I asked Bibot if she could start me in minor roles so I can work myself up and I even volunteered to sweep the floor before we start. I would even stay after the show and clean the stage.”
By 1989, the production team of a new West End production titled Miss Saigon came to the Philippines in search of Kim. Along with Lea Salonga, who landed the much-coveted part, Inocian and a sizeable group of Filipino actors—as everyone knows—was cast for what is now a legendary musical theater production.
After staying with Miss Saigon for six long years, Inocian was immediately cast as Old Deuteronomy in Cats at the New London Theater, and from there went on to do various projects for stage and television. In 2006, he won the Theatre Management Association Award for Best Performance in a Musical for Pacific Overtures at the Haymarket Theater.
Still based in the United Kingdom, Inocian regularly returns to the Philippines, sometimes to join productions, give lectures, or simply touch base with his family and friends in the business.
Today, he feels fulfilled in his craft, not only because of the work he has done for stage both in the Philippines and in Europe, but because his son with former wife and fellow artist Luna Griño—Jon Michael Inocian—has followed his footsteps into theater acting.
Local vs. international
Punctuality, among many other things, is one of the differences Inocian has observed between local and international theater practices. It is something he constantly talks about—and discourages—during his lectures to young Filipino actors.
But most of all, he laments that theater in country to this day is hardly supported by government.
“It’s kind of sad that the government has never supported Philippine theater. Even though artists like Lea Salonga are constantly advertising the country to the rest of the world. I find it really sad that they don’t support the arts and they don’t have a properly funded performing arts school in the country,” he observed.
In comparison, he has seen in European countries like the UK how the government provides grants for new projects.
“It’s such a shame because Filipino actors perform with so much heart,” he noted. “That’s what the British say about us even if we might like the technical know how.”
Nevertheless, Junix Inocian hopes that in time, the situation will change for Filipinos who continue to devote their lives to theater. For not only is the Filipino truly talented, but he is certain, that like him, they will find every means to keep on pursuing this “wonderful and beautiful job” to act on stage.