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Life Imitates Art: How Bela Padilla Wrote Her Life a New Beginning

"[Moving] to London gives me a chance to really live—and not just live through my characters."

by Sofia de Aros | May 6, 2022

An actress, scriptwriter, and now director based in London, Bela Padilla is living the slow life she’d always planned to have. But her ambitions are bigger than ever.

Once the pandemic hit, Bela Padilla knew it was time to finally move to London.

“I saw how the pandemic was handled in our country, and I was comparing it with how it was handled in other countries where I had relatives,” she says, scooping spoonfuls out of a brunch bowl as she sat in bed with her back to the window, the room flooded with natural light. “Life was just normal for them. I felt really bad about that—we were literally stopped from doing anything.”

She phoned in on a Sunday from her new place—a high-ceilinged Victorian with tall wood-framed windows, muted walls, and sheer drapes; a neatly picturesque pad that easily signifies a bold, fresh start. “I’ve been wanting to do this for years anyway. And I’ve somehow sorted my life out in a way that I could leave at any time.”

She continues: “I think when you do something, or try to follow a dream of yours, and it does happen and you do get there, there’s a sweet spot of a few months of still trying to believe that you went for it. Or that you gave yourself a chance to do something big. So, I’m still in that sweet spot. Reality hasn’t really kicked in.” 

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Bela Padilla for Preview.ph May 2022

Right Place, Right Time

After around four years of seriously considering the move, Bela, who is half British and a dual citizen, flew out of the Philippines in July of 2021. She left behind her car, her condo, heaps of clothes, books, and other belongings that evidenced 30 years of living. The plane took her to Switzerland, which she chose as a touchdown point since the country had no quarantine requirement at the time. From there, she embarked on a dreamy two-month Europe trip spent traveling with loved ones, swimming in lakes, and exploring cobblestone labyrinths across Switzerland, the UK, Italy, and France.

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She soon settled into a London hotel, and from there, went apartment hunting, and registered herself as a resident in her new locale. Now, anyone who’s traveled at least once before would sigh at Bela’s life in London: she goes food tripping at Saturday morning markets, frequents bookstores, visits museums, watches plays, and strolls in parks she’d only ever seen in films—the slow, thoughtful lifestyle that she’d planned for so long.


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Swimsuit, GNASH SWIM, gnashswim.com

The surreal tranquility of her present is magnified by the COVID-era showbiz grind she sustained just months prior. In fact, it was just last year that the actress spent days quarantined in a tight Metro Manila hotel room. There, she blended vegetables and ate packed snacks, thumbed Post-It notes onto an ergonomically-sized script, made scene schedule spreadsheets, and joined pre-production meetings from her iPad. All of these were for her directorial debut 366, which she also wrote and starred in.

Equipped with her frank ethic and organizational aptitude, Bela often says that she is married to her job. “Right before 366 came out on April 15 on Vivamax, I was still checking subtitles, the night before,” she says. The tearjerker centers on Bela’s character, June, who commits a year to heal from the loss of her relationship with Pao (JC Santos). Her neighbor, Marco, (Zanjoe Marudo), assuages the pain by taking her to everything she didn’t get to do with her ex-love.

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“I notice that a lot of people associate me—or when they hear of a Bela Padilla film—they immediately think it’s, like, a problematic love story of something that could never happen, that’ll end up sad and tragic. There’s a huge market for that and they love it. They (the audience) love crying," she says.

Dubbed “The Queen of Hearts” for her work in stirring romance films like 100 Tula Para Kay Stella and Meet Me in St. Gallen, Bela’s growing corpus of writing credits assert her as an artist with a point of view. “It’s funny because in the beginning of my writing, I didn’t want to write for myself ‘cause I always felt like people would say, ‘Ah, kaya maganda yung character niya kasi siya yung nagsulat, ang unfair.’”

“Until I realized, wait, why am I doing this? The reason why I’m writing is because the roles I want aren’t out there. Kaya nga I’m writing it,” she says.

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Gown by HARVEY CENIT

Fifteen years in showbiz and one pandemic later, Bela has confirmed two things: the first being that you can pretty much work from anywhere.

“A lot of people kept telling me: ‘You have a stable career in the Philippines, and you have to consider that before moving,’” Bela shares. “But, because of the pandemic, I realized that everything can be done anywhere in the world. You really don’t have to be based in one place.”

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Second, Bela learned that the world is actually so small—in terms of connectivity, that is. “I can fly back anytime if I have to be on set in the Philippines. Moving doesn’t really mean that I left my home. It just means that this is my home for now.”

“It’s not as drastic or dramatic as the ‘90s, where you didn’t have Viber or WhatsApp. You can’t call your mom or see her face. I’m grateful that I live in this era where everything is so easy to do—as long as you’re determined to do something, you can definitely do it.”

Coming of Age

Bela had to leave behind her cat, Sputnik, who had been with her for nearly 12 years. If Sputnik were to have moved to London, he would have been loaded into the plane’s dark cargo section. And upon arrival, he would be held at a quarantine facility for three months—the protocol for immigrant pets, even before the pandemic. The fluffy and sulky Sputnik, who now lives with Bela’s brother, is one of the factors that really tied her to the Philippines. “My cat doesn’t think he’s a cat. He thinks he’s a little boy,” she excitedly shares. “I don’t even know if he’s okay with the flight—I don’t want to put him through that. I was in transit for 20 hours so talagang baka patayin niya ako pag nagkita kami.” So, before she left, she took her time speaking to him, hoping he wouldn’t forget her.

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But the hardest goodbye? Her mother, Meg Cariño—who, while protective, did not object to her daughter’s migration. “She knows how independent I am,” Bela offers. “But it goes without saying that she was very strict.”


As a Jehovah’s Witness, Bela’s upbringing was uncompromising: Until the age of 26, she had a curfew, and surrendered all her money to Meg, who would then supply her with an allowance “na literal na pang Starbucks lang.” She was not allowed to sleep over at other houses either. “I never had the experience of, you know, sharing ghost stories at night with friends and stuff like that. I lived that through movies I watched as a teen.”

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But the actress held no grudge—her childhood was nothing short of vibrant. “They (referring to her friends) also missed out on so much ‘cause I had nights where I would really bond with my mom,” she explains, and shares that Meg raised her with a robust movie habit.

Bela and her mother devoured films that other youngsters were unfamiliar with. Meg’s favorite was Somewhere in Time, a 1980 film directed by Jeannot Szwarc. It followed Richard, a man from 1972 who falls breathlessly in love with Elise, a woman in a vintage photograph, and travels back to 1912 to pursue her. In fact, Bela’s real name—Krista Elyse Sullivan—is taken from the the leading lady.

She proudly admits to having a complete VHS collection of the canon Disney films—including Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. She and her mother also watched plenty of Robin Williams and Steve McQueen, the latter infused into their repertoire by Bela’s grandfather.

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Upon finishing a day of school in CSA Makati, Bela and her mom would hurry to Glorietta to repeatedly watch the three-hour Pearl Harbor in the cinema. It got to the point where Bela memorized the lines, mastered the swell of the music, and knew exactly when Ben Affleck’s tear would slide down his cheek.

This activated in her a mechanism for deconstructing a film into a chain of deliberately placed moving parts, a skill that would later play into her scriptwriting. As a writer, she feels “privileged” to be privy to how her character would unfold on set: she knows how the character will cry, intone a line, and laugh at a joke—details that allow her to “taste the film in her head” in a way that no one else would ever see.

Apart from being an expert movie-watcher, the 31-year-old actress also had direct access to the Philippine showbiz scene. “It’s not a secret that I also come from a family of actors,” she says.

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Gown by EZRA SANTOS

“Every time we would get together for a reunion, Tito Robin (Padilla) would be like, ‘Okay, so who’s going to perform?’ They would give P1000 to the best performer. I would always be hiding in the back. I didn’t want everyone looking at me. Meanwhile, I had cousins that had CDs hidden in their bags because they were ready to perform.”

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“They had minus ones of Mr. Swabe and they’d start dancing and singing full on, as if it were an actual concert.”

She met Ruffa Gutierrez when she was 7, and Sharon Cuneta at 11. She would come with her Tito Robin to movie premieres at the peak of his career, mobilizing across the venue with a squad of bodyguards. This was before phones had cameras, and fans would instead hurl notebooks and pens at Robin, clamoring for autographs—behavior she thought “abrasive.”

“I really never thought that I would be one of them, that I would be working in the same industry as them. I was the kid who never had a gap year,” Bela says, referencing how teen actors commonly take indefinite breaks from their studies. She wanted to take Communication Arts in De La Salle University and become a journalist, but she was scouted during a high school field trip to ABS-CBN and found her way into acting.

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So, how exactly does a shy kid suddenly fall into acting for the next 15 years? How does a “fly on the wall” become a scriptwriter and eventually the boss of an entire set?

“I’m very stubborn. I’m a Taurus,” she says thoughtfully. “At the end of the day, I didn’t want to say, ‘Okay, I got into this, but then I didn’t achieve anything or didn’t give it my 100%.’” Cruising along without discipline was out of the question. The driven young actress read books about the industry, and joined every independent workshop available because there was no specialized acting school in the Philippines.

“I remember asking for a meeting with Ms. Mariole (Alberto) when I was 18 or 19 when I was still with Star Magic. And that’s unheard of [among] people my age and level, which was level zero, like puno sa likod ng taping level. Like, why would you ask for a meeting with her? But I had to try.”

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She needed to ask Ms. Mariole if the powers that be saw anything in her. If so, she would soldier on. But if not, she would stop. Soon, however, she was invited by her uncle to join a GMA production. “It felt like my proper audition into the next 10 years of my life,” she says.


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The Director’s Cut

Now that she has actualized her London dream, Bela has been writing more. Though she still identifies primarily as an actress, she treasures writing and directing as an outlet when she feels “backed into a corner,” treating the art as more of a safe space than a job. Thus, it’s a way of properly living and metabolizing a life that’s exclusively hers.

With that, it’s not surprising that her recent writing projects are not romance narratives. “One I finished last year is about a father and a son, and the one I’m writing now is also a family story. Recently, I’ve been drawn to that dynamic. I would still consider them love stories, but on a different kind of love.”

Momentarily stepping away from the Philippines, too, has heightened her ambitions. “If I’m going to sell [a script] to a Filipino production or a Filipino company, I know that I will have to downplay and scale everything down. I write bigger now: bigger locations, bigger demands,” she says. “But, I am also very realistic in the sense that I know that it will change on set, so it’s okay.”

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Dress, FARAI LONDON, farailondon.com

Although she is now based overseas, Bela maintains that her identity as a Filipino will not be diluted. “Being Filipino is one of the things that define me. Like I am very proud to be Filipino. I grew up in the Philippines, I was nurtured by the Philippines, and I am who I am today because of that. And so I will always be happy to talk about it and show it.”

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Kasi sadly, we see so much representation already in the Asian community. We see Koreans really doing so well in Hollywood and on the global stage. We’ve always seen how beautiful Chinese films, Japanese films, and Indian films are. There’s so much representation out there. And yet, when you see a Filipino character on the big screen in a Western production, it’s still either as comic relief or a helper. And that’s sad because we have so many thriving Filipinos in different countries.”

“I was recently in Dubai. I got to work with a team of Filipino creatives who are doing really well—and they’re not helpers. I don’t understand why that is the only representation we have when it comes to films. Why is that the only thing they know us for when in fact, there are so many other things that we’re capable of and are very good at? I hope I do get to write like characters where Filipinos shine in that sense.”

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Despite the shortcomings in Philippine representation worldwide and the production value of the local showbiz industry, Bela points out the country’s strong suit: our dedicated, self-made content creators.

“I think we’re modernizing the industry also in the Philippines. Because of the content creators, we are at par with other countries,” she muses.


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“We don’t have the right equipment yet for [CGI] and don’t even have the studios for it. The cameras they have abroad are far, far superior. So, in a way, the content creators are kind of bridging the gap for us and I’m super thankful for that. They’re really putting also the Philippines on a map in a sense.” 

Perceptive, humbly confident, and resolute, Bela makes a strong case for actually living the life you’d dream of capturing in your creative work. While nailing the best script in the history of scripts would be pretty sweet, it doesn’t beat knowing you left nothing to chance. Nothing beats having busted procrastination, getting to proclaim that you’ve stripped away all the what-ifs and doubts, and getting to enjoy every single day as a tool of pure possibility. Call it indulgent or whimsical, but why not turn your life into a movie you’d want to put on repeat?

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“A bit of unsolicited advice: for your character to work, you have to be its number one defender,” Bela declares. “You can’t question your character once you accept the role. You have to be one hundred percent the role. It’s all such a personal journey for every project. And that’s why I had to move, because it already became too much. I’ve lived so many lives, except my own.”

“This move is me giving myself a chance to really live, and not just live through my characters. That’s how I’d like to think of it.”

Produced by Ryan Banks

Photographed by Rozen Antonio

Makeup by Jefferson Rivera

Hair by Davon Mercado

Styled by Khel Rcuenco

Assistant Photographer: Roberto Antonio Jr.

Words by Sofia de Aros

Special thanks to Viva

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