From the mindset to have going into auditions to playing roles close to home, the New York-based Filipino actor continues to pursue his passions.
New York is often described as the city that never sleeps, a place where dreams can become reality, and where opportunities are limitless. The so-called concrete jungle, known throughout history for its art and culture and where rubbing elbows with the world’s top creatives is not entirely impossible, is also the part of the world that Miguel Ignacio Wilson Tambunting, or simply Nacho, currently calls home.
“There is always something going on in New York,” he tells Lifestyle Asia. “I love that you can walk in the streets and there are musicians playing in the corner and street art everywhere. The city is so alive and bustling that it keeps you on your toes.”
The city itself and being part of it is inspiring for Tambunting, who has been making his mark as an actor in both television and theater productions here and abroad.
And while he already has much experience—a recurring role on an NBC drama and a lead role in a historic Filipino-American theater production, to name a few—he dreams of achieving more.
Tambunting is on the right track to do so—and he has been for a while. As a kid, he loved performing.
“There are old home videos of me singing and dancing on top of tables [when I was just] a year old,” he says. “You can ask any of my childhood friends and they will tell you that I have, on multiple occasions, forced them to participate in one of my homemade plays.”
His mom, Claudia Wilson-Tambunting, also exposed the young Nacho and his three other siblings to the arts from an early age—bringing them to different museums, ballet shows, plays, and musicals. His dad, Miguel Tambunting, meanwhile, would animatedly read bedtime stories to them, performing all the different voices of the characters.
At 10, he began performing in professional theater with Repertory Philippines. His first show was The Sound of Music where he played the role of Kurt von Trapp. Juggling school work and rehearsals, he appeared in at least one production every year until high school graduation, including Peter Pan, Seussical, Alice in Wonderland, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Producers, and Camp Rock.
Looking back on the experience, Tambunting says it “shaped me as a young performer and instilled a love for my craft.”
“My co-actors always treated me like an adult, which I appreciated. I felt very privileged to act alongside them. They taught me discipline, which was necessary to balance school with rehearsals,” he says. “I remember a time when I was working on an English paper in my dressing room between scenes. Though I often look back at this time in my life with great fondness, it established a great foundation and prepared me for life in New York.”
Life in New York
Though already a seasoned performer by the time he graduated high school, Tambunting says that while he took his stint at the Rep seriously, he did it mostly for enjoyment. “It wasn’t until I was considering options for college that my family and I began to have the conversation of pursuing a career as an actor,” he explains.
New York was a standout option based on personal experience and based on the city’s reputation.
“I always wanted to move to New York,” he says. “My family spent a few summers in the city when I was a kid. I remember being so amazed at how iconic everything was. I was also obsessed with Broadway, so New York was the place to be.”
In 2014, he moved to the other side of the globe to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and later graduated with honors as well as a degree in Theatre.
It was not a walk in the park for Tambunting, though. If anything, the city, which can be “overwhelming,” “challenged” him.
“Moving here was the first time I had lived away from home. I have grown and matured so much in New York and it taught me how to fend for myself,” he says, adding that there was a time he worked the front desk of a gym to support himself. “To live here you need to develop a thick skin as New Yorkers can be aggressive. I had to learn not to take things too personally and not allow the behavior and actions of others to affect my mood.”
Dealing with rejection
It’s the same mindset that has helped him as an actor who goes to numerous auditions, where he’s either accepted or rejected.
Tambunting admits having difficulty in dealing with constant rejection when he first entered the audition circuit.
“It eventually became easier, especially when I go back to what my teacher at NYU, Randy Graff, said, ‘You have nothing to prove, only to share.’” he says. “It’s a numbers game, too. The more you do, the more you realize that talent and hard work is only part of the equation. A lot of it comes down to luck, as there are so many talented actors out there.”
He adds that it also helps to remove the competitive aspect of auditioning for roles and focus more on the story to be told.
“I have learned to accept that you will book the jobs that are meant for you,” he says. “Those you don’t will go to other actors, who have also experienced countless rejections and are just as deserving.”
True enough, Tambunting did land roles that are meant for him. Apart from appearances in television series such as NBC’s Rise, The First Wives Club, Dickinson, and most recently, Netflix’s The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia, he made his New York stage debut as Felix Starro Jr. in Ma-Yi Theater Company’s Felix Starro, the first Filipino-American musical to premiere Off-Broadway at Theatre Row.
Based on the short story of acclaimed Filipino-American writer, Lysley Tenorio, and featuring book and lyrics by novelist and playwright Jessica Hagedorn as well as the music of composer Fabian Obispo, Felix Starro “explores issues of faith, family, love, loss, betrayal, and what it means to be an undocumented Filipino immigrant in America,” the show’s description on the Ma-Yi Theater Company website reads.
Tambunting plays Felix Starro Junior, the 19-year-old mysterious grandson of a famous faith healer from the Philippines, whose clients once included Hollywood celebrities and the most powerful politicians. The older Felix Starro has returned to San Francisco for one last healing mission to cure ailing Filipino-Americans in the Bay Area. Junior, however, “has a mission of his own and the choice he makes could rip their family apart forever.”
On being part of the historic musical and participating in the creative process of the production, the 25-year-old actor says he was beyond ecstatic.
“There were lots of changes to the script throughout the process, as is the case for any new
musical,” he says. “They rewrote songs and reworked scenes often, so we had to learn and relearn fast.”
He also considers himself “lucky” to perform “something so close to home and that I got to play a Filipino.”
“Representation is so important [and] to be a part of that history is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he says. “This was the first time an audience got to see a full-scale production of the show so it was great to be a part of that conversation, to leave my own mark on the show.”
Despite being passionate about his craft, Tambunting says a career in acting is not easy. “It requires you to really love what you do,” he explains. “The industry will test you and make you question how much you really want it.”
A pandemic that halted the entertainment industry into a standstill did not help, too. The lack of auditions, the uncertainty on how the industry was going to move forward was worrisome, to say the least.
“I was eventually able to embrace it,” he says. “The pandemic taught me a lot and allowed me to take a step back and really assess what it is I want from life. I struggled with anxiety and depression [but] it put a lot of things into perspective and brought me back to myself.”
Tambunting says it has also helped to keep himself productive and creative. Much of the free time he had during the lockdown, he channelled into working out, gardening, painting, and one-on-one classes for aspiring actors, an idea he thought of when he helped another actor friend with audition tapes.
“I enjoyed the process of breaking down a scene and digging into the meat of it all, which is something I tried to impart to my students. It can get easy to get caught up and crave all the emotions that come when performing a scene or song. It’s important to focus on telling the story,” he says. “You can learn a lot as an actor when you work with others.”
Though short-lived, his stint as an acting coach is reflective of what he wants for his career.
“I would love to have a career that I am proud of, one with a platform that allows me to inspire people and spread kindness,” he says. “I believe that part of having a career in the spotlight is using your voice to help others. I hope to one day give back to the community that has given me so much.”
On personal acting aspirations, Tambunting says he is transitioning to more “fresh and exciting” camera work at the moment, especially “with the increasing representation, there are more opportunities for actors like me.”
The actor also believes that the best of him is still hiding up his sleeve.
“I think it’s common to look back on your previous work and feel like you could have done better. I believe aging only makes you a wiser actor, and it would be fun to revisit some roles I’ve played before. I don’t believe in regretting things from the past, as [it] shapes who we are today,” he says. “I am a firm believer that my best work is always ahead of me.”