From Urban Planning to Work It: An interview with Neil Robles

Neil Robles is an actor, dancer, and choreographer residing in Toronto, Canada. Some may recognize him from the recent Netflix teen movie, Work It, as soccer player, Chris Royo.

During university, Robles studied urban planning and worked in multiple municipalities throughout his co-op terms. After graduating from the University of Waterloo with a Bachelor of Environmental Studies in Urban Planning in 2018, he decided to fully pursue his passion in the entertainment industry as a dancer.

Cold Tea Collective picked his brain to learn more about his personal journey, why he decided to take a turn in his career, and his thoughts on Asian representation in the entertainment industry.

GROWING UP AS A FILIPINO CANADIAN IN THE GREATER TORONTO AREA

Born and raised in the Philippines, Robles moved to Canada in 2003 when he was 8 years old. Growing up as a Filipino Canadian in the Greater Toronto Area, he felt very welcomed by his diverse community, and managed to embrace everyone’s culture.

Did you experience any struggles with embracing your Filipino Canadian identity growing up?

I did have some struggles, such as language barriers and cultural norms. I remember my lowest subject in Grade 3 was English, where I would often struggle with grammar and spelling. 

Another struggle I remember was feeling embarrassed about the food I brought for lunch. I would often get something no one knew how to pronounce with rice, whereas everyone else had pizza, sandwiches, or those Lunchables that the cool people had.

Now that I think about it, my adobo and rice, bacon and rice, and loganisa and rice were the most luxurious and tastiest lunches out of everyone during that time. Thanks, parents.

Other than that, I’m very grateful for how I grew up in Canada and the people I met growing up. I embrace my Asian Canadian/Filipino Canadian identity with pride.

His Dance Journey

Before dance, basketball was Robles’ first love. He shared the early beginnings of his dance journey, when he first discovered his passion for dance, and how he balanced school and dance in university.

Photo Credit: Nam Chops Photography

When did you first discover your passion for dance?

[During] late elementary school . . . I was first introduced to dance through YouTube, watching America’s Best Dance Crew in 480p, and imitating Jabbawockeez and SoReal Cru’s choreography. In Grade 9, I auditioned for my first dance team at IONA High School where we performed for an end-of-term recital at the Living Arts Centre.

During my second term of Grade 9, I switched schools as I moved to another city. There, I continued to play basketball. One basketball practice, I stumbled upon a group dancing to Kpop (Wedding Dress by Taeyang).

Long story short, I joined and made a dance crew called “Undefined.” I danced, competed, and performed with them throughout high school until university, where I went on to experience some of the hardest times of balancing passion and school.

How did you balance school and dance in university?

With the freedom and independence [found] in university, you’re always challenged with time management and balance. Oftentimes, you’re juggling school, your passions, family, social life, and finding some time to eat.

Inevitably, I experienced that some things will fall off your plate, and you have a choice to fall even more or get back up. I have no real method of how I managed, but luckily, my management tool was being surrounded by good people that love to dance while pursuing a degree.

That support system was a blessing — “Let’s dance after my exam.” If I have any advice for people chasing their dreams and goals, big or small, I would tell them to surround themselves with like-minded people and continue to evolve your mind. Let that sink in.

THE TURNING POINT IN HIS CAREER

Robles opened up about when he experienced the turning point in his career and what sparked that decision.

When did you experience the turning point in your career?

My turning point happened after graduation when I chose to pursue dance. Consequently, I didn’t really have much of a plan, besides wanting to experience being in the industry full-time — whether that meant dancing for an artist or TV show, teaching classes everywhere, or landing a Netflix job. I never thought about “going for it.”

Photo Credit: Submitted

What sparked that decision?

Throughout university, I did numerous co-op placements in different municipalities, but none of that “rang” for me. During work, my mind would always wander towards dancing in my chair, thinking about what comes after the 8-count, how to do a leg pop, etc.

I wasn’t happy, fulfilled, nor excited. I sat for eight hours feeling like I didn’t contribute anything to the world. I wanted to share, connect, and experience new things every day.

So, there was always a spark in doing something more. However, giving up that “security” of having a city job for an “unstable dream chase” was always scary and something I thought that I was never ready for.

At the same time, I don’t think you’ll ever be ready to take those risks. I guess what really sparked my decision was that “risk.”

MEETING EXPECTATIONS AND RECEIVING SUPPORT

What are your thoughts on trying to live up to certain expectations in terms of your career?

There is definitely pressure. I think many, if not all, feel those expectations. There’s also the idea of “security” and always having a “Plan B.” I think everyone has a different perception of that. I also believe that everyone deserves to pursue whatever they want to pursue, no matter how crazy it is, as long as it leads to their purpose and happiness.

With a grain of salt, I also believe those expectations do come from good intentions, especially those from our parents — they just want the best for us. Our job as dream chasers is to make them trust that we’re doing what’s best for us and our future.

How did the people closest to you react to and support your decision to pursue dance after graduating?

I owe it a lot to my parents for being supportive from the very beginning. I know many don’t have that luxury, especially Asian Canadian millennials, so I am grateful and will never take that for granted.

Also, I have always been a person to take the road less walked on. When I decided to pursue dance, people that were close to me weren’t really surprised, and actually believed in me more than I did. Many have told me that I will do “big” things in the future, [and] I am grateful to have that energy in my life.

It’s inspiring and motivating. Although, my parents will hint at me to get a 9-to-5 from time to time.

HIS BREAKTHROUGH INTO ACTING

Robles got into acting naturally after being signed to his agency, Da Costa Talent. He started reading scripts every week, taking acting classes, and attending auditions.

Who inspires you?

I’m inspired by my friends, day ones, partner, and family. I’m also inspired by numerous Asian actors who are paving the way in the entertainment industry.

Tell us a little bit about your experience on set for the Netflix film Work It.

Work It was an overall party. The cast and crew were incredible. Being on set — whether it be the 5 AM call times or the 3 AM wrap times — was an experience I am grateful for. It was an amazing opportunity to be a part of something with such a diverse cast of good-hearted individuals who just want to make a feel-good movie.

I was also a fan of some of the main cast prior to, like Ms. Liza Koshy. Watching her journey from social media to the big screen is truly inspiring.

Photo Credit: Netflix

We filmed for three months with a month of rehearsals prior to, where every film day was a learning day. Learning from people who’ve done this for years, and having a free-spirited director, captain, leader, Laura Terusso, was truly incredible. She would often allow us to play and improv on set, which was exciting. We also had the chance to work with legendary choreographer, Aakamon Jones. He made every rehearsal feel like we were going on tour. Bucket of sweat for every rehearsal.

One of the most memorable moments on set had to be filming the qualifiers scene while wearing scrubs. That scene was actually filmed numerous times, [and] I had to go through four scrub changes because of the sweat. Grateful for the wardrobe team, thank you.

What are your thoughts on Asian American and Asian Canadian representation in the entertainment and film industry?

There is definitely growth in our representation within the entertainment and film industry. Talking about Randall Park and Simu Liu currently on set as leads for Western title films is incredible and inspiring.

I don’t think anything is lacking, moreso [that] it’s always a work in progress. I think during these times, many casting directors, producers, and directors are leaning towards creating a diverse cast, where some leads are BIPOC or LGBTQ. There is definitely a lot that the industry could work on, but I feel we are on our way to being where we want to be.

HIS CURRENT AND FUTURE PROJECTS

In terms of film and dance, Robles is currently working on a few undisclosed projects.. He is also working the Fall collection for his clothing brand, Origin Lifestyle Brand, releasing October 2020.

As he says, “I’m continuously working on being a better me, learning new skills, and practicing gratitude everyday.”


You can keep up with Robles at www.neilrobles.com, and @neilrobles on Instagram to keep up with his personal journey and upcoming projects.

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People chatting at the Making It documentary screening.

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