By Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines—It’s a given that musical theater is where I am most at home. Playing make-believe in front of an audience, singing, dancing and running around on stage as part of a company of players just as comfortable as I am. This is where I am most happy and at ease … a spotlight in my eye, an orchestra in the pit, and a character behind which to hide for a couple of hours.
A close second would be performing in concert. Over the last year or so, I’ve found myself concertizing quite a bit, much more often than I was ever used to. Standing (or sitting) on a stage with a microphone in hand and a band behind me, telling my own personal stories and singing my favorite songs became something I really looked forward to. Once my “Cinderella” run ends in April 2009, it’s back to the concert stage for me in places far and wide.
As wonderful as both these avenues are for me, there are times when I get this itch to step out of my comfort zone and tread into more difficult territory … when I want to experience a little more terror and find myself in less navigable waters. So, what do I do when I want to swim in blackness, scaring myself silly?
I make a movie. At home.
The very first film I ever made was when I was 10 years old, called “Tropang Bulilit.” The project was offered, and when my mother told me about it, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Me, make a film? But I was active in theater! What would they say?
Tita Bibot (Amador) very gently said, “Go ahead, give it a try.”
So I did. The process of making movies was very, very alien to me. This was definitely territory I knew absolutely nothing about.
For starters, I was a major neophyte in a cast of professionals. And I’m talking about just the other kids in the film: Niño Muhlach, Janice de Belen, Andrea Bautista and Sheryl Cruz. The five of us would play orphaned siblings having to fend for ourselves in an otherwise cruel world. I can’t really remember how the film went. It was that long ago, after all. But most of my screen time was shared with at least one of the other kids.
Second, I couldn’t hurdle the huge language barrier. I was very fluent in English, but extremely poor in Tagalog. I had no idea what possessed me to say YES to this! I was absolutely terrible! I kept mixing up namin and natin, and heaven only knows how much of the dialogue I could actually comprehend.
Quintessential big sister
I remember Janice taking upon herself the task of straightening out my grammar from time to time, for which I shall always be grateful. I mean, all the kids were great, but she was, both on screen and off, the quintessential big sister we all needed.
Third, I didn’t know how to cry on cue. To this day, it’s a mystery to me.
There was one scene in the film that took place in a morgue. Our father had just died, and all of us kids had to, very overtly, mourn over his passing. One by one, each child actor went to a corner to prepare. They faced the wall, began to internalize the scene, and started to cry. I was absolutely floored by the skill and professionalism each of these young actors had to possess in order to do this. I could cry on stage, sure, but that was always hit or miss in the same way that it is today. But to consistently, routinely have the ability to cry a river, or a rivulet, depending on what’s needed! That was just amazing (especially since Sheryl Cruz was no more than 6 or 7 at the time). So, in order to seem as professional as these kids, I found my own spot, turned my back on everyone and started to cry, too. I didn’t want to be the last one left standing with my face to the wall.
I can’t remember just how long our shooting period was. But I knew how long it would be before I’d make another movie again. The process of making “Tropang Bulilit” was jarring to me, very unlike the theater scene where we had a well-defined rehearsal period, scheduled technical and dress rehearsals, and a pre-determined run of shows. To be in a state of flux every day, to not always know what was going to happen next in the course of the day, I just wasn’t used to that and didn’t wish to return to it for a few years. Four years, to be exact.
My return to films was at the age of 14, when Viva Films beckoned me to be part of “Like Father, Like Son.” My co-stars were Niño, Herbert Bautista and Cheska Iñigo. My brother Gerard was also in the movie, although his participation was limited to stuffing his face with food, from either a chafing dish or a junk food container.
One cool thing I got to do was sing a beautiful song called “Kailan,” written just for the movie by Louie Ocampo and Freddie Santos (who would then team up to write my wedding song “Two Words” many years later). The shooting period wasn’t very long, if I remember correctly. I recall it being quite enjoyable, so much so that I would make more movies in this teen genre, paired up with Herbert Bautista (either as a sibling or a romantic interest) for most of them.
The last film I did with Viva was “Dear Diary” and I would leave for London soon after.
Fast forward to 1992. OctoArts Films proposed a project called “Bakit Labis Kitang Mahal.” It was to be my first team-up with Aga Muhlach. The movie also starred Ariel Rivera (one of the finest natural actors I’ve ever had the good fortune to work with), Sandy Andolong, Chin-Chin Gutierrez, Manny Castañeda and Mary Walter. It was written and directed by Jose Javier Reyes. The movie was a very light romance, which meant romantic clinches with Aga who is probably one of the most talented and sensitive actors ever to grace the silver screen.
He also happens to be ridiculously handsome, and I’ve often joked that he’s the one person who can make me feel less than pretty when he stands beside me. Actually, no, that wasn’t a joke.
We shot the movie in just a little over two weeks, and my performance shows it. In fact, I avoid it completely whenever it airs on television, just so I won’t subject myself to how poorly I felt I did.
I know that Direk Joey did his best, given the time we were given to shoot the movie. But to be completely honest, at the time, I didn’t find my groove, that feeling of oneness with the elements. Perhaps my next movie would bring me a little closer to comfort, and I’m happy to say, that although that succeeding effort wasn’t perfect, it felt much better.
It was “Sana Maulit Muli” for Star Cinema, starring Aga, Cherry Pie Picache, Kristina Paner, Gina Pareño, Jan Marini and Rosemarie Sonora (who was amazing to watch and work with. I hope she makes more movies, she glows like a candle).
This was another team-up with Aga, this time written and directed by Olivia Lamasan. Thank God for her being at the helm. Under her I labored and toiled. I was pushed and pulled in so many emotional directions, challenged to see how far I could go, even after I felt I could go no more. I don’t remember anyone else wanting to see how much it could take, just to wrench a halfway decent performance from me. I will always thank her for everything she did, for how hard a time she gave me. Hey, to get juice out of an orange, you have to squeeze it hard. (Inang, just so you know, I can actually fry an egg and talk on the phone at the same time for real!)
We shot this movie at various locations in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as in Baguio and Manila. Thankfully, the shoot became progressively easier for me as the days rolled along, no matter how much I had to cry, no matter how unglamorous I would become at the end of the workday.
After seeing the movie’s final cut, I was quite pleased with it and I promised myself that my next effort, whenever that happened, would be even better.
It’s now 15 years since “Sana Maulit Muli” was filmed and released — and 15 years since I last acted on film.
Hmmm, almost time to scratch that itch again, methinks.