Patrons of the recently-concluded Cinemalaya and Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino film festivals will know her face: Chai Fonacier was in not one, but three films out in cinemas this month, namely Respeto, Pauwi Na, and Patay Na Si Hesus. As she jumps into the Manila scene from Cebu, the actress tells her story and the ones behind each film.How did you get into acting?
I was 12. We wrote our own play in school—this kiddie thing with time travel adventures. A lot of kids want to play the princess, but I wanted to play the witch! I joined a theater guild in high school and again in college, but I didn’t study theater arts because my parents told me “Walang pera diyan.” I said okay, Mass Communications na lang. For a while, I wasn’t acting. I was writing for a magazine and a website, I was in radio, I was in a call center—I was everywhere. And then in 2015, some directors in Cebu were making short films and needed actors. I went, “Me! Me! Me!” It wasn’t as consistent as I would have hoped. In between, I’d have online jobs, then film. Online jobs again, then film. No food to eat, then film. Those were very grueling years.
How do you approach your characters?
First, I look at the story. And then I ask, “What is my character’s space in this story, in this fictional world?” It’s much like understanding other people. The hard part is when you have to agree with that character when you don’t.
I heard that you were supposed to play a different character in Patay Na Si Hesus.
I auditioned for both Jude and Vera, another sibling. I got Vera. A few days later, I was sleeping in, and they called me and said, “Chai, we’ve scrapped Vera. You’re gonna play Jude.” I said, “Okay, no problem,” and went back to sleep. A few moments later, I jumped out of my bed. “[Jude is] a trans man! I must research!” I observed people on the set; lahat ng lalaki, and this one lesbian in our crew whose physicality kind of fit Jude.What was the experience like for Pauwi Na?
Road movies are grueling to shoot. Pre-prod is hell. Production is hell. When I flew in, I didn’t have a place to stay, so I would bunk at friends’ houses in Antipolo, Payatas, Makati, and Malate. I felt that Manila was this huge kaiju, and I was this untrained Power Ranger. At some point, my friend and I were lugging around huge backpacks, coming from separate shoots, and we ended up in Sogo Cubao! We go into the room, and the lights are red! It was crazy. The next day, we were shooting in Montalban. Lead me, Lord, I rode the wrong FX! That was how displaced I was here, doing Pauwi Na. But even if it was hard, it translated into the displacement the family felt riding a pedicab to the province. Sleeping in odd places, not knowing where to eat, not knowing what to do. That’s where the entire Manila experience got channeled.
Are there characters that have really stuck with you?
I get attached to them. All of them. It takes me a while to debrief from a character. A week after Patay Na Si Hesus, I was walking like a guy! My friends would tell me, “Chai, can you cross your legs like this? Put your hands on your lap like this.” “Why?” “Parang kang lalaki! Bayot ka!” The first character that I really got attached to was Lisa in Miss Bulalacao, the second film I did with Ara Chawdhury. And then Betchai!You also wrote Betchai’s Theme for Respeto, right?
Yeah, I did. Treb [Monteras, the director] asked me if I could sing something, and I wrote the song in Cebuano. When we were shooting, the Marawi issue blew up. I’m from Cagayan de Oro originally, so we’re neighbors with them. My family was still living there. There was a lot of anger and frustration while I wrote it, but the challenge there was that I had to write it as Betchai and not as Chai. As an adult, you want to be involved. You want to say something. But if you’re 16 years old, all you really feel is frustration. You say “’Di ako kasali diyan. Kung magigiyera kayo, doon ka sa malayo. Hindi ko ’to kasalanan, tapos sinasali mo ako,” which is what happens to the barkada in Respeto.
And now you’re here in Manila for more films. How are you adjusting?
I freaked out a whole lot. Existential crisis levels. It’s still very overwhelming, but yes, I’m hoping to do more films. I can’t survive in a cubicle. I worked in a call center for five years, and that killed my soul. I tried working in other cubicles, and then I realized they were all the same to me. Other people thrive in those kinds of environments, but I’m just not built for that. I want to keep telling stories, no matter what the form.
Photography by Renzo Mavarro
Styling by Renee Ultado
Hair and makeup by Nix Ceballos
Art direction by Mags Ocampo
Sittings by Jacs Sampayan
IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY, YOU CAN STILL FOLLOW CHAI FONACIER ON TWITTER AT @RRRABIDCAT AND INSTAGRAM AT @CHAIFONACIER.