The last time Philippine Daily Inquirer interviewed actress Ama Quiambao was in 2012, after a screening of the digitally-restored version of National Artist Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala.” She said watching the movie made her miss colleagues who had passed on—Bernal, coactors Ray Ventura and Veronica Palileo, film editor Ike Jarlego.
Quiambao joined these departed coworkers on Friday night, a week after collapsing onstage during a performance of “Pamamanhikan,” a one-act play at the Virgin Labfest 9 of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
She was 66.
Ricky Lee, scriptwriter of “Himala,” recalled that Quiambao auditioned for the role of one of the friends of faith healer Elsa (portrayed by Nora Aunor) in the 1982 film. But since she had had salt-and-pepper hair since she was 30, Quiambao ended up playing Sepa, the healer’s successor. The role fetched a best supporting actress nomination for the critics’ Urian awards.
Before that first film, she had acted in numerous plays, most of them directed by Rolando Tinio (who would also be a National Artist).
“She was a fast learner,” said filmmaker Joel Lamangan, “Himala” crowd director. “She played her role with intelligence.”
“She looked saintly … while (costar) Vangie Labalan regaled us with stories about her love life,” reported filmmaker Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, assistant to the “Himala” line producer.
Lee and Quiambao had been text mates of late. “She had wanted for the longest time to enroll in my writing workshop. We were to start next month.”
A teacher and actress (she held a masters degree in Teaching Drama Education from the University of the Philippines in Diliman), Quiambao assiduously pursued her craft to the very end.
She finished three indie movies this year: Cesar Evangelista’s “Amor y Muerte” for Cinemalaya, Mes de Guzman’s “Ang Kwento ni Mabuti” for Cine Filipino and Archie del Mundo’s “Ang Misis ni Meyor.” She was in the cast of Adolfo Alix Jr.’s rom-com, “Each Day With You.” “Ang Kwento ni Mabuti” reunited her with “Himala” lead star Aunor.
Marife Necesito, actress-producer of “Ang Misis,” described Quiambao as “kind, humble, cheerful and inspiring.” De Guzman agreed: “She was very professional, always smiling … and she loved to laugh. But when we discussed serious matters, there was wisdom in her words.”
Quiambao won best actress in Cinemalaya’s New Breed section last year for De Guzman’s “Diablo.” Lee, one of the jurors, recounted: “After the awards ceremony, when I told her that her triumph was a unanimous decision, she embraced me and said: ‘May himala! (Miracles do happen!)’”
She didn’t expect to win. She said: “Luckily, it was a night for senior citizens. Credit goes to indie filmmakers for daring to make movies about the elderly.”
Quiambao considered herself a late bloomer. Married to the late opera singer Gamaliel Viray, she often played nuns, aunts and grandmothers (and once, a judge) in mainstream movies and TV soap operas.
But it was in indie films that she was allowed to shine, and brightly. Alix volunteered, “She was sweet and cooperative. She learned to play mahjong for her scenes with Tita Anita (Linda) and Tita Boots (Anson-Roa).”
Evangelista reminisced: “Working with her was such a cool, uplifting experience. She digested, dissected and took to heart each role she played. She gave young costars (Althea Vega and Markki Stroem) free acting lessons. But she had a rowdy sense of humor. She loved life.”
Stroem said, “I will never forget her last text to me: ‘You are one of the most studious actors I’ve ever worked with. Keep dreaming.’”
The Theater Actors Guild is staging a fundraiser for Quiambao Monday night at the Taumbayan in Quezon City. The wake is at the Arlington Memorial Chapels in Quezon City. According to her son, Ishmael Viray, her body will be cremated Tuesday.