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Local celebs land int’l projects amid pandemic

By: - Reporter
/ 12:15 AM December 09, 2021

Tony Labrusca

With local networks and production outfits scaling down projects and adopting a more modest approach because of pandemic-related restrictions, the past two years have been a challenge for many actors and celebrities, who are no longer getting the same amount of job offers they used to enjoy before the global health crisis.

But while many doors remain closed in the country, there are performers who were lucky enough to have found opportunities abroad, landing roles in movies, on television or in musical theater. Others even scored lead roles for Hollywood projects with A-list superstars.

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Having a strong body of work is crucial. Having an international agent pays off. But it also didn’t hurt that digital media and platforms have made auditioning possible for hopefuls around the world. In fact, some of these actors booked jobs just by emailing talent reels, and doing online tryouts and talent tests. And sometimes, their presence on social media can also end up piquing the interest of talent scouts, enough to give them a second look.

And some of these celebrities, like Crisel Consunji, Joaquin Valdes and Ruby Ruiz, were more than happy to share their career milestones first with Inquirer Entertainment.

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Andrea Torres

Andrea Torres

In Andrea Torres’ case, it was her Instagram page that unwittingly became her calling card of sorts.

Upon seeing Torres’ photos on the social media site, producers of the upcoming Argentinian movie “Pasional” reached out to the actress’ managers to offer her a role.

Torres, who flew to Argentina last October for the shoot, was “very happy” and in disbelief about the unexpected opportunity and “blessing” that came her way amid—and despite—the pandemic. Written and helmed by Argentinian filmmaker Francisco D’Intino, “Pasional” is about a man and a woman who cross paths—and fall for each other—during a trip.

The 31-year-old actress plays a tango dancer and had to learn the art form.

“I love the tango dance. It feels good performing it because the moves are very romantic, like you’re really in love while you’re dancing. It feels like you’re floating on air,” said Torres, who’s paired with seasoned Argentinian actor Marcelo Melingo.

Produced by Malevo Films in cooperation with the GMA Network, Ferdinand Dimadura and Agustín Vargas Clerico, the film is set in the city of Cordoba.


Alex Diaz

Alex Diaz

Last year, Alex Diaz put out YouTube vlogs about his coming out and bisexuality. Little did he know that they would lead him to a Hollywood project.

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A Los Angeles-based agent who champions LGBTQ+ actors of color saw Diaz’s videos and urged him to audition for the film “Glitter & Doom” (Speak Productions), a jukebox musical set to the music of the critically acclaimed, well-loved folk-rock duo Indigo Girls. After a series of online auditions and vocal exams, Diaz landed the role of Glitter, an aspiring circus performer who falls for a musician.

American actress Ming-Na Wen plays his character’s mother. Needless to say, it’s Diaz’s biggest acting break yet in show biz.

“It’s a dream come true,” he told the Inquirer.

Diaz started his training in singing and juggling last August before flying to Mexico City, where the film was shot. “Every day, I write in my journal how grateful I am.”

There were times, he admitted, when he felt like quitting, especially after he was outed online without his consent. He added that landing the said project means a lot to him, “not only as a Filipino actor, but also as a queer actor.”

Iñigo Pascual (right) and Susan Sarandon

Iñigo Pascual

Last September, the American broadcasting company Fox announced that Iñigo Pascual landed a main role in the musical drama series “Monarch,” and will share the screen with A-list star Susan Sarandon, Albie Roman, Anna Friel, Trace Adkins and Beth Ditto. With the help of his Hollywood agent, Pascual learned about the auditions, which were held online in July. The singer-actor sent reels of him singing songs and acting out scenes from the series. Before long, he was on a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, for filming.

“Filipino artists are incredibly smart, talented and creative. And that has me wondering why we’re not breaking out internationally more regularly … I want to be able to be part of the generation that’s able to bridge that gap,” he told the Inquirer. “I’m just excited because this is a crazy opportunity that I didn’t expect.”

Set to air in January 2022, “Monarch” is an epic and multigenerational series about America’s first family of country music, led by its matriarch Dottie Cantrell Roman (Sarandon). Pascual plays Ace Grayson, an adopted family member who hopes to use his musical gift and swagger to fulfill his hopes of becoming a big country music star.


Nikki de Moura

Nikki de Moura

While joining modeling competitions wasn’t in Nikki de Moura’s plans, she figured that it wouldn’t hurt trying out.

After a series of interviews with the producers of the AXN Asia reality talent search “Supermodel Me” Season 6, the model and teen beauty queen got a confirmation letter, and off to Singapore she went to compete.

“It’s not only about modeling, but also about physical challenges to see how fit you are and how mentally prepared you are,” the 17-year-old hopeful told the Inquirer.

De Moura, who’s of Filipino and Brazilian descent, is still in the running for the top honor against four remaining finalists: Hannah Cheng-Bradshaw of Singapore, Zhang Tian-Yi of China, Zeline Prabowo of Indonesia and Nguyen Quỳnh Anh of Vietnam.

“People tell you you can’t do it because you’re either too young or too old, that you’re not ready for or you’re past that stage already. But I would say still go for it, no matter where you are in life … Don’t listen to the haters … Be brave. Take risks. Get out of your comfort zone,” she said.


AC Bonifacio (left) and Madelaine Petsch

AC Bonifacio

AC Bonifacio has been an avid fan of the hit American teen drama “Riverdale” since its premiere in 2017. Little did she know that, four years later, she would actually see herself in one of her favorite television shows.

“I usually record tapes of my acting and dancing and then send them out to castings. But I never got callbacks. I tried out for ‘Riverdale’ with no expectations. And then, my agent called me and told me I booked a part. I was like, ‘No way!’ I was jumping for joy,” she told CNN Philippines.

The Filipino Canadian dancer-singer, who appeared in two episodes of the series’ fifth season last March, played Star Vixen, who engaged Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) in a dance showdown at the school gym. “It was so fun doing the show … the environment was very new to me. Everyone was so nice and kind. Madelaine and I shared a trailer van and she was very nice to me,” she said.

While born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, Bonifacio is now based in the Philippines, pursuing a career in show biz, after winning the local contest “Dance Kids” in 2016, and finishing third in “Your Face Sounds Familiar Kids.”


Lea Salonga

Lea Salonga

While international projects aren’t new to Lea Salonga, being part of one, she said, is always an “exciting” prospect.

Last September, HBO Max announced that the acclaimed thespian will be part of “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin,” a modern reboot of the hit 2010 series of the same title. Created by “Riverdale’s” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the new “Pretty Little Liars” is a “dark, coming-of-age, horror-tinged drama” set in a new town with a new generation of “disparate teen girls.”

According to a report by Deadline, Salonga will play Elodie, mom to one of the “little liars.” While “a bit overbearing,” she “works overtime to keep her daughter safe following a trauma that occurred when she was a little girl.”

“The moms have descended upon the town of Millwood! And we have secrets and lies of our own. (Can’t let the children have all the fun!) So excited to be part of the cast of ‘Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin!’” she wrote on Instagram.

Rhen Escaño

While most of her recent projects were sexy dramas, Rhen Escaño is determined to prove there’s more to her than showing skin. And she hopes that her upcoming international movie, the Singaporean drama “Sunday,” can help her do just that.

“I’m trying out more genres to show my different sides. In fact, the film I did is a serious romance and drama,” she told the Inquirer.

Produced by MM2 Entertainment and directed by Sean Ng, “Sunday” is about the lives and plight of Asian migrant workers who ease each other’s loneliness in Singapore. Escaño plays Lily, a Filipino domestic helper who falls in love with Vietnamese bus boy Minh (Ho Thanh Trung).

“I’m proud I’m able to represent our kababayans overseas and help tell their stories,” she said.

The cast also includes Singaporean actors Adrian Pang and Michelle Saram, who starred in the Taiwanese drama series “Meteor Garden II.”

“I was starstruck because I grew up watching ‘Meteor Garden,’” said Escaño, who flew to Singapore last July and stayed there for three months for the shoot. “My dream is for our film to get a theatrical release in the Philippines, and get showcased in various international festivals.”


Joaquin Valdes (left) in “Fanny and Stella”

Joaquin Valdes

Theater actor Joaquin Pedro Valdes went through “a bout of highs and lows,” after the pandemic put a stop to the United Kingdom and Asia tour of the musical “The King and I” last year.

Valdes was also supposed to star in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of “Evita” at The Barbican Centre. But that, too, was thwarted by COVID-19.

“From a high of being employed and living out my dream as an actor, to complete nothingness was a lot to take in,” he told the Inquirer.

But then came a series of unexpected blessings: Valdes bagged a role in the historical, LGBTQ+-themed “Fanny and Stella,” a Fringe show that turned out to be the first theater production
to open in London (August 2020) amid the pandemic.

This June, he made his West End debut via the “Heathers: The Musical.” Three months later, he continued his streak starring in the “Avatar”-inspired musical “Vanara” and will next be seen in
“The Lion King.”

“It’s rather inspiring and hopeful,” said Valdes, who had previously performed around Europe as part of the UK touring production of “Miss Saigon.”

Lovi Poe (center) with Ben Cookson and Alex Pettyfer

Lovi Poe

Lovi Poe had no expectations when the writer-producer of the upcoming Hollywood film “The Chelsea Cowboy” reached out to her managers to ask her to read for a role. “I actually forgot about it.

But a few weeks later, it happened,” recalled Poe, who will play British blues singer Dana Gillespie.

Helmed by filmmaker Ben Cookson, “The Chelsea Cowboy” is about “the rise and fall of underworld hard manturned-actor John Bindon who, despite a successful acting career and passionate romantic liaisons with various socialites, was unable to leave his criminal past behind.”

Gillespie, who was romantically linked to the likes of David Bowie and Bob Dylan, employed Bindon as part of security, giving him access to her glitzy life and world.

“I wanted to do my best because she’s an icon,” Poe, who had to undergo speech accent training, said in a virtual conference.

The film stars Poppy Delevingne, Sadie Frost, Charlotte Hope and Alex Pettyfer, who plays Bindon. Poe flew to England for the shoot, which wrapped up in the second week of November.

“Everything that has been happening now feels like a dream come true. I’m happy and grateful about doing projects abroad—something I wish many of us will be able to do,” she said.

Chai Fonacier

The lack of acting projects amid the pandemic had Chai Fonacier feeling rusty. But that didn’t stop the award-winning actress from impressing Hollywood star Eva Green on the set of the Irish
psychological thriller “Nocebo.”

In an Instagram post, Green showered Fonacier with praise, saying the acclaimed Filipino performer is a “truly great actress with extraordinary depth and sensitivity.”

“She was an incredible partner—she blew me away,” she said.

Fonacier, who’s best known for her work in the indie films “Miss Bulalacao” and “Patay na Si Hesus,” described the French actress as among “the best, kindest and most talented people I have
ever worked with. Grateful to be a witness to this awesomeness.”

Helmed by Lorcan Finnegan of “Vivarium” fame and written by Garret Shanley, “Nocebo” revolves around a fashion designer (Green) afflicted with a puzzling illness. Left with no more
options, she seeks the help of a Filipino caregiver (Fonacier), who practices folk healing.

Mark Strong plays the husband of Green’s character.

Produced by Emily Leo of Wild Swim Films, Brunella Cocchiglia Lovely Productions, and Bianca Balbuena and Bradley Liew of Epic Media Philippines, “Nocebo” wrapped up filming in Dublin,
Ireland last April.


Toni Gonzaga

Toni Gonzaga

Toni Gonzaga and other Filipino talents will take the spotlight in “Asian Persuasion,” an upcoming romantic comedy directed by Grammy- and Tony-winning Filipino producer Jhett Tolentino.

Written by Mike Ang, the film follows Mickey (Filipino American actor Dante Basco), a struggling chef and café owner whose culinary dreams get derailed by self-doubt and depression.

His marriage to his stylish fashion designer wife, Avery (Gonzaga), takes a hit and ends up in messy divorce.

Mickey then concocts a hilarious plan to avoid alimony obligations.

The film, whose cast and creative teams are composed mostly of Asian talents, features other Filipino actors like Devin Ilaw, Fe de los Reyes, Paolo Montalban and Tony Labrusca. The soundtrack will also be written by Asian artists.

Amid the recent spate of hate crimes against Asian communities, Tolentino and Ang said it’s a “social and moral responsibility to speak up, stand our ground and elevate the Asian narrative.

And one way to do that, they believe, is through art.”

“Asian Persuasion” is set in New York City and will start filming in the summer of 2022.

Max Eigenmann

Max Eigenmann burst into tears and was rendered speechless after finding out last July that she got a role in the coming British horror production “Raging Grace.”

The film—produced by British Vietnamese independent fifilmmaker Chi Thai and Filipino producer Darlene Catly Malimas—has Eigenmann playing an undocumented caregiver for a seemingly terminally ill man (Scottish actor David Hayman).

But just as she thinks she already has her and her kid’s life secure, she discovers a dark secret that threatens to “destroy everything that she holds dear.”

“It was such a surreal moment for me, and I’m so honored and grateful,” Eigenmann told the Inquirer.

Directed by London-based Filipino fifilmmaker Paris Zarcilla, “Raging Grace” will be part of AMC Network’s genre streaming platform Shudder’s roster of original fifilms for 2022, and will be released in various regional markets, including North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

Eigenmann is currently in England, where fifilming is ongoing.

“Just being given a chance to star in the fifirst-ever British-Filipino fifilm in British cinema history is an amazing opportunity and an impact in itself,” she said. “I’m hoping this opens more doors and collaborations between Philippine productions and those from other countries.”


Bianca Umali

Bianca Umali

While Bianca Umali’s lead role in the upcoming third season of the HBO Asia Originals series “Halfworlds” was announced in November 2019— only a few months before the world went into lockdowns—the shoot itself happened in the middle of the pandemic.

“We’re done shooting and it took us about one and a half years. Maybe there’s another year for postproduction, so I hope it’s ready by the third quarter of next year,” she told the Inquirer.

Directed by Mikhail Red, this new season of “Halfworlds” also stars Sam Concepcion and was shot entirely in the Philippines.

“My coworkers and I are so excited that we’re done and that we will finally get to see it soon. It has been a while because the pandemic happened, which is out of our control,” Umali said.

The actress, who underwent workshops and weapons training, plays Alex, a half-human, half-engkanto heroine who sets out to search for a rare plant that cures human-flesh-eating creatures.

“I enjoyed the working experience. The system was different,” she said. “We really had time to study and plan what we wanted  to do with our characters.”

Dolly de Leon

Dolly de Leon

International representation is “always a good thing” for Filipino artists, actress Dolly de Leon said, and she hopes that “7 Days of Hell”—the Philippine episode of HBO Asia’s horror anthology “Folklore 2”—can further highlight our country’s wealth of talents.

“I hope that, through ‘Folklore,’ our artists get more recognition abroad, and tell the world that we have so much to offer,” said De Leon, who’s joined by other Filipino actors, including Mon Confiado.

Directed by Erik Matti and written by Michiko Yamamoto, “7 Days of Hell” follows a righteous police officer named Lourdes, who races against time to find the cure for her son’s mysterious illness, which turned out to be inflicted by a vindictive sorcerer.

The episode also touches on the fear of the unknown, and how it erodes logical thinking.

“I hope our work gets recognized as something of value; that we’re not just doing something na pwede na,” she said.

“We’re all really proud of this project. We put our hearts and souls into it to come up with something beautiful.”


Ruby Ruiz

Ruby Ruiz

As part of Nicole Kidman’s upcoming drama series, “Expats,” award-winning actress Ruby Ruiz said she experienced what it’s like “to be treated like a VIP.”

“I have never been more pampered in my entire career as an actor,” she told the Inquirer.

Based on Janice Y. K. Lee’s 2016 novel “The Expatriates,” the Amazon Prime Video show is directed by Lulu Wang and follows the privileged lives of a close-knit community of expatriate women in Hong Kong.

Ruiz plays a supporting role. “I feel proud and humbled at the same time to be part of an international series. Working with international, Hollywood actors gives me a sense of responsibility to represent our country well,” said Ruiz, who stayed in Hong Kong for about six months for the shoot.

While she can’t go into detail about her role or the series’ story yet, Ruiz, who was discovered by the producers after seeing her in the movie “Iska,” said working with the “Expats” team is a blessing. “The director and producers regard me so highly with so much respect. I’m so blessed and grateful.”


Soliman Cruz

Soliman Cruz

After spending most of his career playing supporting roles, award-winning actor Soliman Cruz landed a lead role in the Romanian film “To the North” early this year.

“I’m the lead character here, and not just a supporting one,” he told the Inquirer. “I got used to playing support all the time.”

Written and directed by Mihai Mincan, the film had Cruz playing a religious Filipino sailor on a transatlantic ship, where he insists on helping a young Romanian stowaway just to make a point and prove that he’s a good person. But soon, his dark side emerges.

Cruz flew to Romania last March. The actor stayed there for three months for the shoot, which also included some stops in Greece. Before his flight, Cruz had a serendipitous encounter with a Filipino seafarer who knew about his project.

“The man told me, ‘I read that you are going to make a film about our lives as seafarers. I’m happy about that. I know you will make us proud.’ I wasn’t able to reply to that right away. I was
teary-eyed. He then said, ‘I’m also proud to be a Filipino.’ That was a really touching moment,” he said.


Crisel Consunji

Crisel Consunji

Winning the best new performer award at the 38th Hong Kong Film Awards for her performance in the movie “Still Human” opened a lot of doors for Crisel Consunji, who despite the pandemic and various restrictions, continued to land international projects.

Last year, the Hong Kongbased actress and educator was cast in director Peter Tsi and producer Cyrus Ho’s “Single Papa,” a 20-episode drama series on the streaming site Viu.

“They approached me about the series. Cyrus wrote to me saying, ‘Hey, we met at the film awards—and I have a project that you might be interested in,’” she told the Inquirer.

Consunji, who portrays a Filipino teacher whose life changes after meeting a single father wallowing in grief over his wife’s death, described the 55-day day shoot amid the Hong Kong lockdowns
as a “whirlwind.”

“The coronavirus struck after Chinese New Year (Jan. 25), and we didn’t know what was going to happen. Finally, they found this window around April, May and June,” she said. “My character was in nine of the (55 shoting days). It was exciting— and pretty intense!”

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