Get to know Joanna Ampil, this year’s MMFF Best Actress

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As a theatre actress who has performed in West End musicals such as “Miss Saigon,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Les Misérables,” Ampil says that acting for the MMFF entry "Ang Larawan" was more challenging. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Joanna Ampil attempted to quit twice during the rehearsals of Ang Larawan.”

The musical film, which is an adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s play “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” took a toll on her physical and mental health, having to play Candida, one of the protagonists of the film whose character reeks of poorly controlled rage and confusion that verged on lunacy.   

“I was taking the character home, and it was stressing me out. It's not a very pleasant character to play, I have to admit,” Ampil says. In the film she plays Candida, one of the daughters of esteemed painter Don Lorenzo Marasigan, struggles to make peace with the life that their father supposedly chose for them — a life that is filled with art, culture, and tradition, and devoid of realities and practicalities. Her father gives her and her sister Paula his last self-portrait, one that is being sought after by the upper echelons of society. Selling the portrait means they would be able to pay their stacks of bills, but doing so could mean betrayal to everything their father and their lives stand for.

“She is so complex. She's manipulative and cantankerous, and of course, when I was playing her, I couldn't judge her. But she was so farfetched from the way I am, as Joanna,” she says. “Candida didn't want to move on with the times, whereas I'm so practical.”

Joanna Ampil “I was taking the character home, and it was stressing me out. It's not a very pleasant character to play, I have to admit,” Ampil says. Photo by JL JAVIER

As a theatre actress who has performed in West End musicals such as “Miss Saigon,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Les Misérables,” Ampil says that acting for the film was more challenging, especially since she had to go on and off character when the director said cut or when production setups took longer than usual. In theater, the journey is more straightforward: the curtains open, she performs, she bows, the curtains close. “In movies, it takes days. You have to keep doing a particular scene if you need to,” she says.

Despite these difficulties, Ampil says she was able to power through with the help of three people in particular whom she feels indebted to. “Rachel [Alejandro] who played my sister, and Ryan Cayabyab, who was always so sunny,” she says, and before mentioning the third person, she explains how the positivity of Cayabyab, who wrote and rearranged the music for the film, drove her to do the work every day.

“And another important person was Jake Macapagal, who mentored me throughout this journey,” she says. “He gave a lot of wonderful inputs on acting and it was a real master class with Jake. He really taught me. That short period that we had, parang feeling ko nag-course ako ng acting for a year.”

Ampil went on to win the Best Actress award at the 2017 Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), where “Ang Larawan” also won Best Picture. CNN Philippines Life talked to Ampil about her experience of playing Candida in “Ang Larawan,” the difficulties she had to endure, and what the movie means for her as an actress and a Filipino. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

What drew you to take the role of Candida as well as join “Ang Larawan”?

I actually didn't know anything about the musical prior to the offer. It was 2008 when Girlie Rodis, my manager, told me about the play or the musical. She said it was from this play "A Portrait of an Artist as Filipino," and I said I know nothing about the play and I don't know anything about the musical either. But she gave me the libretto and she gave me the CD. I never got a chance to listen to it. The only thing I did was watch the 1965 film version in English, which I really enjoyed, but [when] I was watching it, I wasn’t thinking this was the part I was going to play.

I was just really enjoying it. And I realized that there was that difficult scene, you know, the walang ilaw scene, but it didn't occur to me that it was going to be very, very hard to do. So I forgot about it, and then we filmed it a few years later, and then I realized ‘Oh my gosh, that is a hard scene to do.’

I think some people are intimidated by the movie. They think that it's just for the upper class or whatever, hindi. It's not. Just give it a chance.

Yes, that scene where you instantly broke down without warning. Can you explain the difficulty of that scene and what you did to make those emotions come through?

At first, I was in denial that it was going to be hard work. I thought, ‘Ah, madali lang ‘yan.’ And then when I started layering up my character, I just realized that I had to be so truthful and committed to this scene because people will know if you're faking it. You have to make sure that you are so Candida. There is no room for being Joanna when you're doing that particular scene and you have to understand what she's going through mentally  — why she had that breakdown.

I rehearsed it many, many times I remember. But the rehearsal becomes irrelevant because you have to be so in the moment and you have to be so truthful. And for you to be able to switch it on and off, you have to know it so well. And I did, by that time we filmed it, I knew how I was going to do it.

Did you have any qualms about doing the film, knowing that the creative process would be very different from theatre?

Wala. I'm so ready for a new challenge and I love learning new things. I love learning a new skill. Like I said, people were asking me, ‘Would you do a teleserye?’, which is completely different, and I said, ‘Yes, I would.’ I want to know how Filipinos do their teleseryes. I know it's completely different from how they do it in the States or anywhere else. Even ‘yung times natin mas mahahaba. I want to know how actors work here, what the challenges are, you know. And you can only look at that in a positive way, a positive light because these are all [part of] a learning process.

Like for example, when you're guesting in a T.V. show, you really don't have many rehearsals to do that whereas in London, for example, when we guest on television, we rehearse for days because we need to make sure that the audience will see a perfect version of that particular production whereas here, walang rehearsal and everything is in teleprompter. Malaki ‘yung difference, but the good thing about that is that you have to able to do it instantly, perfectly, so that is the challenge. They're very skilled here in doing it perfectly.

Can you relate to your role as Candida in any way? And is “Ang Larawan” a film that resonates with you?

Yeah, because you kind of preserve your culture, which I completely understand. Rachel Alejandro mentioned something which was quite interesting. When she said, she can compare it to OFWs. Would you choose to leave your family to earn and help them out or would you just stay with them even if you're hungry sometimes, but at least you're with your loved ones?

It's a similar sort of thing. Would you sell the painting for money to survive? But you know, you're getting rid of something that is very precious to you. Or would you stay with your tradition, with your beliefs? It's quite parallel. Both have advantages and disadvantages, I think. For me, I'm more on the practical, only because I'm a survivor. I want to survive. I know later on that you will reap the benefits of it afterwards. That's how I see it.

Joanna Ampil.jpg "I just realized that I had to be so truthful and committed to this scene because people will know if you're faking it," says Joanna Ampil on her role in "Ang Larwan." "You have to make sure that you are so Candida. There is no room for being Joanna when you're doing that particular scene." Photo from ANG LARAWAN/FACEBOOK

You had a year of rehearsals before actually filming for only 15 days. Of the entire experience, what has been the most significant for you?

The filming because by that time I was already quite relaxed because I knew my character inside out. So it was just doing the work and the work was easy then already. I was just enjoying it and I knew that I got it down to a T. It was good, it felt good, and Loy Arcenas [the director of the film], who is a man of a few words, he said to me, ‘I confess that, you know, this has been so amazing. It has been amazing.’

He was very forthcoming with his compliments, which he didn't give to me during the rehearsal period, but when he said that I knew he really meant it, so it was really nice. Loy and I had our ups and downs, but in the end, he's a brilliant director because he wouldn’t have been able to come up with such an amazing production of “Ang Larawan.” He was very much into the detail of the filming of it and he's got very good eyes and very good taste.

What did you feel when you were told they had to pull out the film from some cinemas?

The end result is a positive thing so okay lang naman na na-pullout kami kasi it's something that we can now talk about and it's a good anecdote. We were underdogs really, and ngayon nandoon na kami sa lahat na sinehan. Plus, it's a good story to tell.

It was heartbreaking at first but because people were rooting for us, ‘di mo na naiisip ‘yung mga negatives. But of course, the producers probably were upset about that but for me ang dami kasing, ‘yung word of mouth also eh, you know, it's so powerful, and also, I knew that the target market really loved the movie. ‘Yung mga people who ... the ones who really understand the art and value it, they loved it. I think some people are intimidated by the movie. They think that it's just for the upper class or whatever, hindi. It's not. Just give it a chance.

The movie certainly showcases Filipino culture and tradition. What does the film mean for you as an actress and a Filipino?

I know how important this material is, and I'm so happy to have contributed to the arts in the Philippines. So for me, that is something that I can be proud of. I said that in my speech [during the MMFF awards], that finally I'm giving something for the Philippines because I've always been away and working abroad. Finally, I'm giving back something to you guys.