Why it’s important to cast LGBTQ+ actors in queer roles

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Albee Saspa (left) plays Alex, a disaffected gay boy graduating from college in Whammy Alcazaren’s Cinema One Originals entry “Never Tear Us Apart,” while Zar Donato plays young lesbian Billie in Samantha Lee’s QCinema entry “Billie & Emma.” Photo by HIKARU MURAKAMI

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Over a year ago, CNN Philippines Life published an article asking what place the queer actor had in Philippine cinema. In interviews with various actors, academics, and industry professionals, we discovered many roadblocks ahead for LGBTQ+ actors trying to navigate the landscape of Philippine cinema.

One of the questions has always been that of representation. Wouldn’t queer actors be equipped with the emotional palette to tell queer stories better than the straight cisgender actors who usually take these parts? And isn’t it an injustice to the talents of queer performers trying to make their way in the industry?

Three recent festival entries offer a beacon of hope. Each director made a point of telling an LGBTQ+ story and casting queer actors in the key roles. Three of these four performances are from first-time feature film actors. All of these actors make a strong case that queer stories come alive in the fullest way possible when handed to performers with a comparable lived experience.

Transgender stage comedian Iyah Mina plays equal measures emotional and comical in the titular role of Rod Singh’s “Mamu; And A Mother Too.” In the film, she plays a trans sex worker trying to make ends meet for the people she loves. At the Cinema One Originals Film Festival, Mina became the first transgender actor to win a Best Actress trophy from any Philippine award-giving body for a performance that was instinctive and deeply affecting. Trans actor Mimi Juareza had won a similar award previously but had been misgendered, winning Best Actor at the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival for her performance in “Quick Change” in 2013.

In another Cinema One Originals entry, Whammy Alcazaren’s “Never Tear Us Apart” (formerly known as “Fisting: Never Tear Us Apart”), Albee Saspa offers a dark, moody performance as Alex, a disaffected gay boy graduating from college and dealing with deeply buried emotions.

In Samantha Lee’s QCinema entry “Billie & Emma,” Zar Donato plays Billie, a young lesbian navigating high school and romance with Emma (Gabby Padilla). Donato’s performance rings with warmth and agency. Cielo Aquino also has a compassionate supporting turn in the film as Billie’s closeted aunt, for which she won the festival’s award for Best Supporting Actress.

We spoke to these four actors on their performances, how they got cast in their films, and the importance of feeling seen on screen. Below are edited excerpts from the interviews.

CNN-13.jpg Transgender stage comedian Iyah Mina plays the titular role of Rod Singh’s “Mamu; And A Mother Too.” At the Cinema One Originals Film Festival, Mina became the first transgender actor to win a Best Actress trophy from any Philippine award-giving body. Photo by HIKARU MURAKAMI

Iyah Mina as Mamu in “Mamu; And A Mother Too”

Actually my work kasi is as a stand-up comedian sa Punchline, Laffline, comedy bars, tapos nag-ge-guesting sa mga game shows sa mga networks, sa ABS, gano’n. Tapos, si Direk [Rod Singh], nakita niya ako na nagpe-perform. Nakita niya ‘yung mga guestings ko sa YouTube and ayun na nga, pinahanap na niya ako.

Sobrang takot na takot [ako]. ‘Yung friends ko din, sabi nila, ‘Grab mo na ‘yan, kasi minsan lang magbukas ang pinto,’ so ‘di ba? Baka ‘yan na rin ‘yung call ni Lord, kasi lagi kong lang dasal every night, may guestings lang ako. ‘Yun lang, guesting ng game shows, pero binigyan pa ako ng big screen, OA. Sobrang nagbigay ng gifts, Lord, sobra.

Sobrang every day, every shoot, ine-explain niya sa’kin, ‘Huwag mong kalimutan na ikaw si Mamu. Ang role ni Mamu ay transitioning to motherhood so tandaan mo na gusto mong maging nanay kahit transgender ka.’ Palagi niyang inaano sa’kin, pinapasok sa isip, lalo na sa puso. Kasi pag nag-te-take na kami, mag-cu-cut ‘yan, sasabihin niya, ‘Walang puso. ‘Di ko naramdaman na ikaw si Mamu.’ Kaya nung mga third day ng shoot namin, ‘yun na, hinahayaan na niya ako, kasi parang nakuha ko na daw ‘yung puso ni Mamu. Ako na daw si Mamu talaga.

CNN-16.jpg “Sana mabigyan na talaga ng pansin actually [ang trans performers], lalo na madami namang mahuhusay at talented na trans actors, trans singers, na ‘di nabibigyan ng pagkakataon,” says Mina. Photo by HIKARU MURAKAMI

May nagsabi sa akin [na transwoman] na, ‘Bakit gano’n? Totoo. Mamu is real, totoo.’ Lalo na ‘yung mga kaibigan ko na nanood, sobrang attached sila, lahat sila umiyak at naka-relate talaga. Kasi ‘yun ang gusto [ni Rod Singh] mangyari — dapat makatotohanan. Hindi mo mafe-feel ito ‘pag iba ang gumanap. ‘Pag nakita mo may straight guy na nagpo-portray ng trans, parang hirap paniwalaan, kaya ‘yun ‘yung gusto niyang iparating. Dapat natural, parang buhay, parang kasama mo lang siya.

Sana mabigyan na talaga ng pansin actually [ang trans performers], lalo na madami namang mahuhusay at talented na trans actors, trans singers, na ‘di nabibigyan ng pagkakataon. Dapat ito na ‘yung pagkakataon talaga na nakikita naman na dapat, kasi mas marami pang talented na lumalabas, ‘di lang nabibigyan ng pansin. Alam mo naman na ‘di gano’n [ka-open], lalo na sa film. ‘Yun ‘yung pinaglalaban namin lahat, lalo na si Direk Rod, na ito na ‘yung chance, ito na ‘yung time na dapat lumabas na lahat nung dapat lumabas at makita.

CNN-35.jpg In the lesbian rom-com “Billie and Emma,” new girl Billie is played by openly gay and first-time film actor Zar Donato. Photo by HIKARU MURAKAMI

Zar Donato as Billie in “Billie & Emma”

I was a film student. I graduated this May and before I got to “Billie & Emma,” of course I was into films already so it’s not hard for me to adjust to shooting and everything, the production hours. I love the process of everything. And with acting, after I graduated, I started auditioning for roles for thesis films, specifically LGBT [films], because my look is really androgynous, plus I’m openly gay.

Sam [Lee] tweeted, “Who wants to audition for a lead role in my new LGBT film?” When I got to see the tweet, I DM-ed her right away because I had my set card naman na and everything, so I’m already prepared. I told her, “Hi Sam! I really want to act for an LGBT film but I don’t have any acting experience and workshops or whatsoever but just in case you give me a shot, here’s my CV and set card.”

In front of the camera, it’s more on the emotions, so it’s totally different. I loved the process also. I fell in love with it at first sight because I’m a really emotional person, so studying a character, studying emotions and studying how you create a character or how you make a character come into life really [speaks] to me.

CNN-31.jpg “If you put someone who is an openly queer actress or actor there, meron siyang hugot,” says Donato. “Talagang alam niya kung saan ‘yung experience niya so mas magiging in-depth din ‘yung mismong character sa film, kung anumang film ‘yon.” Photo by HIKARU MURAKAMI

When it comes to film, we basically capture life. We capture triumphs and failures. We basically capture people and people in the community have real stories to tell, you know? Film being one of the most impactful industries, to give these people a platform to tell their stories is basically giving them a chance to be seen, to be heard, and of course hopefully to be accepted too. If LGBTQ+ roles would be more prominent in our industry or in our country’s industry, we would hopefully create more opportunities for people in the community, right? And of course, seeing someone [onscreen] makes audiences feel that it’s okay to be who you are. It’s okay to be confident with who you are. It gives you a sense of comfort.

Personally, in my experience, seeing a queer actress play a queer role on this T.V. show that I watched — “The L Word,” the actor is Kate Moennig — it really made me feel good about myself because she’s open and you know, she’s one of my inspirations. That’s why I get to be where I am right now. I’m just really passing my experience forward.

It’s stereotypical kasi how we’re represented but we’re growing to actually be more open-minded nowadays, so with that comes acceptance, hopefully. Maganda kung meron tayo — if you put someone who is an openly queer actress or actor there, meron siyang hugot. Talagang alam niya kung saan ‘yung experience niya so mas magiging in-depth din ‘yung mismong character sa film, kung anumang film ‘yon.

CNN-40.jpg As Alex, Albee Saspa offers a dark and moody performance in the Cinema One Originals entry “Never Tear Us Apart.” Photo by HIKARU MURAKAMI

Albee Saspa as Alex in “Never Tear Us Apart”

One of my friends told me Whammy [Alcazaren] was looking for someone to audition for the role. Whammy talked to me about it and I asked for the script. I read the script, I didn’t understand it masyado, but a lot of my friends vouched for Whammy. It was a leap of faith.

I’ve been Alex before I became this jaded person [laughs], so I think, most of us naman will be able to relate to that level of emotional blind trust in another person na he doesn’t really know. So naka-relate ako na parang hinukay ko ulit, na, “Hey, Albert from how many years ago, let’s get you out of there.”

I had to draw from disappointing memories, disappointing experiences na I had been angry about, so I had to put them away and now that they’re needed, I’m not allowed to be angry at the old self anymore. It’s weird na, oh my god, now you’re navigating your past again which you didn’t navigate properly dati. So I don’t know, it’s a nice experience. It’s like you’re forgiving yourself.

CNN-46.jpg “Even if you say na, 'Love is love. Heterosexual love is the same [as] homosexual love,' getting there is not really the same din,” says Saspa. “It’ll mean a lot to queer people to reflect [in media] that it’s harder. It will make it easier for them to see their own truths.” Photo by HIKARU MURAKAMI

I can only assume na as an actor, if your life experiences are related to the character you’re trying to play, it’ll be more real, parang gano’n. It’s gonna be raw, I guess. It’s lending the role the credibility it needs.

Pero, in general, I think in media, ‘yung representation is needed and we are getting there naman, kinda slowly, but it’s important for the younger generation to see na it’s fine to be seen, to show yourself.

It makes them realize it’s okay to be seen and these are our stories that are as valid as ‘yung stories ng heterosexuals, because even if you say na, “Love is love. Heterosexual love is the same [as] homosexual love,” but getting there is not really the same din. It’ll mean a lot to queer people to reflect [in media] that it’s harder. It will make it easier for them to see their own truths.

000011.JPG Cielo Aquino plays Ms Castro, Bille's closeted aunt and religion teacher in “Billie & Emma.” Photo by SAMANTHA LEE

Cielo Aquino as Ms. Castro in “Billie & Emma”

I got connected through Phy, the line producer of “Billie & Emma,” when she got my number from Giancarlo Abrahan, the Director of my first film “Paki.”

Ms. Castro is Billie’s aunt who is a religious teacher. Her past was filled with several difficulties that she herself ran away and ended up in this small town. As a result of having almost the same past experiences as Billie, she could actually offer a better support system.

We’ve all gone through our fair share of love and heartbreaks and it was really a matter of recollecting those emotions and putting them in a different perspective. With Direk Sam [Lee], it was easy because while she gave us points, she also gave us the freedom to interpret the role the way we understood it. Given that most of us have similar experiences in our actual lives, it made us attack the role in a more genuine way.

000039.JPG “Having LGBTQ actors made the acting genuine and thus more relatable,” says Aquino of her experience working on “Billie and Emma.” “Movies like these help the young queer people. It gives them the courage to go out in the open and be real and honest to themselves and to the rest of the world.” Photo by SAMANTHA LEE

[What made the role special] for me, it’s really how we process ourselves in rebuilding our lives after going through difficulties. Some people go through the lengths of uprooting themselves to another place. While some just stay put and compartmentalize their thoughts and to some extent their immediate surroundings to rise above tough situations. New beginnings give us the opportunity to really do what we’ve always wanted. These are moments where you can put your lessons into practice. There’s just something really beautiful about that part of everyone’s journey.

Having LGBTQ actors made the acting genuine and thus more relatable. Movies like these help the young queer people. It gives them the courage to go out in the open and be real and honest to themselves and to the rest of the world.