Soaps need a lot of soaping

Cherie Gil

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Cherie Gil talks about improving the soap opera industry and the travails of extras

ON SET. Cherie Gil and Vilma Santos on the set of their new film 'Extra.' Photos courtesy of Cherie Gil

Okay so I’ve been in a foul mood lately. Could it be because Mercury’s in retrograde? I’m not really an astrology fanatic but when this planet starts acting up there’s no denying it affects me, as my sign is ruled by it.

Playing the villain most of the time on-screen keeps me on my toes offscreen. Contrary to the roles I play, I try hard not to be that person in real life and instead choose to be “nice”; really, really nice. Sometimes, I try too hard I know, but when shit hits the fan, boy, I too can boil and it has nothing to do with my being known as a kontrabida. I’m just simply human.

Talk about how to be a bitch without really trying! Perhaps I should give a master class on the subject one of these days. Bitching 101. (next article?)

I’ve been immersed in prepping for “Sonata” these past weeks, and I’m finding myself getting more and more morose, close to the character I am to play.

My thoughts have also been preoccupied with “Extra,” another film I just finished for Cinemalaya, which stars THE Vilma Santos. I just can’t get past the experience. Aside from being thrilled to work with the great actress that she is, it also opened my eyes to so many issues involving the soap opera industry that I feel compelled to share and question.

LIFE OF AN EXTRA. The "talents" waiting for what's next for them on a hot taping day

The film is meant to be a parody about an “extra” (bit player) played by Vilma, and how she struggles with the difficulties in the soap opera world.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

In the movie, I play the “kontrabida” (duh!) in the “pretend teleserye”  along with Marian Rivera playing my daughter. As soon as the fictitious TV cams stop rolling, I am supposed to actually play myself, as in, Cherie. This may be a good thing as I’m hoping that after watching the film, people will have learned how to pronounce my name properly! 

For the longest time, it has always been Cherry or Cheery. To make it even worse, some people attempt my full name, “Ay! si Cherry Hell!” I mean come on! Is my name really that difficult to pronounce? After so long in the biz you’d hope that most would get it right by now. But no! And Cherry Pie Picache unwittingly didn’t make it any easier for them.

Enough ranting…back to my point.

In the film, directed by good friend Jeffrey Jeturian, Vilma–as Loida the bit player–makes so many mistakes that we have to go through take after take before we get the scene right. Not an unusual scenario in the real world. Then we, those playing the “actors”, react–either by being tolerant or not.

Because this part is unscripted in the film, we have a free hand to react and improvise. More often than not, I find myself rolling my eyes or laughing at Loida’s silly mistakes. Okay, I admit it, I usually take the non-tolerant reaction, as I do in real life tapings.

SHOOT. Part of pre-production is our photo shoot made up of the most creative minds like (from left to right) fashion designer and graduate of Slim's Riza Bulawan, Mark Higgins, myself, Peque Gallaga , Fanny Serrano , Sandy Higgins, Michael Salientes and Joan Bitagcol

In my defense, it’s not easy getting into scenes. 

For one, it doesn’t help if I am deeply into my protagonist character and the “talent,” as we now call them, fumbles. I am on auto-pilot by that time, having programmed myself to stay in character. I am not a light switch that you can just turn on and off!  So naturally, I’m seldom able to be “nice.”

The work we do as actors, and the energy and preparation we put into our craft demands and calls for co-players to put in just as much effort and ability to deliver their parts. So when we find ourselves working with inexperienced “talents,” it can get really frustrating.

Yet this time, with the incapable “talent” being played by THE Vilma Santos, it made me see that they too need encouragement. So I tried to soften up a little when Loida messes up, to put a not-so-negative light on the real actors I was sort of representing. Or was I? I asked myself if, was I being true to the role. Confused yet? I now am! Quite confused.

In truth, if the “talents” are incapable of stepping up to the plate to give what it takes to deliver properly as an actor, then why even attempt to be one? Is it because most are just wishing for that golden opportunity to be seen on TV by their relatives and friends back home? Or because the networks are just simply cutting down their budgets again, and won’t get “real” and experienced actors to play key bit roles?

This leads to other points. Is there a lack of reverence and respect for the craft of acting? And while we’re at it, is anyone else noticing the wave of newcomers who don’t all deserve to be called actors, much less talents? There are just too many to keep track of now.  

I am perplexed as to how we allow this development to fester, short-changing the commitment, perseverance and dedication of true actors, many of whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. And last but certainly not least, non-professionals cause more time delays, which in turn eat up the budget, and finally with patience running thin and without wanting to, one can easily loose one’s cool and the “EXTRA” ends up getting the brunt of it . Yes, kawawa nga, PERO……!

BEHIND THE SCENES. The ‘Sonata’ team does scene-by-scene pre-prod with all departments

So what to do?  Chicken and egg, catch 22.

From my perspective, I’m not sure if I can now consider this film the parody it’s meant to be, or more of an “exposé” into our real world of soap operas. It reflects many truths of what these extras, or talents, face. I myself, despite my ranting, have softened up to their plight.

On one taping day, lo and behold, the first sight that greeted me were some 20 talents sitting on cardboard on the ground, in the heat of the sun, right in front of the main actors’ air conditioned tent. Talk about rubbing the point in.

All this for P1,000 a day or P1,500 if you had speaking lines, or if you played a nurse, police or doctor, you get P2,000 because you have to bring your own uniform. A day may mean 28 to 36 hours straight for many of them.

I’m fortunate that after decades in the business, I’ve earned a cut-off time of 2 am (which in effect actually helps talents go home earlier, if they’re in my scenes). I realize minimum wage stands at under P500, but these seemingly good talent fees don’t go straight into their pockets. They too have agents or talent suppliers who whittle away their earnings. (Just like we do.)

I could be putting myself on a limb here, but I’m going to say it anyway: isn’t it high time we make the working environment in the soap opera world better for all to enjoy the work and find dignity in our choice of profession?  

Isn’t it time to raise the standards and expectations for the betterment of our teleseryes; from better story material, evolving from  formulaic recipes. From more comfortable stand-by areas, to better and more respectful organization of everyone’s time, to humane working hours, and even maybe to plates and utensils (instead of styrofoam and plastics) for everyone?

After all, isn’t the soap opera industry run by professional, successful big network corporations, who earn from professional, big corporate advertisers? Aren’t we all in this together? We all just want to make a decent and respectable living.

I wonder how and where the change must start?

At this moment, I feel like a David among the many Goliaths! Alone, I can only rant and complain but as the saying goes, it only takes a village at a time to see change happen for the better. Too many issues in this biz need cleansing. Sadly our villages stand on faulty stilts.

Hopefully, we can enjoy the movie “Extra” once it’s shown and actually see the comedy of it all as intended. Or maybe not? –

Cherie GilCherie Gil is known for her iconic line in “Bituing Walang Ningning” as Lavinia Arguelles: “You’re nothing but a second rate, trying hard, copycat!” Famous for playing “kontrabida” (antagonist) roles, she is now part of the Rappler family as our resident “kontra diva” (anti-diva). Watch out for more of Cherie Gil and her thoughts only on Rappler.

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