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[Only IN Hollywood] For Melody Butiu and Rodney To, making ‘Easter Sunday’ was like coming home to PH

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] For Melody Butiu and Rodney To, making ‘Easter Sunday’ was like coming home to PH

Melody Butiu and Rodney To (fourth and sixth, from left) join (from left) Joey Guila, Elena Juatco, Tia Carrerre and Lydia Gaston in the cast of Jo Joy's comedy, 'Easter Sunday.'

UNIVERSAL PICTURES

'This is the first time that at this global level, I've ever portrayed a fully fleshed-out Filipino, living in a Filipino family, under Filipino circumstances,' says Rodney To.

LOS ANGELES, USA – For Melody Butiu and Rodney To – Tita Yvonne and Tito Arthur, respectively – on Easter Sunday, making the comedy felt like coming home.

Both the two actors said they felt “intimidated” before filming began in Vancouver, Canada, but as soon they were on set, they were comfortable and everything felt as familiar as the big wooden spoon and fork displayed in many Filipino homes.

In Jo Koy’s Easter Sunday, the first big studio film centering on a Fil-Am family in Daly City (Vancouver subbed for the Northern California city teeming with Pinoys), Melody and Rodney are among the colorful Titos and Titas who enliven the family dynamics.

Emily’s Tita Yvonne is the cheerful aunt whom everyone loves and who will stand up and knock you out with her dead-on “Islands in the Stream” karaoke belting, with Dolly Parton’s accent and quiver and all.

Rodney’s Tito Arthur is the wisecracking uncle who is, shall we say, into security and defense. We’ve met Pinoy men who are obsessed with knives and all that.

Melody and Rodney enrich the film’s cast who come from varied backgrounds in live stage, theater, television, and film. The cast also includes Lydia Gaston, Eva Noblezada, Tia Carrere, Lou Diamond Phillips, Eugene Cordero, Joey Guila, Brandon Wardell, Elena Juatco, Jimmy O. Yang, Tiffany Haddish, and Jay Chandrasekhar (who also directs).

KARAOKE. Melody Butiu and Rodney To (fourth and sixth, from left) join (from left) Joey Guila, Elena Juatco, Tia Carrere, and Lydia Gaston in the cast of Jo Koy’s comedy, ‘Easter Sunday.’ UNIVERSAL PICTURES

A singer and actress, Melody debuted on Broadway via Doctor Zhivago in 2015. Melody’s many stage credits include her acclaimed performance as Estrella in David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love. She has also appeared in movies and TV shows.

Inducted into Chicago’s Filipino American Hall of Fame, Rodney played Typhoon in Parks and Recreation. He was recently cast in Michelle Yeoh’s new Netflix series, The Brothers Sun. Also a filmmaker, producer, and theater associate artistic director, Rodney is an assistant professor of theater practice in acting at the USC School of Dramatic Arts.

Also posted in this column are my one-on-one in-person interviews with Jo Koy; Tia and Lydia (paired); Jimmy O. Yang; and Jay.

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[Only IN Hollywood] Filipinos in Hollywood rise at last on ‘Easter Sunday’

[Only IN Hollywood] Filipinos in Hollywood rise at last on ‘Easter Sunday’

I interviewed Melody and Rodney in separate Zoom chats. Below are excerpts:

To be on the set with all these Fil-Am actors making this first big studio film about a Fil-Am family, what was that like? And what surprised you the most about the whole experience?

Rodney (R): At the risk of sounding cliché, it was a dream come true. I’ve been a part of Filipino stage productions and I’ve played Filipino characters going into this, but this is the first time that at this global level, I’ve ever portrayed a fully fleshed-out Filipino, living in a Filipino family, under Filipino circumstances.

So, I kind of went in there a little intimidated. You don’t know what it is you’re going to get. You kind of think because everyone’s experience as a Filipino is different. It’s the same on some level but we all have different versions of our own Filipino family.

So, we don’t know what that was going to be like. When we came on and to know that it was instantly sort of the same and we all had the same touchstones, it was pretty special. It was remarkable. It was easy.

It was skating on ice from the moment we did the table read. I didn’t feel like I needed to get to know everybody, and that has never happened on a television or movie set for me. I felt like this was family instantly.

SIBLINGS. Singer-actress Melody Butiu and her brother, John Butiu, veteran Hollywood animation and visual effects artist. RUBEN V. NEPALES

And again, at the risk of sounding cliché, finally, a project where all the niceties are put to the side, where that’s already taken care of because it’s in our DNA. So that was really heartwarming for me.

What surprised me the most? And it’s not even a surprise, really. Eugene Cordero has been a hero of mine for a long time. I work in comedy a lot and certainly, Jo (Koy) is a hero of mine.

For a long time, I’ve known about Eugene’s work. I’ve seen him in the UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) stages. And again, when you’re working with somebody who’s a hero of yours, you don’t know how to navigate it. The social awkwardness kicks in. What can I talk about, what can’t I talk about, kicks in.

I was prepared to be tongue-tied and starstruck. And Eugene was instantly a brother. He was a sibling to me instantly. It shouldn’t have been a surprise but it was.

And not because of anything that he did but just because I was prepared for it to be like, oh, I’m going to do everything wrong around him because I look up to his work so much. He took me under his wing instantly. I thought that was really special.

Melody (M): It was like coming home. When I think about telling this story and even just walking onto set for the first time to feel like, “Oh my gosh, this home feels so Filipino,” was really so incredible.

I was saying it feels so rare and unusual that this is the first studio film with a Filipino family, and yet for us, it feels ordinary in every day in ways. It feels like this is all I’ve known growing up. And so, that was really special being part of that.

And being able to share it with other Fil-Ams, and Fil-Canadians, to be able to have our shorthand of how we connect and the things that we’re like, “Oh, I recognize that.” Or “I recognize the spoon and fork on the wall.” The different little tchotchkes that so many Filipino homes have.

And then just how we connect and communicate felt…it was just a really great shorthand. The thing that surprised me was just the love and support. Everyone came from such different backgrounds.

I was, frankly, coming from a theater background and this being my first major studio film, I was really intimidated. When we were in Canada, we had to quarantine for two weeks. I spent those two weeks going, “What is happening? What is my life? What’s going to happen?”

KICKS. Rodney To, flanked by Jon Jon Briones (left) and Reggie Lee, three of the busiest Fil-Am actors working in Hollywood. RUBEN V. NEPALES.

My head was spinning. But then, to come to set, and to connect with people, and to know that despite everyone’s backgrounds, everyone just wants to uplift, support, and celebrate that we get to tell this story, it was really surprising and special.

Was there one scene that really resonated with you?

R: Oh my gosh. I would say, without giving too much away, there is a meal that we all partake in and there’s something special that happens in the meal. And it very specifically happens with Jo’s character.

Jo really gets to prove himself as an actor in this movie but very specifically in this scene. To me, it’s like Robin Williams, right? You know that Robin Williams is a funny guy and then you see these moments of him being like, oh, and there’s the actor.

And Jo proves that in this very specific scenario. I was so moved by his work from his comedy to the softer side of him. He’s pretty special.

M: Being in church, it felt like a flashback to my childhood, to scoot in under the pews, and be with our family, and things like that, to celebrate Easter.

It felt really fun and felt like, “Oh my gosh. It’s been such a long time since I’ve experienced that.” A lot of my family is very spread apart in different parts of the country so I don’t get to have those experiences quite as much. It was a fun experience doing that.

Who are you most excited to show this movie to?

R: Of course, my family, my friends. And to every non-Filipino out there. And very specifically, I’m excited for America and the global population to hear the sounds, see the sights, and just see the dynamic that is very quintessentially Filipino.

And to let them hear our accent, to see our food. If you think about it, Filipino food is the least known out of the Asian cuisines. People know Malaysian cuisine more than they know Filipino food. Nowadays, it’s certainly changed.

But when people talk about Filipinos, they know Filipino nurses. They’ve met Filipinos in their churches but I don’t know if they know the culture.

SUN. Rodney To shows off the sun design, inspired by the Philippine flag, on the back of his tuxedo jacket at the ‘Easter Sunday’ premiere party. RUBEN V. NEPALES

Why Jo did this film is because it’s really bringing the culture of being Filipino to the masses. And so those are the people I’m excited for.

My family, they’re going to be like, “Yeah, I know what all of that is.” But for somebody to see a dead pig sitting at a dinner table, right? And then it brings up a conversation.

I’ve already had someone be like, “Wait, is that really what you guys do?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And then to see they’re like, “How come there are no vegetables on that table?”

I’m like, “Yeah, we don’t really have any of those. It’s usually buried underneath all of the sauces that we have.” So, I love that those are conversation pieces for people who are not Filipino. And I’m excited for them to learn.

You must wish that your beloved Lola were still around to watch this movie.

R: Oh gosh, my Lola was with me every step of the way. One of the things I’m proudest of is to be able to bring the spirit of all of my ancestors, friends, and family.

I mean, from the yelling, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is from the yelling that happens in the movie to all of the intimate, private, comforting, loving moments.” It’s everywhere, not just Lola’s imprint but everyone’s ancestral imprint is everywhere in this movie.

My Lola would have flirted with everyone on that set. Lola was a flirt. She loved men. Oh my gosh. She would have liked our director (Jay Chandrasekhar) who is this tall, handsome Indian American guy.

Of course, our crew are all these striking men and women. She would have flirted with everybody. But probably, if I brought her to set to watch, I would have been excited but then she would have fallen asleep watching it.

I remember my Lola would come to see one of my shows. She would be really excited to see it. And then a minute into the show, she would fall asleep and then wake up at the end when everyone’s applauding. That’s how my Lola supported me.

Was there one take or scene that the cast couldn’t help but break into laughter?

M: The balikbayan box scene, when they were breaking out all of the props and things. It’s like, “Oh, the Spam. Oh, the creamer.” Just recognizing the things that we put in.

And then there were some random props, where we were like, “What are these chains for? I don’t know what the chains are for.” It was fun discovering the little things that the team had put together for us to put in the balikbayan box.

And then just the act of putting that all together and being this big family deciding what’s going to go in the box and stuff was really fun.

[Only IN Hollywood] For Melody Butiu and Rodney To, making ‘Easter Sunday’ was like coming home to PH

In the Q and A that followed the screening that I attended, there was a great discussion that now, with Hollywood more open to diversity and representation, Fil-Am actors can breathe a sigh of relief that they can finally be who are they – Filipino Americans – instead of passing themselves off as something else. As a Fil-Am actor yourself, what’s your experience with that?

M: Absolutely. When I first started working professionally, I was told not to expect to play Filipinos because the mainstream doesn’t know what Filipinos are, they don’t know where the Philippines is, you should maybe change your name to a more Spanish name or learn Spanish.

They’re like, “You don’t look very Asian.” So, I fell through the cracks. In my career, I have been very lucky to work on projects, mostly theater, where I do get to play Filipinos. To be able to do this and know that someone like Lou Diamond Phillips or Tia Carrere, who’ve had decades of experience in this industry and very few opportunities to play Filipino, was such a gift.

And to be able to see them relish and enjoy that. And all of us, as a family, to be able to celebrate that, was really so touching, and incredible. It still makes me emotional because we deserve to be seen.

We’ve been here. We have been here for generations. We have been contributing to the fabric of the American experience.

And so, to be able to share our story as an American family, that it’s not just about our suffering, as people of color, but actually, just about who we are, how we connect, how we celebrate, how we uplift each other, that’s an incredible gift. I’m so proud to have had this experience. – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.