Filipino actors

Cebuana singer Amelyn Pardenilla captivates in American TV series ‘Expats’

Francine Vito

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Cebuana singer Amelyn Pardenilla captivates in American TV series ‘Expats’

Courtesy of Amelyn Pardenilla

'There are no small roles, and there are no small jobs. I have many domestic helper friends here. A job is a job. We all work hard and sacrifice,' Pardenilla asserts.

They say that zero expectations equal zero disappointment. Hong Kong-based Cebuana singer Amelyn Pardenilla had this philosophy when she auditioned for what she believed was a very small role, walking away without any expectations.

The “very small part” turned out to be an opportunity for her to go from singing on local stages to acting on the global screen.

“I was shocked,” Pardenilla recalls. “When Lulu Wang called to announce the news, she had to repeat it several times on the phone before it sank in.”

Wang is a Hollywood filmmaker, and she called to offer Pardenilla a role in an American TV series starring none other than Nicole Kidman. The character would have speaking parts and a story. And the icing on the cake? The role comes with a soulful solo song number where Pardenilla showcases her singing talent.

Privileged expats and the women who make their lives easier

Expats is a six-episode limited series on Amazon Prime Video. A Time magazine review touted it as “the first must-see show of 2024.”

The series follows the story of three privileged American expats in Hong Kong. Two of them, Margaret (Nicole Kidman) and Hilary (Sarayu Blue) are wealthy women living in sprawling apartments in Hong Kong’s richest neighborhood. Pardenilla plays Puri, Hilary’s helper. Award-winning Filipina actress Ruby Ruiz plays Essie, the cherished yaya of Margaret’s family. 

The beautifully shot series starts as a whodunnit, slow-burn thriller, set against the pulsing backdrop of Hong Kong. But stay on for the whole ride and you’ll see how Wang uses the show as a platform for much-needed conversations on privilege, the choices (or lack thereof) that modern women have to make, and Hong Kong’s struggle for independence.

Episode 5, titled ”Central,” is an hour and a half long – the length of a feature film. Wang designed “Central” as a standalone episode, and the narrative completely shifts away from the troubles of the American women and into the new land they call home, and to the people who make their daily lives easier: the domestic helpers.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Blue says of episode 5: “That episode is the actual show, in my opinion. You can’t tell the story of Expats without having Essie’s and Puri’s experience,” she said.

Episode 5 opens with the sound of women laughing and speaking Tagalog. The outdoor grounds of Hong Kong’s central business district transform into “Little Manila.” The helpers, on their precious day off, lay out cardboard boxes that serve as makeshift areas for everything from manicures to games and meals. Puri’s voice floats above the joyful din as she sings the opening bars to the pop battle hymn “Roar” by Katy Perry. The voices of other Filipina singers blend in, creating a choir version of the song that is both heartfelt and hopeful.

We know that being a helper abroad isn’t easy. But in Expats, Wang goes even deeper and zeroes in on something that isn’t always talked about: what about the dreams of these women?

How an acting newbie scored a juicy Hollywood role

Pardenilla has been living and working in Hong Kong for the last 22 years as a professional singer in 5-star luxury hotels like The Peninsula. But in 2021, Hong Kong’s live entertainment industry suffered the aftermath of the pandemic.

“My husband is also a musician, so our incomes were hit. We offered private music lessons, but it wasn’t a stable and reliable source,” she said.

Fortunately, the dry spell didn’t last long. “In May 2021, I heard about the audition from a friend. I didn’t know what the project was about, all I knew was that it was for an acting part. The production was looking for a Filipina in her 40s who knew how to sing,” she recounted.

That she had no prior professional acting experience didn’t stop Pardenilla. “I just thought it would be great exposure for me as a singer,” she said. She sent an audition tape and not long after, she got a callback to do a live audition with a certain Lulu, whom she didn’t realize at the time was the director.

“The audition lasted only around 10 minutes, but Lulu and I ended up talking for a long time after. I was really at ease with her. I never thought the director would handle auditions for bit parts, so I thought she was an assistant,” she recalled laughing.

Not just a maid

Pardenilla’s experience as a real-life overseas Filipino worker (OFW) helped her slip into Puri’s skin easily. According to the Philippine Statistics Office’s latest data, there are 1.96 million OFWs.

The same survey says that 44.4% of these workers are involved in elementary occupations, which includes domestic work. Pardenilla is proud to represent this group of modern heroes. Sadly, there are still people who belittle the job of a helper, but Pardenilla is quick to defend the community. 

She reacts to a negative comment she read online. “Katulong na naman daw yung role ng Pinoy (They said the Filipino plays the help yet again). That person also said we only had small parts in the series, so why make a big deal?” she said with disappointment. She added, “But there are no small roles, and there are no small jobs. I have many domestic helper friends here. A job is a job. We all work hard and sacrifice.”

Working with Hollywood stars

Pardenilla’s enthusiasm for her first acting job was still palpable during the interview. “Some days I barely slept because I still had singing gigs at night, then had to be on set early the next day. But I was always alert and excited as soon as I was in front of the camera,” she said.

Blazer, Clothing, Coat
TEAMMATES. Brian Tee, Ruby Ruiz, Amelyn Pardenilla, and Lulu Wang. Courtesy of Amelyn Pardenilla

When it comes to working with Hollywood stars, Pardenilla admits she got starstruck around her fellow cast members. “There was Brian Tee from The Fast and The Furious. There was also Ate Ruby, a veteran actress. Initially, I wasn’t mingling too much with our American co-actors. But Ate Ruby would ask me to sing on set, and that drew their attention,” she laughs. “It boosted my confidence and helped me relax around them.”

Pardenilla has nothing but praise for the cast and crew. “Lulu was incredibly supportive, especially for a first-timer like me. She was also open to suggestions. Puri was supposed to speak in broken English, but I explained that many Filipino helpers are college-educated. They may not speak with an American accent, but the heavily accented, bad English is a stereotype. She ultimately abandoned the idea,” she said.

Architecture, Building, Dining Room
WITH NICOLE. Amelyn Pardenilla with Nicole Kidman at a cast party. Courtesy of Amelyn Pardenilla

And for the question in everyone’s mind: what was it like working with Nicole Kidman? “I never had any scenes with her, and she had a busy schedule, so she wasn’t always on set. I only met her in January at the cast party in New York before the premiere! She is so nice and down to earth. She told me that I did a really good job, and coming from her, that meant a lot,” she said proudly.

Pardenilla is a registered nurse but chose to make music her life’s work. Now, she plans to continue acting as well. As someone who carved a long and fruitful career in entertainment, Pardenilla has some advice for those looking to succeed in a creative industry: “Work hard on your dreams. Do what it takes to get just one foot in the door first, then work as hard as you can. Don’t give up when things get hard. I had many ups and downs too. But I love singing and music, and God has always found a way to provide, even during the hard times,” she said. –

Expats is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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