You know you're a Filipino if, at some point in your life, you believe in superstitions. Like Cagayan de Oro-raised actor Chai Fonacier who used to believe that if you end up pointing at something, you need to bite your hand or else it will be cut off by some elementals. That's a myth, for sure. But if there's a thing Chai believes right from the start, it is that she always wanted to act.
Excellence personified, Chai always takes on exciting roles that help her cement her name in the roster as one of the most versatile actors of her generation.
From her remarkable performance as a transgender call center agent in Patay na si Hesus to recently being one of the cast members of the hit historical TV series Si Maria Clara at Ibarra, she's always ahead of the game, not only with her impeccable acting prowess but with her courageous might to venture more into the art of acting.
Now, she's taking it all under her wing as she breaks stereotypes and raises Filipino representation on the international film scene. And just like that, Chai's getting global attention as she attempts to heal Bond Girl Eva Green in Lorcan Finnegan's psychological horror, Nocebo.
On Bagging a Surprising Role
Chai playing unusual roles isn't much of a shocker, but when she appeared in that trailer alongside international stars, one couldn't help but stop their jaws from dropping.
Walking us through the selection process, Chai takes us back to the pandemic time to share how she landed the role. Without too much thought, Chai auditioned through an invitation. Weeks later, what she thought was just a support role ended up as a lead acting stint in her second international film.
"Bianca told me then that it was for another character, so I had the panic attack of my life. I sent my audition video at the last minute. Didn't think of the audition for the next couple of weeks 'til I got the news from Bianca and Lorcan that I bagged the role. Then I read the script. Then I realized, 'Oh, not support role. Kind of lead, okay!' So I panicked again," she recalled.
The pandemic made life difficult for everyone. So when Chai took the job when she had nothing, it opened up opportunities she had not anticipated, just as she had not anticipated the pandemic.
On Breaking Stereotypes and Elevating Filipino Representation
The Filipino accent is in a league of its own. We even generated memes about it out of fun. But it's another story when it is solely used to represent Filipinos in the media. Thirty seconds into the trailer, Chai's English accent created a big buzz online. Filipinos reacted differently because Chai does not speak like that in real life.
Chai's response to the skeptical viewers will finally lay the issue to rest. If there's anyone in the film who knows more about who Filipinos are, it's Chai, and she knows we are more than just our aksent.
"The accent, the way she moves—that came last. All of these weren't formed by how old she was, where she came from, had she gone to school, etcetera. All of this stuff informed whatever physical traits, mannerisms she may have, and to us, it made sense that this is probably how she might speak given the information I have about her (Diana)," she said.
Foreign films with Filipino lead actors are hard to come by, more so when the character is portraying Filipino culture itself. Chai's folk healing role just contributed to the many narratives that Filipinos in the international film scene should weave together to break the stereotypes that we are known for.
"When you hear only one story being told repeatedly about a group of people, that's where your negative stereotypes come from. It's important to have many stories coming from a group of people from any culture because it gives us some more nuanced understanding of who they are," she remarked.
Chai shared that putting together a character isn't as easy as it sounds. It's not just a piece or two that you need to establish, but their whole story. Chai has been bouncing ideas with her friend, their director, and their writer to process and form Diana that makes sense beyond the stereotypical Filipino character.
"For us Filipinos, the more stories about ourselves we see, the more we get to collectively introspect because I think art is introspection not just for the creator but also for the audience, for those who enjoyed that piece of art. When we see ourselves on screens, we get to think more deeply about ourselves as Filipinos," she noted.
On Immersing Herself to a New Filming Condition
Younger Chai thought that she would only be acting in theaters. She had no idea that it would snowball into big film after big film, eventually leading her to a Lorcan Finnegan-directed film. In her words, "it just fell on my lap."
About her first out-of-country working experience, she said that everything was rightful. She could have a good sleep and could take naps in between takes. In fact, she has never been happier about having a two-minute warning from an Assistant Director before her turn.
"I have never been happier about a two-minute warning in my entire life. Unfortunately, in the Philippines you have overworked ADs (Assistant Directors). It's not the AD's fault of course, because they're overworked, and usually dalawa lang sila (usually they're only two). In Ireland, there's like seven of them in a whole team. So, nakakainggit diba (isn't it so envious)?” she shared.
It became her sana all moment when she was handed over a menu list for lunch. This lets her see the furrow in the country's creative industry and the importance of the government's support.
"Being able to compare Ireland and the Philippines, I have deeply learned how important it is for film and TV workers to care about labor traditions and to fight for our labor conditions," she said.
That's why, when she heard about the issue of banning K-dramas, she thought it was, in her words, a sore loser vibe. "When you're running a race, somebody else's winning, and you're not winning, and then you tell the referee to ban the winner, a very sore loser. I don't think we should do that. You do not ban the competition, you compete with the best," she quipped.
Chai just proves that a country doesn't need to restrict competitions to hoist the local creative industry to a new level. Filipinos are highly talented, and they only need two things: investment and solid support.
Two or three years from now, Chai doesn't have any idea where she will be. But one thing is certain at the moment: she is making a name for herself. Every role she portrays leaves an exceptional impression. It's neither a superstition nor a myth that she's opened a bigger door not just for herself, but for more Filipinos in the realm of global film.
---------------- Photography by Philip Vargas
Makeup by Nadynne Esguerra
Styling by Dave Arden
Words by Kryzzle Cailing and Hans Ethan Carbonilla
Shot on Location RiseAbove Studio