We told Angeli Bayani to come as she wanted to be photographed, and she came as herself.
In a black The Doors t-shirt with the sleeves hacked off, denim shorts and black Doc Martens, her face scrubbed of make-up, this year’s Gawad Urian best actress could have passed for one of the students hanging out at the Vargas Museum Café in University of the Philippines Diliman where we had chosen to meet, not far from her stomping grounds when she was a UP theater arts major.
Hers may not yet be a household name, despite the Urian for her role in Lav Diaz’s “Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan,” the Camera d’Or award shared with the cast and crew of the Singaporean film “Ilo Ilo” at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and being singled out by acclaimed Taiwanese director Ang Lee as a “national treasure” for her exquisitely calibrated performance in the same.
Her face, however, is now more recognizable to mainstream audiences, thanks to recurring roles in popular network soap operas, including GMA’s current “Niño.”
With Cannes and Urian recognition under her belt, Bayani’s acting career has started to gain traction on mainstream film and television, after years of her laboring in semi-obscurity in the theater and independent cinema ghettoes.
Apart from “Niño,” she’s currently filming “Foreigners,” an independent Australian feature, as well as juggling numerous other projects. For the first time in Bayani’s life, she needs a manager to keep track of her work schedule.
It’s all the more surprising to learn that just five years ago, she came close to throwing in the towel.
A single mother, Bayani had just given birth to her son Marek (named after a character in Alexei Arbusov’s “Kawawang Marat”) and was at a crossroads.
“There came a point when I thought acting was a luxury I couldn’t afford,” she says, speaking mostly in Filipino throughout the interview.
“I was just starting out and had just become a mother; here was now another person depending on me, and I felt I needed security. I thought about giving up acting so I could earn some real money—maybe work at a call center.”
At that time she had been juggling stage and television bit parts, and earning a pittance for long hours spent taping, hours she felt she ought to spend with her young son.
“I felt like a fish out of water,” says the die-hard stage actress of her initial forays into television. “I still couldn’t accept being in the mainstream. Iyak ako nang iyak.”
Eventually, after much soul-searching, she resolved to accept whatever the universe chose for her, be it a long-awaited break or a call center job.
What came were more acting opportunities, even though the roles were still small, and so were the fees.
“I realized then that as a struggling artist, I had to nurture that side of me because this was what I had become,” she says.
“Even if I had started out not wanting to be an actress, this was what opened up for me,” she continues. “It’s where I’m happiest. It’s where I’m most creative. I told myself, ‘if you’re happy, your child is happy.’
“It was then I realized that you can’t force yourself to do what you don’t want to do, even if the money is there,” she says. “You attend to your happiness first, you attend to yourself first. You care for your craft because it is who you are. It is what you are. If you can do that, your child can feel it.”
It was after she had embraced her destiny that things started falling into place for her.
But even after “Ilo Ilo’s” critical success at Cannes and the Golden Horse Film Festival, her future was still anything but secure.
“Actually, after I got back from Cannes, I didn’t get any offers,” she says. “It was my driest season. I texted people asking about auditions. I did a lot of voice dubbing for Koreanovelas.”
But the momentum was building.
Bayani considers her performance in “Norte” her best work so far, and the jury for the Gawad Urian voiced their agreement when they chose her “best actress” over veterans Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos (in the process giving her the unfortunate tabloid tagline “the woman who beat Ate Guy and Ate Vi”).
But Angeli Bayani is not ready to rest on her laurels just yet.
Born in 1977, Bayani is actually second-generation theater: her father, Nilo Bayani, belonged to Rolando Tinio’s Teatro Pilipino in the ’70s. Her mother, Fresnaida Diego Ablog was a pre-school teacher.
By all accounts, the elder Bayani was a ’70s bohemian, prone to alternative spiritual beliefs.
“I think he called himself ‘Omega’ at that time,” recalls Bayani. “If I remember correctly he even became a monk at one point, or studied with monks—I’m not really sure. But I guess that was the attraction for my mother: She was a probinsiyana from Aparri. She had never met anyone like him before.”
In any case, however, soon after Bayani and her brother were born, they were sent to live with Angeli’s paternal grandparents, who were skeptical of her father’s unconventional lifestyle and his ability to raise a family.
It was a radical break.
“It was a very strict Catholic upbringing,” she recalls of life with her grandparents. “I grew up praying the Angelus every day and saying a novena before going to bed at night, I went to church in a dress and a veil.”
She was also sent to Angelicum, a Catholic school, for her elementary and high school education.
“I rebelled,” she says. “I started to question why my parents weren’t around. I couldn’t get any answers, so when I turned 13 I moved in with my parents. I grew up being told ‘you’re too much like your father,’ and it felt like a bad thing.
There was that stigma growing up. Was it because he was in the theater? I needed to know why my grandparents looked down on him.”
In a sense, she had never really known him, and what she discovered opened her eyes.
For all his good intentions, she says, her father could not support the family. It was her mother, she found, who was the rock, the breadwinner.
“Apparently, what I inherited from my father was his being a seeker,” she says. “Even when I was small, whenever I had a question, I was always told to just follow. Why? I only wanted to know why. So I learned to seek my own answers.”
But she also inherited from her mother a fierce determination to make it on her own and to be independent.
She would need that strength because, although she didn’t know it yet, her path would eventually lead to the stage.
Bayani initially enrolled in biology at the University of the Philippines, with a vague notion of perhaps going on to medicine.
“I wanted to do the sensible thing,” she recalls.
But she soon realized that her heart lay elsewhere. A radical left turn led her to enroll as a voice major in the college of music, where she discovered that she liked performing, perhaps more than singing. Eventually she found her way to the theater arts program and a home in UP’s small but energetic theater community.
By that time, however, it was too late: Her course changes had run her afoul of the university’s strict maximum residency rule. Six years had passed and she still hadn’t finished her course.
Bayani was left with no recourse but to plunge into theater full time, joining the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Pilipino.
“When I realized that I would be making only P50 a day with TP, I couldn’t tell my mother about it because she was so proud I was in the CCP,” she recalls.
Even then, people recognized a quality in Bayani that even she didn’t know she had.
“Tanggap ko na noon na taumbayan ako forever,” she says, meaning she was content to be a bit player in the ensemble cast, or the chorus.
But TP’s artistic director Herbie Go insisted she be cast against type in her first lead role, as Maria Clara in “Noli Me Tangere: The Musical.”
“For some reason, he fought for me,” she says. “I’m so thankful because for the first time, someone expected more from me, and believed I could do it. I had to step up. I never thought that I could be the lead.”
Later, Go told her that he saw her abilities from the beginning; it was Bayani who hadn’t realized it yet. It would take time and struggle before she overcame her resistance and embraced her destiny as an actress.
Tragically, by the time she had graduated to lead roles, her mother’s health had started to fail. A spinal injury led to paralysis, and it was at the hospital where they learned she also had thyroid cancer.
Her mother never got to see Bayani play Maria Clara on stage.
But the actress’s curious blind side to her own abilities also complicated her entry into the world of independent cinema.
In fact, when a friend told her that she was better suited to film or television because her acting was more for the camera than a live audience, Bayani was deeply offended.
“My whole life up to that point I had thought I was born for the stage,” she recalls. “I thought I would die onstage! When he told me that I was better suited for the camera, I wanted to slap him!”
Once again, other people saw her abilities before she herself did. After her triumph at Cannes, her friend asked her if she remembered what he told her and they shared a good laugh about it.
Despite her reluctance, the world of independent cinema beckoned.
Bayani’s first film role was for Nick Olanka’s Cinemalaya feature “Ang Huling Araw ng Linggo.” She had done a few more small films when she came to the attention of Lav Diaz, who was then casting his epic “Death in the Land of Encantos.”
“I had heard Lav was looking for an actress, but the shoot would clash with my Tanghalang Pilipino schedule, so I didn’t pay much attention.”
Eventually, however, the two met for the first time. Unbeknownst to her, Diaz had been looking to fill one of the smaller parts, but after seeing Bayani, he decided on the spot to cast her as the female lead. It was to be the beginning of a fruitful collaboration.
“I consider Lav one of my mentors,” she says. “When I first worked with him, I was used to studying the script and asking for instructions from the director. But Lav’s script only had the dialogue, no instructions. I wanted to prove that I deserved the role that he had given me. I didn’t want to panic but my brain was screaming, ‘oh my god! What am I going to do?’”
But after a while, she fell into the rhythm of filming, and her acting instincts took over.
“You can’t help it,” she says. “When you’re on Lav’s set, the environment absorbs you and you forget that he’s directing, you’re acting. I can’t explain it: It’s like you imbibe the feel and the energy, and you know what he wants to happen even without words.”
Her subsequent film with Lav Diaz, “Melancholia,” was another exercise in instinctive, intuitive filmmaking.
Bayani’s performance in “Encantos” and “Melancholia” announced the advent of a major new talent in independent cinema.
“I was moved by her performance,” recalls filmmaker Sari Dalena. “You could see immediately that she is an actress who bares her soul onscreen.”
Dalena cast Angeli as Ka Alma in her film “Ka Oryang”: the character was a composite of several women political detainees. To prepare for the role, Angeli met with former political prisoner Hilda Narciso, and immersed herself in the experiences of other martial law torture survivors.
“As a character, ‘Ka Alma’ must go through the various torture-methods these detainees went through,” recalls Dalena. “As you can imagine, these scenes were not only physically taxing, but highly emotional as well… This is where Angeli’s brilliance lies. I remember that after filming the ice-block scene, where ‘Ka Alma’ is interrogated while strung up completely naked on a block of ice, I was really affected and brought to tears after we finished the scene. Aside from myself, after the scene was shot, Angeli wept and was inconsolable. She wasn’t ‘performing’ in any of the torture scenes; she made it real.”
Bayani also impressed Dalena with her fierce work ethic: After a whole day’s filming in Laguna, the actress would rush back to Manila for a stage performance that night, and be back on set the very next morning.
Together with her sister and co-director Kiri, Dalena next cast Bayani as Julie de Lima in “The Guerrilla is a Poet,” their film about Jose Maria Sison and the early days of the communist underground.
“We realized that Ka Joma Sison and Ka Julie de Lima were a power couple,” she recalls. “There wouldn’t be a Joma Sison without Julie. We were looking for an actress who not only fit Julie’s physical description, but more importantly embodied Julie’s influence, intellect and quiet presence in Joma’s life. Angeli may be petite, but like Julie, she has this intense quality.”
“The Guerrilla is a Poet” won critical praise, not least for Bayani’s performance. One critic likened her to screen legend Greta Garbo who “has a face that could plunge audiences into the deepest ecstasy.”
“I can compare Angeli’s relationship with contemplative cinema to that of great actors of silent films,” says Dalena. “She has this secret, love affair with the camera; she is naked and her soul is bared. She also has expressive power in her voice. Her low register reveals her maturity and when she breaks into wild laughter, she turns into a vixen. She is incredibly smart and sensual at the same time. The cinema loves her wild spirit. Even when a scene doesn’t have any lines of dialogue for her character, she is always reacting to what was happening in a scene—her eyes are always letting you in on what her character was thinking and feeling at any given moment. That’s why she is such a beautiful fit with contemplative films.
“Definitely, a wider Filipino audience deserves to know her more and should see her on many screens—I just hope mainstream producers realize her value and utilize her properly, giving her roles worthy of her skills. If Ang Lee can recognize the jewel in our midst, others should, too!”
By the time Lav Diaz called on the actress to resume their collaboration with “Norte,” some years had passed. Bayani had begun to work in mainstream television, including in “Ang Bayan Ko” for GMA News TV, and even a soap for TV5, where she got to share the set with Nora Aunor.
“I felt that I needed to unlearn everything I learned in television in order to feel Lav’s vibe,” she says.
The script for “Norte” was especially challenging: for the first time there were detailed instructions for the actors.
When she first worked with him, she had what Zen practitioners call a “beginner’s mind”: She had no preconceptions about how to act for film, therefore she was able to deliver a natural, instinctive performance. She had to take drastic measures to recapture that feel for “Norte.”
“I would wake up at 5 a.m., an hour before everyone else, to do yoga. Then I would stay up an hour after everyone else went to bed to do more yoga.”
“Finally, when I got my groove back and I felt I knew what I was doing, there was still a question in my mind if what I was giving was enough.”
It was. When “Norte” was screened at the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes last year, Bayani’s performance was singled out for critical praise, although it was her role in “Ilo Ilo” that eventually took home the prize.
A few months later, however, the Gawad Urian gave Angeli’s performance in “Norte” its due.
“Sa kaka-yoga, nag-best actress,” she laughs.
It’s been a triumphant year for the actress. In the span of just six months, she won high praise at the Cannes Film Festival, was cited by an internationally acclaimed director as “a national treasure,” and won over veteran actors at the Gawad Urian awards.
But, the way Bayani describes it, the sea change hasn’t really sunk in yet.
Having spent most of her career in semi-obscurity, she still feels like a fish out of water on the set of the network soap she’s doing where she shares a dressing room with showbiz celebrities.
And the bleak reality is, far more people have heard of her and what she’s accomplished than have actually seen her work. Despite critical acclaim, independent films like “Ilo Ilo” and “Norte,” where her star shines brightest, are only seen for a fleeting instant in limited theatrical screenings.
Although her independent cinema credentials have opened the door to the mainstream, “actress” and “artista” are still two different categories, and it is the rare artist who can be both.
In a way, Bayani’s sense of insecurity despite her achievements might be a good thing. It continues to prod her to step up and to justify the fame she’s garnered so far.
“Where else will your art come from if not from the experiences that have shaped you, whether onstage or off stage?” she says.