IT’S NOT usual on a weekday when the whole artsy establishment that is Turtle’s Nest seemingly comes to a complete usual on a weekday when the whole artsy establishment that is Turtle’s Nest seemingly comes to a complete standstill.
There sits in one of the imposing couches is one of its very familiar faces, the swell of the noise and music heightens and we see Chai Fonacier seated so comfortably with the cadence of her friends-turned-family. Chai is many things today: an actress,a writer, a singer.
Turns out she is not only an award-winning actress via Ara Chawdhury’s “Miss Bulalacao” in 2015; she can stir up words and turn them into a song. Like that of a true ingénue.
Playing divergent characters from a spurned transman in the funny roadtrip movie that is “Patay na si Hesus,” to her grittier turn as a street urchin in “Respeto,” it is no doubt that 2017 is the year earmarked for Chai.
She is everyone’s thespian in the indie circuit as well as a lady of many roles.
Self-actualization, the one of the first things that she elaborates is to always find yourself.
She made a big leap from her home to where she is now (Manila), and rewards generally favor those who are daring to take that risk.
Now that she has finally come to terms with being unafraid, she’s poised on pushing boundaries in her life, career, and the industry that she is embracing.
Here, she opens up about her storied thrust to the silver screen, taking on challenges, and being an advocate for culture and arts.
Beyond the stage, the screen and the music, let’s catch up and sit next to Chai.
What made you decide to make that big move to Manila?
Early this year like nagplano na gyud ko og leave, pero I didn’t know how to go about it like living there na gyud. This was April. I then flew to Manila in May for the filming of “Respeto.” It was during that time when it dawned na I will be based there na gyud since I had an agency and a person representing me. They were helping me out, so pretty much by end of June I got to have my own place. I then came back here in Cebu last July to sort of finish some stuff and I was informed that I had to fly back. Padayonon na ang paglupad kay kinahanglan kaayo ko nila ngadto and sila ma’y mo-plete nako. That was a one-way ticket na gyud for me. Also, mobalik ra man ko diri if there’s a need, like film events and ganahan ko mag-maintain sa akoang connections here.
Describe your life here in Cebu?
Sardinas life. Kanang maghuwat ka sa mga bayad nga dugay kaayo mangabot, kining mga kliyente nga online di mada. I was doing online writing as well as Sutukil Sauce and a little of the business cards. Sometime people would ask me what I was doing. I would just say na I worked at the circus.
Which is closer to your heart—singing or acting?
Lisud mamili no, pero ganahan ko sa duha. I didn’t expect to become an artista. I always thought na I am a musician though I was doing acting on the side. Right now, I am geared on focusing on my music because I will be having gigs in one of the spots there in Manila. While I was there, one of the first things that I did was contact my music friends with my band Womb. In Womb we do more of studio work. We don’t have that much gigs or live performances though we have been exchanging drafts, and if we ever come up that’s good, that’s when I work on the vocals and do recording. I want to work on solo stuff aside from doing music for Womb.
You were in two of local cinema’s best, “Patay Na Si Hesus” and “Respeto.” Indeed 2017 has been good to you.
I thank the universe for that. Modawat gyud ko ana. Daghan kaayong salamat because the last four years has been very gruelling as well. It is not news nga bipolar man ko. I went to therapy for three years. Wala ko’y trabaho. I jumped into freelance. I didn’t know what to do and how to do it pero kusog kaayo ang hatak sa art nga maglisod ko og balik sa office work. I am just the kind of person nga dili mo- thrive in an office environment. Nag freelance ko for the reason nga if there are projects or gigs, dili nako ma-compromise ang usa since I don’t want to miss out on gigs or projects. A lot of those times in the last four years, Bambi Beltran (Turtle’s Nest owner) suggested that I take the risk pero dako kaayo akoang fear adto nga time. I was still figuring things out and dili pa ko andam, and financially lisud gyud kaayo siya.
How did you get by?
I can’t imagine giunsa to nako. There were times nga desperada na kaayo ko, especially if ang kwarta dugay kaayo moabot kay wala pa gipada, pero human na ko sa akoang deadline. Singkwenta na lang akoang kwarta, or P70 na lang, and you are at that point of surrender. So what you do is just buy beer and suwat na lang og kanta. For some reason there was always beer, or naa gyu’y moabot nga mga friends and moingon: “Chai, problemado na gyud kaayo ka. Nikaon na ka?” Moingon ko: Nikaon ko gamay. Mo-offer dayon sila og beer. Dako kaayo sila og help adto nga mga times and one of the realizations was Bambi was always there. Naa gyud na siya. One biggest realization that I learned was that dili diay ko kahibaw modawat og tabang. I did not know how to ask for it as well as how to recognize or receive it kay mura og naa pa ko’y guilt feelings.
Maybe it was my ego and I would tell myself nga kaya ra man gud ni nimo. It was life making you realize nga kinahanglan modawat gyud ka og help when it comes your way. Reminder sab to siya and nangasaba gyud ko sa akoang self: Chai, have some manners, the universe gives you help what do you do? So you open your hand for that help and say thank you.
So the struggle took awhile …
Well, this was on and off for four years until this year when Bambi said that I should get a manager. Grabe ang hesitation, the self-doubt, the fear. All because I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t love myself enough, and back then I didn’t know I was capable as I do know now. Nahadlok ko nga if moambak ko ngadto sa Manila wala lang gihapon. I mean, look at me—I am not fair-skinned, dili ko matangkad, kulot ko ug buhok. I don’t conform to the usual requirements of the industry there. Though a lot of them are true, later I realized nga presumptions ra diay. Also, I just wasn’t financially ready. I mean, asa man ko og kwarta to transfer to Manila when all I have is sakto ra gani for the week? Lastly I was afraid of the brain drain here in Cebu. It’s not a Messianic complex pero I don’t want to be part of the loss. So, for the longest time I was holding back kay ganahan sab ko makatabang nga makahimo og atoa nga local nga project.
So, it’s about helping out the community?
Later on, naka realize ko nga in helping out the community, there are people who need to stay because they have found their place here. And there are some of us na it’s okay to leave, nga kung ganahan ka motabang, at the same time, ayaw lang gyud kalimti kung asa ka gikan, as well as committing to that goal kung nganong niadto ka didto. Of course before you can help out the community you have to self-actualize first kay kung mag-sige ra ka og tabang unya wala pa ka naka-define what you want, in the end unsa naman ang matabang nimo? So, eventually nadawat nato nako nga realization, and so off I went to Manila.
How are things going especially now that you are starting to gain traction in your career?
Ako, nag enjoy ra gyud ko kung unsa ang naa sa akoang atubangan, unya for now I have these goals nga I want to do more films. I want to be able to put out albums, make music and do collaborations. I do believe in supporting the arts and culture because it is how we introduce each other as regions. I realize that it is important to be regionalistic—not for its divisive aspect, unlike sa una nga naa man gyud ta’y kami-kami ako-ako mentality. I can say nga we can introduce ourselves properly sa laing regions, kaila ta sa atoang kaugalingon and once we go out there nga we really get to know each other and to look at it from a united and unselfish perspective.
What was it like to be in “Patay Na Si Hesus”?
Swerte kaayo ko kay kaila na ko nila daan, like the director (Victor Villanueva) and a number of its staff. I sent them an email auditioning for the Vera and Jude characters. Initially, Vera was this 19-year-old college student, but eventually her character was scrapped. She was let go because full na kaayo ang story as well as the characters. She was also scrapped because puno na kaayo sila sa multicab, dili na sila masud. So, a few days before the shoot while preparing for Vera, giingnan ko nila nga I had to play the role of Judith Marie or Jude.
How did you take the change?
Ni panic ko uy because lisud. I didn’t get to have the full experience of being a LGBTQA and I want to give it justice. I analyzed the character and I started with how not to do things. Gitan aw nako ang mga portrayal sa lesbians ug transman in local films and sapoton ko kay naay uban OA kaayo. It was just not properly depicted or represented. Upon analyzing the character of Jude, I realized nga he is way past identity crisis, way past coming out, lalaki na gyud siya. Which makes it easier for me because physically all I have to do is observe males and butches; there are times na bugoy sab baya ko and I just have to magnify that, show that male side of me.
What about the road trip. And Jaclyn Jose.
Lingaw kaayo siya because you get to work with people nga kaila na nimo alongside Jaclyn Jose who back then was just awarded Best Actress for “Ma’ Rosa” at the Cannes Film Festival. Intimidating nga you’re in awe all the time. But then anak ko niya so kinahanglan I have to work well with my character. It was challenging nga you really have to somehow level up. The first few days maglisod gyud ko og storya niya kay mauwaw lagi ko. So, amoang gibuhat ni Melde (Montañez), my co-actor, we would study her from afar and from there tell ourselves that anak man ta niya diri so parehas ra ta niya nga naay brand of sarcasm. Until eventually hukaran na mi niya (Jacklyn) og food kay nanay gyud siya, which helped in our bond nga ni tagos siya on screen.
And then you get to be part of the gritty “Respeto.”
I had a friend who was part of the team behind the film. They saw me in “Patay na si Hesus” and they kind of had me in mind. So they asked me to send through email my audition piece. They asked me if I can do rap and dili man ko kahibaw mo-rap. I did spoken word and nikanta ko so they decided that I will be the chorus girl in the group. There was a point na I wanted to learn beat boxing for the film. Lisud man gyud and there wasn’t enough time to learn.
How was the experience?
We started shooting in May. It was such a solid group. I remember after every shoot they would gather and from there have discussions and troubleshoots on the story or a location problem or a schedule problems. Gamay ra sila and they know each other’s energy, ilang wavelength mag-abot gyud sila. Malingaw ko nila because everytime that I have a question or I seem apprehensive sa akong buhaton naa gyud sila katubag.
In a pivotal moment of the film, you did a song that’s both tender and tough, much like your character. Who made that song?
Ako. Agreement namo ni Treb (Monteras), the director, nga Cebuana gyud akoang character from which makabantay ka nga akoang Tagalog it has that local diction. I wrote it the morning before we shot it in the afternoon. What happened was Treb told me to write something from the sensibilities of the 17-year-old character. He described the scene to me from which I have to sing. I have to write then sing it in Bisaya because I am more comfortable in this language. Wala pa gyud ko kasuwat og something that’s in Tagalog and it was a good thing that he agreed to it. It was during that time nga maoy pagbuto sa Marawi nga issue. That issue really affected me so mao to akoang gigamit nga panggatong for Betchai—nga kanang frustration sa bata ba nga unfair lagi ni, wala pa gani ko ka live sa akoang life labuton na mi ninyo sa inyong gubot.
We can’t seem to get over that scene where you were being searched at the same time being touched maliciously by a cop.
It wasn’t choreographed. They just approached me and nananghid sila na for Betchai kakapkapan siya and was I ready and agreeable to it. I said yes, and I know that it is a sensitive scene. They asked which parts are okay and which parts are not, and I said anywhere except the crotch. They planed to do a practice but I said na let’s go ahead and do it. Ambak na ta. So when we did it, na- shock gyud ko. That was a raw emotion. Mao diay ni ang feeling nga kakapkapan ka, i-harass ka. Ingon ana ka grabe. Pero professional man mi didto. I was taken care of and properly debriefed.
How far would you go for a role?
Only as far as my psyche can handle. Kung makaboang na gani siya, dili na siya maayo. Dili ko magsobra nga method. That’s why I am undergoing workshops now. I am doing the Meisner technique, which is healthy for the mind and heart nga dili na ka kinahanglan mangabli og wounds. As a human being lisud baya mangabli ka og samad para lang ka mohilak or just to portray a character, makabuang na uy plus with the hectic schedule wala na’y makatabang og debrief nimo. So, kung artista ka unya wala pa ka naka let go sa imong previous character, ikaw pa ang i-chismis sa mga tawo nga nabuang na siya or naghubog siya, which is kind of unfair also for the actors, kay dili baya lalim mo act. Some people see acting as sayon and they just didn’t know na it is work, we also go through techniques and procedures that we have studied and applied for years.
So, how do you shed off all those dark characters?
Mao na ang lisud dinha because that is supposed to be your last possible resort. If mag-debrief ko, if ever I would be opening old wounds like for the character of Betchai in “Respeto,” I would just shed it off by removing any article of clothing that she wore for that day. I would talk to myself, that I will let go of Betchai and go back to being Chai in my usual clothes. So tangtang gyud tanan nga wala’y mahabilin nga something from Betchai and then puro na kang Chai na sinina. Also I would reprocess, do meditation though lately dili naman ko makapangabli og samad kay I have a technique wherein it is not necessary na for me to relive the entire experience. I would just refer sa petri dish of my mind, dissect ko a little that I just need small doses of this and that.
What was the last film you saw that left you speechless?
“Birdshot.” Nganga ko adto. Lisud i-explain and nindot siya in terms of composition, the shots. Kanang the film was so silent yet it was so loud in its message. And the acting was so good.
You’ve worked with some of the most brilliant filmmakers, actors and actresses. Who else do you want to do projects with?
Akoang goal ron is to look for meatier roles. I have a number of directors, actors and actresses I want to work with, like Erik Matti and Jerrold Tarog. I would love to work with the greats like Joel Torre and Ronnie Lazaro. Sus, kung makakuyog ko ani nila it will be like: “Teach me, Master.” I have already worked with Cherry Pie Picache and Jaclyn Jose. Oh, my God! Kung maka eksena nako si Nora Aunor!
How’s life in Manila?
Most of it is spent on the road, in traffic jams. Lately I have been doing rounds of guestings, interviews, events, and rallies. Wala pa’y two weeks niapil na ko og rally, when Kian Delos Santos died niadto mi og People Power Monument. I am just thankful with Grab and Uber there. Mag MRT ko kung makaya.
What do you do on your free time?
Naa ra ko sa kwarto motan-aw og SNL. I am such a fan of Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig.
What do you want to tell your fans and audience?
Though surreal pa kaayo nako, daghan kaayong salamat kay dako kaayo mo nga tabang. I have always loved storytelling and most especially now nga we are undergoing a paradigm shift in terms of the films that are coming out, with the audience slowly accepting these changes. Though I also suggest that if there are things you don’t like, you should also share it because it would also help us as storytellers na next time we can do better. Objectively, storyaan nato.
Where is home to you right now?
As an artist diri gyud ko namulat. Diri gihapon—this couch that I am sitting on, most especially. Kapila na gyud ko ma-homeless nights, kapila na gyud ko diri makit-an nga matu’g nga mabuntagan na lang. This place is and will always be home.