Reintroducing Joanna Ampil: From Miss Saigon to Ang Larawan

The Metro Manila Film Festival’s Best Actress for 2017 talks breaking into new territory on familiar soil.

by Emil Hofileña

No other actress had a crazier last few days of 2017 than Joanna Ampil. On December 25, the theater veteran made her first major screen appearance as Candida Marasigan in Loy Arcenas’s musical Ang Larawan, an official entry to last year’s Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF). But only a day after premiering, the film began to get pulled out of theaters due to low audience turnout, with some viewers allegedly calling the Nick Joaquin adaptation inaccessible. A few days later, Ang Larawan went on to win six awards from the MMFF, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Ampil. With the awards buzz and strong word of mouth behind it, Ang Larawan regained its theaters, eventually surpassing its initial number of venues before the New Year.


Rachel Alejandro and Joanna Ampil


Despite already being lauded for her performances in international productions of Miss Saigon, Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Les Miserables, Ampil finds this recognition from the MMFF special. The experience has brought her closer to both the medium of film and the country of her birth, which she hopes to make her home again. Below, Ampil talks to Rogue about going from stage to screen, performing for the Filipino audience, and bringing theater closer to the people.


How did you start with musical theater, and how did you end up on the West End in London?


Well, there was an audition for Miss Saigon way back in the 90s, and the creative team came over purely for the Canadian production and for the West End production. And my audition was successful. It took a week of dancing, singing, and acting. Then a couple of months after, they told me that I got the part of Kim. So that’s where it started, really. And then from that, I was chosen to play Kim in the Complete Symphonic Recording of Saigon. Then they asked me to open in Australia, and from Australia, another director asked me to do Jesus Christ Superstar naman in the West End. The rest is history.


Were you already an actress before Miss Saigon?


No, not at all. I had just graduated from high school. I knew nothing about acting or musical theater. The only musical theater I had seen was Joseph the Dreamer. And I knew instantly that that’s what I wanted to do because it was singing and being on stage and being a character. And I knew that I really wanted to do that because it looked like fun.


Having performed all around the world, how differently would you say international audiences respond to theater?


We went to the Middle East last year, and the reaction there was very, very different from the rest of the world. Kuwait was very different because it was their first time to see musical theater after it was banned for 16 years. And I think it’s going to be the last one as well. (laughs)


Some countries like Bulgaria or Croatia, they don’t get a lot of musical theater shows, so they don’t know when to clap. You also get audiences who are slightly intimidating—“We brought you here therefore we’re not going to clap. We’re going to clap towards the end.” It’s interesting to learn the culture and the attitudes of the audience purely by being there and performing for them.


How does the Filipino audience react, then? You mentioned before that we’re a critical people.


Yeah, and I say that in the nicest sense of the word because we are perfectionists, because we know exactly what we want, because we have so many talented people here. So they have seen it all. I feel more nervous performing here because I know that they know the sound that they want to hear. In a way, there’s that sense that I need to be perfect.



How did you become a part of Ang Larawan, and is there any reason why this is only your first film role?


I got very lucky with Larawan because my manager [Girlie Rodis] happens to be the producer. She offered it to me, and she thought I was perfect for the part, which is really nice. And I’m so happy that they did not succumb to having a very, very famous person play [Candida]. It’s timing also. I knew that one day it would happen, and you just have to trust.


 “Just work with your eyes, tell the story through your eyes, and make sure you have a lot of information behind your eyes.” – Jake Macapagal


While on set, what unexpected thing did you learn about filmmaking?


How much I love to film. I thought that it was going to be really difficult to scale everything down, but the transition was very easy. I had a lot of guidance from a very good friend of mine who does a lot of movies, Jake Macapagal. He said, “Just work with your eyes, tell the story through your eyes, and make sure you have a lot of information behind your eyes. As long as you’re clear with your intentions, then the audience will read that.”


What was performing Ryan Cayabyab’s music for Ang Larawan like?


I tried quitting [the film] twice because it’s such a hard role, and it wasn’t the most pleasant kind of role to take on. But Ryan’s music really motivated me to carry on. And I love singing it. There’s a sense of achievement, of fulfillment every time I hear the music and every time I sing it. Masarap lang siyang kantahin talaga. Plus, every time [Ryan] came to rehearsals, he was always so positive, so that added to the appeal of singing his songs. It’s always an honor to be able to sing his material.


What was it like working with the other actors, particularly with Rachel Alejandro?


The thing is, we rehearsed for a year. It took a while for us to bond because we weren’t sure how to approach things. I knew Rachel from events and because she’s being managed by the same manager as mine. And we’ve always been friends—not like sisters, not like the way we are now. But we knew that we were going to go through a little bit of suffering here, so we kind of bonded through that as well.


I think she supported me more than I supported her because, really, I was the one who was crumbling. And she knows the material inside out because she played [Paula] when she was in her twenties. So I would ask her about certain things, like “What does this mean,” “What is she saying here?” She was always ready with answers, as was Celeste Legaspi, who played [Candida] in the past as well. Celeste did not want to interfere with my characterization but she was always ready to offer any help while we were rehearsing. But Rachel was really the one who supported me throughout, even when I was trying to quit.


But, of course, you’re more open to doing films now.


Yes. The only difficult part was the rehearsal. But the filming itself was a joy. Because you’re at your most vulnerable when you are creating a character. And you can’t really have people meddling when you’re creating a character because there will be a lot of input. This is what I learned from trying to layer Candida—because of so much input from so many different sources, I was getting so confused and that’s what made me go, “Stop it, I can’t do this, I’m too inadequate.” But if you know exactly what you want to do, you have your own character sketch, then you ask people for advice. I think that’s how I should have approached it.



How did you react to the seeming divide between how audiences were responding (the film getting pulled out of cinemas early) and how critics were responding (the film receiving top awards from the MMFF)?

It’s very, very new to audiences here, having a [movie] musical. They think it’s so upper class, this kind of movie. But it’s not. If you just give it a chance, you’ll understand it’s not as inaccessible as you think it is. And also, Rachel said people still rely on the awards, on award-giving bodies. Like, when we hear that this is an Oscar-winning movie, it’s bound to be good. People still follow that. It helped that we got the awards. I think it worked to our advantage.


Knowing that many people view Ang Larawan and theater in general as intimidating or only for the upper class, how then can we bring theater closer to the people?

I understand the struggle, I understand the problem. And this is why we have, say, Resorts World. It started off with that. We’re getting foreign musicals but with local artists, and they try to bring the prices down. But it’s still not low enough, I understand that. I think we just need help from the government also, to help the arts much more. It’s a huge investment for us because andami nating talented people na pwede nating ipadala sa ibang bansa para mag-aral, para mag-train. But I know it’s going to take a while, and I know it’s a problem. But there will be a solution, and I trust that. Even if it’s slow, I know it will happen one of these days. We just need someone higher up to believe in that, and to support it.



What plans do you have in the future? Have any offers for other roles come in?


Yeah, there was an offer but I couldn’t make it. I know there are a lot of last-minute things here. But I will be here the entire February. So I was telling them already, “I’ll be here.” I’m willing to come back to the Philippines and give up everything abroad just so I can concentrate on my career, especially since they’ve given me that recognition [at the MMFF]. I feel like I owe it to the Philippines to perform here again, and hopefully establish a career and a name. I like working here.


Ang Larawan is in cinemas nationwide, and will be screened at Cinema ’76, San Juan until January 11.