Meet Angeli Agbayani: Actress and Artist

Meet Angeli Agbayani: Actress and Artist

By KC M. Abalos

Angeli Agbayani filipina actress
Illustrado’s KC Abalos sits down with the Filipina actress who beat Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos at the 37th Gawad Urian, the thespian renowned director Ang Lee called a “national treasure.”

So we were about to wrap the interview when ‘the’ Celeste Legaspi entered the coffee house. Angeli and I were star struck. Our hearty chat suddenly turned into a whispered conversation. Ms. Legaspi stopped at a table where she said hello to a friend she’s meeting. Then, she started walking towards our table. She extended her hand to my companion and said, “Hi, I’m a big fan.” That’s when I realized that my old pal and UP Repertory Company orgmate is now a big star.

When I first met Angeli Bayani, she sported these huge vintage glasses which were her signature look back in college. She was majoring in Voice at the University of the Philippines’ College of Music then and had no inkling that, years later, she’ll beat Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos at the 37th Gawad Urian for her role in Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan.

If people were surprised that a virtual unknown has beaten the two finest actresses in the land, then they should know that Angeli was trained by the best of the best in Philippine theater. After UP, she became a scholar of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Pilipino. She started her acting career as a member of the company. She later graduated to bigger roles on stage — most worthy of note is playing the coveted Maria Clara in the Lumbera-Cayabyab musical Noli Me Tangere. She has since become a veteran of indie films as well such as Melancholia and Ka Oryang — both of which earned her Urian nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively. After a quick look at her acting career, some would say she has certainly paid her dues. It seems that all the recent accolades a long time coming.

“I suppose you could say I paid my dues but I don’t feel that way. I was just at the right place at the right time. Because I can’t help but think that the people who came before me or the people who have taught me — theirs is the work ethic I follow — it could’ve been them,” she pondered and then added,

“Kung hindi ko sila naging idol — for lack of a better term — I wouldn’t have gotten this job or gotten to where I am.”

No Gown for Cannes

Fast-forward to 2011 when she was invited to audition for this little Singaporean film, IloIlo. The film would turn out to be the toast of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, earning a standing ovation and the coveted Camera d’Or award.

“For the first time in my life I thought, ‘ang suwerte ko naman.’ You don’t foresee these things. They just happen,” she shared when asked about the entire experience.

Suddenly, people started to notice the petite actress. Partly because she didn’t have any gowns to wear for the film fest events they would have to attend. After a frantic Facebook plea by a theater friend, designers such as Fanny Serrano and Nikki Veneracion very gladly saved the day. When she auditioned for Ilo Ilo, she never thought that she would get the part and never in her wildest dreams has she imagined that it would lead the way to Cannes.

With Ilo Ilo she explained that, “It was one of those things that I thought I wouldn’t bag. Again, I just wanted to give a good impression because I was the only Pinay (in the cast and crew).”

Impress she did because even director Ang Lee called Angeli a “national treasure” after watching the film as a juror in the 50th Golden Horse Awards.

The Truth in Acting

urian awards Angeli Agbayani

But it is not only the success of Ilo Ilo which made Angeli’s name resonate in the media’s radar. What really grabbed everyone’s attention is the fact that she is in not one, but two of the entries in the festival. It is important to note that both these films were entries to the Oscars as well. Her second movie at the Cannes is the same Lav Diaz piece that would give her an Urian.

For the film Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, Angeli was in her element. It was her fourth project with the director, with whom she has a more personal relationship. “With other directors, they’d say, ‘this is what I want form you’. With Lav, hindi. For the first time, I’m left on my own. I always have the most freedom with Lav.”

She certainly has more freedom now that the projects are coming one after the other. Late last year, she was seen on the small screen when she played Flora Gasser (veteran actress and comedian) in the TV series Wagas. More recently, she returned onstage with (Philippine Educational Theater Association) PETA’s Arbol de Fuego with the eternal Cherie Gil. In between these major projects were a constant string of characters on various media which are testaments to her fame and, more importantly, her talent. Which then begs the question, does she have a preference in terms of acting on television, movie, or the stage?

She answered, “What’s the difference? I don’t understand distinctions between acting for TV, movie, and theater. It is any less truthful because of the shot or the medium?”

She says she feels more at home doing theater but, for Angeli, work is work. In the beginning, she had doubts as to whether she can turn her art into something that can provide for herself and for her family. In fact, art and fame were far from her mind. She just wanted to get a couple of college credits which eventually became a practical desire to earn a living.

Her recent success has proven that it could. All the glamour and glitter of her current life made me wonder just how much Angeli’s world has changed. She seemed the same. She still has the same smile and the same infectious laughter that used to fill our old tambayan in AS (Palma Hall). So many roles, so many masks she can effortlessly put on. She answered my question with resonance, in what I recognize as the culmination of the Angeli that I knew then and the Angeli—with all that experience and diligence under her belt—that she has become now.

“For me, a lot about acting is being true to yourself. If you don’t know your truth, you cannot recognize the truth in another person. Acting is just about finding that truth—having the strength, creativity, imagination, and courage to be able to do it.”