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Return of the Juday

Pepe Diokno (The Philippine Star) - May 25, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Judy Ann Santos enters a room full of press people as if she’s meeting family. “Hi!” she calls out to one journalist, with a smile on her face from ear-to-ear. Wearing a form-fitting green gown, she crosses the room and gives a journalist a big hug, and then rubs a woman on her back with her right hand.

We’re inside the ABS-CBN studios, where the network has arranged a shoot to launch Judy Ann’s new soap opera, Huwag Ka Lang Mawawala. A handful of press were invited to witness the 35-year-old actress record promos for the show, which begins airing next month.

“This is Juday’s big comeback,” blares a voice from the studio speakers. An ABS-CBN employee has commandeered the microphone to shepherd the mediamen who have assembled. “The ‘Young Superstar’ returns to primetime for the 60th anniversary of Philippine television!” he says.

Judy Ann turns her head and grimaces. The title makes her uncomfortable — “Young Superstar” — a catchphrase in the same vein as “Superstar Nora Aunor!” and “Vilma Santos, Star for All Seasons!” Showbiz.

“First of all, I’m not young!” she tells me, laughing, after I ask her how she feels about the tag. “It’s flattering and I appreciate it, but the truth is, there’s no other superstar but Nora Aunor. I don’t think I can own the title because I haven’t reached even a fourth of what Ate Guy has achieved.”

But Judy Ann Santos is a rare gem in show business. Acting since she was eight years old, she has survived 27 years in an industry in which careers can be made and lost overnight. When she was 14, she starred in Mara Clara, the longest running soap opera in ABS-CBN history. She has acted in and produced hit movies, anchored her own drama anthology, hosted a cooking show, and even played a primetime superhero.

On top of all this, Judy Ann Santos is one of the most level-headed women you will ever meet.

“I’m nervous,” she tells me on the sidelines of the shoot, after slapping me on the knee. “Tito Boy (Abunda) gave me a book called The Power of An Actor. It’s about method acting. I read it when I’m on set, because it’s my first soap in three years, so may kaba — there’s that nervousness.”

It takes true strength to admit fear, and perhaps this is the secret of Judy Ann’s success. From the titular orphan in the TV series Esperanza to the vengeful ex-nun in Sabel, to the hardworking country lady in Ploning, Judy Ann Santos has been one thing — a strong woman playing strong female characters.

In Huwag Ka Lang Mawawala, Judy Ann plays a wife who has been pushed to her limit. “The story is I’m looking for my child, who’s been taken away from me. To find him, I have to redeem myself and re-introduce myself to my child.” The trailer for the series features Judy Ann’s character, Annisa, pointing a gun at her abusive, cheating husband, Marcus, played by Sam Milby.

“When they presented the soap to me, they said it was about woman empowerment,” Judy Ann tells me. “From there, they got my attention, because when you watch the news today, you see what’s being done to women — it makes you sad. It makes you ask yourself, ‘How can I contribute to waking women up? To show them that they can actually defend themselves against people who hurt them?’”

The man on the studio speakers calls out Judy Ann’s name. “We need Juday on the set!” he shouts. She pats me on the arm and excuses herself, and then walks toward a makeshift red carpet surrounded by bright lights. She is instructed to walk down the red carpet and smile at the camera, which she accomplishes in one take.

A minute later, and Judy Ann is back beside me, sitting on a monoblock chair, still dressed in her green gown. “Sorry about that,” she says, smiling. I turn my recorder on, and begin our interview. I ask her about her career, her legacy, and about keeping sane in a business that is anything but.

Your characters are mostly underdogs, ever since your first television role in Ula, Ang Batang Gubat in 1988. Why do you think Filipino audiences are so attracted to underdogs?

I don’t know. Filipinos, I guess, connected to those who are most pitiable. People can relate to characters who are oppressed because we live in a country where most people are poor, and these people experience a lot of problems. Teleseryes reflect realities in the masses’ lives, or in the lives of people they know.

Do teleseryes have the power to affect the lives of their viewers?

Teleseryes are not totally life-changing. It’s up to the viewers to mirror what happens in the shows. But today, audiences are too smart. They know what they’re watching, they know that it’s acting, they know the technical stuff. All of a sudden, everyone who watches a teleserye is a writer. They have their own inputs on Twitter. It’s not like before, when you could just serve something to the people — something that you didn’t really think much of, but people would still bite.

So, audiences shape teleseryes more than teleseryes shape people?

Yes.

How does that change your process as an actress?

It’s healthy. We actors and actresses, we learn to up the stakes with our acting. You have to make it a point that the job you did in your last teleserye, you don’t repeat in your next one.

You’ve been acting since you were eight. Growing up in front of the cameras, portraying different roles, was there ever a point you had to stop and say, “Who am I really?”

There was one time I reached that point because I was doing four projects at the same time — Gimik, Judy Ann Drama Special and two more movies — I’d come on set not knowing who I was and what character I was supposed to play because I didn’t have sleep and I’d be so tired. This was before, during the time of pito-pito, when tapings would last until nine in the morning. Literally, after packing up on one set, I’d go to the next one.

It never, though, came to a point where I bring my characters home. There are times I’d bring home the emotion, but not the character. I don’t take my roles to heart. This is all a job.

Did you know, at eight years old, that this is what you wanted to do?

No. At eight, I was just enjoying the atmosphere. The main reason I wanted to go to tapings was that I’d have father figures on set — the cameramen, light men, utility men. I’d sleep on their laps. I grew up full of love from the crew. I think it was only when ABS-CBN gave me a drama special that I realized that this is what I want. In the show, I’d portray different characters every week. It was an assurance that the network believed in my work. That’s when I realized that maybe I’m good at this.

After 27 years on the job, is there anything that still excites you about acting?

The characters, the story, the directors, the cast. I get excited when I’m given a different kind of character that I couldn’t have thought of. Today, there are so many good writers, young writers, and they give me new characters. I get inspiration from these new writers.

You often say in interviews that you find joy in simple things. What makes you happy today?

Simple as in simple, ha? I find joy in going to Legaspi Market and Salcedo Market. I find much joy in cooking for my family, especially for my husband and my kids. I find joy in giving my kids a bath. I find joy in buying slippers! I love slippers, I love flats.

I’m 35, and I’m just at a point in my life where I feel most loved and most wanted. It’s not that I’m reaping the fruits of my labor, it’s more that I realize that it pays to be good, it pays to be professional. That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned throughout all the years — to be good not because you have to be but because you are. Looking back, knowing that you aren’t stepping on anyone and that you’ve been professional, it comes back to you in the form of people wanting to work with you again. It’s nice to see that after all these years, the friendships I’ve formed with coworkers are real.

What are your feelings about growing older?

Well, for sure, I’m not excited! (Laughs.) But I don’t have any regrets about growing old. People grow old in terms of the number — and age is just a number — but not in terms of heart. I still think like a kid, I’m still playful. I have to be playful to be able to keep up with my kids!

I guess I’m excited about the fact that I have a lot more to learn along the way; that I’ll mature more. And I’m more excited about the idea that I’ll be able to watch my children grow up. I embrace my age. I embrace change.

* * *

Tweet the author @PepeDiokno.

ALL SEASONS ANN HUWAG KA LANG MAWAWALA JUDY JUDY ANN JUDY ANN SANTOS ONE PEOPLE YOUNG SUPERSTAR
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