COVER: Iza Calzado plays the long game
Raymond Ang (The Philippine Star) - May 6, 2017 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - At a press screening for her new film, Iza Calzado got a dressing down from a veteran entertainment journalist.

“Alam mo dati, gustong-gusto kita nung napanood kita sa Milan at sa Sigaw,” he told her. “Pero pagkatapos nun, naisip ko, ano bang nangyari sa babaeng ‘to? Kung ano-anong role na lang ang ginagawa niya… Until napanood ko ito.” The reporter said a lot of other things, compliments, but that was what stuck with her. “I said, ‘Thank you… I kind of feel the same way,’” she admits.

Her new film is called Bliss. It’s a psycho-thriller about a 30-something actress frustrated with her career who attempts to make a grab for credibility by producing her own starring vehicle, with the end goal of winning an acting award. Directed by Jerrold Tarog, the man behind the box office hit Heneral Luna but also the character studies Sana Dati and Senior Year, Calzado admits that Bliss “can hit close to home” and is unnerving “in how meta it is.”

The parallels are not lost on her. While she has readily admitted that she has never achieved the level of fame that Jane Ciego, the fictional actress she plays, has — Jane is a national phenomenon on the level of an Anne Curtis or a Kris Aquino — Calzado has also never struggled with issues of credibility, winning her first award for her first film, a Gawad Urian for Best Supporting Actress for Milan. But she is in her 30s and, at 34, several years past her time as an ingenue and the girl of the season, Iza Calzado has been thinking about her own career, wondering if she still has a place in the industry.

“When you’re already mid-30s, it hits you. It hit me and I realized, sh*t, hanggang kailan ako pwede?” Bliss and all the acclaim she has reaped thus far — already she’s won her first international acting award, the Yakushi Pearl Award for Best Performer at the 12th Osaka Asian Film Festival — represent a kind of second win for her. She’s also enjoying the successful run of A Love to Last, the Bea Alonzo-Ian Veneracion teleserye she’s third lead in and which has become her first real ratings winner since moving to ABS-CBN five years ago. In some ways, this is a peak.

So, coming off an international acting award, in the middle of a successful TV season, should Iza Calzado even be worried about her place in the industry?

There’s nothing to worry about — that’s the simple answer. But there are other answers and it’ll take us a minute to get there.

The Birthright 

In some ways, Maria Izadora Calzado Ussher was born in the industry — with showbiz as much a birthright for her as a last name is for other people. The daughter of the beloved choreographer and TV director Lito Calzado, things opened up quickly for the young Maria. At eight years old, she successfully auditioned for the legendary Lino Brocka and won a minor role in the 1990 film Kung Tapos Na Ang Kailanman on the strength of being able to cry for the director.

That was her start — as ideal as starts in the industry go — but what came after changed the course of her life and shook her confidence. “I was getting bigger by the day,” she says. “There was also stuff happening at home, medyo magulo so hindi ko na pinursue (yung showbiz).”

“I never lived a sheltered life,” she says. “I’ve had an interesting life, let’s put it at that — my family background, a difficult childhood… I rebelled from a lot of the things I went through when I was younger… That was the kind of life I had, I could go home anytime, there were not a lot of restrictions, to be honest. But that was a little too much.”

“I got so big that I felt, how could I become an artista when I’m so big? So I pushed it to the back of my head. There was Drama Club in Miriam and I never got into it because, why? … But deep inside, I wanted to become an artista. I was as showbiz as showbiz can get. I would go with my dad to all of these showbiz things.”

It took a few years before a 19-year-old Maria Izadora Calzado Ussher found her way back into showbiz. She went on an extreme diet in high school — a regimen she now looks back on unfavorably. “I started starving myself,” she’s said in the past. “There was this time when I was eating one packet of crackers a day and I was just drinking water. Several times, I almost collapsed in school.” The newly svelte but still troubled girl landed a Pantene commercial. Shooting the ad in Malaysia, the regional agency remarked, “You know, you should really consider becoming an actress.” The commercial consisted of a testimonial, where the teenager was asked to speak as herself. What she lacked in self-confidence she made up for in authenticity — already, she showed she could communicate stories with an audience.

After the Pantene commercial, an offer from GMA came. Her mother had just passed away and the family needed the money. “I still couldn’t understand if I was cut out for this… (But) we needed the money. I went into it.”

That decision eventually proved rewarding for Iza Calzado. In her rookie year, she handily proved that she was more than Lito Calzado’s daughter, displaying chops in her first few appearances like Milan and Sigaw, and nabbing plum roles in TV hits like Te Amo, Maging Sino Ka Man and Encantadia — a role she’s still remembered for, and a role that quite literally turned her into an action figure. There were other hits in the next few years — the GMA-7 show Beauty Queen, the Metro Manila Film Festival sensation Ang Panday, not to mention a Hollywood remake of Sigaw, titled The Echo, which saw her co-starring with Hollywood actor Jesse Bradford. But as the years went on, as Iza Calzado settled into her star persona as an actress who’s more woman than girl, who banked more on maturity than youth, she unwittingly found herself at odds with the roles the industry was churning out. As an actress, Iza Calzado was never a girl — she was always a woman. “I entered showbiz, I was 19 — and boy, did I live my life before that,” she says.

The Character Actress

In 2012, she made the big leap to ABS-CBN — a move that undoubtedly raised her profile and put her in scenes with some of the country’s biggest and most seasoned stars, but a move that also highlighted how different she was from her peers. Along the way, she unexpectedly became a character actress — the calm, mature supporting character in films that often ran on heightened emotions.

In Quark Henares’ 2016 political comedy My Candidate, the comedic antics of Shaina Magdayao and cocky Casanova Derek Ramsay are played in stark contrast to Calzado’s character’s almost clinical competence. In Chito Roño’s Etiquette for Mistresses, an ensemble film that centers around the campy star turn of Kris Aquino and the comeback bid of Claudine Barretto, Calzado feels lost in the shuffle until the last few scenes — when she puts the whole film in context in a monologue that very nearly steals the show.

Playing a successful lawyer who readily puts her career on the line in the dying days of her married boyfriend, she asks, “If Ambet is the one who gives meaning to my life, mababaw ba ako nun? If I choose this man to define me and not my career, wala na ba akong kwentang tao nun?” These are difficult questions and in those supporting roles, in those small scenes, Calzado has proven adept at telling the stories of complicated women.

In My Candidate, for example, an interesting premise presents itself when Calzado’s character, the veteran politician, talks to Magdayao’s promising-but-messy PR girl about the industry they’re in. In another life, maybe another decade, My Candidate could’ve been a workplace comedy in the tradition of Mike Nichols’ Working Girl, a film that focused on the many sacrifices that women have to make in a corporate setting. Instead, in the time of rom-coms and love teams, it’s a rom-com about a promising PR professional falling in love with her boss. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and My Candidate works, but the possibilities are thrilling.

“I hope we outgrow it soon,” she laments, discussing the current industry obsession with youth and love teams, “while I’m still young enough. I have daydreams of doing an Inang (Olivia Lamasan) film (as a lead). Sabi ko, baka when I’m older… Ibang-iba eh. Dati yung materyal, mabibigat, talagang tagos puso. (The characters were allowed to have) flaws… Sometimes, we’re like made-up people. Sometimes, it’s hard to resonate with some of the characters I play.”

Still, there are actresses who give her hope. “Sylvia Sanchez,” she says. “You know, what happened to her with The Greatest Love? For me, that’s groundbreaking. To be the lead of a soap at her age — and she’s paid her dues ha! Magaling si Ate Sylvia… Nakakatuwa lang kasi, ganyan, ganyan dapat. Hindi naman lahat ng bida ng story dapat lang yung love teams kasi story (ng tao), diba? Palagay ko masyado tayong nagiging limited (in terms of the stories we tell).”

The State of Things

A few years ago, in the midst of a career slump, she suffered a crisis of confidence. “I felt like I was doing the same roles, the same mold. So, hence, the same outcome. I wanted something new so in Barber’s Tale, I wanted to give it a new dimension, but then I was overthinking it… I think the worst thing that can happen to an actor is when you question your capacity to act. When you’re insecure, when you feel like you’re not good, it’s tough. I didn’t have enough faith in myself.” She did table reads with the veteran actress Sharmaine Buencamino to regain her footing.

The way Iza Calzado tells it, in the last few years before Bliss, she’s seen the benefits of youth slowly elude her. She’s at the age everybody warns actresses about — limbo, the age when you’re too old to be an ingenue but too young for mommy roles (though Calzado is playing that in A Love to Last, to Julia Barretto, who’s only 12 years her junior).

“I tell you, I’m (turning) 35 this year. I am going through some tough times,” she says. “My body is not cooperating the way it used to. It’s not responding to the diets and the workouts I’ve been doing. My covers are not as many as they used to be… So ngayon, if I’m asked to do a cover, I’m like, oh my God, thank you, thank you. Iba yung pagka grateful ko ngayon. It puts things in perspective and it’s a humbling experience.

“My endorsements — and I’m grateful that I still have them — they’re not as many as they used to be. All my contemporaries are getting the mommy endorsements and I am not even married yet — but that was my choice. In my head, I thought they would classify me as the empowered woman who made a very cosmopolitan decision to stay single, focus on her career, and just maximize it — but it didn’t really translate in the Philippines… There are no regrets for the decisions that I’ve made… but it’s tough.

“Even fighting for roles,” she continues. “Siyempre dati ‘it girl’ ka pa in terms of sa mga lead, ganyan. Ngayon, you’re fighting for your slot. Buti nalang medyo pinagtiyagaan kong husayin yung craft ko in some way. Because otherwise, you’ll really be left with what? Worrying about your looks and your weight — which are the first two to go out the door. It’s difficult to battle with that, and then the ego. Iniisip ko nga, kaya pala ang daming fumi-flip out na artista… This sh*t is real. Parang, wow, ang hirap pala to have to fight for it and think, what’s my place in this industry? Until when (will I have a place)?”

She says her greatest fear is to not even be considered for work. “Okay lang naman yung hindi ako lead. But as long as I’m still considered for good parts, I’m good. I’m okay… But a has-been for me is yung talagang nakalimutan ka, yung you’re not given opportunities then. You’re not even being considered… Yung wala nang nagtitiwala sa work mo? It’s not so much my marketability na tiwala sila, it’s my work. That’s very important to me.”

And so, when Jerrold Tarog, fresh from the runaway success of Heneral Luna, contacted her about Bliss, with the full knowledge that she wasn’t the first choice for the role, and he wanted her to audition, she didn’t hesitate. “I actually like to audition because I feel like I’m able to fight for my role,” she says. “I’ll be honest, if this were one of the big studios, why would they give the lead to me? They know, bankability-wise, I don’t have as many fans as the others… Kaya when I’m asked to audition, I feel that I can have a better shot of landing a big role, because it’s (about) work. Pantay-pantay tayo dito.”

She realized that Bliss would push her to her limits. For the first time, Calzado is in almost all of the scenes of a film — a blessing but also a curse, in the way that the success or failure of the film fell on her shoulders. On top of that, the film required nudity. It was an all-or-nothing opportunity — if Bliss was a success, it would reestablish her as a formidable actress; if it didn’t, she would’ve lost her shot. “So I didn’t really expect that I would win anything. I didn’t. I really did it to rock ‘n’ roll!”

She looks up to actresses like Cherry Pie Picache, Jaclyn Jose, Elizabeth Oropesa, Eula Valdez and Jean Garcia as women who’ve shown her the way. When she was starting out in the industry, a lot of these women took time to help her through her scenes, to guide her through the initial difficulties of a newbie actress. She credits Olivia Lamasan, her director in Milan and Starting Over Again and “an actor’s director,” as the one who taught her how to act.

Now, she’s trying to return the favor when she’s working with young people. “It makes me realize how the actresses before, when I was the young actor, would help in some way, to the best of their abilities.”

The Seabiscuit

In life, there are different kinds of triumphs. There’s the triumph our culture often celebrates, the overnight success — the Dubsmash sensation who becomes a national phenomenon after a chance appearance on Eat Bulaga, the probinsyana plucked from obscurity to become one-half of a popular love team. It’s a lottery kind of triumph, the kind of success that celebrates youth, that celebrates chance, and has nothing to do with discipline, that has nothing to do with waiting your turn — this is the kind of success that gets magazine covers.

Still, there’s another kind of triumph, one that’s a bit more humble and not as astonishing, that’s a lot more quiet but maybe also a bit more meaningful — the Seabiscuit, the late bloomer, the come-from-behinder. It’s a success that’s truly worked for and merited through discipline, track record, and dependable results. It takes sweat, a lot of frustrating years, a lot of paying your dues. It’s not glamorous but this is the kind of triumph an actress like Iza Calzado gets in this world.

They don’t make the kinds of films where actresses like Iza Calzado shine anymore. That’s a problem for Iza, and maybe for our youth-obsessed culture, but that also doesn’t have to be a dead end.

Because actresses like Iza Calzado play the long game. Built on scrappy, dull things like craft, sweat and work ethic, theirs are the kinds of careers that get their due in the end, not the beginning, that don’t have to live or die on being the girl of the moment or the tightness of their body. At 34, Iza Calzado is worried about the different ways her body is changing, how it doesn’t cooperate with her diets and workouts anymore — maybe it reminds her about her youth, when she was so big she thought she could never appear in front of a camera. But the truth is, the only body that Iza Calzado really has to worry about is her body of work. And in 2017, in a film like Bliss, she once again makes a case for herself as one of her generation’s most vital actresses.

When Bliss first fell into Iza Calzado’s lap, she was scared about the do-or-die aspects of the project, but also restless enough to want to jump and hope for the best. And to get back the luster she had in Sigaw and Milan, the luster so criminally underused in films like Etiquette for Mistresses and My Candidate, all Iza Calzado had to do was jump — we were always watching her.

* * *

Tweet the author @raymondangas.

Photo by BJ PASCUAL

Produced by DAVID MILAN

Makeup by ANTHEA BUENO

Hair by ETHAN DAVID

IZA CALZADO
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