Chai Fonacier flourishes in the new and unknown

Chai Fonacier flourishes in the new and unknown

Move after move has proven the acclaimed actress’s ability to kick it both within and outside of Manila.

Chai Fonacier speaks fast. Really fast. The words tumble out of her mouth like a waterfall. It’s disarming and intimidating because she’s so smart, so articulate. It’s jarring when the image of her that is strong in your mind is her precise portrayal of a young teen who finds herself way in over her head in the ghetto of Manila in Respeto, or her sensitive and dynamic portrayal of a transman struggling with a breakup on a road trip with his dysfunctional family in Patay na si Hesus. Anyone who has the range to pull off those two roles one after another has to be intelligent. But Chai Fonacier — a Cebuana actress, writer, singer and songwriter — is definitely nothing like Betchay of Respeto or Jude of Patay na si Hesus.

It’s her intelligence that you pick up on immediately. She’s self-aware and unafraid to ask questions, and this allows her to dig deep into her characters before she slips into their skins. It’s what Patay na si Hesus director Victor Villanueva loves about her. “What I noticed about Chai is ang dami niyang questions about the character,” he shares. “Parang binubuo niya yung character from what she thinks and what I think about Jude. Sometimes, she’d ask these questions na napaisip ko, ‘oo nga noh, ba’t hindi ko naisip yun?’”

Tongue tied: Chai Fonacier can speak Cebuano, Tagalog, English, and a little bit of Hiligaynon.

It’s a method she learned from her mentor, Alex Uypuanco, the founder of the Performance Art Collective (PAC), where she honed her acting skills doing improv theater in Cebu. “We would perform in places where if we have 30 people that’s a full house,” Chai explains. Her knack for getting into character originated from sitting in a cafe with Uypuanco and writing up stories about the other patrons there. They would talk and invent stories about strangers and that would help her study behavior and create narratives on the fly to help in their improv performances.

“I always liked performing,” she says. Born in Cagayan de Oro, she moved to Cebu for college but her love for theater started as early as sixth grade. “We had a theater guild in high school in Cagayan de Oro but mostly we did our own stuff. When there’s a lack of resources, if you want something then you’ve got to do it yourself. That’s how I learned how to write stories.” Chai would write a play for her class to perform. This was the beginning of a creative practice that she would continue in Cebu.

Oh, the places you’ll go: Now that she’s a little bit more experienced, Chai Fonacier is facing the future without any expectations, playing her move to Manila by ear.

Moving to Manila
Chai has been living in Manila for two months now. The transition is jarring, but the move is well-timed. Already, she’s bagged a role in the teleserye Love Will Lead You Back with Jericho Rosales, Yen Santos and Sam Milby, which will air next year. She’s bagged a Best Supporting Actress trophy from the Luna Awards of the Film Academy of the Philippines for her role in Patay na si Hesus.

Before coming here, she’d been a writer and researcher at ABS-CBN Cebu, worked at a radio station and a call center, was a freelance content writer for the web, and made a name for herself with PAC performances that got her discovered for the role as Jude. She’s struggled making ends meet — at times, when payments came late, she would have to eat what she and her friends call “cat food.” “For us, it would be pancit canton, tuna and an egg,” she narrates, laughing.

Now older, and more experienced in life, she’s facing her future without any expectations. “I’m playing it by ear,” she says of her move to Manila. She’s learning what she can so that when she goes back to Cebu, she has something to share and give back to the community. Talking about her move, she makes it seem almost like an immigrant experience, except within her home country. “The gap is very wide,” she says between Manila and the Visayas. There is that instant connection that she makes when she meets other Visayan people at the set and they exchange notes about how things are different here in the big city versus the province and it “helps me adjust.”

A star is born: Chai bagged a Best Supporting Actress trophy from the Luna Awards of the Film Academy of the Philippines for her role in Patay na si Hesus.

This is why it is so important for her that regional films are becoming more and more prevalent in the industry. “Storytelling is the oldest of all art forms,” she states. It’s what she sees as a means to bridge that widening gap. “We still have a long way to go,” she answers when asked about her opinion on the importance of regional films. “I am not familiar with how things work in the industry just yet. I am very hopeful about it. These are the times where regionalism is very important but not the divisive kind.”

She talks about the recent presidential elections and how Duterte’s campaign hinged on the divide between the islands. “I felt that it was unhealthy because I felt that those lines (were already) dissipating with people from Manila collaborating with artists in Cebu, especially in the music industry.” But when the campaign began, the walls that were breaking down were built right back up again. “Regional films are going to help break those walls down,” she continues. “I think it’s very important to make films about home. The country is very diverse. Before we can be friends with our neighbors, we have to know where we are from and who we are so we can properly introduce ourselves to each other. The arts and culture can do that.”

‘As an actor, you allow organic things to happen. Happy accidents and stuff. But I want the foundations to be solid so at least when the organic stuff happens, it’s connected to that base,’ Chai says.

Language lessons
If we were to think of a perfect poster girl for regionalism, it would be the multilingual Chai. She can speak Cebuano, Tagalog, English and a little bit of Hiligaynon. “I was born in Cagayan de Oro and moved to Cebu for college,” she shares, explaining the different languages she speaks. “But I grew up in a Tagalog-speaking household.” Her grandparents, she adds, are from Manila. She learned Hiligaynon when she took a film workshop in the city of Sagay in Negros Occidental, picking it up from the locals there.

“I want to understand how words are used,” she explains. Shooting a teaser for a film, she had to learn Waray and she breaks down her learning process. “I don’t just memorize the lines. I try to understand how the words are used. I have the line and I have the translation, but I want to have a translation of each individual word.” She then asks her friends to use each word in a different sentence so that she understands how the word works.

“When I get into something, I really go into it,” she says. “I feel uneasy when I’m doing something that I have very little control over. Not that I’m a control freak. As an actor, you allow organic things to happen. Happy accidents and stuff. But I want the foundations to be solid so at least when the organic stuff happens it’s connected to that base.”

Quadruple threat: Besides being an actor, Chai Fonacier is also a writer, singer and songwriter.

Her love for language even extends to her social media as she uses her Twitter account to give Cebuano lessons to reach out to new followers. “The Cebuano stuff, I am having a lot of fun with it,” she narrates. “It started with the songs. People would say that they love my songs but they didn’t know what they meant.”

She’s still getting the hang of social media, though. It’s not as easy for her as learning a new language. When her Twitter following was still composed mostly of friends, she could rant about things without any caution; but now she finds that she has to be more careful. “People still don’t recognize me when I walk out in the street and I like that,” she says. It gives her the freedom to observe her people without notice. But as soon as her teleserye airs and the more roles she takes onscreen, that may soon change. But there is no doubt that her passion, drive, self-awareness and intelligence will get her through.

This transition period is not going to last for very long. Chai Fonacier is going to be very much at home in Manila, sooner than she thinks.

Photos by CRU CAMARA
Styled by NEAL P. CORPUS
Hair and Makeup by SYLVINA LOPEZ
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