The Birdshot star is killing it. And by “it” we don’t mean like, eagles.
There are many things Mary Joy Apostol never expected when she started acting.
She didn’t expect to land her first movie, the critically acclaimed thriller Birdshot. She didn’t expect to be the lead, appearing in almost every frame. She certainly didn’t expect to spend her first out-of-country trip attending a red-carpet event — which happened to be for a Tokyo film festival in which Birdshot was competing, no less. “(It was my) first time on a plane, too!” she adds.
Directed by Mikhail Red, Birdshot is just as much a coming-of-age story as it is a Western, unfolding in tight, sprawling shots across the forests and cornfields of Isabela province. Mary Joy stars as 14-year-old Maya, who accidentally shoots and kills a critically endangered Philippine Eagle that’s protected by law. Her story coincides — then collides — with that of Domingo, played by Arnold Reyes, an idealistic rookie cop who begins to investigate the killing. Rounding out the cast are Ku Aquino as Diego, Maya’s father, and John Arcilla as Mendoza, a ruthless chief officer working with Domingo.
Birdshot won the Best Asian Future Film Award at the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival, and has competed in film festivals in Belgium, New York, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand and Taiwan. This year, it was the opener at Cinemalaya and won the Critics’ Choice Award at the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino.
Mary Joy was invited to audition for the feature by producer Pamela L. Reyes, who had once directed her in a short film co-written by Mikhail called Unawa. “Hindi ko po akalaing ipapalabas po (ang Birdshot) sa ibang bansa,” Mary Joy recalls.
On set, she juggled excitement and nerves. She had to train with a dog and learn how to hold a gun. Everything was new, from the type of script she was working with, to what she recounts was a restrained but firm and particular directing style. “Chill lang po kasi si direk (Mikhail), eh,” she says. “Tahimik po (siya) pero ‘pag sinabi po niya ‘yung gusto niya, ‘yun na ‘yun. Sobrang hands-on niya.”
The lone newcomer, not to mention the only teenager and the only girl, Mary Joy proved that she could hold her own against her more seasoned co-stars. The experience, she says, only led her to further appreciating the filmmaking process and acting as a craft. “Tinuruan po ako nila Sir Arnold at Sir John,” she says. They gave her advice, particularly when it came to high-tension scenes where she had to express rage. “Nakinig naman po ako,” she adds with a laugh, “kahit hindi po ako nakikisali sa mga usapan nila.”
Mary Joy’s bubbly demeanor is almost in direct contrast to Maya’s fierce intensity. This the actress points out with a quippy “Hindi naman ako masyadong mysterious.” Reviews called her performance “impressive,” with a “magnetic screen presence” that “monopolizes attention.” And according to her director, she’s a natural who looks great with a gun and has an easy chemistry with her canine buddy, Bala.
Ask her how she channels her character’s thoughts and feelings, and Mikhail is proven right: “Iniisip ko lang po (si Maya),” she says. “For example, ‘yung (companionship ng) dog, sobrang hilig ko po sa dog talaga, as in dog lover po ako. So parang dun ko po kinukuha ‘yung mga emotion, kung ano po ‘yung meron po ako, nilalagay ko po dun sa character ko.”
According to Mary Joy, Maya’s point of view is interesting because she continuously walks a tightrope between innocence and grayer, more ambiguous moralities. “Fresh po siya,” she says, “walang masyadong alam hanggang sa unti-unti niyang ma-discover na ganun (ang mundo). Nakikita mo ‘yung stage na parang, nandun si Maya, nagdadalaga.”
To get into Maya’s headspace, Mary Joy was given a watch list of movies that helped her capture the tone they needed, including Memories of Murder, Babel and True Grit. The latter two, in particular, both feature precocious young women who must forge their own paths and are forced to grow up a little too quickly. Maya would feel right at home.
She’s set to graduate from Bulacan State University with a degree in tourism this academic year. In school, classmates would tease her, “Uy! Nakapatay ng eagle!” But Mary Joy only holds her head up high, because she has loved working on Birdshot. “Binigay ko po yung lahat,” she says. “Body, soul, art.”
In September, it was announced that Birdshot has been selected as the Philippines’ entry for consideration in the Best Foreign-Language Film category of the 2018 Academy Awards. Mary Joy remembers friends congratulating her, telling her it won’t be long before she’s on another red carpet — this time in Hollywood. “Sabi ko, ‘Ano ‘yung Oscars?’” she laughs.
Still, she believes the film has a fighting chance. In fact, she thinks it deserves the honor. “Kahit hindi po ako ‘yung bida dito,” she begins, “sobrang ganda po talaga ng Birdshot. Kapag napanood niyo po siya, talagang makikita niyo po talaga (‘yung dedication ng lahat).”
She adds that the positive response has been overwhelming, but encouraging nonetheless. “Marami pong nagsasabi na, ‘Ah, ganyan talaga,’” she observes. “Siguro kaya po nila nagustuhan ‘yung Birdshot kasi nakikita po nila na parang ‘yun nga po ‘yung nangyayari sa (Pilipinas).”
Foreign viewers, meanwhile, might find the film refreshing, but also eye-opening and even familiar. “Mas bago (siya) sa paningin,” she says. “Kapag napanood nila, ibang tema, ibang lugar po. Ibang atmosphere.”
Mary Joy is especially glad when people her age are able to acknowledge what Birdshot is trying to do for Philippine cinema and the stories of everyday Filipinos as a whole — even if, as she says, it’s not the romantic comedy or summer blockbuster they typically go to the cinemas to watch.
“Hindi lang po (tungkol) sa pagba-bawal (ng pag-patay) sa eagle (ang Birdshot),” she insists. “About po siya sa (iba’t-ibang issues). Dapat mas alam natin ‘yung mga ganito, kasi nga millennials, tayo ‘yung pag-asa ng bayan. Tayo ‘yung mag-dadala in the future so dapat alam natin yung (katotohanan).”