Jo Koy‘s Easter Sunday hit global screens last weekend and everyone is immensely thrilled –especially Filipinos. Melody Butui portrayed Tita (auntie) Yvonne as part of the central cast that showcased Filipino traditions and tropes on a global stage.
When Butui started her career in Hollywood, the reception to Filipino actors making it into the industry wasn’t the easiest and was told that she could portray another ethnicity to fit into on the big screen. But, lo and behold, after a relative amount of time — She was able to showcase her acting chops on Easter Sunday, a love letter to Filipinos worldwide.
British Thoughts got to chat with Melody about her new film, her journey as a Filipino American actress, and her love for theatre. Read the full interview below.
What was the transition period like from being on a Broadway stage to acting in film?
I have been so blessed to have a vibrant career in stage, TV, and Film and my work has gone back and forth among them all. I made my Broadway debut in 2015 with Doctor Zhivago, but before that, had incredible success off-Broadway with Here Lies Love (by David Byrne & Fatboy Slim), in regional theatres around the country, as well as in TV & Film.
I have learned so much from all of my experiences, and Easter Sunday has certainly been my biggest opportunity in film, but some of my most challenging roles have been on stage, originating roles in both plays and musicals. Both mediums, theatre and on-camera work, have similar fundamentals. You want to feel prepared, grounded, connected, invested, playful, instinctual, active, and flexible in your performances.
The focus in the film is more moment to moment, whereas in theatre, you are telling the story from beginning to end every night. In the film, it’s the director’s responsibility to craft the story, how it’s edited, scored, what shots and takes they choose, and how it all comes together. In theatre, the director guides the production throughout the rehearsal process. Once the show is up and running, it’s up to the company, stage manager, and crew to maintain the integrity of the production.
As an actor, your performance can deepen throughout the run. You will make discoveries and develop new insights. The performance will grow and evolve as time goes on and may even be affected by the energy the company is receiving from the live audience. In the film, it’s imperative to be prepared, present, focused, and flexible enough to take direction, change your choices on a dime, and sometimes learn new lines very quickly. Once a scene is completed, it’s kind of out of your hands, and you move forward.
You play Yvonne on ‘Easter Sunday, and it features a Filipino cast’. How did it feel to be a part of a production that celebrates Filipinos?
Easter Sunday means so much to me because while Filipino and Filipino American performers, storytellers, filmmakers and creators have been around for so many years, growing up in eastern Washington, I rarely saw people who looked like me on screen, or even in the public eye. When I first started acting professionally, I was told that Filipino roles didn’t exist and that most Americans had never heard of the Philippines.
I was told I was better off changing my name and learning Spanish because I didn’t look very Asian. To introduce audiences to a big, boisterous, multi-generational Filipino American family with diverse experiences (immigrants, American-born, mixed ethnicities), to share what makes us unique and what connects us, is a dream I never imagined I’d be part of. To honour my own family’s experiences, with our laughter, joy, challenges, drama and hopes fulfilled was something I carried with me throughout the process of making this film. Our stories are part of the American experience’s fabric and deserve to be shared.
What was it like to represent the sub-cultural phenomenon of being a real Filipina Tita?
When I first auditioned for the role of Tita Yvonne and read the material, I thought, “Oh I know this Tita!” I saw so much of my mom and my Aunties and Titas in her. Because the conflict and competition between Tita Susan and Tita Theresa (played by Lydia Gaston and Tia Carrere) was the central conflict in the story, I wanted to bring a different Tita energy to my character. Tita Yvonne is the Tita that is super affectionate and positive, is ready to break out the Karaoke machine and party, is always asking about who you’re dating and what’s going on in your personal life, doesn’t have a great sense of personal boundaries, and is happy to shower you with hugs and sniff-kisses.
The movie has an amazing cast of all-star comedic actors like Tiffany Haddish, Tia Carrere, Jo Koy and Eugene Cordero. What was it like to work with Jo Koy and the cast?
I couldn’t have asked for a more joyful, supportive, incredibly hilarious work experience! From our first day on set, it felt like a family. We had so much fun making each other laugh, trying different jokes, and watching each other in awe. Because we filmed during strict Covid restrictions and could only share space with our “bubble,” we spent a lot of our time off set with each other as well, cooking for each other, exploring the city, spending time outdoors, eating, singing karaoke, and telling stories. Even on our days off we wanted to hang out and celebrate. Jo is incredibly generous and kind and wanted everyone to have a great time on and off set. That energy and joy permeated throughout the cast.As a Filipino-American actress in the acting world, how did you deal with industry stereotypes?
I think it’s important to have a great sense of self when approaching your roles. When developing characters, we can challenge, ask questions, deepen the work, and research history to create full, three-dimensional characters. I try to be very mindful when it feels like a person’s ethnicity is the butt of the joke. For example, I’ve played characters who were immigrants with a Filipino accent. To me, I want to honor the immigrant experience and I believe that those voices and perspectives should be heard. So when I’m called upon to do the accent, it’s done with so much love and reverence for my family and all they’ve gone through to create a new life for us. It’s very different than being asked to turn up an accent just because it’s “funny.” If I come across a character that I find offensive or objectionable for some reason, I’ll ask questions and try to be curious as to what the intentions and goals are for the creative team. I’ll share my perspectives of how I’m viewing it and try to challenge what I’m finding troubling. We are collaborators and it’s important to have a dialogue about these things.
Given the growth of BIPOC creatives in Hollywood. Do you think we shall be seeing more equality and diversity in the creative industry as time goes by?
I certainly hope so! There are so many platforms and ways that people consume content and stories, so there is no excuse for lack of representation. When people see themselves or their point of view on screen or in the stories that are told, it is extremely powerful. Seeing people and hearing stories that move beyond the stereotypes, that show a wide range of experiences and humanity, that recognizes struggles but also celebrates joy and triumph within all of our communities, allows society to see people as fully human. To embrace these fully formed, fully human characters in film and television is to invite them into our homes and hearts and opens our minds to what is possible in our own world. It’s up to us as audience members to support the stories as they come out, to show creatives in Hollywood that these stories matter and are worth investing in. Buy that movie ticket, watch that new TV show, share about it with friends and spread the word when you see a story that moves you.
What’s the best piece of advice you can give to upcoming industry professionals?
In a career where your trajectory can be such a roller coaster, you have to embrace the ups and downs of it and know this is all part of the job. Just keep at it, do consistent work, know your stuff, be ready when called upon, be kind to and appreciative of everyone around you, stay curious and keep learning, and trust that your path will not look like anyone else’s and that’s okay. This industry is also so much more meaningful when you build and nurture your community. Especially now that so many auditions are done via self-tape, it can be easy to feel isolated in your journey. Take time to lift others up, celebrate other people’s wins, support them by seeing their shows or films, participate in workshops for developing projects, promote people’s successes just as much as you toot your own horn. Do this with a generous and gracious spirit.
Do you have anything new down the pipeline that we should know about?
During the Christmas season, I have been performing in A Christmas Carol these past few years at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, California. I plan to return this year as Mrs. Fezziwig, a Solicitor, and a Scavenger. It’s a beautiful family tradition and is always fun to reunite with fellow artists, welcome new ones into the cast, and create with the young actors in the cast as well. I also love working on new plays and musicals and have been fortunate enough to work with inspiring artists and legendary creators in various developmental workshops and readings in the past few months.
Written by: Cyan Leigh Dacasin Photos by: Ben Cope