Cherie Gil came across in varying ways—imperious and intimidating; funny, warm and open; beguiling and sexy.
Writing this, thinking about her and my time with her, I realize I probably really knew only one facet of a woman I love dearly and hold in great esteem. I’m certain her family, her barkada (the women—and man—who I fondly call the alpha females) have very different memories and impressions of her.
Our relationship was rooted in work. It was where we met; it formed the bulk of our interaction. But every time we worked together, we found that the hours weren’t enough, whether we were having drinks and dinner after rehearsals or engaging in long talks over coffee or weekend cocktails—fellow enthusiasts in the art and craft of performance just shooting the breeze.
How we met is a story in itself.
In 2009, I was asked to guest in a teleserye. It was scheduled for the day I was to leave for New York, so I declined. The talent coordinator asked me what time my flight was. I told her I had to be at the airport by 1:30 p.m. to catch my 4:30 p.m. flight. She pleaded with me to reconsider, assuring me that I would be done by 10 a.m. because my scene was at the top of the day’s shoot and my call time was 7 a.m. I relented, on condition that I would be let go promptly at noon.
The day before taping, I found out that the location was La Mesa Dam—two hours, I figured, from the airport. If they would let me off at 10, hey, plenty of time to make a check-in. I had my luggage in the car and a driver to worry about getting me to the airport.
When I arrived at the set, I picked up my script and went to the makeup table (wonderfully, it was set up under the trees). I was to play a director who abandons a shoot because the actress, a superstar, is late. She, the character, comes in and begs my forgiveness, but my character walks out, threatening, in true histrionic soap-opera fashion, to ruin her career forever.
I asked the makeup artist who was playing the actress. Cherie Gil, he said.
So 9 o’clock came and went. Then 10 o’clock. I nervously paced the location, weighing my options. Should I go? I had, after all, warned them. Should I wait? The thought of the wasted trip and the possibility that she would be there any minute, plus the actual brevity of the scene, convinced me to stay.
At 11 a.m. I was told that Cherie had arrived and was having her makeup done. I headed to the makeup table. She spotted me from a distance and tried to hide her face from me, probably thinking I’d berate her. But all I intended was to introduce myself.
Her first words to me were “Sorry! Sorry!” I just smiled. She went on: “This never happens! It’s just that …” I forget now what her excuse was, but my only concern then was to get the scene over with so I could rush to the airport.
When we finally did the scene, I was so overcome with anxiety and emotion that we did it in one take. On my way to the airport, I kept thinking, “How surreal, how meta was that? Art replicating life, literally?” (But I did manage to catch the flight.)
I would not have remembered the first time we met except that thenceforth, Cherie would tell everyone to whom she introduced me about it.
In constant search
I would then bump into her at various events and cocktails, and she’d abandon whoever it was she was with to chat with me. I realized then that she was constantly in search of something challenging, some material that would stretch her acting skills, something new a director might provide her with. She talked about seeing this or that production on Broadway, and being alternately unimpressed or keenly enthusiastic about the production and the performances.
When I suggested Mary Louise Wilson and Mark Hampton’s “Full Gallop,” she asked me for the script and promised she’d consider it. By that time, she had earned raves playing Maria Callas in Terence Mcnally’s “Master Class” as directed by Michael Williams.
It might seem that our friendship never went beyond our professional interest in each other, but nothing could be farther from the truth. She’d phone out of the blue and invite herself to dinner, breezing in with expensive vodka (she knew my favorite poison) and spending long hours talking about everything—craft, family, tsismis and, most significantly, the state of the (performance and broadcast) arts in the country.
At one time, the Eigenmann siblings—Cherie, Ralph (Mark Gil), and Mike (de Mesa)—had a magazine pictorial at the studio of Juan Caguicla across the hall from my apartment. My doorbell rang and standing outside my door was Cherie, beer bottles in hand (one for me), urging me to cross the hallway to join them.
Half-drunk later that evening, I enthusiastically told them, “You guys would be perfect in ‘The Little Foxes’ (by Lillian Hellman)!”
Ralph said he was nervous at being onstage and having to memorize English lines. Cherie and Mike, both having mastered the stage by that time, egged him on, rhapsodizing on the experience of stage performance, until he was convinced. I promised them I would look for someone to adapt the play into a Filipino setting, in Taglish, set in a hacienda in Bacolod. But Ralph was stricken with cancer a short while later, and that euphoric evening never bore fruit.
Diva and veteran
It was also on those nights of nonstop chatting that Cherie expressed some of her deepest desires and aspirations, and where I discovered her depth, her clarity, her vision.
Far from the simple diva everyone assumed she was—an image which, by the way, she also consciously nurtured—she was actually the battle-scarred veteran of an industry that often took the professional behavior of artists and staff for granted. She was therefore loath to suffer fools. Within this context, I realized that I just happened to be a victim of friendly fire in my first encounter with her. That in order to survive the injustices of the system, she had to play the diva, give them a taste of their own medicine, come late after being let off late the night before.
She talked about the underfunded productions that overworked the laborers, that stretched the working hours inhumanely, that produced compromised work. This was the seed of her production company, My Own Mann Productions.
On her 50th birthday celebration, at a roof deck bar somewhere in BGC, drunk with prosecco and the affection of friends and family, she approached me with an envelope in hand. “That’s my gift to myself,” she said. I opened it and found the “Full Gallop” script within. I was thrilled.
Dealing with Cherie as producer and actor was unforgettable. She and our production manager, Ria Pangilinan, would plan endlessly. She’d make phone calls to Rajo Laurel to consult him on the costumes. She’d call Tony Boy Escalante for the opening-night catering, and Bulgari Philippines for the jewelry, and then she’d turn to me for consultation on Joey Mendoza’s set.
When I’d sign off on something, some aspect, some detail of the set, she’d make sure Ria acquired it, or, barring its availability, have it fabricated. And then we’d rehearse for four hours a day. Just the two of us. Sometimes with the stage manager, often without.
Brilliant as Vreeland
It wasn’t an easy play: an hour-and-a-half monologue by an unsinkable septuagenarian nearing the end of her career but refusing to go down without a fight, determined to live life at “full gallop” to the very end. Lesser actors would have shrunk at the challenge.
At some point, she broke down after Act 1 and went to the fire escape to smoke. I joined her. It was apparent that she was interested neither in my sympathy nor words of encouragement. She was frustrated with herself and the most I could offer her was, “Rehearsals are for you to fail. Let’s try Act 2.”
Needless to say, she was brilliant as Diana Vreeland. She triumphed with audiences and critics playing to full houses and standing ovations during its limited run.
I tried to convince her to do a restaging because by the end of the run, we were turning away ticket buyers. But here’s another thing I learned about Cherie: She didn’t like looking back. It was always on to the next adventure.
Without a doubt, her biggest passion was her children. She was by turns stage mother, PTA parent and life coach to them. When I practically begged her to do “Vanya and Masha and Sonya and Spike” by Christopher Durang, she told me she’d do it only if I let her spend the Christmas break with her kids in New York, even if that meant she would return just 10 days before opening. I relented because I could see no one else in the role and because I trusted her professionalism utterly.
She turned in an excellent performance. It was a delight to watch Cherie make fun of her “diva” in a broad comedy.
After the reality of her passing in New York on Aug. 5 at the age of 59 settles in, many will have paid their tributes to and narrated their own memories of this extraordinary woman who lived life so restlessly and relentlessly.
Her family and her friends have much to say about her and the various roles she took on in life. I can only speak with certainty about the one I know—the artist whose indefatigable quest for perfection and idealism led her to become an icon for our time.
Cherie Gil wrote this in January 2021:
“I HAVE A DREAM …
“That one day actors are given the voice and the right to collaborate with writers and directors to tell our stories together from the get go, as we weave our characters into them as we ourselves will live them … I have a dream that one day, the actors can unite harmoniously, sans egos, to create their own stories, produce them and equally benefit from its success or even its failures … I have a dream that one day the industry will be professionalized by the law and be governed with fair and equal rights and protection for the actor in all aspects … I have a dream that one day actors be given health care subsidy, disability and unemployment benefits, regular pay and intellectual property rights and royalties for every project they are a part of even after its completion …
“I have a dream that one day all institutions established by the government for arts and culture will understand and respect the importance of the role of the actor in our culture and society, thereby extending to all across the board the support and compensations due them, especially the lowest income ones, especially now … I have a dream that one day, actors from superstars to talents will be on the same page and once and for all be United for the purpose of protecting and keeping each other safe and secure and our stomachs full so we in turn can deliver and fully express ourselves satisfactorily …
“I have a dream that one day actors will not be besieged with endless issues to fight for so that we can continue to create even more beautiful stories in peace … I have a dream that one day, actors can continue to flourish in this growing albeit struggling industry despite its oppressions in which we will not allow ourselves to be puppeted, controlled and at the mercy of the whims, disorganization and self-motivated commerce led by giant corporations.
“I have a dream that one day actors will be given the dignity they deserve into their twilight years and be given just honor for their service to the culture of our country … I have a dream that one day our industry, our government and the country as a whole will realize the value of the actors’ service as vessels to which our society is based on, and that our artistic contribution is the very heart of expressing our own country’s soul and human condition!
“After 48 years and counting, I have a dream that one day, these dreams will turn into a reality, hopefully in my lifetime.”
Bart Guingona won the 2013 and 2003 Aliw Awards for Best Stage Actor; the 2015 Gawad Buhay for Director, Best Actor, and Best Ensemble; and the 2014 Gawad Buhay for Best Director and Best Actor.
He is an advocate of various causes as head of pagbabago@pilipinas Foundation and the creative force behind corporate shows that range from parties and dinners to conferences, expositions and sporting events.
He has conceptualized, scripted and directed shows for corporations, institutions and events, including the Apec conference in Hong Kong, the National Press Club’s Gridiron Nights (14 years), and most recently the Dubai World Expo Philippines Day celebration.
As a theater artist, he has directed and acted in most of Manila’s major theatre companies, and has worked in film and television. —Ed.