“I couldn't ask for anything more. I’ve had the best, craziest family ever. I’ve had a very colorful life. Anything less than that would be a bore. Life was always about colors and performances, songs and dance.”
Eight years before she was diagnosed with a rare form of endometrial cancer, which would lead eventually to her death last August 5, the actress Cherie Gil got the chance to look back on her personal life and acting career, two worlds that often intertwined in the actress’ case. It was via an interview for a 2013 episode of CinemaOne’s “Inside The Cinema” hosted by Boy Abunda, where actors get to deep dive into their filmography—touching not only on the hits or the prize-winning movies but even the misses. And in a career that spans six decades, Cherie has had her share of all three.
It’s a pretty revealing episode, one that will surprise viewers who may only be getting into Cherie’s journey after her passing, and who may only know her for her kontrabida turns. In the over-an-hour-long interview, the lady talked mentors, boyfriends, and confessed to being a real “problem child” on the movie set.
Growing up Eigenmann
But first she talked about growing up in a show biz family, where both her parents and siblings were all in the entertainment biz. Her father, Eddie Mesa, was in fact a matinee idol, the “Elvis Presley of the Philippines.”
Having fans come to the Eigenmann house (Eigenmann is Eddie’s real last name) carrying banners and pictures for her father to sign was an ordinary sighting for little Cherie. But it took a while before she could fully grasp her father’s job as an actor. Watching a film where Eddie’s role showed him locked up in jail and being beaten up proved particularly troubling for the young girl. “I just ended up crying so much I didn’t want to watch any more of his films again,” the actress told Boy.
To hear Cherie say it, Eddie and wife Rosemarie were very social people and even brought some of that glamorous show biz life to the family home. Eddie would throw poolside parties and have the biggest stars of the day in attendance: Fernando Poe Jr., Zaldy Zshornack, Romeo Vasquez, Amalia Fuentes, and Susan Roces among them. The actress Rosemarie, like many moms would have her kids dress up as part of the evening entertainment: Michael (de Mesa) and Ralph (Mark Gil) will be in their clown costumes, and Cherie in her tutu.
The only daughter and youngest child would have her first exposure to the movie set when Rosemarie started getting more active in films, and she would bring Cherie with her to shoots. It wasn’t the spotlight, however, or the role-playing that happened in front of the cameras that caught the unica hija’s interest; it was being around her mother’s friends and colleagues.
Eventually, of course, the girl’s turn came to face the cameras. Rosemarie volunteered her daughter to appear in an international film called “Manda Versus Kung Fu” (1970) because the production needed a young Rosemarie who was playing a snake woman. “I was quite traumatized,” Cherie recalled of the experience. “It was quite difficult ‘cause the call time was at five in the morning and I remember waking up, I had very high fever, but I still went. And the first scene was to deal with all these snakes and making signs!”
In essence, Cherie was a screen villain from the get-go. Her next movie project came in 1973 in the form of “Cofradia” which starred Gina Alajar, Cherie’s brother Michael de Mesa (Gina and Mike would become a couple many years later), and Maricel Soriano. “I was pulling the hair of Maricel Soriano, grabbing her doll,” Cherie said of her second movie role. She wasn’t even in her teens yet but already on her second kontrabida outing.
Actors always get asked when they realized they wanted to act. For Rosemarie’s baby, she was just born to it. It just happened. Nobody asked her if she wanted to become a performer but according to Cherie, “maliit pa lang ako mahilig na ako sa entablado.” She enjoyed the work environment. She enjoyed going to the set in the trusty Ford Fieras with the catering service. She didn’t exactly dream of being an actor. She told Boy she wanted to be a psychologist. “I was surrounded by brilliant, crazy people,” the actress recalled, laughing, maybe half joking. “I also ended up a lot in the counselor’s office, so I saw ‘there must be money in this.’”
The young Cherie underwent a little straightening up when the three-movies-in-one “Beer House,” directed by Elwood Perez, landed on her lap in 1977. In her episode, Cherie was Corazon, the rebellious daughter of an aging streetwalker played by Charito Solis, one of the great actresses of her time. “I could not forget the days when she would scream at me because I wasn’t concentrating, I would be playing,” said Cherie. “But she would make sure I got myself to understand the scene. She would take time to teach me. And take the time to tell me why that’s happening and why the angle is so, that I have to look at her this way so ma-capture yung reaction ko. Boy, what a mentor! I was so lucky.”
Another great influence was the actress Rita Gomez who Cherie was able to work with alongside Celia Rodriguez in a movie called “Bubot na Bayabas” which was funded by Fernando Poe Jr. Rita was Rosemarie’s friend and would occasionally play mah jong at the Eigenmann residence. “She has this laughter,” Cherie recalled, throwing her head back and letting out a deliciously evil laugh. “A lot of my kontrabida-ness comes from that! She has this way of slurring that’s so divine!”
And then there was the director Ishmael Bernal who was known for being short-tempered on the set. Cherie was the target of the director’s wrath a number of times. “I’ve had scripts thrown at me. I’ve had chairs thrown at me. I’ve been screamed at,” Cherie recalled in the interview. But he would always make her ‘lambing’ afterwards, and say “Come here, hija, give me a kiss.”
Bernal handled Cherie in a number of films during the 1980s, among them “Girlfriend,” “Ito Ba Ang Ating Mga Anak?” and the classic “Manila By Night” where the actress famously played a lesbian drug pusher in love with a blind masseuse. How did she prepare for the role? “I grew up with boys. I went to a girls school so I was exposed to all sorts of girls and I was very close to many lesbians. I loved the fact that I had that exposure so I managed to study from them, the way they light their Zippos. Those little details Bernal could not have directed.”
Bernal is known to often act out a scene for his actors before a take, and that’s usually where Cherie would base her performance. Until there was one scene with Bernardo Bernardo in “Manila by Night” when Cherie would wait for directions from Bernal and got none. “I was really feeling left out,” said Cherie. “He’s not telling me anything!” She found comfort in Peque Gallaga who was the production designer for the film. He figured it was already the actress’ third or fourth movie under Bernal. Why was he not giving her directions? “That’s because you didn’t need to be directed,” Peque told her.
“That’s when I finally learned—wala pang mga workshops kasi noon eh—that it’s all about loving the part that you’re in and [being] inspired by it,” said Cherie. “When you know you’ve observed people in real life—and acting is all about observation—you can really get into someone else’s shoes and make it believable without having to rely on the director telling you what to do. At that time I was slowly realizing I was already getting out of myself and more into a real character.”
Problem child indeed
It’s not hard to glean from the interview that Cherie, during her teenage years, seemed to have lived up to the tag “Problem Child,” the title of one of her more popular movies, one of 13 she did in 1980 (“That was the ‘lagare’ era. Many of us actors were doing three or four movies at the same time”), and which she said broke box-office records then.
Was it her supposed notoriety on the movie set that inspired producer Mother Lily Monteverde of Regal Films to give her a project called “Problem Child”—where she was the wayward daughter to a mother played by who else but Rosemarie Gil? The movie took six months to make and partly because, Cherie herself admitted to Boy, with regret on her tone and a shrug of her shoulders, “I was a problem child.”
She recalled: “Mother Lily would pick me up to bring me to the set because I would not always find myself inspired to wake up to go to work, because it was difficult work.”
It was around the same time that she was in love with Dolphy’s son Rolly Quizon, also an actor, her co-star in one of those delightfully campy 80s movies, “Beach House.” “I think we first fell in love before the movies came about,” said Cherie. “And because we were an item, and the only way to keep me working was to have him on the set, [they cast him in the film] otherwise mawawala-wala ako. Pag pinatengga mo ako ng tatlong oras, wala na, mawawala na ako bigla. I was a little feisty, all-over-the place teenager.”
Looking back, Cherie said, “May pinagdadaanan lang siguro ako noon.” She was a teenager, “a girl trying to find her identity, trying to know who she was.” And when you’re a public figure being a problem child, it could sure feel like you’re the only troubled youth in the world and all the judging eyes are trained on you. It did seem to Cherie that was the case at that time.
For “Problem Child,” she remembered being asked by Perez to bare her back for a scene where, after waking up from sharing an evening in bed with her boyfriend (Lloyd Samartino), Alyssa, Cherie’s character, would face a full-length mirror wearing only “grandma panties” and her arms covering her breasts. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bare my back,” she said, recalling the moment. She had to call her mother who told her, “Cherie, you do what makes you feel most comfortable. You know your limitations. Let me talk to Elwood.”
Cherie would end up doing the scene as requested, as the movie now proves (you can watch the entire film on YouTube). Only in hindsight did she realize what her director was trying to achieve. Her baring her back had very little to do with sex but much to do with establishing a pivotal point in her character’s growth. She was a “pained little child looking at the mirror asking her who I am,” the actress said, describing Alyssa. There was so much poetry in that movie, Cherie added, looking back. And perhaps so much of her real self, too, during that period.