Weeks after The Assassination of Gianni Versace bowed out of TV screens, we still can’t get over the masterful performance of Jon Jon Briones as the frighteningly ambitious Modesto Cunanan. Both chilling and haunting, and coming in only on the series’s last two episodes, Briones’s bravura turn was like a reward to viewers who followed the series for nine weeks despite the weakness—and often cringe-inducing dialogue—of the Versace narrative, and the shocking violence of Cunanan’s murder spree. Harper’s Bazaar called the actor’s contribution “one of the series’s most mesmerizing, frightening performances,” and of course it has been suggested Briones could be a shoo-in for an Emmy nod.
To those who have yet to brush up on this second feature of American Crime Story on FX (the first being The People v. O.J. Simpson), The Assassination of Gianni Versace relates the series of events in the lives of the fashion designer and his erstwhile “friend,” the delusional con man, Andrew Cunanan (played by Darren Criss)—before the latter shot Versace on the steps of his exuberant property in Miami Beach on the morning of July 15, 1997.
By episode 8, we are introduced to the man who created the monster Andrew: the fiercely driven Modesto, or Pete, whose pursuit to make it big in a country not his own is as unwavering as the crispness of his tailored shirts. He was able to land a post in Merrill Lynch at a time when it was dominated by Ivy League graduates. He was able to get his family a big house even as he was only starting a career, a house he ushers his son Andrew into as if he was the only other member of the family (he had two siblings), allotting the young boy the master’s bedroom as if he was the wife. To his actual wife, Modesto was abusive; to Andrew, he was an extremely doting father, his love for him “like on steroids,” Briones told Harper’s Bazaar. In the end, his ambitions and delusions got the best of him: he got charged of embezzlement and had to flee the US to return to his hometown Baliwag, Bulacan, but not after selling the Cunanan house without the knowledge of his family.
Watching Briones play the elder Cunanan, it’s hard not to be reminded of the actor’s other famous role: that of The Engineer in the stage musical Miss Saigon which he left in January in Broadway. Both were slithery con men; and both were chasing The American Dream no matter the odds.
Briones, who comes from very humble beginnings, left Manila and his engineering studies for Miss Saigon in 1989 when he was just 22. He started off as member of the ensemble, until he took on the meaty role of The Engineer for which he won a Laurence Olivier Best Actor in a Musical nomination in 2015 during the musical’s revival at the West End. “I’m a very blessed man,” he said about being in the musical and getting to play the role originally essayed by Jonathan Pryce.
Backstage getting ready to play The Engineer.
With Eva Noblezeda who plays Kim in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon
With wife Megan who Jon Jon met during the German production of Miss Saigon
ANC-X caught up with Briones in Los Angeles where he is now based and living the working actor’s life with his family: Megan, his wife whom he met in the German production of Miss Saigon (she played Ellen), and his two children who are now also immersed in the acting profession.
How did you get the American Crime Story gig? Did you have to audition?
I did audition for it. But my name did come up for consideration prior to that because Darren Criss and (main writer) Tom Rob Smith were discussing who should play the father (Modesto) and they both saw me in Miss Saigon in London. They then talked to the producers about me on set almost every day. They both told me this when I finally booked the role. Fast forward to the Tony Awards where I bumped into Darren—I had never met him before but we both have Lea Salonga as a common friend—and he said “I need to talk to you.” We exchanged numbers and he called me a few days later to tell me that there was a role in American Crime Story (ACS) that might be right for me. I then informed my agent about it and I was able to get an audition. I was doing Miss Saigon on Broadway at the time and the audition was in L.A. So I had to tape the audition, send it to L.A. and, as they say, the rest was history.
How did you prepare for the role of Modesto Cunanan? Did you have to research or were there materials prepared for you?
It was a combination of different things. I looked on line for as much material as I could on Modesto—there wasn’t much. My director Matt Bomer lent me his copy of Maureen Orth’s book “Vulgar Favors” where the show is based on. I had an insightful talk with Maureen about Modesto Cunanan and I was able to pick the brain of Tom Rob Smith, which was very helpful. Also, I believe that being born, raised and having lived in the Philippines until young adulthood helped me get a real understanding of what this character wants, his desperate need to achieve a better way of life for himself and his family.
What was your first impression when you read the script?
Well, my first thought was “This is written for an Asian character?” It was so well-written and such a complex and rich character. I felt it was such a privilege to play this role, and a huge responsibility to play it well. Not too many actors of Asian descent get an opportunity like this. I was chosen out of so many talented actors out there and I felt that I owed it to them to do it well so as to keep the conversation of Asian representation going.
Modesto in the series looked like a very polished man from start to finish. What were the little details or nuances you added to the material and research?
I believe he’s aware of what he is up against, his limitations, and what he’s not in a white corporate world. So, he needs to act, walk and talk a certain way to be able to blend in, to be taken seriously or at least to be noticed. Having that in mind helped me physicalize Modesto.
Episode 8 was directed by the actor Matt Bomer (Magic Mike, The Normal Heart). Did the fact that you are both actors make the experience more enriching?
It was an amazing experience being directed by Matt Bomer! Actors can be some of the most insecure people in the world. We deal with emotions all the time that make us so vulnerable. And to have him there always encouraging and reminding me “If you don’t succeed, I don’t succeed,” that we were in the same boat, was truly wonderful.
Your two most popular roles are tinged with a bit of sleaze in them. Are there particular personas that you took inspiration from to play them?
It would be so interesting if I could say yes...but no. Flawed and bigger than life characters are the most fun to play for an actor. It’s like letting a child loose in a candy store. Just plain sugar rush!
Where did you shoot the Baliwag scenes in the series? And were you consulted with creating a kind of authenticity for the set?
It was shot in a FOX sound studio. They had really clever and amazing designers involved in this show. They don’t need me to mess it up for them.
Where are you based now? And what is life like for you as an actor in the US?
I am based in L.A. and this is the city to be in for TV and film. Being an actor of color is challenging. It has gotten better through the years but there is still a ton to be done. This role on ACS is the biggest screen role I’ve ever been given. Before this there were a lot of Asian drug mercenaries, drug dealer, restaurant owner, a monk, etc. I’m not complaining because any role for an Asian is unfortunately few and far between, and there are literally hundreds of talented Asian actors in LA just waiting for the big break and we should all be working.
Do you visit Manila occasionally? When was the last time you were in the Philippines?
Not as often as I would like to. The last time I was there was before my dad passed away. I was very fortunate to see him before he left us. It’s just hard, financially, to bring four people to the Philippines.
Where are we gonna see you next?
There is something exciting in the horizon that I hope to be able to announce soon.