Chai Fonacier on making ‘Nocebo’ and meeting Eva Green 2
In Nocebo, Chai Fonacier portrays the role of a Filipino nanny who practices traditional folk healing. Screengrab from the film's official trailer
Culture

Meet the fabulous Chai Fonacier, the actress Eva Green calls ’an incredible partner’

The Cebuana talks to ANCX about making her first international movie, and the warm hug that chilly, pandemic-time Ireland welcomed her with
RHIA GRANA | Oct 09 2022

When Filipina actress Chai Fonacier was offered to audition for the psychological thriller Nocebo, it didn’t occur to her it was the lead role she’d be vying for, or that she’ll be starring alongside the French actress Eva Green (Kingdom of Heaven, Casino Royale, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Penny Dreadful) in case she gets the part. 

She remembers getting a call in late 2020 from the film’s co-producer, Epicmedia Productions CEO Bianca Balbuena, asking her to audition for the Irish-Filipino production. “It's funny how I got into it. Kasagsagan ng pandemic so I had zero projects. Like a lot of actors, wala akong trabaho,” the Cebuana singer and actress recalls to ANCX.

Chai Fonacier
Nocebo is Fonacier's first foray in international film. 

She has worked with Balbuena in the black comedy Patay na si Hesus and the dramedy fantasy Miss Bulalacao, so she immediately said yes to auditioning. It was only later when Fonacier asked Balbuena for details that she found out the lead star of the film is going to be Green, who happens to be one of her favorite actresses. 

A week before she got the call from the Filipina producer, Fonacier was bingeing on YouTube videos, and got particularly engrossed in the French star’s performance in the horror drama television series Penny Dreadful, where Green plays a character possessed by spirits. “She was playing four characters in one scene. And I was like, ‘How did she do this?’”

So when the petite Cebuana found out she might be working with Green, she literally had a panic attack. It took an entire night for her to prepare a video audition piece with the help of a best friend (she was provided a portion of the script to read). She was finally able to submit her audition video at five in the morning, and to lessen her anxiety, set the whole thing aside in her head. 

Chai Fonacier
Fonacier says speaking English in a Visayan accent was a creative choice that she made which the film's director, Lorcan Finnegan, greenlit.

A couple of weeks later, Balbuena told her she got the role. But it didn’t sink in yet just how big her part was going to be—until she read the entire script. “I was discussing it with my boyfriend and my friend, and we were like, ‘Dude, this is huge,’” she says, recalling their excitement.

As can be gleaned from the Nocebo trailer, which trended on social media this past week, Fonacier’s part is major. She portrays the role of a Filipino nanny who practices traditional folk healing. She was hired to work in the family of Christine (Green), a fashion designer suffering from a mysterious illness. “Actually [my character] is there for something else,” teases Fonacier who stops herself from revealing more.  

“She’s a very determined character,” is what she can say, describing the nanny. “When she sets her mind to do something, nothing could stop her from [pursuing] the path she takes. And she can be very dark. I think this might be the darkest character I have ever portrayed,” adds Fonacier who’s played an angry lesbian cheated on by her girlfriend (Patay Na si Hesus) and a streetsmart kid who befriends a Martial Law survivor (Respeto), among other parts in movies and the stage. 

Chai Fonacier
Green portrays the role of a fashion designer suffering from a mysterious illness.

It helped that the character’s side practice is someone she’s quite familiar with, having grown up in Cagayan de Oro and Cebu, where traditional healing practices like hilot and tawas are commonplace. “I grew up with that kind of stuff. I think a lot of Filipinos grew up with that sort of stuff na pag nilalagnat ka, yung nanay mo, bibigyan ka ng gamot pero tatawagin din niya yung local manghihilot just to make sure na normal na lagnat siya at hindi dahil sa white lady sa may punong mangga,” Fonacier says, laughing.

One of the challenges the fast-talking actress encountered while doing the film was getting used to speaking in English in a Visayan accent. “I think in Cebuano and English. [But] My character just speaks and thinks in Cebuano,” she offers, adding that she and award-winning Irish film director Lorcan Finnegan (Without Name, Vivarium, Foxes) discussed possible approaches to her role in multiple meetings. She and the director had a “very collaborative” work relationship, says the actress.

“As soon as I found out what [the nanny’s] background was, we decided on how she moves, how she speaks, how she thinks. So it was putting all those together and making sure that when you combine them, they become one believable character. [Speaking English in a Visayan accent] was a creative choice that I made which Lorcan greenlit.”

Chai Fonacier
The film is topbilled by Eva Green and Mark Strong.

Fonacier says it was a delight working on the film. Since they only had nine-hour workdays from Monday to Friday, as soon as she’s in her pad, she has time to cook herself dinner, watch TV, replenish her energy, and study her script. Fonacier arrived in Ireland in February 2021 to shoot the movie and stayed there for a month and a half.

In an Instagram post, Green referred to Fonacier as “my fabulous co-star.” The award-winning French actress adds, “Chai is truly a great actress with extraordinary depth and sensitivity and she was an incredible partner - she blew me away!”

Fonacier says she was naturally very grateful for the remark, but also mostly relieved that she’s working with such great talents. “They've been in the business for a long, long time while this is my first international film,” she says. Because of this, the Cebuana felt a huge responsibility to “catch up” and give her best performance.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Eva Green (@evagreenweb)

“I remember the day when it all kind of sank in [that I’m working with a very talented group]. I was called in to rehearse on a Saturday morning. And we were rehearsing inside the house where we were shooting most of the time. Eva walks in, then Mark Strong walks in, and then there's Lorcan, whose film I just recently saw at that time. Then I just realized I have these very seasoned people with me in the same room all at the same time and I couldn't help but just be in awe. At some point, I almost forgot I was part of a scene because it's an awesome thing, such a joy to watch them work. So you kind of want to be at that level as well. 

Here’s the rest of our chat with Fonacier who is currently staying put in Quezon City but is looking forward to what is likely going to be a busy year of festivals and promotional work for Nocebo.

Chai Fonacier
"...she can be very dark. I think this might be the darkest character I have ever portrayed,” says Fonacier about her role.

What was it like working with the film’s director, Lorcan Finnegan?

I like him because he's very precise about what he wants. Very clear. If he needs me to try another approach, he's very clear about it. When I ask him about certain things like, ‘do you think this might work?’, he bounces ideas off with me. It was pretty easy to work with Lorcan actually. 

 

And what was it like meeting Eva Green?

She was really sweet. At that time, people who arrived from a particular country were required to go into quarantine for a number of days. So I was quarantining in a house. [The production team] had all my groceries prepared for me. They’re very nice.

And then one evening, one of the production assistants dropped by the house with a package for me. It was a bottle of wine, a votive candle, and a note from Eva. She was welcoming me to the project and saying ‘I look forward to working with you. I hope you have fun here.’ Naturally I opened the wine right away and called my friends. I said, ‘Oh my God, this wine is from Eva Green!’

The first time I met her was at a Zoom meeting one or two days before my quarantine ended. We had to do like a table read. So Eva and I did a table read of all the scenes and we discussed a few things with Lorcan. And then when I met her on the set, she was already filming one of her scenes. I said ‘hi’ she said ‘hi.’ She's really nice in real life.

Chai Fonacier
“Actually [my character] is there for something else,” teases Fonacier.

Tell us about the life you were living outside of the movie set in Ireland.

I wouldn't go out as much since it was the height of the pandemic. There wasn't a lot to see. It was so sad when St. Patrick's Day came and there was no parade. There were no activities. But I would take really long walks on weekends. I would just go on Google Maps and look for the various parks and historical spots nearby because I also could not go anywhere outside five kilometers of where I was staying. That was their rule back then.

I saw the house where Oscar Wilde lived. Just right across is a park where his statue stands. It's so nice to walk out there because there are lots of trees and you don't feel as tired as when you're walking here in the Philippines. So there was one day I didn't realize I was already walking for four hours. That's kind of like what my days were like. I’d sit down at the park and read, watch people, do the groceries, then go home and cook.

 

What kinds of food did you eat? 

I cooked my own stuff mostly. I just Google recipes. But it was really sweet of the crew when they were buying the groceries for me during my quarantine. They asked about my preferences—and I’m not very picky with stuff—so I just said, ‘You can go ahead and take care of that.’ When they arrived at the apartment and I opened the cupboards, I found out they bought vegetables and all that stuff. And then I open the other cabinet and then I saw Boy Bawang. I'm like, ‘Amazing!’ I love it! They’re so sweet to think of that.

Chai Fonacier
Fonacier says she's quite familiar with her character's side practice, having grown up in Cagayan de Oro and Cebu, where traditional folk healing is practiced.

What did your family and friends say when they saw the Nocebo trailer?

I actually already saw the trailer beforehand because Lorcan was very excited to show it. I was mostly very nervous, actually. On the day that it came out, I woke up late, between 11am or 12 noon, and my notifications were blowing up. My boyfriend told me, ‘Your trailer is out today. This is why everybody's looking for you.’

So I sat in bed, more like hid under the blankets for a good 30 minutes before I checked my phone. Emotionally, I was in that area of the Venn diagram where you're happy and you're grateful and then you're also very scared. Right there in the middle. (Laughs)

 

Were there other Filipino actors in the movie?

Yes. I met them during the last few days of our shoot in Ireland. There were some scenes that were set in the Philippines and we had to shoot them in Ireland because of Eva's schedule. So they recreated the location in Ireland and flew in a bunch of Filipino actors based in Ireland and the UK. They're all really nice people. I stayed in their tent para chumika. Ang saya.

Chai Fonacier
"There have been many examples in the past where we've proven that we have no lack of talent, we have no lack of skill. And I'm just personally glad to be able to add to that proof," says Fonacier.

What were the most memorable times you had in Ireland?

One was the moment I mentioned earlier during rehearsals when I had three amazing people in the same room with me and I almost forgot that I was part of the scene.

The other one was when we had a Friday night out. Some of the assistant directors there were kind of sad for me that the pubs were closed for indoor customers because it's the pandemic. I was in Ireland, so I was hoping to check out an Irish pub. So what they did was they took me out on a wintry night and we went to a pub to take out some beer. We walked around and drank on the sidewalk. I don't know if they still remember me teaching them this Cebuano expression, ‘Bahala nagkurog basta hubug.’ (Meaning, ‘Who cares if we’re feeling cold, as long as we’re drunk.’).

I posted about this when I arrived there. I noticed that the Irish people are the complete opposite of their very cold weather because they're just very warm, very friendly even to strangers. I've only seen that part of Dublin so I can only talk about that. But generally, people were very warm, not just the people that I work with, even those at the grocery, the neighbors. They’re all very nice.

 

What will the next few months be like for you?

There will be a few more festivals that I might go to. I don't know when the film is going to be released here in the Philippines but I'm sure that it will be. It will be shown in US theaters in November and will also be available on demand. I'm bracing for interviews like this. I'm guessing it's going to be pretty busy. I'm glad to be part of it because I want to support the film. But at the same time, I'm also kind of taking it easy in between.

Chai Fonacier
“Chai is truly a great actress with extraordinary depth and sensitivity and she was an incredible partner," Eva Green wrote in an Instagram post.

What should Filipinos watch out for in this movie?

To be honest, I'm just really excited for them to see the film. And what the Filipino talent can do in terms of co-producing with other countries. A chunk of it was produced by Bianca Balbuena. We have a Filipino cast and crew who did the Philippine leg. It was Ben Padero and Carlo Tabije who did part of the production design, along with the production designers in the Ireland team.

There have been many examples in the past where we've proven that we have no lack of talent, we have no lack of skill. And I'm just personally glad to be able to add to that proof.

Also for the powers that be in our industry, [it’s a way of saying] this is how much we can do. Maybe let's start rethinking the way we treat each other as workers here locally in the Philippines. And when we do co-productions with other countries, there's so much to learn. I'd love for people to go out more and do more co-productions and bring those good practices back home so that we can also help our own here.

Screengrabs from Nocebo's official trailer