MANILA, Philippines -- Vilma Santos, who is dubbed Philippine cinema's "Star for All Seasons," considers her most deglamorized role yet as a tribute to the film "extras" she has worked with throughout her 50-year career.
In "Ekstra: The Bit Player," the 59-year-old actress plays Loida Malabanan, a professional TV series and film bit-player who opts to withstand harsh conditions to fulfill her passion.
The Jeffrey Jeturian-directed project is an entry to the 2013 Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, and marks Santos' first-ever starring role in an independent film.
"Imagine, sa tagal-tagal ko sa pelikula, lagi akong bida. Ngayon naman gagampanan ko 'yung role ng isang extra na alam naman nating lahat na ang isang pelikula, hindi mabubuo nang walang extra, so ako ngayon ang hahanga sa mga artista," the showbiz veteran told ABS-CBN News.
Santos, who has starred in some 220 films, said "Ekstra" will touch on the unfair treatment of real-life bit-players, which she recalled to have witnessed herself while on the set of one of her past movies.
"Malaking bagay sa akin na ako naman ang gaganap sa kanila. Alam naman nating lahat na kung minsan pag sinabing extra... Ako ang isang makakapagpatunay bilang isa sa mga pelikulang ginawa ko, [nakita ko] kung paanong minsan hindi rin sila natatrato nang tama.
"May be because ang bida, bida talaga, ibibigay sa'yo lahat, pero ang extra, nandadiyan magdamag, nakaupo, pero halos naiiwanan sila pag kinulang ng pagkain. Sila ang walang nakakakin, and yet ang sweldo nila, katiting na katiting compared sa mga bida," the actress said.
She added: "Malaking challenge sa akin na ako ngayon ang gaganap sa kanila. Sa tinagal-tagal ko na sa pelikula, hindi ko pa nagampanan ang role ng isang extra, so that's new for me."
As Loida in "Ekstra," Santos will also play fan to local stars like Piolo Pascual, Marian Rivera, Eula Valdes, Richard Yap and Cherry Pie Picache, who will appear as themselves in the film.
Vilma Santos (background, eighth from left) as Loida Malabanan is an avid fan of local stars Marian Rivera and Piolo Pascual (foreground), who portray themselves in 'Ekstra.' - Photo courtesy of the film's official Facebook page
Proving her commitment to her craft, Loida also gamely volunteers to be beaten up by on-screen villains played by the likes of Cherie Gil and Pilar Pilapil.
In one scene, Santos is even seen with a sack over her head, and subsequently slapped and kicked. Her character, though apparently hurt, shrugs it off and says, "It's part of the job."
Referring to the scene, Santos said, "Pag pumasok ka narin sa role, 'yun din ang gusto kong maramdaman eh, kasi usually 'yung sinasabing double, o pagka-extra, parang ikaw lagi 'yung nasasaktan, ikaw 'yung pag, 'May ilulublob diyan! Kuha ng isang extra doon sa ilulublob.'
"[It's a] challenge, kasi sa tagal ko rin sa show business, nakikita ko sila eh. Kaya 'yun ang challenge sa 'kin -- kung sasampalin ako, wala lang. Kung nasa loob ko na ang [pagiging] extra ako, definitely I will feel the pain, mararamdam ko 'yung sakit, pero definitely hindi ka pwede magreklamo."
Santos said this opportunity -- to bring the real-life bit-player's story to the big-screen -- was her primary motivation to say yes to finally doing an independent film.
The veteran actress recalled that the first offers for her to star in an "indie" project came as early as 2010.
Vilma Santos (left) with actress Tart Carlos in a scene from 'Ekstra.' - Photo courtesy of the film's official Facebook page
"May mga sumunod pa. Pero nagkataon lang na hindi ko na-oohan, maybe because una, limitado na ako sa time, and pangalawa, hindi ko alam, siguro hindi pa tumutugma 'yung script sa gusto kong gawin," said Santos, who is set to start her third consecutive term as Batangas governor.
Explaining why she agreed to take up "Ekstra" among the numerous film offers, Santos continued, "Gusto kong from 'yung ginagampanan kong mga bida, ngayon extra ako. Hindi ba, iba eh. 'Yun ang challenge, eh. Gusto ko na 'yung mga dati kong nakikitang bit-players o 'yung mga extra, ako 'yun ngayon."
With only 10 days of shooting for "Ekstra" and having seen the "limitations" of doing an independent project, Santos said she sees her latest film as a continuation of her "learning process" as an actress.
"Ako po ang may karangalan, kasi ako po ang matututo. Malaking karangalan 'yon, kasi hindi ibig sabihin na porke may award ka na, parang anggaling na, hindi po eh. Kasi ang show business, pag pinag-usapan mo 'yung acting o pag-arte, walang katapusang learning 'yan, dapat matuto ka.
"[There is] no such thing as anggaling mo na pag nanalo ka ng award, hindi. Meron paring learning process 'yan hanggang patagal ka nang patagal," she said.
Vilma Santos (seated, left) with the cast and crew of 'Ekstra.' - Photo courtesy of the film's official Facebook page
Bringing up her new-found respect for the independent film industry, Santos urged her audience to support similar endeavors, which she referred to as having lessons and meaning.
"Hindi puwedeng all the time ay box-office, box-office, puro box-office, ang tema naman ay paulit-ulit lang, so pagbigyan naman natin ipasok 'yung tinatawag na indie na matuturing ding may art at may matututunan.
"Ibang klase 'yung nararamdaman ko. [It's] very, very meaningful. It's about time na bigyan ng pansin ang indie film, para naman lumago pa ang film industry na pakikinabangan naman ng mga manonood," she said.
Cinemalaya 2013 will kick off its 10-day run on July 26 in cinemas at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Pasay City, Greenbelt 3 in Makati City, and Trinoma in Quezon City.