Cris Villonco--how she became the most versatile actress of her generation

Cris Villonco--how she became the most versatile actress of her generation
By Walter Ang
May 18, 2013
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Anna Cristina Siguion-Reyna Villonco
Cris Villonco has been cast in English and Filipino productions, plays and musicals, dramas and comedies, classic and contemporary material, in character and lead roles, and earlier this year, even in a male role (well, a female cross-dressed as a male, as Viola/Cesar in Philippine Educational Theater Association's "'D Wonder Twins of Boac," an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night.").

But if life had taken a different turn, she would have been a politician by now.

"Pa-laos ka na," was what her own mother told Villonco in her senior year of high school in the mid-2000s. This was an assessment of her entertainment career: flourishing as a child singer but stalling as a teenager that nobody knew what to with.

Villonco first gained popularity through her appearances in "Aawitan Kita," the seminal television show that featured kundiman and other Filipino song forms. Soon she was being hired to sing theme songs for various charities and organizations.

The exposure led to Time Magazine noticing her role in creating awareness for these various causes and selecting her as a "Hero For The Planet" in 2000.

More opportunities came. Hosting gigs on television. Album recordings. A singing stint at the Vatican in the presence of Pope John Paul II. Cast in a Fernando Poe, Jr. movie. Headlining a solo concert.

Then it all fizzled. "My parents are always the first to give me the bad news. They have never protected me from pain," she says, quashing notions that she lives in any kind of bubble.

It was decided that she would leave the showbiz industry and attend Sarah Lawrence College in the USA to take up Economic Development. "I wanted to eventually take up law and join public office."

Cris Villonco (right) as Young Cosette
in Rep's "Les Miserables."
Upon her return in 2007, Villonco worked for two nongovernment organizations. Her life under the klieg lights a distant memory, that is, until she decided to give stage lights one more try.

"It's my first love," she says. Villonco had done theater a few times when she was still in showbiz. In fact, her stage debut as Young Cosette in Repertory Philippines' "Les Miserables" happened before she even started appearing on television.

When she was a teenager, she'd also been cast in lead roles in Actor's Actors' "Five Women Wearing the Same Dress," and in Musical Theatre Philippines' "Alikabok."

As katipunera Bising Vallejo in Musicat's "Alikabok."
And she'd never really let go of performing even when she was in the US, as she'd taken voice and music classes.

The seed planted by theater may have taken some time in taking root, but it sure bloomed with a vengeance when Villonco returned to it as an adult.

In 2008, she broke into the scene in a very big way by bagging two lead roles: as Ophelia in Rep's "Hamlet" and as Zafira in Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas' "Orosman at Zafira." At the same time.

As Zafira in Dulaang UP's "Orosman at Zafira."
"It was one of the craziest times of my life," she says of traversing the city to get from one production to the other.

"I didn't audition in both productions [and expect to get in] as a career move. I only went to the Orosman audition because the actress who'd been cast as Zafira had to drop out and asked me to audition."

Four more lead roles in different productions followed that year. By the following year, she received a citation from Philstage Gawad Buhay! for Outstanding Featured Actress for her turn as Ophelia.

And then, perhaps even crazier, she up and left to work in Hong Kong Disneyland. Because of a rough patch in her personal life.

"I have been privileged and blessed but problems are problems. Nasasaktan din naman ako. I was losing myself in my anger. I always feel what I want to feel at any moment. So I left," she says.

While bewildered at the absurdity of leaving the heels of what seemed to be a triumphant resurrection of her theater career, Villonco also found a renewed sense of self. "Hong Kong was where I really had my independent period. I discovered things about myself," she says.

Hard worker
As Ophelia in Rep's "Hamlet."
The distance and space allowed her to reset, recharge and recalibrate a return path to Manila's theater scene. And she's been at it since then.

By 2011, she'd gained traction again, landing two plum lead Maria roles. She was cast as Maria Rainer-Von Trapp in Resorts World Manila's "Sound of Music" and as Maria Clara in Tanghalang Pilipino's "Noli Me Tangere," for which she won the Philstage Gawad Buhay! for Outstanding Lead Actress.

"Cris is an addict," she's been described by a fellow actor. Not to drugs, but to working. She takes it as a compliment. "I'm overfocused and overdedicated," she says. "I'm proud to say I'm a hard worker and that I prepare for productions so that I will know my stuff. That's what's gotten me to where I am, contrary to what people say behind my back."

Assumptions and speculations (still) abound when it comes to Villonco, usually in relation to her family background: that her family pays productions for her to get in, that she never auditions for anything because of her family's clout.

"But people see me waiting in line for my turn!" she says, shaking her head and laughing.

Goofing around backstage in RWM's "Sound of Music."
Her family is, for better or for worse, inextricably part of how the public (still) identifies and perceives Villonco. It can be argued that her popularity when she was a young performer, talent notwithstanding, was partly fueled because of the fact that she came from a line of newsmakers all in their own right.

To wit: maternal grandmother Armida Ponce Enrile Siguion-Reyna, singer, producer and host of "Aawitan Kita," former Movie and Television Review and Classification Board chair (and sister of soprano Irma Ponce Enrile-Potenciano and politician Juan Ponce Enrile); maternal uncle Carlos Siguion Reyna (Armida's son), filmmaker; father Rolando Mario "Opap" Villonco, lawyer known for being Gretchen Barretto's defense counsel in the 1994 "Take it, take it" Filmfest Scam; and mother Monique Siguion-Reyna Villonco, television producer, photographer and pioneering editor-in-chief of the Philippine edition of Town and Country Magazine.

A connection to their names seems to be always highlighted in even the most casual of media interviews with Villonco, simultaneously highlighting and shadowing her.

Moving on
In Rep's "Love's Labours' Lost"
Villonco doesn't pretend to be unaffected by the gossip. She asks pointedly while rolling her eyes, "What is my family going to do? Pay everyone off every time there's a problem? Which we've never done. And in any case, we don't have that kind of money!"

And challenges do exist for her. Villonco talks of being rejected for roles because of her fair skin, of perceptions that she can't speak Tagalog.

"I guess sometimes, based solely on looks, directors can only imagine casting me as the rich tisay or a sacrificial virgin. In real life, I'm a cowboy," she laughs.

"And when people are surprised I can speak Tagalog, I think to myself 'After 20 years of singing on 'Aawitan Kita' and having my grandmother reprimand me whenever I mispronounce Tagalog words--malamang!'"

There is no time, however, for Villonco to dwell on things beyond her control. "You win some, you lose some. And I've lost a lot. But one moves on."

Putting on make-up
What she does manage is the way she commits to and handles her career. And given that she started off as a singer, surprise, she prefers doing plays.

"Because with plays, I don't have to think of or take care of my singing voice. I've always considered myself an actor more than a singer. When I have singing roles, my singing choices are actually based on acting decisions."

But whether doing musicals or plays, typically for Villonco, who's blessed with a photographic memory ("I memorize every period, every comma, every ellipsis of the script."), once she's done reading and learning the music, it's followed by immersion in the rehearsal process.

"I like to get to the core of my character, of the scene, of the story. I have strong opinions and sometimes I need a director to break me before I can figure out the character completely. It's difficult but it's a nice feeling.

"I want to be top of my game and I really delve into the process, so much so that I sometimes create problems for myself," she says laughing.

As Viola/Cesar in Peta's "'D Wonder Twins of Boac."
"I like the torture. I thrive on it. I need to suffer before I can achieve something. I feel like if it's been too easy, I didn't explore all of the aspects of my role."

Exploration is definitely a theme that threads through Villonco's theater career. "I try to always attend workshops or training. You have to keep finding out new things. Theater is constantly evolving and so do techniques and methods."

Also published online: