When Filipino American actress Melody Butiu started her career she was told Filipino characters didn’t exist; she was better off finding another ethnicity to “fit into”. She recently starred in the film ‘Easter Sunday’, a comedy centered around a Filipino family and their Easter Sunday dinner, which was released this August. The actress describes the film as a love letter to the Filipino American community and an important film that gives the community a voice.
The Untitled Magazine got to chat with Melody about her new film, her journey as a Filipino American actress, and her love for theater. Read the full interview below.
You got your start on Broadway and have now moved onto the big screen. What have you learned from your time on stage that assists you in this next chapter?
I made my Broadway debut in 2015, so hardly the beginning of my career! Working professionally has had so many ups and downs, and I have gone back and forth from theatre in New York to regional productions, to television and film, and back again. It has not been a steady uphill trajectory, but rather an unpredictable roller coaster. That being said, so much of my career has been on stage, and my most challenging roles and rewarding experiences have been in the theatre. My time and discipline on stage help me to be sharp, to learn quickly and take direction, to make bold choices, but also to be flexible and present enough to play around. I’ve originated roles in several world premiere productions, so I love collaborating, listening, asking questions, and sharing ideas and those skills help me to approach my on-camera work with confidence. Sometimes, depending on the role, there isn’t much time to ask a lot of questions, so you just want to be prepared, flexible, and ready to go.
You’re starring in the new comedy film ‘Easter Sunday,’ featuring a diverse cast, that tells the story of a Filipino family. How does it feel to be a part of a project that celebrates your identity?
It’s truly a family comedy and a love letter to the Filipino American community. Jo Koy has spent so much of his stand-up career telling stories of his family and his experience being mixed-race, but also identifying as Filipino, because it was his mom and her side of the family that raised him and his siblings. It has always been so important for Jo to give love and light and a voice to this community.
When I first started acting professionally, I was told that Filipino roles didn’t exist and that most Americans had never heard of the Philippines. I was told I was better off changing my name and learning Spanish because I didn’t look very Asian. To be able to introduce audiences to a big, boisterous, multi-generational Filipino American family with diverse experiences (immigrants, American-born, mixed ethnicities), to share what makes us unique as well as what connects us, is a dream I never imagined I’d be part of. To honor my own family’s experiences, with our laughter, joy, challenges, drama, and hopes fulfilled was something I carried with me throughout the process of making this film. I even brought pictures of my extended family with me on the shoot to remind me how far they came and how much they sacrificed to create a life for us in the United States. Our stories are part of the fabric of the American experience, and they deserve to be shared.
Tell us about your role in ‘Easter Sunday’.
I play Tita Yvonne, Jo’s cousin, the eldest daughter of Tita Theresa (played by Tia Carrere), and part of the extended family. I’m a Tita (or Auntie) to Joe Junior (played by Brandon Wardell). I’m the type of Tita that is ready to break out the karaoke machine, needle you about who you’re dating, encroach on your personal space a little too much, shower you with sniff-kisses and fill the room with joy and laughter.
The movie has an amazing cast of all-star comedic actors like Tiffany Haddish, Eva Noblezada, Eugene Cordero, and so many more. What was it like on set? Any stories?
Every day was filled with incredible hilarity. We had so much fun making each other laugh, on set and off! With each new scene, we also had the opportunity to play, try different choices, bring another joke, and crack each other up. We all came from different backgrounds, some from stand-up comedy, others from improv and sketch, others with extensive TV and Film credits in a variety of genres, and some actors like me, who made much of my career in theatre and musicals. Because we filmed during Covid, we spent most of our time in our own cast bubble. One day, we had a big Filipino dinner to celebrate Jo’s birthday, and we broke out the karaoke machine and sang our faces off. Tiffany and Jo told stories about their early years at the Laugh Factory, and we danced and screamed with laughter! Eugene Cordero and Asif Ali even broke into an improv act where they were our cruise ship activity directors. It was one of our few days off, and we just wanted to spend it with each other. Hours and hours of ridiculousness!
‘Easter Sunday’ celebrates diversity with a cast of BIPOC creatives. How did you first get introduced to the project?
I heard that a feature was being developed around Jo Koy and was super excited that it was being made. I was already a fan of his and remember thinking, “I can’t wait to see it!” Then, my manager submitted me for the project, and I had the opportunity to audition via self-tape. At first, I thought I should audition for a different role, a character who was American-born, since I was not raised in the Philippines, and only speak minimal Tagalog. But once I saw the full breakdown and materials, I asked to be considered for the role of Tita Yvonne. I just read the sides and thought, “Oh, I know this Tita!” I was told that the creative team liked both of my submissions, so it was pretty much a waiting game after that. When I finally booked the job, it happened so quickly, it was like being shot out of a cannon! I got the call on a Sunday, had my Covid test on Monday, and flew out on Tuesday. I then isolated for two weeks before I was allowed to do an in-person costume fitting and start shooting.
You’re a huge advocate for Filipino representation in TV/film. Tell us about some of your favorite TV shows + films that depict authentic Filipino representation.
I’m thrilled that The Cleaning Lady on Fox, developed and written by Miranda Kwok, is set to premiere its second season. It’s a drama that centers around a Cambodian and Filipino family and deals with issues of immigration along with the plot lines of organized crime and FBI pursuits. I also loved seeing Mike Cabellon as Tommy Tomás on Mr. Mayor. He was so sharp, funny, and whip-smart. Manny Jacinto’s character, Jason Mendoza on The Good Place was fun and unexpected, and his storyline included other wonderful Filipino actors, such as Mitch Narito as Donkey Doug and Eugene Cordero as Pillboi. Nico Santos as Mateo in Superstore completely stole my heart. It’s so awesome that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend introduced Vincent Rodriguez III’s Josh Chan character as Filipino and featured a Thanksgiving episode with so much Filipino food and family. I’m also excited that films like Yellow Rose, Lingua Franca, The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, and more are making their mark. Even if the storylines don’t always have to do with Filipino-centered issues per se, the fact that they exist as Filipino characters, that these shows all vary in style and presentation, and that these characters have different lived experiences, is so exciting. That is authentic Filipino representation to me.
How do you hope to continue the conversation on the importance of representation in media?
I want to uplift and promote diversity and representation with creatives and artists. I will spend my money buying tickets, spending my time promoting their work, and encouraging others to support these much-needed stories with enthusiasm and energy. WE EXIST and WE MATTER. There are so many platforms and ways that people consume content and stories, so there is no excuse for a lack of representation. I want to support diversity in front of and behind the camera. The only way to keep telling our stories is to show that they matter. We do that with our time, money, and attention.
Seeing a diverse range of backgrounds, cultures, experiences, religions, points of view, sexuality, gender expressions, body sizes and shapes, neurodiversities, and different mental and physical abilities can help audiences shape their personal lives as well as the society they want to create.
People will have their opinions, and as with any art form, we cannot strive to please everyone or have one piece of art or pop culture be the defining story for an entire group of people. However, if we continue to make our voices heard, we can have room for all these different perspectives. We must continue to lift each other as a community and value other voices.
What has been your favorite experience while making appearances and playing guest roles in shows like ‘This is us,’ ‘The Kominsky Method,’ ‘NCIS: LA’ and more?
Often, when I’m doing these roles, I’m a guest in their home, the new kid on the block, jumping in and supporting the story, and moving it along. What’s fun is rising to the challenge of making my choices, knowing my stuff, and delivering solid takes with enough variety for the director to play with. I’ve played everything from nurses, nannies, and waitresses, to doctors, lawyers, and even a bourbon tasting expert. While sometimes it feels like I’m tasked with doing my job well and getting out of the way, I have to remind myself that it’s a chance to be curious, to connect with others, to be appreciative of those around me, and to have a blast, because I have the opportunity to do what I love, no matter what the role is.
One particularly memorable experience was on the Season 4 Finale of This is Us. We shot it just as the Covid-19 pandemic was starting to shut things down on the East Coast, and you could see people checking their phones for updates on the news, anticipating that productions on the West Coast might shut down as well. My scene was set sometime in the future when Jack, (Toby and Kate’s son) and his wife were about to have a baby. I was the attending nurse, and there was all this cool technology planned for the scene, projected screens on the wall for patient monitoring, and modern tech around the room, some of which would be added in post. However, when the episode aired, a lot of that planned technology ended up being cut for a much simpler sequence of scenes. While other productions were shut down with still a few episodes left in their seasons, at least This is Us was able to complete its season finale.
You’ve acted in shows and movies from a variety of genres – do you have a favorite genre? Which genre challenges you the most?
I certainly have a love of both comedies and dramas and am especially excited by relationship driven stories that incorporate both. I’m delighted by sharp, quick-witted scripts with high stakes and biting humor, that also have a bit of vulnerability and tug at the heartstrings.
You’ve also spent a lot of time performing in theater productions – is that something you would like to keep pursuing?
I would! I love the immediate and visceral reactions, and sharing space with an audience, taking them for a ride. I’ve had so many adventures traveling to different cities around the country, even places as far as Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Singapore with theatre productions. I hope that theatre will always be part of my career.
We heard you love cooking! What are some of your favorite Filipino dishes to make?
Chicken Adobo with garlic fried rice is a staple in my household. So simple and delicious. Chicken thighs, soy sauce, vinegar, bay leaves, black peppercorns, and lots of garlic. Sometimes I add coconut milk as well. I also love making Lumpia, but it can be a bit more time-consuming, and I have to go to an Asian Market, like Seafood City or 99 Ranch to get ingredients. However, now that you’ve got it on my mind, it makes me want to make the trip!
You’re very involved in philanthropic work – tell us what causes are particularly important to you right now and what you are doing to support them.
I believe in organizations that encourage voter participation and access, such as Vote Forward and Fair Fight, and have done letter-writing campaigns to encourage voters to make their voices heard at the polls. I also support organizations that fight for equal rights, human rights, and equal access to healthcare. I support the ACLU, the Legal Defense Fund, and Planned Parenthood by donating and amplifying their causes. I’ve also donated to organizations such as the LA Food Bank and City Harvest in New York City.
Any other upcoming projects we can expect from you?
In true life-of-an-actor form, I am back to the grind of auditioning! I’m grateful for every opportunity to play, even if it’s a self-tape in my apartment. I love working on new plays and have been fortunate to participate in developing works recently. I’ve played roles such as the first female court jester, Jane the Foole, during Henry VII’s reign in the new play, Funnie, by Jessica Moss, Titania in a whimsical new sequel of A Midsummer Night’s Dream called Puck’d by Matt Hoverman, to a Buddhist nun during World War II in a developing play by Velina Hasu Houston called Oh, I Remember the Black Birch. Beyond that, I do have a production lined up in several months, but I’ll wait until formal announcements are made before I share it!