G Tongi: Living out the Pinoy dream

The French call it joie de vivre. Loosely translated, it means "joy of living," or "joy of life," a genuine enjoyment of the every day. It’s an attitude of embracing whatever life may bring, and it’s a kind of zest that Giselle Tongi possesses, in spades.

"Oh, I would love to live in a place like this!" she exclaims upon entering the photo shoot’s location, a model condo unit in the Glass House at Rockwell. She is bubbly, an abundant source of warmth and life in the cool sophistication of the location. Her laugh is infectious, frequent, and genuine.

For G, it’s good to be back, even if it’s only for two months. Back in 2000, she left the country and her local showbiz career for New York, to take a two-year course in the Lee Strasberg School of Acting. She left with a mission to bring the Filipino actor to the international stage, and now, six years later, she’s back on native soil, being prepped for a pictorial.

"My last shoot for PEOPLE Asia was back in January 2000," she recalls while she’s getting her makeup. "I was wearing this strange futuristic outfit." When told that the concept for the day’s shoot is based on the recent film Aeon Flux, a futuristic sci-fi story, her face lights up. "Game!" she says.

Much has happened in the intervening years between the two photo sessions: since then, she has been a student, actress, waitress, producer, bartender, wife, and, more recently, mother of a blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked one-year-old with cherub curls named Sakura (Japanese for "cherry blossom").

"I left," she says, "because I wanted to validate myself as an actor. I wanted to take my acting farther, so in Strasberg I studied musical theater, voice lessons, and method acting. When I was back in the Philippines, acting meant someone would just go ‘Iyak [Cry]!’ and then I’d just cry." She demonstrates by breaking out into a fit of mock sobbing and then she’s grinning.

"But there, I learned so much, and met so many great actors. I was taking up plays by Chekhov, and studying Neil Simon. I was watching actors like Pacino and de Niro, and I really felt like an actor, even without the paycheck.

"Even when I was working back here, I was already saving my money because I knew I wanted to study in New York," she says. "But after just a year there, all my money was gone! I didn’t want to leave, so I took a job as a waitress, and then I became a licensed bartender." She has no regrets about that time, seeing nothing demeaning about working to earn her keep. "Everyone does it – George Clooney was a waiter. Brad Pitt even had to wear a chicken costume before he got famous! Actors usually get jobs like that, because you really need a job that’s flexible enough so you could go to auditions all the time. I was mostly a bartender – I wasn’t a waitress for very long. I wasn’t very good at it," she confesses, laughing.

Tending bar, however, was something she did have a talent for. On a good night, she says, she would make up to $300, slinging drinks in a Thai restaurant. "I didn’t mind the work. It was great, because it paid the bills. And [the bartending] became even more of a blessing, because that was how I met Tim."

Tim Waiters, G’s husband, was also a bartender for the restaurant next door. Giselle remembers their dates fondly: "Before his shift, he’d come over to my restaurant, and I’d hook him up with a drink. After my shift, I’d go next door, and he’d make a drink for me." They got married in Boracay in February last year, and G is loving every moment of wedded bliss: "If I knew being married was this fun, I would’ve done it sooner!" She quips, and she smiles warmly. "It was a very short engagement, because I married my best friend."

But marriage and motherhood haven’t changed her plans to bring Manila and Hollywood closer together. "In fact, I can do better now, now that I have a support group whenever I come home," she says. "I still want to put Filipinos on the map, internationally. And I want to do it for a lot of reasons. One of which is, I wouldn’t be where I am, if I weren’t given those opportunities when I was just starting out here. "

But there was a point, according to G, when she felt like she needed more room to grow, as an actor. "I didn’t feel fulfilled. I wanted to do more than just look cute for my whole career. And all the time, I was being pressured into taking my clothes off for movies. They’d want me to wear a bikini for example, and I’d go, ‘Does the story really call for that scene?’ Granted, there are a lot of sexy stars out there who’ve evolved into serious and talented actresses, but I didn’t want to take that route."

It is complexity, according to G, that draws her to roles. She gushes over movies like Run Lola Run (a German film released in 1998), Requiem for a Dream, and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. "It’s smart writing," she says. "Non-linear scripts are very hard to pull off. And no matter how good you are as an actor, using a so-so script will result in a so-so movie."

So, for two years in New York, G immersed herself in the study of her craft. From 2000 to 2002, she was taking classes like intermediate Jazz Dancing, Dialects (for portraying characters with accents), and Method Acting. What she was doing professionally in the Philippines, she was studying in New York. It was a very exciting time for G, who, despite having left celebrity status in the Philippines, was doing what she’d always wanted.

Armed with her new training, G moved on to auditioning. There were parts in several plays, and independent films. Despite her passion for her craft, the roles were difficult to land: "The competition is so intense. And because of my looks, I’d try out for Latina, or multi-ethnic characters, and there aren’t a lot of those to go around." She got roles in musicals and plays, like Saved by the Bell: The Musical and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. In 2004, she was very well received for her part in the play Days When Cocaine Was King.

"When I’d go back in the Philippines, every now and then, my detractors would ask, ‘It’s been so long, and what does she have to show for it?’ What they don’t understand is that success just doesn’t happen overnight in Hollywood. It takes years and years, and a large body of work, for people in the business to even know you’re around."

But, just recently, G landed a role in a national TV commercial in the US, a public service announcement for A Window Between Worlds, a nonprofit organization dedicated to using art to help end domestic violence. The people producing the ad sponsored her membership into the Screen Actors Guild, which is a definite step forward for G’s career: with SAG membership, she could go to auditions exclusive to Guild members – in other words, most Hollywood films.

Doors are opening for Giselle, and all her hard work is paying off. These days, G is working on many projects in Los Angeles, where she’s been based since 2004. She is producing and developing scripts, and now has several projects lined up. "What I love about working in Hollywood is that you can actually get better roles as you get older. Acting is a craft, one you have to practice. You have to play different roles so you can stretch your imagination and get better all the time."

And the roles are now definitely there: She’s currently working with several people in producing a film called Songbird, a movie about Filipino performers working overseas. She is also in Wages of Sin – a movie about the black market for human organs in Asia. She just shot a pilot episode for Lala Land, a TV show that features stories about Filipinos in Hollywood. There’s still a long way to go in bringing Manila to Hollywood, but now that
new doors are opening for G, she’s bringing the Philippines in with her.

Now that she’s here in the Philippines for a few months, she’s already fully booked, swamped with work: "It’s great, especially considering that I’ve been gone for so long. I’m shooting a movie here, and letting my mom spend time with Sakura. I’m doing a lot of guest appearances and interviews, which is good, because, working, it’s really like oxygen to me. If Im not doing anything, if Im not productive, I start to get depressed. Usually, between my family and my work, I have a full plate."

"So much has changed," marvels G. "My life has changed drastically, but for the better."

When the interview concludes, she moves on to the pictorial. She jokes about having misgivings about the edginess of the theme ("But I’m a mom now!" she protests, laughing), but when the camera starts to click, the transformation is dramatic. She is clearly the part, treating the session with the same enthusiasm that G Tongi brings to being an actress, mother, wife, producer, and student of film. It is, after all, just another role to play.

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