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Melody Butiu talks comedy and Filipino representation in new movie ‘Easter Sunday’

From the Broadway stage to the big screen, actress Melody Butiu is making a name for herself in the industry and beyond. The rising star can be seen playing a supporting lead role in the Universal Pictures and Amblin comedy franchise Easter Sundayreleasing in theaters nationwide on August 5th. Film Daily was fortunate enough to chat with Butiu about Easter Sunday, her career origins, and her plans for the future. Here’s what she had to say:

Tell us about your history with acting. How did you get started?

I’ve loved singing since I was a kid. My parents were both very musical and I remember singing and dancing around the house with my little sister. I was told at a young age that I wasn’t a very good reader, so I was often given singing roles instead of speaking parts in my elementary school plays. I usually chose choir as my elective. Then, I saw the Chatsworth High School production of Sweeney Todd and was captivated. I signed up for a drama class soon after. I got my start in musical theatre, doing shows like Little Shop of Horrors and Jesus Christ Superstar. In college, I started doing plays and even joined an Asian American theatre company called HereAndNow, writing and performing in original pieces for colleges and universities around the country.

This solidified my passion for storytelling. I went on to get my BA and MFA in Acting from UC San Diego, and have been working professionally in theatre, musicals, TV, and film ever since. I have performed all over the country and in other parts of the world, from Broadway and off-Broadway, to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Singapore. I’ve been fortunate enough to play a wide variety of characters who lead with strength, resilience, passion, conviction, fearlessness, idealism, determination, and deep humanity. They are working professionals, servants, refugees, overindulged divas, scrappy and hungry dreamers, mothers protecting their children, daughters caring for aging parents, and many other women from every walk of life.

Who were your biggest acting influences growing up?

Meryl Streep, Meg Ryan, Angela Bassett, Julie Andrews, and Sally Field.

You recently starred in the comedy Easter Sunday. What initially drew you to the project?

I’ve been a big fan of Jo Koy’s for a while and have loved his stand-up specials, so when I heard he was leading a movie centered around a Filipino American family, I was thrilled. I told myself, “This is so exciting! I can’t wait to see it!” I didn’t grow up seeing Filipino characters in TV or film, so I was just excited the story was being told. I loved the idea that the story centered around a multi-generational immigrant family and was interested in seeing the different perspectives. Creating our onscreen family with Jo, Tia Carrere, Eugene Cordero, Rodney To, Joey Guila, Lydia Gaston, Elena Juatco, Brandon Wardell, and so many other brilliant Filipino artists was a dream come true.

How important do you feel is it to promote Filipino representation onscreen?

Filipino Americans have been in this country for many generations (actually, as far back as 1587), and yet when I first started working professionally, I was told that there were no roles for Filipinos, that I should consider changing my name, perhaps learn Spanish, and expect to audition for characters of other ethnicities. As an actor, while we can embrace the challenge of playing roles that are different from us, we still want to feel visible, like our stories and our points of view matter. October is Filipino American History Month, and there is so much to celebrate and recognize beyond our heritage.

To quote the late, great Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, “History is inclusive of heritage & culture, but it’s also about the ways we have built and changed this nation – our stories, our political struggles, transformations, labor, migration, activism, impact of imperialism & war, victories, etc.” It’s exciting to see a growing number of Filipino characters and stories being told. While being Filipino is just part of who we are, seeing that representation recognized and embraced is incredibly important. 

Was there a lot of improvising on the set or did you generally stick to the script?

Our director, Jay Chandrasekhar, led a fun and playful set and production. We definitely had the structure of the script, and did the scenes as written, but we also had the opportunity to do takes a different way, throw in our own bits or jokes, and play around with the dialogue. Our cast was made up of so many hilarious comedians, with backgrounds in stand-up, sketch, and improv, so it was a blast just making each other laugh.

What is the biggest thing you want audiences to take away from Easter Sunday?

I want audiences of all backgrounds to see a family like theirs: doing their best to make things work, striving to go after their own dreams and ambitions while navigating the expectations of their family, and ultimately being there for each other when it matters the most. It goes to some silly, wacky places, but also has a lot of heart, and I want audiences to enjoy the ride with us.

You’ve had tremendous success on TV as well as Broadway. What is the biggest difference between acting for one medium versus the other?

While the fundamentals are the same: clear storytelling, being grounded and present, playful, and open, and intentional with your choices, the scope and range of how you are telling the story is different on stage versus on camera. On stage, you are affecting and playing with your fellow actors, but you want the story to reach the back of the house. Audience members can be a few feet away or a few hundred feet away. While you want your performance to feel grounded and real, your voice and choices can’t be so small that the audience misses them entirely. On film, when the camera is on you, it can pick up the slightest twitch, a change in breath, a flicker of the eye. You can focus on your scene partner and know the camera can capture any moment, without having to project to the other side of the room. Characters can still make big, bold choices, but they don’t have to be projected to a room of 500-1000 people. 

With theatre, since the rehearsal and performances can span from weeks, to several months or more, your performance will evolve throughout that entire time. The work will deepen, you’ll make new discoveries, you and your fellow actors will affect each other in slightly different ways from night to night, and the energy from the audience will add a new element to each performance. It’s a living, growing process. When working TV or film, once you are through with a scene, you’re moving on to the next, and the director is the ultimate storyteller, deciding which takes and shots to use, and working with all the team members in post-production to craft the story in their vision.

Do you find it’s more difficult to do comedy than drama?

They both have their challenges, but comedy seems to have some technical elements to consider. Timing, pacing, how a joke lands, when a moment needs punching up, can sometimes feel like a grand experiment, and while you want to trust your instincts, you also have to be open to turning on a dime and not making your choices too precious. I heard a director mention that music and editing can greatly influence a dramatic scene, but those elements can’t be used in the same way to make comedic scene funnier. While you want the comedy to be grounded in reality, and play the circumstances of the story, there are definitely people behind the camera deciding whether or not a joke is landing and trying to adjust accordingly.

Some actors hate to watch themselves on the big screen. Do you ever watch your old films/shows?

I generally watch them when they first come out, but I don’t normally seek them out after that. It’s fun to share your work with people you love, but it can also be a weird, out of body experience, watching something you shot a while back. You can analyze your choices, take in what was kept or cut, or just reflect upon what the experience was while shooting it, so you’re not really viewing it as a general audience member. Beyond that, it feels a little like navel-gazing or, “Look at me! Look what I did!” I’d rather just move on to the next adventure.

What has been your greatest professional success?

Easter Sunday has certainly been a huge milestone in my career. It was my first major studio motion picture, and I have such fantastic memories of the experience. I learned so much, made some wonderful friends, and had the time of my life. In theatre, my most memorable and rewarding experience was originating the role of Estrella in Here Lies Love, an immersive disco musical about Imelda Marcos, Benigno Aquino, and the People Power revolution in the Philippines. Written by David Byrne of the Talking Heads and Fatboy Slim, this innovative and groundbreaking musical, directed by Alex Timbers, took New York by storm, and had two runs at The Public Theater, another production in London, and a regional production in Seattle.

Diving into the history of Martial Law in the Philippines and examining the corruption of unchecked power was profoundly rewarding. I even sang on the original cast album (available on Spotify, iTunes, etc.!). Finally, just the fact that I’m still here is a success. Everyone’s career path looks different, and success is all relative. I’m grateful that after so many years on the rollercoaster of this journey, I am still here, doing what I love, connecting, collaborating, and creating with artists I respect and admire, and finding joy along the way.

What about a professional setback? What did you learn?

Earlier in my career, I let myself get really caught up in reviews. I would pick them apart, place too much value in them, let them dictate how I felt about my own work and worth. Even if I had a series of glowing reviews, one critical mention would get all my attention and I’d go spiraling down. Both positive and negative reviews can get in your head and make you question or pick apart the work you are doing. And in theatre, when you are still running the show after reviews come out, it can be an unnecessary distraction that takes you away from being present. I don’t seek reviews out as much these days and I try my best to avoid comment sections. Your art is not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be. If I do come across a review, I try to take it all with a grain of salt.

Can you tell us about any other upcoming projects?

During the Christmas season, I have been performing in A Christmas Carol at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, California, these few several years, and I plan to return this year as Mrs. Fezziwig and a Solicitor. It’s a wonderful family tradition and is always fun to reunite with fellow artists, welcome new ones into the cast, and play with our young actors as well. I also love working on new plays and musicals and have been fortunate enough to work with inspiring artists and legendary creators in the past few months. 

Who is a filmmaker you’d love to work with?

Greta Gerwig. I only recently saw her Little Women and was blown away. Even though I knew the story well, it felt fresh and immediate, and the emotions were so visceral.

What advice do you have for aspiring actors?

Embrace the idea that this career going to have its ups and downs. Expect it, roll with it, know that it is all part of the journey. Everyone’s path is different, so do not compare your career to anyone else’s as a measure of your success. Stay curious, kind, appreciative, professional, prepared, open, present, playful, keep a great attitude, give yourself and others grace. Support other artists, see their work, celebrate their wins, encourage, and lift them up. Finally, lean into the things that make you uniquely you: your background, your experiences, your family, your passions, your voice, your expression, your travels, your point of view and perspective. There is only one you, so let your individual light shine through your artistry.

Lastly, what is your favorite movie of all time?

When Harry Met Sally. I’m a sucker for it.

You can follow Butiu’s social media accounts here: Instagram | Twitter | IMDB

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