Filipino-Australian actress Lena Cruz, star of SBS Australia´s hit series The Unusual Suspects, talks about expat life, pursuing a creative career and standing up to bullies.
Recalling her childhood in the Philippines, Filipino-Australian actress Lena Cruz was already aware of the economic divide in the society. “I was happy playing under the sun, playing pico and cható in Navotas where we lived. At the same time, I knew that there were very rich people and very poor people, and we were in the middle.” Lena´s father died when she was two leaving her young mother to make ends meet. “It was hard. I learned a lot from that.”
Lena came to Australia with her mother in 1984 when she was 16. In her new environment, she felt like a square peg in round hole. Her stepfather is Russian Jewish, so they spent most of the time with the Russian Jewish community in Sydney. Lena soldiered on and did her best to adjust.
Going for her dream
Singing was Lena´s first love and being a performer had been her long-time dream. But her mother expected her to have a proper and stable job. Putting her dream aside, she decided to take up a two-year accountancy course and worked at a bank afterwards.
As soon as she started earning her own money, Lena hired a voice coach and learned how to develop her own persona on stage. She began participating in singing competitions and when she started winning, her mother had a change of heart.
Lena quit her day job of ten years and got herself an agent. She was ready to take the plunge. She applied at the prestigious Western Australian Academy for Performing Arts in Mount Lawley. When she got accepted, she knew she had made the right decision. “I graduated at the age of 30. That was when my life began.”
She started with a string of roles in several minor plays and in the late 90s, she bagged a part in the New Zealand prime time soap opera, Shortland Street. After her stint in New Zealand, Lena went back to Australia to do more musical shows. Little by little, she was also getting acting assignments both in films and TV.
In 2019 the The Unusual Suspects came, the series that would give her the chance to showcase her versatility as an actress. She plays the role of Amy, a tough and fierce Filipina maid who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Amy is your typical tita, straightforward, brutally frank and berates you anytime she wants. “A lot of Amy is me because I am palaban with a sense of humor.”
Behind Amy’s mataray stance is an extremely loyal person who is always willing to sacrifice her needs for her family, friends, and employers. She works for Roxanne, a rich Filipino friend and somewhere along the way, she fails to renew her work visa making her an illegal resident in Australia.
To prepare for the part, Lena turned to a couple of undocumented friends. “There was also my mom’s friend who used to be a maid in Hongkong and would tell my mom how she was mistreated by her employer. When I read the script, I said, I knew this story.”
With an illegal status, Amy is left at the mercy of Roxanne. But as long as she has a job and an employer to protect her, Amy submits to her fate. For Lena, she understands where this is coming from.
One memorable scene in the Unusual Suspects is when Amy finally confronts Roxanne when she learns that her employer/friend has lied about helping her with her situation. The scene starts with violent verbal exchanges and then leads to a ferocious cat fight with pancit palabok noodles flying in the kitchen. The scene is both moving and hilarious. I know where Amy was coming from. I felt her frustrations. She was sick of the bullshit!”
Learn and rest
After the success of The Unusual Suspects, Lena dreams to be in a musical. An accomplished mezzo-soprano with a belt voice, Lena never stops learning. She continues to do film and TV acting classes, goes to auditions and waits for good roles to land in her lap. This year, she is part of the musical, “Head over Heels”.
When away from the rolling cameras, Lena enjoys meditation in her residence in the eastern suburb of Sydney. “If I want to heal myself from world problems or just any problem, I connect with God. It strengthens my faith in Him, in the goodness of life and just be grateful.”
Standing up for herself
Lena has been in the entertainment industry for more than two decades now and has been lucky not to regularly face discrimination. But she recalls one incident when she had to stand up for herself.
“We were doing a comedy show and there was an older and established performer. I think he didn’t like the fact that I was Asian, a Filipino, and that I was getting more laughs than him. He cut off my laugh line and spoke over the laugh space, so people were confused (whether) to laugh or not. In the beginning, I was hesitant to answer back, I didn’t want to rock the boat easily. We Filipinos want to get along with everybody.”
After the show, the actor verbally attacked her and just like Amy, Lena got sick of all the bullshit. She told him to back off. And he did.
“When you stand up against people who are cowards, they can’t handle it. And for my peace of mind and self-respect, when someone tries to trample me, I have got to speak up. I’m a Filipino and I fight back.”
This article was previously published in TFEM Summer Issue 2022.
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Nats Sisma Villaluna has been serving the Filipino community in Spain for more than 13 years. His volunteer works include teaching Spanish to Filipinos, and as artistic director of the Coro Kudyapi, a group of musically inclined young Filipinos in Barcelona. His passion to serve the Filipino community now extends to other countries in his role as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the new The Filipino Expat Magazine.