Nanay Lilia, Queen of the Extras
She gave me a warning. I should be at her house at exactly 8:30 AM. If I show up a minute later, I would miss her. Armed with a recorder, I frantically walked around the streets of Sta. Cruz, Manila, lost. It didn’t look good. I had no street signs or landmarks to guide me. All I had was her name, Lilia Cuntapay.
It seemed that nobody knew her, as I went from stranger to stranger. But with an extra hour to spare, I was still hopeful to find her. Little did I know that she would find me first. She had seen me from afar while sitting at an eatery. She was surrounded by a bunch of laughing women in dusters. She asked one of the kids playing beside them to come fetch me.
It felt like a mafia movie. This little boy, who was less than three feet tall, walked up to me, looked me in the eyes, and said that Nanay Lilia wanted a word. I cleared my throat as the ladies sitting with her quickly cleared the table. She pointed me to the empty seat in front of her, and I obediently sank in.
She looked at me through the wrinkled slits that surrounded two glassy eyes and blinked a couple of times. She was tapping a carton of Fortune cigarettes with one hand and holding a bottle of perfume with the other. I could see that the edges of her lips were black with tar. Nanay Lilia had a habit.
The sound of the kids’ playing got louder before I could even speak. She pursed her lips and slowly raised a pointed finger at the little tykes. Suddenly, there was silence. I was now in her territory. She was the boss.
At 77, Nanay Lilia is frail. Her bony hands wrapped themselves around my arm as we crossed the street to another eatery. She wanted to treat me to breakfast, a heaping plate of tapsilog.
“Mga Ibanag yung mga owner nito,” she said, explaining why she preferred to take me there. Nanay Lilia hails from the northern province of Tuguegarao. She grew up there with her siblings, raised by a couple who preferred living a simple, idyllic life. Although the youngest, she wasn’t spoiled. It was the kind of household where each child was equally loved and cherished.
“Kapag ang isa sa amin may laruan, dapat lahat kami meron. Equal, pantay-pantay,” she said before proceeding to offer me more garlic rice.
She refused to eat anything, telling me she just had breakfast. Instead, she opted for a glass of hot Milo, which she constantly stirred. She ordered a Coke on my behalf, warning me of the dangers of house water. “Hindi ako umiinom ng tap water, lalo na kapag kumakain sa labas. Always bottled. Mahirap na, especially kapag taping… Alam mo na.” She laughed.
I remember seeing her in the flesh for the first time when her movie, Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay premiered at the CinemaOne Originals Film Festival in Shangrila Plaza last year.
She was missing. It was past 9:30, and already the crowd was getting antsy. That wasn’t something you’d expect from someone like her. She was an extra. Though a cult favorite, she had no laurels to justify her tardiness. But still, the people waited. That was her night, and nothing, not even the glacial pacing that came with old age, stopped it from being hers.
Over a year ago, her name was only reserved for those who were keen enough to know their Philippine cinema. Lilia Cuntapay is a nameless icon of local horror. Though she’s been cast as a witch or monster often enough to give kids of the 90s nightmares that lasted for years, no one really knew her name. She was no Weng Weng nor Mahal or Mura.
On the side, Lilia took on several bit roles under the wing of notable filmmakers, which included Peque Gallaga, Lore Reyes, Mario O. Hara, Maryo J. Delos Reyes, and most recently, Tonet Jadaone for Six Degrees. It was for this film we were gathered in a packed cinema on a Friday night.
Tonet had been standing in front of the screen for a good ten minutes, trying to fill the dead air being sucked out by the crowd’s anticipation. She was coming, Tonet assured us. She was coming very, very slowly. In the corner of my eye I saw it, a head of long and shiny white hair. It was her, and the rest of the people started to notice, too. The theater erupted with howls as she took the microphone. She was the goddess of horror, and we were her little monsters.
The movie ended, and I was in tears. I hardly ever knew the woman, but after seeing the film, I felt like we were distantly related. She came across as one of those kind grandmothers who are always there but are often underappreciated. She was the underdog by default, the one destined to stay in the background, so that the real stars could shine brighter on screen.
Tonet had pulled her out from the shadows. She realized the potential in her. And as the happy crowd started flocking towards Nanay Lilia for autographs, I could see that, like me, she was in tears. She was under the spotlight, finally recognized.
Nanay Lilia recounted that moment repeatedly as we talked. The pride was clear on her face. She couldn’t stop praising Tonet and all the people she’s worked with. This was a milestone for her, but more importantly, this was her life story, or at least a part of it. How much of Six Degrees was true is kind of a blur. While talking, Nanay Lilia, herself, often got confused where reality and fantasy started and ended.
“Mula pagkabata ko hanggang ngayon, may kaunti lang na nakuha sa pelikula. Actually, yun, naka-focus sa buhay ko dito sa Maynila at saka sa showbiz industry. Pero lahat, totoo, walang fabricated,” she said earnestly.
But many things were made up. Her nomination and the awarding ceremony at the end of the film, those were written in by Tonet. “Litong-lito na siya sa life,” she quipped about Nanay Lilia in an article for the Philippine Star. It wasn’t a mean joke. It was true.
Nanay Lilia is so used to playing random bit and small roles. Just as long as it’s clear to her, she can get into character and then effortlessly shake it off once the director yells “Cut!” But when she finally got to play herself, for a much longer time than she’s normally required to act, suddenly fiction no longer seemed different from reality.
These, I know, are true. Nanay Lilia was once a primary school teacher in Leyte, she can slip in and out of Tagalog, Ibanag, and English effortlessly, and she loves perfume, hence the bottle in her hand. After the interview, she was off to buy an outfit with her personal assistant, Myra. Her other PA, Cherry, was missing in action. Nanay Lilia suspected that she was still asleep.
The clothes, Myra explained, was for an event in Laoag City the following day. Nanay Lilia was personally invited by Ilocos Norte governor Imee Marcos to lead the Semana Ti Ar-Aria, the annual grand Ilocano parade. Nanay Lilia had to look drop-dead gorgeous.
She had also dressed up for me. Around her neck was a set of pearls that lay on top a wrinkle-free floral blouse. She had her hair tied neatly in a bun. Apparently, she had expected a cameraman to accompany me. And I was very sorry to disappoint her. “Mabuti na yung ready,” she said, assuring me it was okay before shrugging it off.
With more than a decade in show business, she’s already perfected the drill. She brings her own mobile wardrobe, a tattered rolling bag packed with garbs for every minor role. And pearls, the ones you can find along your friendly flea market banquette. She makes it a point to be extra early on set, and uses this time to run through her menial lines again and again, lest she forgets.
There’s an unwritten code of professionalism she follows. In an industry like show business, where extras like her are a dime a dozen, it’s what keeps her from being sacked. Over the years, she’s been cast and dumped on the last minute, something that happens very often, she admits.
“Kunwari hindi ako nasasaktan, pero nagagalit ako,” she said. Talent managers and casting directors had meddled with production. They repeatedly pushed for their own talents, leaving Nanay Lilia waiting and waiting for projects she had already signed onto.
One time, director Wenn Deramas called her up to ask why she declined a role he had written for her. Nanay Lilia was also confused and shocked. “Ha? Eh direk, tinanggap ko na yan,” she told him. “Ang nangyari pala, susunduin na ako, pero iba bigla yung sinundo. Pinalitan ako, pero di ko alam kung sino.”
More recently, it was reported that Nanay Lilia was cast in a bit role for Bourne Legacy. This was publicized on television and on print. “I was given 3 working days,” she recalls, “9, 11, 13. The director talked to me. Sinabi niya ‘I will be working with you ma’am Lilia.’ Eh ‘di siyempre, alam ko nang magtratrabaho na ako.”
The shooting days passed—17, 18, 19, 20—the production had packed up in Malabon, San Andres, and Pandacan. “Panay ang tawag ko sa counterpart na casting director here in the Philippines, pero walang response. During the last two days of shooting, ito na. Tinawagan ko siya, and then she said, ‘Ano’ng kailangan mo sa akin?’ Wow.” Nanay Lilia looks at me, eyes bulging.
She shows me a side I had never seen before. “Hindi nila ako puwedeng awayin harap-harapan. Kung gusto nilang laitin ako, apak-apakan ako, hindi nila ako bayaran, saktan nila ako… ito, ipakakain ko sa kanila ‘to.” She shows me her fist and points all the way down to her elbow. “Ubusan na kami ng dugo.”
It’s the politics in the industry she dislikes, but she has learned to live with it, taking the punches one disappointment at a time. She goes on to discuss the computation of salaries, how managers get cuts from their talent’s fees.
Nanay Lilia is not as naïve as she looks. She knows the business of show business. And she’s familiar with how dirty it can get. “May mga mandurugas sa showbiz. Sana pigilan na nila,” she says calmly. “Nakakasakit kasi sila ng kapwa. Ang karma, darating din sa kanila.”
Fate, Fortune, Family
Good luck has been heading Nanay Lilia’s way lately. There’s been an influx of projects here and there, plus invites to international film festivals in Italy, Switzerland, and South Korea. The foreign response has been generally positive, with the audience usually flocking to her after each screening and asking for her picture and autograph.
She has no illusions of grandeur. She even laughs at the thought of people giving her a label. “Gusto ko man o hindi, nandun na eh. Hindi ko naman ipinagyayabang, pero kung binibigay sa akin yung titulo na ‘Horror Queen of the Philippines’ eh tatanggapin ko na lang.”
This queen lives in a very modest abode, which she personally keeps in tip-top shape. She cleans it every day, checks to see if there’s sugar and coffee, and sits around the house until boredom gets to her. She goes to church from time to time, and then visits her grandchildren in Sampaloc every chance she gets. She loves kids and was lucky enough to raise three of her own.
“Ang panganay ko si Gilmore, then si Magdalena at Elma,” she dotes. “Mga anak ko sila, pero hindi sila galing sa womb ko. Pero pinalaki ko sila, minahal ko sila bilang mga anak ko.”
All three have left her to pursue their own careers and take care of their own families, leaving Nanay Lilia by herself. She had never married, not because she didn’t want to, but because it wasn’t in her cards. “Ang pag-ibig naman, kusang dumarating yan eh. Kung naiwasan mo yung second stage of life, eh okay lang. Naka-survive ako sa puntos na yun, so here I am.”
“Kung mag-asawa ka pero di naman okay, useless din, diba? May mga nag-paparted ways. May mga nag-lalast ng one year o one month, so kung sa tingin mo hindi ka makaka-survive, at iisipin mo lagi yung mga risk, at ayaw mo, eh ‘di huwag mo. Kung gusto mo, oo. Madali lang naman yan. Love is what you make it,” she says.
Nanay Lilia doesn’t regret missing out. To her what’s there is there, and she’s content with it. That’s how she was brought up, and that’s how she chooses to live. Soon, she says, she will retire once the offers stop. She will return to Tuguegarao and live her final days there. “Hindi ko naman sinasabing lahat ng bagay nagawa ko na pero, wala na akong ineexpect o hinahantay pa.”
Her lips had started quivering mid speech. A sudden wave of nostalgia had hit her. She was crying, this time not for the cameras or for me, who was recording the whole thing. She paused for a minute to wipe the tears off her wrinkled cheeks.
“Sa aking edad ngayon, masaya ako na nabigyan ako ng mga ganito, mga interview, pelikula… Sino ba ako? Sino lang ba si Lilia Cuntapay? Ba’t hindi ako magiging masaya sa lahat ng mga binibigay niyo sa akin. Sayang nga lang na wala na akong paghahandugan dahil wala na ang mga magulang ko.”
Again, she pauses. “Dalawa na lang kaming natitirang magkapatid, my sister. Kaya masaya man ako ngayon, may kasama pa ring kalungkutan. Wala na akong paghahandugan, kaya binabalik ko sa inyong lahat ng mga karangalang natanggap ko, bilang kapwang Pilipino. Ang hinihiling ko lang sa lahat ng mga kaibigan ko, mga producer ko, mga director ko, mga nakatrabaho ko, at kayo, lahat ng sumusoporta sa akin, huwag lang akong makalimutan.”
Her words kept ringing in my head as I rode a jeepney home. In my hand was a takeout box wrapped in cheap plastic. She insisted that I take food for the long commute. With her fragile fingers, she held my arm like a vice grip, not letting me go until I succumbed. She also gave me jeepney fare and threatened me with a horrendous growl when I declined. She was the Queen of Horror, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Why is she doing it? If she dislikes the mess of show business and dreams of leaving it all for good, why does she still stay? She doesn’t need the money. She lives very simply. She’s not in it for the fame, really. She just doesn’t want people to forget that a Lilia Cuntapay exists. With no real kin to succeed her, we’re all she has. She will live on in our collective memory as that old, scary woman in Pinoy cult classics.