There's a certain irony at play in Filipino-American actor Jose Llana's performance in Here Lies Love. Currently playing the late Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos at the Public Theater, the actor is the only cast member who was actually born in the Philippines. Born under martial law, Llana's family came to the U.S. when he was just three years old. His parents were anti-Marcos student activists. Now, 30-plus years later, their son is portraying one of their family's greatest adversaries.
Marcos, who was President of the Philippines for more than 20 years from 1965-86, embezzled billions from the nation's coffers during his time in office. His wife Imelda was his glamorous counterpart, capturing the imaginations of the people (and purportedly collecting nearly 3,000 pairs of shoes along the way). Here Lies Love focuses mainly on Imelda's journey from provincial beauty queen to national figure (it skips the shoes), but Llana's performance as Marcos helps to ground the purposeful excesses of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's throbbing techno-disco score, which keeps audiences dancing throughout the show.
Playbill.com caught up with Llana in the Public Theater's lobby before a recent performance to speak about his family history and his performance as one of the world's most infamous leaders.
How did you first get involved with Here Lies Love?
Jose Llana: I heard that David Byrne and Fatboy Slim had made this concept album, and actually a friend of mine, Joan Almedilla, sang in a concert version of their music, I think at Carnegie Hall about seven years ago. It was on my radar, and then I didn't think about it for a while. I heard that the Public Theater was doing a workshop and Alex Timbers was involved, and the second I heard that I called my agent and I called over here to the Public to Jordan [Thaler] and Heidi [Griffiths, casting directors] and said, "When you're having auditions I want in," and I got into the first workshop. Do you think that sharing your personal and your family story has helped the bond with your fellow cast mates?
JL: I hope so. My cast calls me kuya, which is older brother. And I think, because of the nature of the piece and that the vast majority of the cast is either full or half-Filipino, that that's created a real family. Everyone in the cast knows that I was born there and that my family were activists; there's no surprises.
Conrad [Ricamora] – [who plays Marcos opponent] Aquino — his father, who's Filipino, didn't talk a lot about the Philippines, and he's still discovering little factoids. And even other cast members are going home and talking to their parents, and then their parents will volunteer, "Oh yeah, I was at a protest rally." We keep getting new cast members — we've had some turnover in the cast — and, as every new cast member comes in, if they're Filipino especially, now that they're part of the show it's such a great reason to go home and talk to their parents about how they lived through martial law, because whether they were there or not they still lived through it.
You were very young when your family left the Philippines. Do you remember much about your childhood?
JL: I do. We left when I was three, so I don't remember too much before that, but we did go back for two week-long vacations when I was a kid. When I was about seven — that would've been around 1983 — I remember being in my grandmother's house and my older cousins having to deal with curfew. You know, when you're a hot-blooded 18- or 19-year old teenager, you're not wanting to deal with knowing where you're going to be at ten o'clock at night and staying there. So I remember that, and I remember watching television with my relatives — the state-run television — and the things that were allowed to be on, the things that weren't allowed to be on. I think every night there was a taped or a telecast message from Ferdinand Marcos. It was like living in a really closed state. It was martial law until '86.
Was there a specific threat against your parents that made them decide to leave?
JL: Not specific, [but] there was just a general sense of fear. My dad was a lot more hot-blooded than my mom was, and I think they went to a couple too many protest rallies, where my Tita [aunt] Jo-Ann was arrested. She was very close to them, and she was in prison for a good five or six years without any explanation, without a trial, because she was a journalist and she was just talking too much. Then she just kind of disappeared. And so I think that was one of the first indicators to my mom, and then she found an opportunity to come work in New York. And that's where we moved first was in New York when I was three and to Virginia when I was four.
Have your parents been to see the show? What were their reactions?
JL: My mom and dad had quite different reactions based on who they are and how they've decided to live in America. My parents are divorced; they got divorced actually just around the same time as the People Power Revolution. My dad was much more political. My mom was also an activist, but she I think has moved on in a way that she doesn't look back at it as much. But my dad [is] much more invested in the political world in the Philippines. They're both retired now, so my dad spends a lot of time on Facebook still posting articles about the current president. I knew that they were proud that we were telling the story.
They weren't thrilled that their son was playing Marcos, but they got over that and knew that someone had to play him in the storytelling. But I think what shocked me the most is my dad's reaction: that he was sad. I think he was sad that, after all the hardship that the country went through, and all the crimes and the murders and the imprisonment that happened, even 30 years later, there hasn't been that much progress in the current political government in the Philippines, and there's still rampant corruption, and president after president has been convicted of crimes that just keep repeating the same process.
I think a part of that is because a lot of people don't talk about martial law. A lot of people don't talk about the Marcoses, because it's such a bruise in Filipino history, and rather than trying to talk about it and learn from it, they just don't talk about it. And unfortunately, a lot of the corruption that existed during that time still exists, and a lot of the Filipino government's way of life is how do you live with the least amount of corruption, because it's always going to be there.
What is it like when you're performing as Marcos? What is the feeling that you get — is it cathartic? Is it, in a way, painful to do that?
JL: A little bit. I've never been more proud when I don't get a huge applause at the end of a show. I think it's actually a testament to the show that we get the audience swept up in the middle to start applauding me, because the music and the message is very positive and cheerful. The Marcos election in the middle of the show is boisterous and a lot of fun, and my job — our job — is to seduce the audience to the point where we're getting them cheering, and then it turns and you see the real Marcos. As a part, selfishly, as an actor, it's a great ride. It is a little cathartic, particularly when he gets sick and when he cheats on Imelda... Marcos was a jerk. He was a smart, charismatic jerk. I think the journey that he goes through — and the fact that I get to go on a full journey with him — and although you don't see him die in the show, it is cathartic. When people ask, "How does it feel to be playing Marcos and the villain?" I say someone has to be or else there's no real story. I'm just happy that more and more Filipinos are coming to the show. I think they were scared off by the Imelda concept before. I think, without knowing anything about the show, the posters made people think that we were just celebrating Imelda instead of telling the whole story.
Have you had any people come after you after the show and relate their personal reactions?
JL: Very much so. More so this summer, because last summer we were such a hot ticket and the price point was such a specific thing that last year was all theatre people and celebrities that were coming to the show, and so there was no room for Filipinos to try to get in. Most people couldn't even get in. This year in particular, I approached Joey Parnes, our producer, and asked him if I could sponsor these Filipino nights. We had one successfully about a month ago, and we're planning another one in October. Me and my friends Liz Casasola and Ryan Letada — they're two of my close friends in the Filipino-American community in New York — we've reached out to the big groups, pockets of Filipino-Americans in the New York area to try to get them to see the show, and it's really spreading now.
Also, the press has been so great that people are finally hearing the word of mouth that it's not just an Imelda celebration, that people are going home and Googling the People Power Revolution, and that it's everything before the shoes. And that, I think, is really important, and I think that beyond being a hit theatre piece, I think what's important to me personally is that people are coming to the show and wanting to go home and learn more about Filipino history. Even more so, and further, Filipino-Americans who come who didn't know about it, who leave with a better understanding of their own history. That makes me the most proud.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
JL: You know, I think in our American pop culture, the Philippines is used as kind of an aside joke, because so much of what American pop culture knows of the Philippines is humorous – like Imelda's shoes, and a nurse joke here and there, and Filipinos are very funny and self-deprecating. I would like people to leave and understand that there is much more of a culture there, and that there is more to the Marcos story than those 3,000 pairs of shoes.
Has performing as Marcos at all changed how you feel about Marcos as a person or the idea of his regime?
JL: No, actually absolutely not. I still hate him; I just know more about him. It's amazing; his invented history is so vast. He hired so many people to write these inflated biographies of him, so that when someone actually tries to research him as a historical figure, you get blindsided with so many inaccuracies. He basically paid someone to write that he was a war hero, that he did this, that he wasn't put in jail for murder when he was a young lawyer in Ilocos. I had some friends see the show last night, and one is actually a teacher and historian, and he was so intrigued by the show that he stayed up until four in the morning going through his own university archives that he could find, and he even sent me some articles that I'd never read before.
The only thing I would say is that I feel sorry for him more. I think I grew up thinking of him as this kind of caricature bad man, and now that I know a lot more about his history, I feel sad for him that he had such potential to be a great leader. He had the potential to be one of the most important men in Filipino history. He could have propelled the country into real prosperity for the next 50 years, and the complete opposite happened. He ruined the industry — he ruined the rice industry, he ruined the coffee industry — there were so many things that he just did wrong out of greed and out of power manipulation, and that's what was sad to me. I found myself needing to find the respect in him as an intelligent person, which he was, but then realizing that charisma and talent are nothing if you don't have the morals to make it go the right direction.
Is there something about Marcos that isn't touched on in the show that you wish audiences knew about?
JL: A couple of things. Because our show focuses on Imelda, as it always has and always will, there were certain aspects and colors of the story that we don't talk about, just because they got too involved and too political. There's a whole story from before he was a senator. He and his father were convicted of murder in Ilocos when he was a young man. And he, while in prison, somehow convinced the judge to let him free. That, to me, says everything about who he is. On the other end of the spectrum, just on the eve of the People Power Revolution, there had been countless phone records of Marcos on the phone with the Secretary of State in the U.S. begging them, basically, to attack Corazon Aquino, to keep him in power. Just the desperation of that, I thought, would've been a great thing to put at the end of the show. He was also bedridden and not in a healthy place, and just clinging to anything he had, which is why I found that fascinating and pathetic at the same time.
You describe yourself as a "martial-law baby." What does that mean to you?
JL: Sometimes I feel like it's like a badge of pride. I had a friend in high school who was a year older than me, who was Filipino, and she was also a martial law baby, and she moved here when she was about five. And so, it was interesting, because I grew up in suburban Virginia, and I went to football games on Fridays... I'm nowhere near what you would consider a refugee. But there's a part of me that will always feel like I'm a little bit of a political refugee. We left our country because the politics were too restricting and we didn't want to live in that kind of environment. So, that's why I think I throw it around.
Does it make you feel differently about America?
JL: Yeah, completely. I have such appreciation for the freedoms that an American citizenship gives me, and to research even more about what it was like to live under martial law, to be told you can't gather with more than five people, to be told you have to be off the streets by ten o'clock — it's just, people don't understand what that means to an entire country. So, if that means I'm "rah-rah" about American independence and freedom, then, yeah.