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Filipino stories and representation highlighted in the new SBS show, ‘The Unusual Suspects’

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By Charisse Garcia and Jason Cordi

To be able to resonate with a character that speaks like them, thinks like them and shares common traits as them —that is the power of representation in mainstream media. With a stellar cast and creative team of Filipino-Australians, ‘The Unusual Suspects’ portrays the different layers of Filipino individuality.

The story centres around women empowerment and friendship narrated in an elaborate heist genre. The Philippine Times is honoured to share the insights of the Filipino-Australian and Filipino-American cast and creative team from the upcoming show.

Women of power (L-R): Heather Mitchell, Miranda Otto, Aina Dumlao, Michelle Vergara Moore, Lena Cruz and Susie Porter | Photo: SBS
Women of power (L-R): Heather Mitchell, Miranda Otto, Aina Dumlao, Michelle Vergara Moore, Lena Cruz and Susie Porter | Photo: SBS

Filipino-Australian Creative Team

Vonne Patiag (Associate Producer/Co-writer)

Vonne Patiag's parents migrated to Australia in 1987. He was born in Blacktown. Photo: SBS
Vonne Patiag’s parents migrated to Australia in 1987. He was born in Blacktown. Photo: SBS

Melvin Montalban (Co-Director)

Melvin Montalban was born in Metro Manila and immigrated to Australia when he was two years old. | Photo: SBS
Melvin Montalban was born in Metro Manila and immigrated to Australia when he was two years old. | Photo: SBS

Can you talk us through the inspiration behind writing the narrative of Filipino overseas workers/domestic workers? Why the said roles?

Vonne: The inspiration of the narrative behind Filipino migrant workers was to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) across the world. My parents, both in their younger years, both worked in Saudi Arabia for extensive years, and so many Filipino families are touched with stories of being part of the migrant workforce, but also of having families separated for years at a time. It was important for me to dramatise this in beautiful ways through Evie and Amy’s parallel stories of having families waiting for them at home.

Filipino-Australian migrants are well known for their unique accent. How has this played a major part in developing the Filipino characters in your story? What were the unique Filipino traits depicted in your story?

Vonne: The accents of the characters were something that I never wanted to overwrite in the scripting process, as I knew the actors would bring the nuance of vocabulary and dialect once the characters were handed over to them. We decided early on for the Filipino characters to speak the central Manila Tagalog but we spoke at length about how each of their backstories would affect their accent, which we built together with the actors.

Can you tell us the significance of having a Filipino cast and also Filipinos behind the scenes in your first directorial debut on Australian TV? 

Melvin: As someone who grew up in the 80s in Australia, sometimes faced with the casual anti-Asian sentiment, my connection to the community was only through my family and my parents’ friends. But as I grew older and pursued a career in the arts – which seemed very uncommon for an Asian in Australia at the time – I found myself more and more disconnected from my roots. The ‘Unusual Suspects’ gave me an opportunity to reconnect to my culture through our Filipino cast and crew, and that is something I’ll be forever grateful for.

Melvin J. Montalban in action with producer Angie Fielder and DOP Simon Ozolins | Photo: Joel Pratley
Melvin J. Montalban in action with producer Angie Fielder and DOP Simon Ozolins | Photo: Joel Pratley

What does your new participation in this project mean to you as a Filipino-Australian?

Vonne: Being part of the first primetime Filipino show on Australian TV was an absolute honour, and I loved every second of crafting the story and bringing it to life during production. I was amazed at the level of detail I could imbue into the story – balikbayan boxes, karaoke, instant noodles – small details that come from my family’s history that I’m proud are making it to screen, and I’m sure these small moments will ring true for so many other Filipino families.

Melvin: It feels like such a significant milestone. I have been directing for 20 or so years and then for my first hour of television to be ‘THE UNUSUAL SUSPECTS’ and to work with such talented Filipino actors and also people behind the camera felt like providence. I like to put my whole heart into everything I do and so having the opportunity to tell Filipino stories meant that I could talk to my family and friends about what it means to be Filipino and to be Filipinos in Australia.

Filipino-Australian Cast

Michelle Vergara Moore

Michelle Vergara Moore was born in Australia to Filipino migrants who came to Australia in 1975. | Photo: SBS
Michelle Vergara Moore was born in Australia to Filipino migrants who came to Australia in 1975. | Photo: SBS

Lena Cruz

Lena Cruz came to Australia from the Philippines when she was 16. Photo: SBS
Lena Cruz came to Australia from the Philippines when she was 16. Photo: SBS

Susana Downes

Susana Downes was born in Australia to a Filipino mother and Australian father. | Photo: SBS
Susana Downes was born in Australia to a Filipino mother and Australian father. | Photo: SBS

Aina Dumlao

Aina Dumlao was born and raised in the Philippines and moved to the US around 10 years ago. | Photo: SBS
Aina Dumlao was born and raised in the Philippines and moved to the US around 10 years ago. | Photo: SBS

LA based Filipino-American actress, Aina Dumlao plays the role of Evie in the heist drama.

What’s the significance of having your heritage portrayed on Australian TV?

Michelle:The Unusual Suspects’ is the first major representation of Filipino Australians on Australian television and the significance of having the Filipino heritage portrayed on Australian television is so important because television continues to be a very influential medium for society; so many people are influenced by what they watch on television.

I feel that audiences will be very enamoured with the characters in the show, especially the female characters; these women are independent, determined, persevering, strong, the primary earners, and they’re definitely not afraid to take control of their destinies by relying on themselves alone to get what they want in life.

Lena: As an actor and human being, it’s huge. It’s the first time I’ve played a Filipino woman where the character is drawn out and it will mean something to the people that will see it. Filipino women will see themselves in the characters, in the four Filipino women who are in the series. And being an actor as well, it’s hopeful, it’s hopefully going to open doors for us that were never open. I’m excited. It’s a first and I’m so grateful.

Susana: Actual representation! Not just being a stereotype nurse, call centre worker, but being a real, fleshed-out character that people can associate themselves with.

Evie (Aina Dumlao) with Sara Beasley, a role played by Australian actress Miranda Otto | Photo: Joel Pratley
Evie (Aina Dumlao) with Sara Beasley, a role played by Australian actress Miranda Otto | Photo: Joel Pratley

Aina:  It represents hope for all Filipino actors who have fought through discrimination and invisibility. And as a Filipino woman portraying a character that embodies that special Filipino heart – protectiveness, self-sacrifice, boundless love – Evie is truly special.

Evie (Aina Dulmao) and Gigi (Susana Downes) | Photo: Tony Mott
Evie (Aina Dulmao) and Gigi (Susana Downes) | Photo: Tony Mott

How did you prepare for the role and what were the big takeaways you had upon working with the Filipino-Australian cast and creative team? 

Michelle: I did a lot of research/reading on the subject of the Filipino Immigrant experience in the Western societies of Australia, the US and the UK. I watched a lot of Filipino films and as well as some TFC, as I wanted to see how characters from different socio-economic backgrounds were portrayed. I worked on a lot of variations of the Filipino-Australian accent I thought my character would have, keeping in mind her background and her life experience.

Roxanne Waters is played by Michelle Vergara Moore in The Unusual Suspects | Photo: Mark Rogers
Roxanne Waters is played by Michelle Vergara Moore in The Unusual Suspects | Photo: Mark Rogers

Lena: I’ve had many conversations with Overseas Filipino Workers I’ve met here in Australia and in other Asian countries like Hong Kong. The major challenge for me was to be as authentic as possible in inhabiting the role of Amy. The big takeaway for me is that we Filipino artists should keep doing what we are doing. We have stories to tell that the world is ready, now more than ever, to sit down and listen to.

Lena Cruz plays the role of Amy. | Photo: Joel Pratley
Lena Cruz plays the role of Amy. | Photo: Joel Pratley

Susana: I actually reached out to my family members and friends in the Philippines to get feedback on my accent. I needed to sound like a genuine 22-year-old Filipina, not like my mother. I watched a lot of interviews of young actors so I would get the intonation correctly. The biggest takeaways I had were that everyone is so incredibly hard working and so passionate about the project, we’re going to be connected forever.

Aina: From an artistic sense, I imbued Evie with a lot of mine and my mom’s life experiences. As a single parent, my mom had to give up so much of her own self for me. She’s why I could pursue my dreams here in America.

How was it working with the Filipino-Australian cast and creative team (director and writer)?

Michelle: Working with fellow Filipino actors was truly fantastic! I had so much fun working with fellow Filipina actors – Aina Dumlao, Susana Downes and Lena Cruz – we socialised a lot outside of our filming and we laughed and joked around so much while filming.  

Lena: Working with a lot of Filipino actors and creatives has been one of the most memorable times of my career. I was again reminded of the Filipino heart when we all get together, one of palpable joy and generosity and I am hoping that there would be other opportunities to collaborate with a lot of Filipinos again for future projects.

On set with the Filipino-Australian creative team: Associate producer and writer Vonne Patiag and director Melvin J. Montalban | Photo: Joel Pratley
On set with the Filipino-Australian creative team: Associate producer and writer Vonne Patiag and director Melvin J. Montalban | Photo: Joel Pratley

Susana: It was the best! I have new Ate’s and Kuya’s now with Aina, Lena, Michelle, Melvin and Vonne. Getting to work with the kids on the show as well was so precious and the fact that they’re the next generation of Filipino-Australian actors getting to be in this project is ground-breaking for them.

Aina: There was this unspoken bond that was palpable from the get-go. There was also a swell of pride that we’re doing something special for Filipinos all over the world. We all thought, “We gotta get this right!”

The Unusual Suspects premieres Thursday June 3 at 8:30pm on on SBS and SBS On Demand, with all episodes available to stream at the same time of the premiere.

Watch the trailer


READ MORE: Merlinda Bobis: Writing about the Philippines – heart, soul, and body


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