In his search
for truth, identity, and a sense of belonging, Ron Domingo speaks
from the heart. His passion is evident not only in his work as a
consummate theater actor but also in his freshman attempt at filmmaking.
Anniversary, his six-minute narrative short was chosen from
a group of 400 entries to be featured as one of the 130 selections
showcased at the San Francisco International Asian American Film
Festival in March 2003 (visit the NAATA
site for information on the festival).
Photo Credit: Lia Chang
Domingo is an
actor's director who paints a riveting portrait of intensity in
black and white and elicits an honest desperation from Art Acuna
and compassion from Lydia Gaston in this story, which centers on
a surprise anniversary phone call to an ex-lover. NAATA festival
director Chi-Hui Yang said, "Anniversary is well crafted.
The committee selected Anniversary to screen at the San Francisco
International Asian American Film Festival because it has a winning
combination of good dialogue and action, along with the sensitive
direction of the actors creating a rawness and fragility of human
Arts and Entertainment editor Lia Chang caught up with fellow thespian
Ron Domingo on his latest projects during a break between takes
of portraying a Tibetan restaurant owner on an episode of Law
and Order SVU. Lia and Ron acted together in Jeff Weiss' Obie
award winning late night theater soap opera Hot Keys in the
late '90's off Broadway. They chatted about making Anniversary,
his directorial debut shot on digital video, navigating his career
as an actor in New York, and his rite of passage as part of the
terrific ensemble of playwright Lonnie Carter's The Romance of
Magno Rubio based on a short story by Carlos Bulosan, produced
by Ma-Yi Theater in November 2002.
A graduate of
IFP New York's film mentorship program Project Involve and Third
World Newsreel's Film and Video Production Workshop, he and best
friend fellow actor Ken Leung partnered and formed their own production
company Fish Out of Water where they produce, write and direct their
was your filmmaking process for Anniversary?
The process was born out of an experimental exercise with some actor
friends a few months earlier. I came up with a project idea and
gathered friends with digital cameras to create a short film. I
see many talented Asian American actors that don't get enough opportunities,
so I invited a few friends to my apartment and started creating
our own work. What excited me was that we were able to make a short
in one day. I then applied to the International School for Film
and Television in Maine, which had a great DV production program
for a better understanding of the production side. And to apply
for the program, I needed an example of my work. Based on my friend,
Phil Rectra's idea, I started writing a treatment. I ended up writing
just one scene.
did you work with your actors?
Ron: I gave
my actors Art Acuna and Lydia Gaston the script and rehearsed with
them. It was all done in one day. I provided them with the sketched
out idea and the actual dialogue of the script that became the film.
We met and I had the camera and let them improvise. I tried to build
history between them-actory stuff-like improvising this is your
first date; this is where you met, all that kind of stuff. Fast-forward
five years - exploring the present state of their relationship,
and the last scene was what we were going to shoot - this telephone
conversation. I encouraged them to loosen it up and to improvise
and play with the circumstances. They were actually talking to each
other at the same time. This takes place in my apartment -- Lydia
is in the bathroom and Art's in my kitchen. I had two phone lines.
I wanted them to have a real conversation so that the performances
would be true. They did such a great job. I had a clear idea of
the story that I wanted to tell and my editor transformed the footage
to the finished product that night. It was due Friday and I shot
it Thursday. He edited it that night.
Lia: I found
Anniversary to be an intimate and very real experience.How
did you achieve that?
was my first film. My talented editor Steve Mallorca put it together;
he made the film what it is. He's also a filmmaker. I've acted in
his films, and will be acting in his film, Slow Jam King
this spring. The thing I loved about this-it felt like a theatrical
experience. It's not very cinematic at all. It's very theatrical,
due to my background as an actor. It's such a collaborative experience.
Having directed it, it's hard for me to say that it is my film.
Every aspect of it was collaborative. Roxanne Baisas was my assistant
director who did the camera for Lydia while I did the camera for
Art. Sure I wrote the scene, but it was with the help of friends.
It's like theater where we try and experiment. My personal experience
acting in films has always been to learn your lines, show up on
the set and just do them. I didn't want that kind of film experience.
I can make my own films and I want to make it as collaborative and
fun for all of us. It was such a labor of love; it will always have
a special place.
was the New York Asian American International Film Festival like?
Steve mentioned my footage was pretty good and that I should consider
entering it in some festivals. I sent a rough cut to the Asian American
International Film Festival. After it got accepted, we did all the
final cuts and edits. It was exciting to have the film screened
at the Asia Society in July 2002 as part of the festival. I thought
that would be the end of that process - to go to the film festival
and screen it. Instead, David Maquiling, one of the AAIFF festival
directors, was generous enough to include Anniversary in
the Anthology Film Archives NewAsianFilmmakers Series. It screened
with four other Asian American shorts that were some of my favorites
at the festival. It was an honor to be in the company of such talented
filmmakers, some of whom I've worked with as an actor. After that
I entered it in the San Francisco Asian American International Film
Festival. When it was accepted, I was thrilled.
Gaston and Art Acuna in Ron Domingo's Anniversary
Photo Credit: Ron Domingo
did you choose Art Acuna and Lydia Gaston for your film?
Besides considering them friends, I've always thought highly of
their work and I wanted to give other Filipino actors opportunities.
I needed actors who were talented, that would be able to deal with
my process because I was so green. They made me feel safe. There
are enough things that can go wrong. You want to control what you
can control and casting is a major consideration. You don't want
to have to deal with lots of problems on your first film. I couldn't
have asked for a more talented cast.
did you grow up?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York. Then moved to Edison, New Jersey,
Potsdam, New York and eventually settled in Staten Island, NY. I
graduated from Xavier High School in Manhattan and went on to Boston
there many other Asians in your neighborhood?
We were the Asians. I was lucky enough to live on a block with two
other Filipino families. They were like my brothers and sisters.
I had an upper middle class upbringing because my father was a doctor.
We never really experienced a lot of racism, but I never quite felt
at home. I never quite felt American.
were born in Brooklyn. Why didn't you feel American?
I wasn't aware of race issues until after college where people started
telling me, 'no you are this, this is what you are'. My ethnicity
became a problem once I pursued acting. My acting teacher told me
she didn't know what scene to give me. She suggested Teahouse
of the August Moon since Marlon Brando played an Asian in it
and suggested I take a look at that. In my search for roles to play,
I came across David Henry Hwang's FOB, and as much as I loved
it, the story was Chinese. I'm Filipino and I felt like I didn't
quite belong. I had been out of college for five years and I went
to the Phillipines to find my roots in 1995.
was your experience like when you went to the Phillipines?
I went back to the Phillipines in search of my identity. It took
going to the Phillipines and learning from the Filipino people that
I was American. I went over there and realized that I was not Filipino.
Some made it very clear. So I said if I don't feel at home in America,
I better make it my home. I came back home and changed my lifestyle.
I came back with a whole new perspective. I realized if I wanted
a home, I needed to start building it. My home is in the United
States because I am an American. It was an empowering visit.
did you change your lifestyle?
I stopped bitching and I started doing. Before I used to question
why there weren't any roles for Filipino actors. WHY? I realized
it was because there weren't many Filipino people here in America
writing them. Of course, many of us are familiar with Carlos Bulosan,
but not many others. Why should people of other races write something
about the Filipino American experience when they don't know it?
It's my responsibility to write about them. I decided to explore
that and start working on things, doing my own projects. I honestly
believe that this business is like any other business. It doesn't
matter whether I am brown, or Filipino, or green. If you have something
that sells, they'll hop on the bandwagon.
I saw so many talented friends of mine. My best friend and collaborator,
Ken Leung and I went to see a Ma-Yi play called Middle Finger.
Ma-Yi produces such quality work and after seeing the show I was
so inspired. I wanted to get all of my Asian friends together and
put them in a movie. I had filmmaker friends because I had worked
with filmmakers when I first started out acting in some scenes at
The Workshop, a collaborative group of Asian American filmmakers.
There I met filmmakers like Greg Pak, Mike Kang, Francisco Aliwalas,
Tom Moon, just to name a few and I believe they are on their way
to making some great feature films. This Asian American filmmakers
movement is starting to happen. We are making opportunities for
ourselves. This is what inspires me and keeps me going.
are some of your other interests?
Well, I was a musician before I became an actor. I was a real band
geek in high school. I played clarinet, keyboards, saxophone and
sang. Later on in college, I really had a passion for Jazz.
was your major at Boston College?
I was a bio major. I was supposed to be a doctor. I was pre-med.
I was a bio major up until junior year simply because I didn't know
what else to declare. Then I realized I didn't want to be a bio
major, I wanted to change. I chose psychology since I had all the
prerequisites. I just wanted to graduate. Academics were not my
favorite part of college at all. It did allow me to explore the
arts. But it wasn't an art school, but for some reason, the arts
really flourished during my time there. I don't think I would have
had the courage if it were an arts school. Since I could sing and
I could move, my first show was West Side Story. I wanted
to audition for the role of Tony, but being at Boston College, if
you are any kind of dark, you were cast as a shark. I had not considered
the race issue. I didn't realize. I was told that I couldn't. I
said I love 'Tonight, Tonight' - I want to sing that part. I was
told no, you are not going to get cast as Tony.
is the national commercial you have running now?
twelve years of acting I got my first national commercial, a Wendy's
commercial. And in my first episode of Law and Order, I played
a crime scene unit detective. It was great. I made a breakthrough
in terms of my career because I had never been on camera before.
And so far, I haven't had to do any accents.
are the other actors that you worked with on the show?
I had a scene with Jesse Martin and Jerry Orbach and they were fantastic.
I was so nervous. I had my lines down cold, but when I got on the
set to run lines with them, I kept messing up. It serves me right.
I was trying to come off like this professional who had been doing
this for so long and ended up stuttering through the line thru.
Minutes before I called Ken who was on location shooting a film
and started running lines with him. I had them cold, blah, blah,
blah. But thank God when it came time to shoot, things went well.
Production of The Romance of Magno Rubio by Lonnie
Pictured: (L-R) (foreground) Orlando Pabotoy and (rear,
L-R) Jojo Gonzalez, Ramon de Ocampo, Ron Domingo and Art
Photo Credit: Lita Puyat
Lia: In the
Fall of 2002, I saw you in a jewel of a play based on Carlos Bulosan's
short story about Filipino migrant farm workers in depression era
California, Lonnie Carter's The Romance of Magno Rubio, produced
by the Ma-Yi Theatre Company in New York. Can you tell me about
this magical theatrical experience?
Working on Magno Rubio was amazing because I got to work
with four other Filipino actors -- Orlando Pabotoy, Ramon de Ocampo,
Art Acuna and Jojo Gonzales -- that I've admired throughout the
years. There are a lot of people who don't know who Carlos Bulosan
is. Being in the arts, I was already familiar with him. When I came
into the production, I had done research on these migrant farm workers.
What I'm realizing is that a lot of people don't know our history.
Lia: In your
research for the play, what did you discover about the Filipino
experience in the 30's?
The thing that excited me the most was understanding that this was
a rite of passage for these men. My father came over in the 60's
when they had the shortage of doctors and nurses. When you are a
doctor, you are well respected in the community, so we never really
had much trouble growing up. And yet I still felt like I didn't
belong. I believe it's because I never had to experience this rite
of passage. These guys had to really suffer. This is my birth rite.
I belong in this country because of these men. They've paid my dues.
Every minority group went through it. I just never knew Filipinos
went through it.
When these books
started coming out. I started realizing after reading Bulosan what
they went through. I loved the fact that these guys were slicksters
and white women were attracted to them because they were slick and
dressed really nice. And would spend all of their money in taxi
halls. I would love to have seen these farm workers transform into
these slick guys dancing. But regardless, they were farm workers,
the lowest of the low. And Americans hated them for taking jobs.
Americans hated them for f**king their women. They thought of them
as monkeys so they wanted to keep the Filipinos out.
did Magno Rubio become a personal rite of passage for you?
are a lot of young Filipinos going through the same things I went
through as a kid -- not feeling like they necessarily belong. It
has everything to do with me. If I feel that I belong in this country,
that I can make a positive contribution. Then I belong. Then I have
an identity. I am a full-blown American. And stories like Magno
Rubio, empower you even more. This play is a gift to the Filipino
community, the Asian community. People need to know about it because
it will help them through. The play takes place around the time
of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. It's a very American story
that has never been told. That is what was great about acting in
Magno Rubio. To be a Filipino and have the story be Filipino
specific, I didn't have to change a thing. Everybody in Ma-Yi collaborated
to create and tell a story that many people are not familiar with.
The hardship and the suffering these immigrant migrant farm workers
went through made me proud to tell their story. These guys went
through a lot of crap, the racism was incredible and they were treated
like any other immigrant group that was poor.
Americans, this is our rite of passage. This is what gives us permission
as Filipino Americans to stand here and say these are the dues that
have been paid. Normally most Americans that are a few generations
away from their own immigrant roots forget that what they own now
and feel such strong ownership over what was earned by people just
like the ones they mock and tease. I'm just a little closer to it
because of my immigrant parents.
kind of stories would you like to explore through your filmmaking?
I have a problem with not seeing any Asian American men having sex
on film. It seems that we're not viewed as sexual beings. As for
other stereotypes and the way Asians have been portrayed in cinema
or television, I'm not denying that there is truth to them or ignoring
the fact that they exist, but its very one-sided. It is a non-Asian
perspective. I'm interested in showing the other side. Only I can.
I want to show them that these immigrants have thoughts, cares,
and work as hard as they can to make the best of their lives. It's
amazing what my parents had to go through to leave their family
and their country, to come here to make it, and send money to their
families so they could survive. It's just amazes me. How they form
their own families and communities.
do you see yourself going forward professionally?
Right now, I'm really passionate about the filmmaking process, but
I still love to act. I've dedicated a lot of time and love to the
craft of acting. Being an actor can be tough. I'd like to see more
roles out there that are well rounded. Like most of us, I'd like
to see the more human side of Asian characters . For instance, in
Greg Pak's Robot Stories, currently in competition at the
2003 Slamdance Film Festival, I play Sab Shimono's son. Greg is
an amazing filmmaker. Since he wanted me for the role, and Sab is
Japanese, he cast an African American woman to play my mother so
that it would work visually. I thought, 'who would do this'? To
his credit, he has that kind of vision and commitment. That started
production September 10, 2001 and he worked through the entire crisis.
He's just so talented, dedicated and hard working. The man knows
what he's doing. I'm proud to be in the film. Greg and I have had
discussions and we've talked about not wanting to focus necessarily
on Asian centric issues, but on human issues involving people who
just so happen to be Asian … Ultimately, we just want to tell good
Theater credits include: Cleveland Playhouse, Lincoln Center, Ma-Yi,
NATCO, New York Theater Workshop, Pan Asian Repertory, Public Theater,
Vineyard Theater, and the WPA Theater. Also the Obie Award winning
Hot Keys and Richard III with Austin Pendleton. Film & TV: Law &
Order, Robot Stories, Law & Order: SVU, Avenue of the
Asian Americas, Barrio Fiesta. Commercial: Wendy's, MTV. Ron
received an Off-Off Broadway Review Award for his performance in
A Private Recital at the Turnip Festival Theatre.