CONVERSATION WITH SUSAN ROCES, FIRST LADY AND QUEEN

SUSAN ROCESQuezon City, July 20, 2003 CONVERSATIONS WITH Ricky Lo (Star)  The Face That Refreshes.

Then and now, 47 years after the late Starmaker Dr. Jose R. Perez of Sampaguita Pictures, coined that phrase to describe his Ilongga discovery, Susan Roces (real name: Jesusa Levy Sonora) still exudes that kind of refreshing aura. (Did that same description inspire a soft-drink company to market its product as "The Pause That Refreshes"?)

Every inch a lady and the Queen of Philippine Movies (one of the only two authentic local-cinema "royalties," the other being Gloria Romero) that she’ll forever be remembered, Susan is making a grand comeback (after a six-year semi-retirement) in Regal Films’ 2003 Metro Manila Filmfest entry, Mano Po 2, in which she plays the first wife of the head of a wealthy and powerful Filipino-Chinese clan, played by Christopher de Leon.

Her "comeback" coincides with the raging issue surrounding her husband FPJ’s widely-rumored but never-been-confirmed intention to run for President in 2004, all the more causing sleepless nights among Presidential dreamers who are worried to death that they might not have a Chinaman’s chance at the polls if Da King would jump into the over-crowded political arena.

That was the topic of our Conversation with... the future First Lady?...last Monday afternoon at the sprawling residence FPJ built for her before they got married on Dec. 25, 1968. Looking fresh –yes, refreshing–that humid day, Susan stood beside the Yucca Tree as she welcomed us with open arms and a big smile. "Did you know," she was telling us, "that this tree is as old as my marriage? I planted this myself." And so with the other fruit-bearing trees and the orchids that make the 1,600-square-meter property a virtual paradise for showbiz’s First Couple, one of the very few enduring unions in an industry notorious for broken homes and broken marriages.

"When Ronnie (FPJ) bought this property," Susan revealed, "the price was only P110 per square meter." Now, of course, the prices could be tens of thousands per.

After the pictorial, first at the spacious yard green with plants which Susan said she herself prunes every day, followed by shots of Susan at the sala beneath an Amorsolo painting of hers commissioned by Ronnie for their starrer Langit at Lupa, we settled at a receiving room adjacent to the main house, adorned with Susan’s collection of masks and paintings, some of which were brought (very cheap, at only P200 each) during a trip to China.

"This used to be part of the garden," said Susan. "Ronnie wanted to put a Japanese missuno table but it ended up as this, with the missuno table completely forgotten."

It’s such a huge house, complete with a billiard room. Soon, Susan sighed, she and FPJ would end up by themselves now that daughter Mary Grace has gotten married and is settled in Virginia, USA, with her husband and two children, and Susan’s nephews are through with college, starting to work and having their own families before Susan could exclaim, "How time flies!"

The Conversation kicked off on how Jesusa Levy Sonora got her screen name.

Yeah. Who came up with that name? Is it true that you were named after Alejandro Roces who was the Secretary of Education when you were discovered?

"It’s a misconception. Actually, I was named after Susan Magalona (the popular sister of the late Pancho Magalona) and Dr. Perez got my surname from the Roces Publications. He believed kasi that surnames that started in ‘Ro...’ had box-office magic, kaya nga mayroong Carmen Rosales at Gloria Romero."

You did a movie as a kid, didn’t you?

"Yes. It was called Mga Bituin ng Kinabukasan by Nepomuceno Productions. I was only eight years old then. Kasama ko doon sina Mila Ocampo at Ike Lozada."

If you didn’t become an actress, what would you have been?

"Honestly? I don’t know. I came to Manila to take up Foreign Service after finishing high school at La Consolacion College in Bacolod. Or maybe I could have become a teacher of speech and drama. At that time, the dream of girls my age was to travel, so you take up either Foreign Service or become a flight stewardess."

What were your favorite subjects in school?

"I was good at anything that caught my interest, except numbers. I’m poor in mathematics."

What kind of childhood did you have?

"My beginnings were very humble. I was born on July 28, 1941. The war broke out in December (1941). Like everybody else, our family went through hard times. From infancy, I experienced troubled times. My parents were running from one place to another. I learned all these things, I heard all these stories from my parents and our relatives. As I grew up during those war years, naranasan ko ang hirap. Kulang ng pagkain. May pambili ka, wala ka namang mabili. Kaya ako, I can adjust to anything — hard times or good times. I can very well say na napagdaanan ko ang lahat."

How were you diverted from your dream of travelling to showbiz?

"I was ready to enroll at La Consolacion College in Manila as an interna. I was staying with my aunt and my uncle who married the sister of Tessie Alaba; Tessie did some movies. Anyway, I heard about the ‘open house’ in Sampaguita Pictures where fans were welcome to mingle with the stars. E, gustung-gusto ko makita si Gloria Romero, my favorite actress, so I went. I used to be a fan then and I’m still a fan now of the budding stars naman."

Your idol then was really Gloria Romero.

"Gusto kong gayahin ang mga damit niya. Aliw na aliw din ako kay Nida Blanca. I was not the kind of fan who would root for a loveteam. Okay lang sa akin na kahit sino ang kapareha nila. I watched all of Gloria’s and Nida’s movies way back when I was in Bacolod pa. Wala akong pinalalampas."

So what happened during the Day With the Stars "open house" in Sampaguita?

"I was floating on Cloud 9. Gloria was very nice to us fans maybe because she herself was a fan (of, among others, Tita Duran). One thing I noticed, stars who are nice and kind to the fans are movie fans themselves. They know how it is to swoon over their idols and how to get autographs."

What else happened during that fateful day?

"Well, I didn’t notice that Dr. Perez was looking at me while I was mesmerized before Gloria while she was signing my autograph. At that time, Sampaguita has just launched a search for Mr. and Miss Number One (won by Amalia Fuentes and Juancho Gutierrez) and they were on the lookout for other new stars. At first, Dr. Perez was talking to me and I felt uneasy. I didn’t even have an idea who he was. I thought, ‘Sino kaya ito?’ I thought he was a kontrabida because of his moustache. Noon, producers were not played up in the newspapers and magazines, only the stars. I was told to be careful and cautious with people in showbiz out to take advantage of you at akala ko he was one of them."

How funny. Did you stay far from him?

"No, he kept on talking to me, asking me where I came from, where I was studying, what I was going to take up in college. I told him I wanted to take up, if not Foreign Service, baka Speech and Drama. Then, Dr. Perez asked me, ‘Mahilig ka ba sa drama?’ I told him that at La Consolacion (Bacolod), I appeared in plays and most of my roles were male, leading men, because of my height (5’5", tall for a girl at that time). I remembered doing Julius Caesar where I played Mark Anthony. Then, Dr. Perez asked me, ‘Would you like to do a screen test?’ I was tongue-tied, staring blankly at Dr. Perez. Then, Tessie Alaba nudged me, ‘Hoy, si Dr. Perez ‘yan, may-ari ng Sampaguita, inaalok ka maging artista.’ Para akong natauhan. Of course, I said yes."

Ang bilis ng pangyayari, ano?

"The next day, I reported to the house of the Perezes inside the Sampaguita compound and something funny happened. I was there at 7 a.m., 30 minutes before schedule, accompanied by Uncle Nestor (Levy, brother of her mother). While waiting at the sala for director Mar Torres to pick us up, Aring Bautista (member of the Perez household who did supporting roles in Sampaguita movies) approached me and asked, ‘Sino kayo?’ When she learned that I was going to have a screen test, Aring told me, ‘Ay naku, iha, marami nang artista dito. Kasa-sign-up lang n’ung Miss Number One and Mr. Number One. Bakit di ka pumunta sa LVN?’ Quiet lang kami. Anyway, I didn’t present myself; ako naman ang inalok. By and by, Mar came and took us to the set of Rhodora in Antipolo for my screen test."

You almost didn’t make it to Sampaguita because of Aring Bautista.

"You know, si Aring din ang nagkukuwento sa akin later on. As soon as Mar fetched us, bumaba si Dr. Perez and asked where we were. Aring said she told Dr. Perez, ‘I let her go. I told her that we have a lot of stars here already. Nandiyan si Barbara Perez, Audrey Hepburn of the Philippines; si Amalia Fuentes, Elizabeth Taylor of the Philippines. So I told her to go na lang to LVN.’ Dr. Perez was mad at Aring. They started looking for me daw and nobody could tell them where I went."

All the while pala you were already being screen-tested in Antipolo. How did the screen test go?

"It was done inside a small house on the set of Rhodora. Si Martin Marfil (a scar-faced kontrabida) ang kaeksena ko. Director Mar asked me to scream, so I screamed and screamed–for real. Kasi nga takot talaga ako kay Martin who really looked nakakatakot. I was screaming, ‘Huwag, huwag!’ Then, director Mar asked me to cry, so I cried and cried; he asked me to laugh, so I laughed and laughed. I just followed and did what I was asked to do."

And that was it?

"I was called back for another screen test the next day in the garage of the Perezes’ house. They asked me to wear a pair of puruntong shorts na hindi pa uso noon. I was made to look like a boksingera. It turned out that they were looking for somebody to fill in the void left by Alicia Vergel. The movie, Boksingera, was supposed to be a serious movie, a drama. But when they got me, they decided to make it a comedy, starring Luis Gonzales, Panchito and me. They put the word ‘daw’ after Boksingera. When they previewed the movie, they thought it was too soon for me to have a solo starrer, even if I was in the title role. So they decided to first introduce Romeo Vasquez and me in Miss Tilapia, starring Gloria Romero, where I played Gloria’s alalay (factotum). Miss Tilapia was shown ahead of Boksingera (Daw!)."

Everything happened so fast, ’no?

"Everything was like a dream. I was just going through the motions. Pag sinabi sa akin, ‘Umiyak ka,’ umiiyak ako; pag sinabing tumawa ako, tawa ako nang tawa; pag sinabing sumigaw ako, sigaw ako nang sigaw. There was no actors workshop then. Anyway, Miss Tilapia was shown, followed by Boksingera (Daw!) pero walang dating. Siempre, the fans knew that Boksingera was supposed to be for Alicia Vergel and here came a newcomer, an unknown, playing the title role. Lahat ng reviews pangit."

Weren’t you discouraged?

"Not at all. Dr. Perez decided to include me in movies with Dolphy and others and they realized that I was good in comedy–you know, binubungi-bungi ako. I was cast in Kulang sa Pito, with Dolphy and Eddie Arenas, as my leading man. Papano naman kami kukuwela ni Eddie as loveteam when everybody knew that Eddie was already married to Lolita (Rodriguez)? Naging kumpare ko pa nga si Eddie. Eventually, I was cast in varied roles, both comedy and drama, such as Sino ang Maysala (with Romeo Vasquez) and romance-comedy (Prinsesa Gusgusin)."

I understand you also did radio dramas.

"I did. Radio is not visual at talagang matri-train ka sa voice-acting. Doon ako nahasa...sa mga drama ni Conde Ubaldo. Before I did Kulang sa Pito the movie, kami nina Dolphy and Panchito were already doing it on radio. I did a lot of radio shows, like Ang Maganda Kong Kapitbahay which was later made into a movie. Much, much later, only a few years ago when I was already semi-retired, I did a movie called Isinakdal Ko ang Aking Ina (with EddieGutierrez, Angelu de Leon and Wowie de Guzman) which was based on a DZRH radio drama. In Sampaguita, I did several dramas, although light ones, like Tulisan and Mga Anghel na Walang Langit. The heavier dramas were assigned to Lolita Rodriguez, Rita Gomez and Marlene Dauden."

But you did play heavy-dramas outside of Sampaguita.

"Yes, when I started going freelancing. LEA Productions offered me heavy-drama roles, such as in Gumising Ka, Maruja and Bayan Ko, Lumaban Ka. At that time, Sampaguita was noted for glamour movies which featured beautiful clothes, mga dream sequences in Eastman Color. Ang gumagawa ng serious-heavy drama ay ang Premiere Productions while LVN Pictures naman was making movies with local-color themes. Marlene Dauden did dramas in Sampaguita but it was when she went freelancing did she became popular in love-triangle dramas, starting with Sapagkat Kami’y Tao Lamang (by Hollywood Far East Productions)."

Among your early comedies, what are your three favorites?

"I have several. There’s Boksingera (Daw!) because it was my first movie; Susanang Daldal; Susan, Susay, Susie where I played three characters. It was amazing, putting all those three characters together in one frame. At that time, wala pa ’yung mga special effects and other advanced techniques now very common in filmmaking. Pag nagkamali ka ng acting sa pangatlong character, uulitin nila lahat ‘yon."

How different was movie-making then and movie-making now?

"Iba ang demands ngayon. In the past, we had to be 10 times patient kasi there were no zoom lens pa noon, so instead of the cameraman zooming in, ang artista ang lumalapit sa kamera. And there was hardly any dubbing then. Mayroon lang ‘boom’ noon sa shooting. So your dialogue and the sound of your footsteps must be captured by the ‘boom’. Mayroon ding dubbing but very minimal, only the parts where the sound was bad. Walang earphone-earphone noon. And the kleig lights, ang lalaki at ang bibigat! So you had to be patient kasi binubuhat-buhat ’yon ng mga crew. Mitchell ang kamerang ginagamit. Now, everything is so high-tech. Noon, wala kaming production designer, walang costume designer."

And when you sang, you usually lipsynched, with Carina Afable as the ghost singer.

"Hindi lang si Carina Afable. Sometimes, si Doris Day o kaya si Jo Stafford. Pero nakalagay naman ‘yon sa credit. Sina Baby de Guzman, sina Sylvia la Torre. Sila ang mga ghost singers namin noon."

What about the publicity and promotions?

"The publicity was managed by the studio PRO. Sampaguita had its own PRO, Premiere had its own, LVN had its own and so did Lebran. That was the era of the so-called Big Four. Being with Sampaguita was just like being an interna in school. We were taken care of; talagang inaalagaan kami, from the way we dressed to the way we conducted ourselves in public. So my mother felt safe and secure with me. She didn’t have anything to worry about. I was used to being an interna so when I got into Sampaguita hindi ako nanibago."

Stars then were different from stars now. Then, stars never went out with unwashed faces and unmade-up; you always looked your best when you were in public. Then, stars were morally upright, unlike now when stars are, well, very "free-wheeling".

"Dr. Perez was very particular with it. Kasi anytime, somebody might want to have a picture with you and you owe it to your fans and the public, and even to yourself, to always look your best, di ba? Maganda naman ‘yung you are presentable at all times."

What about the press then and the press now? Is the press today more licentious than the press then?

"We had our share of criticisms also. There was one tabloid na tumitira-tira sa mga artista."

How did you deal with the intrigues and the controversies?

"Fortunately, walang masyadong intrigues at controversies noon. If there was, very harmless...tungkol lang sa mga nanliligaw. There were no talk shows then kaya hindi nablo-blow-out of proportion ang mga intriga."

You reigned as Queen of Philippine Movies for more than a decade and you still are, just like Gloria Romero is, in the heart of the public. When you got married, you were at your prime, at the peak of your career. Weren’t you worried that marriage would adversely affect your career?

"No naman. I got married when I was 27; I was 14 when I started in showbiz. At that time, if you were 27, old maid na ang tingin sa’yo, so I guessed I got married at the right time. I was going on 15 when I signed my contract with Sampaguita on June 15, 1956, and I signed my contract with Regal for Mano Po 2 also, by coincidence, last June 15. So I told Mother (Lily), it’s the 47th anniversary of my contract-signing! Anibersaryo ng aking pag-aartista."

What attracted you to FPJ? How did he court you?

"Different from the other suitors. Instead of getting you as his first dancing partner, ikaw ang huling isasayaw niya. He was very nice as a co-star when we did Ang Daigdig Ko’y Ikaw (produced by FPJ’s own company, which also produced several other Susan-Ronnie movie, including Langit at Lupa, Perlas ng Silangan and such comedies as Mister, Nandiyan na si Kumander). Ano siya...tahimik. Silent water runs deep."

How did he say "I love you"? How did he propose to you?

"Akin na lang ‘yon!"

Okay, how did you say "yes" to him?

"I guess we became drawn to each other. We started as friends. Ronnie is quiet, tahimik lang siya. I think that’s what attracted me to him, his being quiet. I’m amused by a guy who’s the life of a party, ’yung madaldal at makuwento, but I’m attrracted to the quiet type."

What is it like being Mrs. FPJ?

"Well, I’m glad that you said Mrs. FPJ. You see, FPJ cannot be married. I’ll tell you an anecdote. One time, a kid approached me and asked, ‘Sino ka?’ And his mom said, ’Yan ang asawa ni Panday (one of Ronnie’s popular screen personas).’ The little boy looked at me, galit na galit. He said, ‘Walang asawa si Panday!’ You see, Fernando Poe, Jr. is Fernando Poe, Jr. He cannot be married."

How is Fernando Poe, Jr. different from Ronald Allan Poe (FPJ’s real name)?

"Well, Fernando Poe, Jr. is the person you see on the screen. Ronald Allan Poe, the person I married, is a homebody, a simple person. His wants and his needs are simple. His food preference is very basic, but he wants it fresh. If it’s fish, whatever kind of fish, dapat fresh. Kapag gulay, dapat fresh din."

What does he do between films?

"Ronnie is conscious about his weight. When he’s not making a movie, nag-e-exercise siya. He stays home, watches movies sa DVD, listens to music and reads. He prefers easy-listening music, mga ballads and not the noisy type."

Did Ronnie ask you to quit showbiz when you got married?

"No. It was my own decision. I felt that I had to slow down because we were starting a family. But when Mary Grace started going to school, I began to do movies again and to help run our office (FPJ Productions) in Escolta (Manila). I did some movies for Regal, one of them Kung Mawawala Ka (One of her best performances. — RFL) and a TV show (Tipitipitimtipitim) with Eddie (Gutierrez, her perennial partner in Sampaguita movies). Mary Grace was growing up and going to college and I was starting to feel lonely at home. So making movies was a way of keeping myself busy while everybody was away from home."

What’s a typical day in your life?

"There’s no pattern. It depends on the night before. But normally, Ronnie and I are early-to-bed-early-to-rise people. We have an early dinner, then we watch TV or movies (on video) and we go to sleep. I start my day by turning the radio on, so by the time the papers arrive, alam ko na kung ano ang news. Ronnie and I rise with the sun. We have our best conversation early in the morning, while waiting for the papers. We talk about what we did the day before and what we plan to do during the day. Mga ganoon lang. I don’t like to plan! When you do, it doesn’t always work."

You did your last movie (Isinakdal, after Ubos na ang Luha Ko for Seiko Films) in 1996. What made you decide to break your semi-retirement and make a comeback (with Mano Po 2)?

"I didn’t plan my (semi-)retirement; neither did I plan making movies again. When I saw Mano Po 1, I told myself, ‘Ay, sayang, sana kasama ako sa movie.’ Anyway, last April during a birthday dinner for a friend, Mother (Lily) and I were among the guests. I didn’t know that on one table, other guests were talking about a possible sequel to Mano Po. Before the night was over, Mother Lily sounded me off na on the possibility."

You play the first wife (of Christopher de Leon) while Lorna Tolentino and Dina Bonnevie are still fighting tooth-and-nail over the "third-wife" (but not the "second-wife") role. How can you and Christopher be credible as a couple?

"That’s what a lot of people have been wondering about. I won’t elaborate on that. Suffice it to say that Kris (Aquino) is cast as the young Susan Roces. I guess movie fans will find out how this little puzzle is solved by the make-up artist, the director, the scriptwriter and the production designer once the movie is shown."

People are suspecting that your "comeback" has something to do with FPJ’s political plans... if any.

"’Yon na nga ang sinasabi ko, e! You know what, these days I‘ve been hearing and reading things that Ronnie and I never even imagine..."

...Everybody is teasing you as "the next First Lady." How do you take it?

"You know, I cannot even joke about it. I feel embarrassed. I don’t know how to react. In the first place, it‘s not even in my dreams, not even in my imagination. At my age, what I dream is to do movies that I haven’t done before... roles that I haven’t done before, whether big or small... as long as they’re meaty. Such as the role of the lola in An Affair To Remember. Remember that scene showing the old lady (played by Katharine Hepburn in the remake starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening) playing the piano... the old lady who gave her shawl to Deborah Kerr? I‘d love to play that kind of a role."

Now that Mary Grace has her own family, and your nephews and nieces are grown, soon to have families of their own, how do you envision life with FPJ?

"I look forward to spending more time with him... us together."

Here at home or in Malacañang?

"’Yan na nga ang sinasabi ko, e!"

Seriously now, don’t you and FPJ ever discuss politics?

"Sometimes, we do, especially when he‘s mentioned in the newscast. I’d tell Ronnie, ‘Nasa news ka. Mayroon ka raw ide-declare. Ano ba ang ide-declare mo?’ Ronnie would say, ‘Ewan ko sa kanila.’ Beyond that, we don’t talk about politics. Ronnie also feels that it’s a matter that you can’t joke about. He refuses to say anything nor to make any comment baka he might be misunderstood or misquoted. We ourselves are wondering why all this talk is going on, where it’s coming from, who are spreading it."

How do people close to you feel about you know, the possibility of FPJ running?

"Well, lahat ng nagmamahal sa amin tell us, ‘Of course, we will support you, blah-blah, blah. But kung kami ang tatanungin, we don’t want you to go into politics.’ And I appreciate that."

Do you ever ask FPJ, you know, "May balak ka ba o wala?"

"Ay, many times! Abnormal naman siguro if I don’t ask, di ba? I’d ask him, ‘Ronnie, what’s this I hear . . .?" He’d say, ‘I heard the same thing, too!’ Ganoon!"

No definite answer, whether a "yes" or a "no"?

"None. Sabi niya, ‘If I had any plans, I should have told you a long time ago.’ He’s already starting to sound like a broken record."

Is it true that FPJ is going to make "an important announcement" on his birthday on August 20?

"He said, ‘Narinig ko rin ang balitang ’yon.’ He could only laugh at it."

What do you think would make him change his mind?

"Ronnie and I don’t make decisions or speak for each other... unless with permission. But we do consult each other. But it doesn’t mean that we decide for each other. But whatever the decision, we support each other."

Okay, let‘s talk about a "myth" about Susan Roces. Hindi ka raw marunong magalit. You’re daw all sweetness and light, all things bright and beautiful.

"It’s not true. You know, when I was younger, I‘d hear my Mom talk at the top of her voice. I told myself, ‘When I have my own place, I don’t be like that.’ Quiet ang gusto kong bahay. What makes me mad? When people around me are not doing their job well."

What makes you happy?

"I’m easy to please. When I see my plants bearing fruits and flowers, masaya na ako."

Is FPJ fond of (springing) surprises on you?

"Oh, yes, he is. Once, when I came home from a long stay in the States, I found the interiors of our house painted (all shades of) green. Before I left kasi, I casually mentioned to Ronnie that the color green symbolizes prosperity. All the curtains were in green; pati car ko was repainted green. Sometimes naman, he would invite a singer (Rico Puno, Ric Manrique, Jr., etc.) to serenade me."

Do you think FPJ will spring a surprise on you by making an "important announcement"?

"I doubt. I don’t think so."

Do you have any theme song?

"Somewhere in Your Heart." (You know, Somewhere in your heart, you will find a place for me.) "’Yan ang panligaw niyang kanta. Also, Somewhere." (You know, There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us...)

Do you have any favorite saint?

"St. Jude Thaddeus. But my best buddy is Jesus after whom I was named."

You’re turning 62 next Monday, July 28 (The STAR’s 17th anniversary). What’s your birthday wish?

"I have one but I’d rather keep it to myself.

(Is your guess as good as anybody else’s?)

Photos By Richard Chen

(E-mail reactions at rickylo@philstar.net.ph)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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