Her name might not ring a bell in the Philippines, but Filipino-American actress Elizabeth Frances has a long list of roles to her name.
Viewers of the American TV series The Son, on AMC, would know her as Prairie Flower – a feisty young member of the Comanche tribe in 1849 Texas.
Based on Philipp Meyer’s bestselling novel of the same title, The Son is a Western drama starring Pierce Brosnan as Eli McCullough. The series, which aired its first season from April to June this year, tells Eli’s story through two timelines: 1849, as a 13-year-old boy; and 1915, as a ruthless rancher. Prairie Flower and young Eli fall in love, creating conflict with a Comanche warrior named Charges The Enemy.
“Prairie Flower’s sort of like a 1849 feminist,” Elizabeth said. “She didn’t want to marry Charges The Enemy because of the type of marriage it would be.”
Unlike Prairie Flower, Elizabeth is happily married. She and her husband honeymooned in Palawan and visited family in Negros Occidental before coming to Manila recently.
But the actress said she and her character do have something in common: the search for identity.
Prairie Flower, who was adopted into another Comanche band after her family was killed by white settlers, struggles to find a sense of belonging within the new band and to reconcile what she wants and what the tribe needs.
In real life, Elizabeth was born in a military base in Okinawa, Japan to a Filipina mother and a Caucasian-Cherokee father. Though she grew up aware of these different cultures, she feels she sometimes has “one foot in, one foot out.”
“Being mixed in the States [is] growing up really feeling American, but knowing that I’m identified in a certain way because of how I look – but then wanting to also be responsible to the cultures that I come from,” she said.
Diversity in Hollywood
The mixed-race population in the US has grown 32%, according to 2010 census data; while in the UK, the 2001 census revealed that people of mixed race comprise the 3rd largest ethnic group. (READ: 'FAST FACTS: What you need to know about U.S. Pinoys and DACA' )
Hollywood is now starting to become more diverse in its representation of characters of color.
But there’s still a long way to go.
Elizabeth, who graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts, said it's important to think of how the different ethnic groups are represented in film or TV.
“If you continuously have stereotypes – or if for most of your life, your only exposure to black people onscreen, for example, is to see criminals – then if you see a black man walking down the street, that could inform your own idea of who that person is,” she explained. “That’s the same for any race.”
Diversity in Hollywood, especially among producers and writers, is also important because it results in stories that are richer and more original. “If you have a table full of writers writing scripts for television, and all of them have had the same life experience, for the most part, there are going to be blind spots,” Elizabeth said.
Although she’s been coming to the Philippines since she was much younger, it wasn’t until she was an adult that she really learned about her mother’s side of the family.
For one thing, Elizabeth learned that her grandfather, Eugenio A. Antonio Jr, was a local hero – the only municipal mayor in Negros Occidental who didn’t surrender to the Japanese during World War II. Passionate about serving his town of San Carlos, he used his back pay from the US to establish Tañon College in 1952 as an affordable alternative to schools in the area.
Tañon recently celebrated its 65th anniversary.
She also realized that although both her parents raised her and her brother with good values, her family’s closeness comes from the Filipino side of the family.
Not surprisingly, respect and care for elders – something she sees in her mother and other relatives – have become ingrained in her as well.
“I remember, at an early age, thinking, ‘I need to get to a place where, when my parents get old, I can take care of them’” – something that people in the US don’t usually think about, she added.
Learning about both Filipino and Native American culture made her appreciate and recognize why there are things that are important to her. “You kind of become a detective about your own history,” she joked.
In her work, Elizabeth aims to be a bridge for others. While in Manila, one of her to-dos was to meet Filipino fashion designers and bring back their designs to wear to public appearances and red-carpet events.
“My hope is that I can wear designers of color on carpets, and help expose and create opportunities for people who are marginalized,” she said. “Starting with Native American and Filipino designers seems like the right place.”
Recognizing the importance of the arts as a way for the youth to understand and express themselves, the actress volunteers with kids in the arts in Los Angeles. In particular, she mentors kids of color through school outreach programs.
“I think the arts is a perfect conduit, whether they want to be an artist or an architect, for those social and interpersonal relationship skills that they’ll need in any environment,” she said.
Through art programs, she’s seen kids who were afraid to just get up in front of their peers to talk, become confident and own who they are, and ultimately express themselves.
Elizabeth recalled an experience in one of these programs. A little girl, who she thinks might have been Mexican-American, came up to her and asked, “How do you become confident?”
This is when she realized the power of representation and her responsibility as an artist. She went home that day thinking, “Why did she ask me?”
“My friend said, ‘You look mixed, and you’re this confident woman in front of all these kids,'” Elizabeth narrated. “So there’s an identification that happens, and the little girl goes, ‘She’s like me! So maybe I can do that!’ And I think that’s really powerful.”
Being mixed may be challenging, but it’s given Elizabeth a real awareness of and empathy toward other people. This helps her both as a philanthropist and as an actress.
“At the end of the day, we all want to be loved, we all want to have agency, we all want to be prosperous, we all want to feel important,” she said. “Whether you’re on a horse in 1849, or on a laptop in 2017, you still want the same types of things.” – Rappler.com