A small person in a big role

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By Susan Claire Agbayani

ONANAY is Jo Berry’s first major television series. She had previously acted in just one episode of a TV show.

SOME actors can work their entire lives and never get anything bigger than a supporting role, but sometimes all it takes is one breakout role.

That is what happened to Jo Berry.

A few weeks ago, GMA 7 gambled on Onanay, a new TV series about the life of “a small person” — literally — and took an even bigger gamble on an unknown lead actress. The only acting credit Ms. Berry had to her name before Onanay came along was a single episode of the drama Magpakailanman. The episode was about the real life love story of the Franciscos: Lorna, a little person, and Teddy, a regular-sized man.

Maganda ang concept pitch [for Onanay] ni Borj,” Senior Program Manager Helen Sese told BusinessWorld, referring to John Borgy “Borj” Danao, a writer in GMA’s Drama Department.


“I first saw Jo Berry in the Magpakailanman episode,” said Mr. Danao in a Facebook post. “I was [so] inspired by her performance that I conceptualized a storyline for little persons with the structure of Bakekang,” he wrote, referring to the 2006 GMA 7 drama series about an ugly girl who succeeds despite difficulties and discrimination. “I was able to pitch the concept to the creative bosses (Aloy Adlawan, Suzette Doctolero, Richard Dode Cruz, and Roy Iglesias),” he wrote.

While GMA management gave the new show the green light, it had specific instructions that the lead actress had to be “magaling” (good).

Ms. Berry did well in the VTR, and it was apparent that she “can play this role,” noted Ms. Sese. There were really no other contenders for the role. Still, it was a risk on GMA’s part, said Ms. Sese, since the actress was new and unknown to viewers. But GMA’s drama programs in the past had always had “strong, brave and innovative concepts” (think My Husband’s Lover which tackled homosexual relationships and infidelity).

“They told me that after that [Magpakailanman] episode, they wrote the story of Onay. So I’m really grateful that they remembered me (even) a year after the episode was aired,” Ms. Berry said during an interview on the show’s set in a slum community in Santol, Quezon City, close to the border with the city of Manila.

Onanay is about a woman named Onay (Jo Berry) who was born with Achondroplasia, a bone growth disorder which leads to dwarfism. Throughout her life, she is subject to ridicule, yet she chooses to remain positive about life. She marries Elvin Montenegro (Adrian Alandy), an engineer and the son of a France-based beauty queen-turned-entrepreneur Helena (Cherie Gil).

Their union produces Rosemarie (Kate Valdez), but when Elvin dies, Rosemarie is sent to be raised by Helena who calls her Natalie. Meanwhile, Onay is raped and gives birth to another girl Maila (Mikee Quintos).

Maila grows up to be a nice and attentive daughter, while Rosemarie/Natalie grows up arrogant and disobedient. They become classmates, not knowing that they are half-sisters; and eventually they become rivals in love.

Mr. Danao noted that while Ms. Berry is not the first little person to get a big break in Philippine showbiz, listing Dagul, Mahal, Mura, and Ernesto de la Cruz a.k.a. Wengweng, it was still a risky proposition for the network.

“GMA is now ready to take a risk in introducing an unconventional lead in a prime time slot,” said Mr. Danao. “Why is it a big deal? It is a big deal because this is the first time that an actress like her would get the lead in a prime time soap as usually the lead is an actress with a strong fan base.

“Jo Berry did not win a reality competition. She is not as beautiful as Marian Rivera and Liza Soberano. She does not have a million followers on Instagram like Kyline Alcantara and Anne Curtis. She also does not have a love team with a solid fan base like BiGuel, JaDine, and KathNiel. Jo Berry is an ordinary woman but like them she has an extraordinary talent when it comes to acting,” he wrote in a Facebook post in a mix of English and Filipino.

Since GMA departed from the norm of casting a lead with movie-star looks, and opted to give a big break to someone with exceptional talent, he expressed hope that people realize that there’s value beyond mere physical beauty.

“Hopefully this show will help inspire little people and all of us; and start to open the minds of viewers on the value and idea of inclusivity and representation — not just in showbiz — but even in other careers and life in general.”

“My real name is Josephine Bibit Berry,” the actress told BusinessWorld. “I played the role of Lorna for an episode of Magpakailanman, ‘My Little Wife,’ back in 2015. That’s where they discovered me for the role of Onay.

“I’m 24, and I am the youngest in the family. After graduating with a degree in Computer Science from Infotech Makati, I worked for a BPO company for almost two years. My forte is Finance.”

Three coaches were tapped to give the newbie actress acting workshops, and one of them, actress and acting coach Anne Villegas, continues to assist her during tapings.

Ms. Berry also had “familiarity workshops” with her leading man Adrian Alandy, “Para maganda ang lumabas sa chemistry nila (So the chemistry would come out well). And it did, based on the episodes we’ve shown,” said Ms. Sese.

“Adrian (Alandy) is a real gentleman, so I didn’t need to adjust much,” said Ms. Berry.

“(Ms. Berry) is very, very smart. It’s so easy to give her instructions. She’s able to draw out emotions needed for the scenes,” noted Ms. Sese, who said actress-turned-director Gina Alajar, who megs the teleserye, was “impressed” with her work

“Jo Berry exceeded our expectations. She’s good. Her acting has many levels, it has nuance, and truth,” Mr. Danao remarked after having watched two episodes of the “raw mats” of Onanay.

No matter how good an actress is, she can get starstruck — and when your co-stars are Nora Aunor and Cherie Gil, this is really not a surprise.

Ms. Sese said that they already had Ms. Aunor in mind when they were conceptualizing the show. It helped that Ms. Aunor is a mother and is petite. Because she is so new in the business, Ms. Sese stressed the importance of giving Ms. Berry support via the presence of seasoned and multi-awarded actresses like Ms. Aunor and Ms. Gil.

In spite of having acted together over the last few weeks, Ms. Berry admits to still being “star struck” by her reel mother-in-law Cherie Gil whom she describes as “nice” off camera.

She was even more star struck by singer-actress Nora Aunor who plays her mother in the series — “Syempre, superstar (of course, she’s a superstar).” They hit it off camera, and she said that the “sobrang bait (extremely nice)” veteran talks to her and gives her tips on how to get along with fans, and tells her not to get swell-headed.

Ms. Aunor is herself impressed with the young actress. “Jo is good. She does not need tips nor advice from me. All of them are good; all of them have their own approaches to acting,” Ms. Aunor said during an ambush interview during the taping at the slum area.

They are a few weeks into the show and Ms. Berry admits, “I still get the jitters. [I] don’t think it will go away.”

Asked if the show’s story is realistic, Ms. Berry replied: “It is. The genuine love of Elvin and Onay happens in real life. It happened to my parents (her father is a small person). It happened to Lorna and Teddy Francisco, whom I played in [Magpakailanman].”

She added, “Our goal is to inspire people and show them that little people are not just for funny shows, and they shouldn’t be discriminated on. No one deserves that!”

Onanay will run for a minimum of three months. It airs weeknights on GMA telebabad.