Aina Dumlao doesn’t want you to call her an overnight success.
After breaking through the Hollywood TV industry as nurse Gerlie Bernardo in the 17th season of Grey’s Anatomy, it's easy to frame Aina's rise to fame as one that she simply happened upon. That's how we like to imagine it as anyway, the spontaneous story that's the stuff of teleseryes.
But the Filipino-American actress wants to make it clear that even being seen takes a lot of initiative—and it's up to us to make sure our voice is heard through it all.
In an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe, the LA-based actress had a perpetually sunny demeanor even with the 8-hour time difference. It was almost nighttime in America, the place she had been living in for 11 years to pursue her dreams, and there was that easy sense of being with a kababayan—even when we were thousands of miles away.
I asked her how she had been, despite the pandemic. She shared that she missed her family back home and even though I was the interviewer, she first asked about what was happening with the lockdown restrictions in the Philippines. We then launched into the interview with ease, code-switching every now and then to convey the message clearer.
Making it big
Shortly after making waves in Grey's Anatomy, Aina landed her biggest role yet: Evie Dela Rosa in the 6-part Hulu miniseries The Unusual Suspects. It was a huge leap for Aina, but it was a small act of kindness that got her the audition.
"Being a nice person pays, at the end of the road, it comes back to you tenfold. I got that role because my husband and I knew someone who needed help with coaching to speak Filipino. She was auditioning for one of the characters. She said, 'hey, Aina, can you help me with the accent and the dialogue? I am willing to pay you extra for that.' I was like 'oh no, it’s okay' - and that’s not typical because people get very competitive but because I helped her, she helped open the door for me to get that Evie audition."
"So when I got that audition, it was like 'ah, yes, being a good person is good. Okay pala ‘yon," she joked.
After landing the role alongside a huge cast of Filipino actors and Lord Of The Ring's Miranda Otto, she felt a mix of pressure and gratitude.
The show itself is a mix of many genres. Its official synopsis describes it as "following the theft of a multi-million-dollar necklace, women from different walks of life come together to ensure that justice is served." Imagine the dreary yet compelling suburban life of Big Little Lies with a touch of nail-biting heist action.
Since the show features a multitude of Filipino characters, there's also an array of Filipino conversations and references. I pointed out to Aina that the show would give any native speaker whiplash, as one scene would have people speaking easy Tagalog then cut to Miranda Otto's heavy Australian accent in the next.
Aina shared the sentiment, saying: "The moment that I saw [my castmates], I probably had the same feeling as you, parang “wait, wait, what is this place? Who are you?” We didn’t have to talk about like 'uy Pinoy ka, uy Pinoy ako.' We just had an instant connection."
She added that only she and fellow Filipina actor Lena Cruz were fullly fluent in Filipino, "so she and I had an extra bond between na in between takes, magchi-chismisan kami, walang makakaintindi sa’min."
Representation and typecasting
With Aina's accolades, there's still that elephant in the room when it comes to seeing Filipinos on screen and the kind of roles they play.
Though representation does wonders, one can't help but think that small mentions of anything Filipino can serve as a sort of fan service to a country that enjoys making things go viral - from Money Heist's 'Manila' character to the news reports that a bee mascot of a certain food chain was featured in 2010's Glee.
In a similar vein, there's the thought that Filipinos are often subjected to subservient roles to appease the Caucasian audience. That though we have a part, it's a part that's catering to others' gaze.
Even in the TV industry, Aina shares that representation and typecasting is a fine line to walk - but it's still important to keep the door open for others in the future.
"What’s funny is ‘yung nagsimula ako, there were no roles that were Filipino. Maybe one, but it was, like, very forgettable. When I would audition [in the past], it would usually be any ethnicity or Asian roles. But now they’re looking for Filipinos, but now I would see roles that were, woah, with an accent."
"See, it’s a double-edged sword here in America, like I said, it’s just starting: roles for Filipinos specifically. So if there’s a role for a nurse in Grey’s Anatomy, it used to be not written specifically for Filipinos, but finally now, it’s becoming like 'okay let’s drive for authenticity, which would be Filipino.' So I feel like, that’s great, if we can’t play the roles that are meant to be for us, then we have no place to start."
"It’s up to us to speak up, but I also feel like if there’s an opportunity, grab it. If there’s a door opening, grab it, so that you can keep opening and opening that door so people behind you, other Filipinos, can come through."
If we can’t play the roles that are meant to be for us, then we have no place to start.
Without sharing any spoilers, The Unusual Suspects does indeed turn this stereotype on its head, as we see Aina's character go above and beyond her 'expected' role of a housekeeper in a number of ways. In an interesting way, even the audience isn't allowed to let their first impression of the quiet, meek Evie get into their head.
"It’s a very slow-moving tide here. As Filipinos, we should be careful, yes, and if we have a voice, we should speak up and say “hey, I know I’m playing a nurse but do I need to have an accent?” or “I know I’m playing as a nurse, but can I be a strong person?” Aina added.
"There are so many colors and types of Filipinos out there that you’re diminishing what a Filipino is, you know. So I feel like I made a choice that Evie’s accent wasn’t thick because I wanted to make sure [that] just because they’re nannies or maids or housekeepers abroad, that doesn’t mean they’re not smart, they’re probably smarter than you."
True enough, it was through showcasing the unique Filipino story that made Aina started following her bliss. The short film Diwa, which Aina co-wrote, directed, and starred in had put the foot in the door for her future projects. The 2018 project follows an undocumented immigrant named Diwa.
"If I didn’t write my own story and showed Hollywood and the world what I could do, I literally would not be here."
"So for anybody who wants to try and make it through in the entertainment industry here in Hollywood or anywhere else in the world, don’t be afraid to write your own story and make your voice heard. Don’t wait for permission from other people so you can do what you need to do and follow your dreams."