A Fil-Am/Cherokee in Hollywood
With her island-girl look, Elizabeth Frances could be mistaken more for maybe a Hawaiian than a Filipina.
“A lot of people have been telling me that,” admitted Elizabeth whose father is Caucasian-Cherokee and mother is a Filipina from San Carlos City, Negros Occidental. “I was born at a Naval Base in Okinawa where my father served with the marine corps and I was a baby when our family moved to the Philippines before we finally settled in San Diego, California.”
Elizabeth was here recently for a month-long visit with her husband Sigmund Watkins (who works in marketing) for two purposes: to attend a family reunion held on the 95th birthday of her maternal grandmother and to spend their honeymoon in Coron, Palawan. They got married last April.
It was Quark Henares who, a month earlier, tipped off Funfare about “a visiting Hollywood actress.”
“She may not be familiar to many Filipinos but she is well-known in Hollywood,” assured Quark who met Elizabeth in L.A. “She would make a good copy for a story.”
Said to be “acclaimed for her grace and charisma both on screen and off” (according to a write-up about her), Elizabeth played the troubled girlfriend in Drunken’s Finest, produced by Robert Redford, which premiered at the Redford-spearheaded Sundance Film Festival (SFF); rock star Bad Penny in the Emmy-nominated series Her Story; NBC’s Heartbeat; MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter Lilly Rowan in Netflix’s Love (produced and directed by Judd Apatow); and recently as the young and headstrong Prairie Flower (a Cherokee) on the hit AMC series The Son which stars Pierce Brosnan.
The TV series, which ran from April to June this year, was based on Phillip Meyer’s best-selling novel. Brosnan played Eli McCullough, as a 13-year-old boy in 1849 and as a ruthless rancher in 1915. Prairie Flower fell in love with the young Eli, a romance frowned upon by Charges The Enemy, a Comanche warrior.
“Prairie Flower was like an 1849 feminist,” Elizabeth described her. “She didn’t want to marry Charges the Enemy knowing that it wouldn’t be a good marriage. I’m not like her because I am happily married. But we do have something in common and that’s the search for identity.”
Preparing for the role proved to be a humbling experience for Elizabeth whom Funfare interviewed at Gloria Maris restaurant in Gateway, Araneta Center, Cubao, Quezon City, a day before she and Sigmund flew back to the US. (Louie Heredia happened to be there, hosting a victory lunch for friend movie writers after his discovery Laura Lehman won 2017 Miss World Philippines, so I introduced him to Elizabeth. Before the interview ended, Joel Torre [also a Negrense] arrived to fetch her. They were social media friends and meeting for the first time.)
“Being part-Cherokee, I easily identified with the Prairie Flower character, a feisty young member of the Comanche tribe in 1849 Texas. I went to Oklahoma and stayed with Juanita Pahdopony, our Comanche consultant. I visited the Comanche National Museum where I sat on her couch. I wanted to know more about the tribe’s culture before I started shooting. In the process, I also learned more about my ancestry.”
Although she didn’t have a scene with Brosnan because she played the girlfriend of Brosnan’s young character, Elizabeth did have a close encounter with the iconic 007 actor.
“In Hollywood,” explained Elizabeth, “there’s some kind of hierarchy, with the biggest stars at the top of it. But Pierce didn’t make us feel it. I couldn’t have met a kinder and more humble person. Pierce led the way and set the tone on the set, so it felt like an acting company where the actors, the crew, the producers and everybody else were all equal. We were like a family.”
Same with Redford whom Elizabeth met during the Drunken’s Finest premiere.
“He was very nice and very kind. I was surprised how so involved and so supportive he was of young artists, just like Pierce. I don’t know how it is here but in Hollywood, the mentorship of older people to younger artists really makes a big difference in terms of younger people being able to find their way as creators.”
Although raised in the US, Elizabeth claimed that she grew up on Filipino values instilled in her by her mom.
“My mom won a lottery in the Philippines with a trip to the US as prize,” related Elizabeth. “At first, she was hesitant to go but her family encouraged her to take the chance. She decided to stay and met my dad. My grandma, whose full name is Lawrencia Gonzales, used to be a nun, a mother superior until she left the convent and went to the US where she got married. She used to babysit me. Then she retired in the Philippines. As a kid, I would visit our relatives in Negros every two or three years.”
Elizabeth’s “search for identity” started when she was 13.
“Both my parents were working. Early on, I knew that I wanted to act, so I found a local theater. I told the woman in charge, ‘Hey, teach me Shakespeare.’ I started doing drama in high school. After receiving my degree from Cal Arts, I began my professional career both in L.A. and regionally. I worked with such notable theaters as Center Theater Group, La Jolla Playhouse, Los Angeles Theater Center, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Native Voices and the Kirk Douglas Theater Off Screen.”
Her fondest dream is for Asian-American artists like her, especially her fellow Filipino, to be given more chances to shine in Hollywood.
“As of now,” she said, “this community of talented artists is kind of still hidden. But with diversity alive and well in Hollywood, these artists should get equal opportunities as everybody else.”