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Empress Schuck Is All About That Old-School Charm

The talented actress serves dalagang Pilipina realness in the historical film 'Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral'—and none of it, we discovered, is an act

by Marla Miniano-Umali | Sep 10, 2018

In order to transform into Felicidad Aguinaldo, one of the many ladies in Gregorio del Pilar’s life, Empress Schuck had to sit for hours having her hair and makeup done on set, then endure long shooting days of wearing the heavy, constricting sheets of fabric that comprise her costume—a traditional baro’t saya faithful to our collective consciousness’ image of Filipino women in the time of the revolution.

Underneath the layers of cosmetics and clothing, though, Empress and Felicidad might as well be the same person.

PHOTO: Shaira Luna

Not much has been written about Felicidad Aguinaldo, simply because although she may have shared a past with Gregorio del Pilar, she wasn’t the love of his life. No, that distinction belonged to Dolores Nable Jose, a beautiful heiress whose name was found embroidered on a handkerchief the Americans recovered from his corpse in Tirad Pass. Despite not winning the battle for Goyo’s heart (spoiler alert!), Felicidad would be overcome with misery at the news of her former lover’s death, kneeling and weeping unabashedly and praying fervently—an image of devotion that would echo throughout history.

“The movie shows Felicidad as the ex-girlfriend of Goyo, who’s a huge playboy,” Empress says. “It’s interesting because it shows how exes would interact noong unang panahon, ‘pag nagkru-krus ang mga landas nila.” She found the nuances of period romance fascinating, their silent interactions and subtle flirtations so different from today’s age of Tinder swiping and sliding into DMs. Back then, it was the smallest of gestures that truly mattered: “Tinginan pa lang ni Felicidad at Goyo, you’d already know that something’s going on.”

“I was really excited and challenged to portray someone from that time,” Empress gushes. “I loved getting to know Felicidad and discovering that she is the prime example of a dalagang Pilipina. Probably because she comes from a political family—she’s the sister of Emilio Aguinaldo—she’s very demure and prim and proper. You would see from the way she moves and handles herself that she’s very reserved. And of course she cares for her country,” Empress continues, describing Felicidad as one would describe a like-minded friend, a kindred spirit.

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PHOTO: Shaira Luna

A quick Google image search of Felicidad Aguinaldo pulls up an old photo, and though the resemblance is not as uncanny as Gregorio del Pilar and Paulo Avelino’s, the similarities are striking enough. Same patrician nose line, same full brows, same pillow-y lips. Same almond-shaped eyes that slope downward, making both women seem innately, perpetually sad and troubled.

“I’m similar to my character because I’m also very prim and proper.” Empress laughs, nervously running a hand through her silky hair as she says this, and at first we think it’s because she’s pulling our leg, but then we realize this is something she’s actually a bit embarrassed to admit. “Medyo manang talaga ako magbihis; I’m more comfortable in loose clothing. I’m quite reserved and discreet as well. Sometimes I don’t even tell my close friends my secrets. I’m a private person, kaya baka hindi nga ako bagay mag-artista.” She says all of this almost apologetically, until she does come right out and apologize: “Sorry, I’m so boring.”

"I know that I’m a different person off-cam. When you’re playing a character, that’s not you. That’s why it’s called acting"

No, of course not, we rush to reassure her. But out of curiosity, we prod further, and she reveals that it’s not so much that she thinks she’s boring as much as she feels out of place in her generation. “Nadala ko ‘yung pagiging dalagang Pilipina even to this age of millennials,” talking about her generation as if she weren’t a part of it. “Ang dami nang nauuso ngayon. Nakakalimutan na natin kung paano tayo pinalaki at kung paano ang buhay noong unang panahon. I’m old-fashioned. I can’t relate to millennials. Hindi talaga ako makasabay.

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PHOTO: Shaira Luna

Now 25 years old, Empress has come a long way from her career beginnings at age 7. One of her first roles was that of Cassiopeia in the fantasy series Etheria, playing a younger version of Cindy Kurleto’s character. The following year, at age 13, she’d land one of her more memorable roles as Ava Abaniko in Super Inggo, a heroine quite like Felicidad, albeit a fictional one clad in a twee pink and purple costume, her long locks a mishmash of braids and buns.

Marami na rin akong napagdaanan,” she says, referring to her various roles but maybe also to her life in general. “So by now I know that I’m a different person off-cam. When you’re playing a character, that’s not you. That’s why it’s called acting.” She pauses, as if reading the question on everyone’s minds. “That’s why I can show skin on camera—like for this shoot—but still stick to my values in real life. Takot pa rin ako sa nanay ko. It’s fun to explore and experience new things through work, but it’s good to always know who you are.”

At the mention of her mother, we take the opportunity to bring up her own daughter, Athalia, who turns three this month. In April 2015, news broke of a then 22-year-old Empress’s pregnancy, fueling speculation on whether it would spell the end of her career. But Empress took it all in stride, and now enjoys both the perks of motherhood and a fresh start at show business.

“I feel like I’m at my strongest and most powerful when I’m the one taking care of my daughter,” she says. “It’s really hard work, so I’m proud of myself. How my mom raised me would influence how I raise my daughter as well. I don’t smoke, I don’t have vices, I don’t like going out—I hope she’s like that, too. But if she’s not, then I can’t force it. I’m just here to guide her.”

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PHOTO: Shaira Luna

It’s ironic that it is in Empress’s predilection for following the rules that her personal brand of girl power—traditional, yes, but wise and well-meaning—shines through.

One, find someone who makes you feel secure. “I don’t like competing for a guy’s attention,” she says. “A lot of women were in love with Goyo, and he loved it. Even if I really like someone, if I find out he likes a lot of girls, I’m out. Doon ako sa safest option.”

Two, don’t show your cards all at once. “I never make the first move,” she declares, not to be coy but to always keep something for herself—prudence with a purpose, if you will. “Felicidad was different. Since Goyo was so good-looking, he was used to girls going crazy over him and throwing themselves at him. Hindi ko nga alam na tumitili pala ‘yung mga tao dati, but there’s a scene in the movie where a bunch of women do that. Felicidad was careful about expressing her true feelings.”

Three, know your worth. “I want young girls who watch Goyo to learn that they should never lose hope,” she says. “If you’re looking for love, may darating at darating para sa ‘yo. If something’s not working, that means he’s not for you. May iba pa. Don’t chase guys who keep on hurting you. Let go and believe that you will meet the person you deserve.”

PHOTO: Shaira Luna

In a movie like Goyo, where virile, powerful men brandish their shiny swords literally and figuratively, it’s easy to relegate the women to the background, or to stereotype them as mere swooners and sighers and pearl-clutchers. But Empress thinks otherwise. Though the fights they fought weren’t as epic, the women had their share of the action, too. “Felicidad was part of the Battle of Tirad Pass,” Empress says. “We shot through real rain, storm, and mud!”

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A change descends on Empress’s face when we ask her if she considers the women heroes as well. Something clicks. “Of course they’re heroes,” she says, her voice soft but firm. “The men may have led the battle, but no matter how strong and brave they were, they still needed the women’s comfort and support. The women were the ones who took care of them.”

When asked what the audience should take away from the film, Empress doesn’t say anything about patriotism or courage or resilience against adversity. In an unexpected move, she goes straight for the heart: “I think viewers can learn humility, and that leadership is a privilege,” she says. “A lot of people say Goyo was too young to be given that big a responsibility. Don’t think you’re superior to others. It’s okay to make a mistake, to say after that, babangon ako at hindi ko na uulitin ‘yung mga pagkakamali ko.

Photography Shaira Luna Producer Khatrina Bonagua Styling Leanne Ledesma and Alex Castillo of Qurator Studio Makeup Amanda Padilla Hair MJ Rone for Revlon Professional Shot on location at Eastwood Richmonde Hotel, 17 Orchard Road, Eastwood City, Bagumbayan, Quezon City Special thanks to Lucky Doll Lingerie

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