A Method to Madness: Mercedes Cabral
by Jansen Musico

Mercedes Cabral currently wears the sash that spells out her title in big bold letters: Queen of Pinoy Indie Cinema. It’s an honor passed on from actress to actress every few years or months, depending on the entertainment industry’s attention span. For a time, the throne was Eugene Domingo’s. Before that, it was shared by names like Cherry Pie Picache, Ina Feleo, Irma Adlawan, and Angel Aquino. Now that it’s hers, she’s still not quite sure if she wants it.

I spotted her highness leaning against a wall while balancing a bouquet of flowers bigger than her torso. She was wearing stilettos paired with a denim skirt that barely peeked out from under her loose red blouse. Her eyes formed smiles that wrinkled her face before her lips followed suit. With one hand, she clutched her tulips, with the other, she grabbed my palm. We had just walked out of the screening of her new film, a slasher movie of the B-rated kind, a guilty watch, the pleasure derived from which was debatable. Her character was a psycho who delighted in severed limbs and tortured screams.

"Shit!" she said, "That’s tough, man." I had mimicked a line from Scream, asking her what her favorite scary movie was. She took a while biting her lip while rummaging through the DVD collection in her mind. “Orphan,” she answered. “Wait, The Orphanage pala.” She meant the Guilliermo del Toro-produced film, the one with the creepy kid who wore a sack on his head. It was the rawness of its visuals that made the scarce hair on her mocha skin stand up, and the illusion of reality that made her palpitate.

Though a fixture of film, Mercedes still considers herself a fan of the real. It’s quite ironic, taking in the nature of her work. In movies, reality is fabricated. Some stories may be based on true people and events, but all these become artificial once actors get in front of the camera to perform.

"Ayaw kong kapag pinanood ako ng tao, makikita nilang umaarte lang ako, na inaarte ko lang ‘tong character na ‘to. Gusto ko, binubuhay ko siya," she says, a telltale sign of a student of Stanislavski. Mercedes is a method actor, I discovered. She’s a scavenger of facts and experiences, a hoarder of the nitty-gritty. For an unfinished Ralston Jover film, she had to get mentally retarded, and not in a cute Budoy way. Over seven days, she lived with the person her character was based on, taking note of her every move. “Pinagaaralan ko kung paano siya magsalita, paano siya kumain, paano siya humawak ng kutsara’t tinidor or kung nagkakape siya.”

Over her costumes, she puts on layer after layer of her character’s tics, quirks, and mannerisms until her audience no longer sees the actress inside. Perhaps this is why she has no issue baring all on screen? Her backside filled shots of Ligo na U, Lapit na Me. Her breasts made cameos in Serbis. Her body, in its full glory, frolicked in the woods for Liberacion. Mercedes is never really naked. She’s clothed by the skin of every character she plays. The problems arise when she forgets whose skin she’s in.

"Mahirap, after the shoot, kapag dala-dala ko pa rin yung character," Mercedes says, recalling her latest stint as a homicidal nut job. "For weeks nahirapan akong tanggalin siya sa sistema ko kasi sobrang bigat. Mahirap din para sa boyfriend ko kasi minsan umiiyak na lang ako ng walang rason. Pero naiintindihan naman niya… sana," she cracks a smile, "Ineexplain ko naman na may mga mangyayaring ganito."

For film, she’s done what most dedicated actors have sworn to do, lose their egos for the sake of the story, lose their clothes for the sake of art, and lose their minds for the sake of bringing a character to life. But there must be something that she wouldn’t do, I thought. What was this Superwoman’s kryptonite? “I don’t know,” was her response. “Cut off my hands?” Her morbid answer forced an uncomfortable laugh to linger between us.

"As actors, tools kami na ginagamit ng mga director at writers para magkuwento. Willing ako na magpakalbo habang ginagawa yung pelikula, as long as kailangan…” she trailed off for a few seconds. “Pero siguro, yeah, hindi ko lang siguro gagawin yung penetration. Kunwari may bed scene and then kailangan may penetration, hindi ko talaga gagawin.” Finally, a limit. Actual sex on film is of another industry altogether, one that a queen of her stature won’t ever sign up for.