Jorrybell Agoto is the leading lady we need right now

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

From starring in two Cinemalaya films to landing the lead role in the only Philippine entry for the Venice International Film Festival, actress Jorrybell Agoto is a new force in the film festival circuit. In photo: A still from "When This Is All Over." Photo courtesy of KEVIN MAYUGA

A few years ago, Jorrybell Agoto lined up inside the Cultural Center of the Philippines, waiting alongside hundreds of applicants for her turn to audition for a Cinemalaya film. Standing on the “x” mark in front of a camera, Agoto delivered her monologue, only to be told by the director that her movements were too loud.

“Sobrang extreme closeup pala!” says Agoto, laughing. “So hindi na nakikita yung mukha ko!” After several unsuccessful takes, she would not be called back.

Today, she’s become the darling of not only Cinemalaya but a slew of international film festivals as well. This year alone, Agoto stars in two features in Cinemalaya — Kevin Mayuga’s “When This Is All Over” and Gian Arre’s “Tether.” She also has a starring role in Sam Manacsa’s “Cross My Heart and Hope To Die” and a supporting role in Sonny Calvento’s “Primetime Mother,” both premiering at the Venice International Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival later this year, respectively.

The filming of “When This Is All Over” was sandwiched between the two shoots of “Tether,” requiring Agoto to embody diametrically opposed characters in each of her Cinemalaya features. In Gian Arre’s “Tether,” she gives life to the increasingly unhinged and vengeful Kate after a one-night stand emotionally binds her to a womanizer, while Kevin Mayuga's “When This Is All Over” requires her to be the more timid and joyful condominium staff, Rosemarie, who is trying to stay afloat amidst the pressure of the pandemic.

Agoto in "Primetime Mother" alongside Meryll Soriano. Still courtesy of SONNY CALVENTO

There are only a handful of individuals acting in multiple Cinemalaya entries at the same time — with Dolly de Leon and Agot Isidro being the only two other actresses with major roles in this year’s competition lineup. While Agoto was tapped for the role of Kate in “Tether,” the role of Rosemarie was a happy accident. Agoto initially agreed to join the production as a bit player, not knowing that the role was expanded into a lead. “Dahil bit player at full length, hindi ko binasa yung script.” says Agoto, recalling the Zoom audition and callbacks. “Tapos nung sinearch ko yung ‘Rosemarie,’ teh! Ang daming pages!”

Born and raised in Ilocos, Agoto had a penchant for performance at an early age and convinced her parents to let her study in Manila, eventually graduating from the AB Theater Arts program of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. “At first, gusto ko lang ilabas ‘yung emotion ko. ‘Yun ‘yung nagiging outlet ko sa lahat ng mga bagay na hindi ko nailalabas, na hindi accepted ng society,” says Agoto.

The program led not only to an artistic but sociopolitical awakening. Through stories drafted from communities that suffered from typhoons such as Yolanda and extrajudicial tragedies during martial law, Agoto's acting became grounded in an aspect of social realism. Immersion became a crucial aspect of her acting process thereafter. “Meron akong character[s] before na pinalabas siya sa kung saan pinanggalingan nung piyesa and mas naiyak ako doon. Mas genuine for me kapag sinabi nila na magaling ka.”

After college, Agoto consciously exited her comfort zone in the hopes of expanding her horizons — from traveling with children’s theater productions in places like Bicol and being a stage manager at a Virgin Labfest production to working in real estate and even becoming one of the writers of “FPJ’s Batang Quiapo.”

In Gian Arre’s “Tether,” Agoto gives life to the increasingly unhinged and vengeful Kate after a one-night stand emotionally binds her to a womanizer. Still courtesy of GIAN ARRE

“Marami akong pwedeng paghugutan na mga tao na nakakasama at nakakasalamuha ko dahil sa mga character na iyon kasi close to reality ‘yung mga character na iyon,” says Agoto.

After a series of rejections from Cinemalaya in the late 2010s, Agoto found a way into the industry by acting in music videos such as Nikki Nava’s “Secrets.” With more experience under her belt, she starred in a series of award-nominated short films including Jan Andrei Cobey’s satirical mockumentary “The Slums,” which was nominated at the 2019 Cinema One Originals Film Festival and the 2020 Cinemalaya Film Festival and takes advantage of Agoto’s ability to play up her dissatisfaction. In Mike Cabarles’ dreamlike drama "Naraniag A Bulan," which was nominated at the 2020 QCinema International Film Festival, her expressive face gives body to imperceptible grief.

But it is Rafael Manuel’s Silver Bear-winning short “Filipiñana” that earned Agoto international attention, especially as its success hinges on the subtleties of her performance. Playing Isabel, a tee girl working in the oppressive trappings of a Philippine golf course, Agoto is arresting in her stoicism, her neutral face a Rubik’s cube to be solved amidst a background of excess and privilege. The performance is more impressive when one meets Agoto in person — she is bubbly and has a self-confessed tendency to ramble, a clear contrast to characters she is often tasked to play.

Agoto’s prior work in short films buoyed any anxieties brought by the daunting task of starring in a feature-length film and it seems she has no interest in abandoning the short film format. “Walang masyadong pressure [in acting for shorts] kasi kasabay mo silang nag-go-grow throughout the process of making the film. Never pa ata akong nagka-project na hindi ako tinanong kung anong tingin ko,” says Agoto. “Hindi lang ako talking props. For me, this next generation of filmmakers, mas open sila to collaboration. ‘Yung direktor mismo kinukulayan ka niya at may mga piyesa rin siyang binibigay para mag-iba ‘yung hugis nung character na binubuo niyo.”

“Tether” intimidated Agoto because it challenged her on two fronts: the first, her ability to act out mixed emotions shared by her and Mikoy Morales’ Eric, and the second, its intimate scenes which required nudity. Upon the suggestion of hair and makeup artist Jopie Sanchez, Arre and executive producer Rea Robles brought in intimacy coordinator Missy Maramara to assuage any worries and to help make Agoto and the rest of the team feel safe while filming. On the other hand, “When This Is All Over” required Agoto to make the interactions between her and JK Labajo’s The Guy truthful despite the class separation of the characters. The ease with which Agoto shifted from Kate to Rosemarie and back to Kate in between the shoots was largely thanks to her ability to compartmentalize, the supportive environments, and the specificity with which she details her relationships with her scene partner.

“Never kong naging isyu ‘yung skin ko o ‘yung mukha ko. Sa tingin ko, ito ‘yung isa sa mga strength ko. Never kong naging issue na: ‘Bakit ako laging [kina-cast bilang] mahirap?’ Kasi mahirap naman talaga tayo sa Pilipinas!"

In a Meisner acting class late last year with actress Angeli Bayani, Agoto learned to return the energies of her scene partners, allowing her to match the toxic energy of Morales’ Eric and the light-hearted banter of Labajo’s The Guy without expending herself or her co-actors. “Hindi talaga ako gumagamit ng personal traumas ko,” says Agoto. “Para kasi sa akin, enough na ‘yung struggle nung character na binuo ng director and writer na obstacles. Sabi sa akin ni Miss A[ngeli] na magaling raw ako gumawa ng imaginary circumstances. Pero ‘yung downfall is masyado akong naiiwan in my head na hindi ko na napapansin ‘yung nangyayari sa scene partners ko.”

Agoto is regularly teased by friends and filmmakers that the only festival she hasn’t had a film at is Cannes. But when asked what's next for her, she has different hopes: to penetrate the mainstream film and television scene to embody more of the everyday Filipino struggle. “Never kong naging isyu ‘yung skin ko o ‘yung mukha ko. Sa tingin ko, ito ‘yung isa sa mga strength ko. Never kong naging issue na: ‘Bakit ako laging [kina-cast bilang] mahirap?’ Kasi mahirap naman talaga tayo sa Pilipinas!" says Agoto, laughing. "Okay lang sa akin ma-perceive [na] mahirap. Pero gusto ko maging lead na ‘mahirap’. Gusto ko siyang baliin. Gusto ko siyang wasakin.”


‘Tether’ and ‘When This Is All Over’ premiered at the 2023 Cinemalaya Film Festival and will be screening at Cinematheque Centers across the country from August 26 to 31.