Broadway Icon Lea Salonga Opens Up About Her First Big-Screen Movie in 20 Years (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
When Lea Salonga last starred in a live-action movie, it was more than two decades ago, when she led the little-seen 1995 Filipino romantic drama, Sana Maulit Muli (I Wish It Happens Again). Perhaps more famous for her accomplishments on the stage (she won the Tony in 1991 for Miss Saigon) and in the recording booth (she was the singing voice for Mulan's titular heroine and Aladdin's Jasmine, as well as a successful artist in her own right), Salonga returns this year to the big screen in Yellow Rose. A timely indie film centered on a Filipino teen, Rose (Tony-nominated newcomer Eva Noblezada), the story takes shape when her ambitious aspirations of becoming a country singer are threatened in the face of possible deportation.
"It's a nice way to ease back into making movies again and whetted my appetite to do more film work," Salonga, 48, told ET recently during an off day on her current world tour. "I'm not going to be chomping at the bit necessarily -- it seems live performances are where my bread and butter is, but I really enjoyed the process of making this movie."
In Yellow Rose, which makes its world premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Thursday (and arrives at the start of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month), Salonga plays Rose's hard-edged aunt, Gail, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, married an American and "had to do her own hustle to legalize her own status." Though Salonga only worked on the film for two days, the story and the real-world context surrounding it made Salonga's time on the production, albeit brief, extremely worthwhile.
"I think when Filipinos and Filipino Americans come to see this movie, they're all going to be like, 'Yep, we've got that one relative,' and that happens to be the relative I get to play," she said. "Her backstory is something that a lot of those who have immigrated to this country can relate to. We don't know the bullets that she's had to bite. We don't know the hoops that she may have had to jump through in her own life and the kind of protection she needed to exercise in order to survive."
Salonga noted that Gail is by no means perfect, some of which she acknowledged is a product of her experience starting anew. "I try to play her as sympathetically as I can, and at the end of the day, she is not a bad human, but she has her own stuff that she needs to take care of as well."
"Ultimately, I said yes to the script because it was something that felt so timely and relevant, given so much of what's happening with regards to immigration debates and legislation and border patrol," Salonga explained. "I think it's fantastic that a movie like this, where it shows a human component of this whole debate, is really taken into consideration and really placed at the forefront. The movie doesn't take a political stance either way. It's a very human story, but it does show the process of what happens when somebody is deported, when somebody gets arrested by ICE -- even with the officers from ICE, we see human beings. Nobody's a two-dimensional caricature."
There is one poignant moment in the film that continues to resonate with Salonga, who splits her time between her native Philippines and the States, for its cultural significance and impact.
"One thing [director] Diane [Paragas] wanted me to do was sing a Filipino song. It's called 'Dahil Sa Iyo,' a song that has transcended music and it's become an integral part of Filipino culture," she shared. (Some consider the popular love song to be the unofficial anthem for the Philippines.) "Younger Filipinos or Filipino Americans have probably heard an elder or an aunt or a relative sing this to them -- and that I sing this, it is something that brings the family together. Rose is tied to her mother with that song and when she hears her aunt singing to her own daughter, it strikes something in her heart because of the connection that she has to it. It's interesting how music in this movie weaves a thread and a through line and that's how it connects people together, even if they may not always get along."
And Yellow Rose, coincidence or not, brought together Salonga and Noblezada, who both played Kim in the Broadway musical, Miss Saigon, though nearly 30 years apart. (Noblezada was nominated for a Tony in 2017 for her performance in the Miss Saigon revival, while Salonga won for originating the role in 1991.)
"It was really remarkable getting to work with her and I think people are going to be bowled over by the work she has done in this movie," Salonga praised Noblezada, who makes her feature film debut with Yellow Rose, and recently received her second Tony nomination for Broadway's hit musical, Hadestown. "I told her, 'Your life is going to change when this movie comes out and I think your managers and reps are going to have to be -- they better prepare to be busy. You'd better prepare to be busy because this is going to be something.'"
With the influx of Asian stories currently dominating the Hollywood conversation, Salonga expressed optimism over the wave of interest in previously sidelined filmmakers, storytellers and talent.
"It seems to be our time. It's like our Black Panther moment," she mused. "When film studios are recognizing that stories from people of color actually do well at the box office because they are going to be people of color who are going to want to see themselves represented onscreen and are going to want to hear stories from people just like them. It's something that makes a lot of sense. That our voices are not being silenced and that we're actually getting heard and getting seen."
"It's great for another generation of young Asian Americans to see faces that look like theirs on screen and hopefully give them this inspirational push to tell more stories later on. It's exciting and it's nice to be able to witness this as it's happening and to be in the thick of it as it's happening. This is amazing, it truly is."
But Salonga acknowledged the challenges that await to ensure that this post-Crazy Rich Asians moment isn't just that, a moment.
"I don't know that there is an easy answer to it.The only thing we can do is keep on creating more stories and to not take this moment for granted and to keep grinding away and to keep writing and still keep filming and bringing specific points of view out to the public for people to see. I'm hoping that people find Yellow Rose and other movies like it to be something that they can relate to even though their skin color may not reflect that of the actors on the screen," Salonga said.
"Crazy Rich Asians, it's only Asian people. There was a Filipino actor, there's Chinese, Asian American, Malaysian... We have all of these different Asians coming together to create this film, which turned out to be something that so many people ended up wanting to see. I'm hoping that whatever the story, whatever the experience, because there are so many different ones that people watch and go, 'Oh, so this is actually what's happening,' and there are so many different points of view that are not always portrayed."
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Yellow Rose premieres Thursday, May 2 at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Salonga's world tour, Lea Salonga: The Human Heart, wraps in London, England, on Sunday, July 21.