You do not know Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino. Yet you’ve seen her often on television and in film. She’s that archetype of a mother in the soap opera factory, as she might be the secondary character we forget in that recent rom-com. You might remember her as the mother of Basha in One More Chance, in that one scene where she asks if Basha’s okay—“kung kaya pa ba ang heartbreak kay Popoy.” She is also the mother of Teptep in Maybe This Time, the one who for most of the film is inexplicably disapproving of her daughter, but who breaks apart as a mother who forgives, and understands and loves.
Of course you are wont to forget her, or imagine her to be the every-actress whose name you do not know, and whose face—when you see her in another film, another TV show—you will remember but can’t quite place. That this is the way the cultural system has created us into an audience goes without saying.
That Centenera has an enviable body of work in theater, and holds the reputation of being one of very few actors who can breathe life into any role at all, is the ironic twist to this story. And tragically so.
The joke is on us of course.
Because Centenera herself is devoid of any delusions about her stature as an actress, even with an Asian Film Award for Best Actress tucked under her belt among many other achievements. Any other actress would be over the moon and having her own press releases written (and believing them, too) in a grand display of a bloated ego. But Centenera is one to put things in perspective about what was called her “prime” as an actress in 2012 given her numerous awards for the film Niño.
“That’s only because I hit the front page, and it was an international award,” she says. “And during that time Eugene [Domingo] was there, so it made a bigger splash. That was just being lucky. Being in the right place at the right time.”
If anything, the award meant better roles on television, a medium that operates on a different set of rules from theater. “Major yung makakuha ka ng award sa Hong Kong kasi naging medyo importante rin yung mga roles ko sa television. It became markedly important,” Centenera smiles. “I knew then that Niño placed my name in the hierarchy of the pool of talents. Naitaas ako do’n.”
It was strange hearing someone with Centenera’s body of work speaking like winning an award was a practicality—one that merely allowed her to climb up the TV and movie ladder. She laughs, “Ganon talaga. Kasi parang nagbubukas sila ng catalogue eh. O ito hindi natin yan kilala, huwag na ‘yan. O ito nanalo na raw ito ng award! Try nga natin ‘yan!”
The laughter we shared could of course only be ironic. But this actress is very clear about the media systems she works with, and is just grateful that she is at the point when her achievements are enough to warrant jobs across TV and film, independent and otherwise.
Beyond the starving artist
It took Centenera a while to get here of course, and it’s really no different from any artist who struggles between the need to earn money and the lure of one’s passion. Choices had to be made, especially when her four children with husband and fellow actor Nonie Buencamino were younger.
“Right after graduating from college, my husband and I went to Tanghalang Pilipino and became company members. But I got pregnant, and we were receiving P3,000 a month then, so imposible [to raise a family]. Showbiz was the option, pero mahirap pumasok sa pelikula kasi noon kailangan named actors,” Centenera recalls. This was in the late ‘80s, when she also realized that unlike in theater where her credibility was being cemented by consistent critically acclaimed performances and important roles, getting film and TV work required that she get herself a manager.
That didn’t mean getting jobs though, and Centenera tried to stay and work in theater full time. But there were urgencies more important than her passion, and working as an assistant director in advertising would pay for her share of the bills. One imagines this was such a dramatic artist-in-crisis moment for Centenera, but it seems gratefulness saw her through that time, too.
“Half of the time when I was directing actors for a commercial, I’d ask myself why am I directing? Why am I not the one acting? Nakaka-depress, but only toward the end, because I really appreciated the fact that it earned me the money,” she reflects. As timing would have it, things started falling into place and the universe conspired and allowed her to imagine diving head-on into freelance work as an actress.
“The one main reason I decided to go back full time as an actress is because my eldest daughter Delphine said she’d be happy to receive a pair of socks for Christmas as long as I was doing the work that I liked.
She was in high school then, and she knew that giving up your art is a very unhappy thing,” Centenera explains. “At that time we were more or less secure already, the kids were in school, we had some savings, and Nonie had work that was tuluy-tuloy, and so he was supportive and said that I could stop [with advertising work]and go into theater and take that risk. Because it was really a risk, to give up that kind of money, and not know if you’ll have projects as a freelancer.”
It would also be the right time to take the risk, having put in the work and climbing very slowly up the ladder of the mainstream industries. “Nag-decide lang ako to become an actress full time nung yung suweldo ko as an actress, kapantay na nung suweldo as an assistant director. It took a long time. Mga 15 years.”
Yet one must consider how Centenera started out: “I went up the ladder slowly on TV. At first I was given one-scene roles. They would call me at 7 a.m., and then makukunan ako the next day at 6 or 7 a.m. I would wait the whole time and I didn’t complain then because it was something that I wanted to get into.” This was also in the ‘80s.
Now almost with a steady string of soap operas and TV dramas, Centenera is still one to put things in perspective. She remains appreciative of the role a manager plays because “mahirap magbenta ng sarili,” and asked about what allowed for her “rise” in TV and film, she responds: “I think they were seeing that I could do roles okay. Okay naman yung acting ko yata.”
We laugh yet again.
Beyond risky behavior
“When I decided I’d go full time as an actress, there was a time I’d do five theater productions in a year. Kasi I wanted to act, pero wala naman akong job sa TV or the movies. Kailangan ko panindigan yung desisyon na acting kung acting, and I didn’t want to be lured back into the money of Ad work,” Centenera says. “So I made sure I was busy.”
As the archetypal mother roles on TV and mainstream film began pouring in, one would imagine a complaint or two about being typecast, but Centenera is not one to look down on any role. It could be because these pay the bills, but also it’s because she looks positively upon these experiences. She values the acting work she gets as long as it’s something she can sink her teeth into and something that she can still learn from.
That includes working in the soap opera factory on TV. “Some scripts are good and the work becomes very exciting. On TV you get to work with more actors and new directors, and some are really good. And even the veteran directors are working on TV, so you get to work with them, too.”
Centenera has rationalized it all, and knows this space that she navigates like the back of her hand. There are no apologias, no pretensions. There is openness to experience. Asked about what she does when she needs to work with actors who don’t know how to act: “You persevere,” she laughs. “You try to do your best. You draw them into your world, into your truth. Sometimes you encourage them to throw lines with you immediately. Tapos kapag hindi na ‘ko nakakatiis, binubulungan ko, ‘Why don’t you try this, or try that’.”
She also finds that there is openness in many young actors, which is a good thing. Centenera is one to like criticism. “Maybe I learned it through school. I always liked reading books on acting and theater, and I would learn when I did these exercises on my own. And so parang na-equate ko doon na you can always learn something new, so I’d welcome people telling me to try something. I like being criticized.”
But that’s not always an easy thing to get in the small world of local theater where everyone knows everyone, and honest criticism is hard to come by. “That’s why it’s so hard. Because [people]don’t want to say anything negative, especially if everyone’s all praises,” Centenera agrees. “So you have a few friends that you trust, and I would ask Nonie to watch me to give me criticism. Because it’s hard since you can’t see yourself eh. You only base it on how you feel, and sometimes you feel good, but it’s bad pala.”
And even when it’s all good, there is an insistence on being better—a lesson it seems for every actor and actress, young and old, in theater and film and TV, who might fall into the trap of contentment. Or “yabang.”
“I always think that there’s room for improvement. Even if you think you’re wonderful in your role, there’s always something you can improve on.”
In many ways, Centenera seems like that actress who is ahead of her time, or out of place, in a country where the word “actress” is equated with billboards and magazine covers, lead roles in soap operas and mainstream films. Within the larger system of local culture where mentorship is a rarity and bloated egos are the norm, Centenera is even more valuable.
“My attitude with directors—and I tell my students this—is that you have to try everything that the director tells you first. You cannot be saying, no I know that this won’t work. Try what the director asks of you, and if it doesn’t work, then you bring in your own thing,” she explains. “There’s a hierarchy in theater—the actress can’t be above the director. In theater, there’s that discipline. That’s why in theater, there’s hardly a star system. Even those actors who do lead roles, they still know their place. Theater is where you learn that discipline.”
And it is this discipline interwoven with her own creativities that is in much of her work. In 2012 she was the female lead Ester in Stageshow, which she played opposite her husband’s Tirso. Buencamino’s Tirso is the right amount of swagger and macho through most of the narrative, whose turn into compassionate and regretful is so convincing, that you forgive. Centenera-Buencamino’s Ester meanwhile is a woman with a mission: that is, to tell this story, carry it on her shoulders, stomp her feet to the beat, rock it like there’s no tomorrow. She takes on this character, and does not only do justice to its evolution, but even more so to its humanity—the ability to forgive, and ultimately to love, is at the core of this portrayal. To say that the Buencamino couple was brilliant is a failure in itself.
In 2014 she starred in the indie film Lorna, about a single woman in her 60s who Centenera refused to paint as a loser. “The driving force of this film is Centenera as Lorna, who ran with the character, shifting from the fantastic to the real, the humorous to the painful, with such certainty and brevity. With her, there is no wasted moment in this movie, nothing that feels out of sync or out of place as far as telling Lorna’s story is concerned. Every glint in her eye, each smile on her lips, every puff of smoke, each and every word created Lorna into the every Pinay we all should know is valuable to see in local film. Because hers is a confidence that is about the weight in her step, her self-assurance comes from many things other than being attached to a man.”
Centenera began her 2015 working on the play Juego de Peligro, an adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, where she plays Señora Margarita and imbues the manipulative nature of the character with a surprising humanity. Centenera navigates this character with a deft hand, refusing to make it into mere antagonist, and coloring it with every hue of feminist ahead of its time, her final unraveling in the privacy of her bedroom included.
Theater and beyond
It seems that more than just the discipline of theater, it is the life she lives within it that has dictated upon the kind of person that Centenera is. Watching her at rehearsals for Juego de Peligro, her generosity is what one sees as the cast grapples with the material and goes through the lines to be memorized, the moves to be remembered, the space to be navigated. She laughs with the younger cast members, spends time creating a connection between herself and her leading man.
She also finds relevance in what she does, creating a universe that is far larger than what is on that stage, because she is conscious about the choices she makes, and why these are important at a given point in time.
“I want to do work that matters of course. Parang nakakahiya naman to do otherwise,” she says. “Art mirrors society di’ba, and I think, and this is what happens to me, when you watch a play or film or sometimes TV—it’s faster for you to realize something because you feel, you think, it hits you in so many places. Ang realization mo about your humanity, about other people, your values, you learn in the act of watching.”
There is also courageousness in theater that to Centenera does not always happen for film and TV, the kind that makes it constantly relevant to nation. “I cannot imagine doing just film or TV, because theater is the food for your soul. It’s what makes me feel human.”
Which explains why when asked about the year 2012, which was considered as her “golden year” because of the awards she won for the film Niño, she asked: “Bakit? Anong nangyari no’n?” It’s not to undervalue the award, as it was to value more important things. “I remember more that year that I did five theater productions, because I was working so hard, moving from one character to another.”
Asked about being considered as theater royalty, she brushes it off because “wala namang royalty sa Pilipinas” and rattles of a list of actors with bodies of work that are akin to hers: Nonie Buencamino, Audie Gemora, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Ana Abad Santos, Frances Makil-Ignacio.
One realizes that what might be extraordinary about this actress is not just her generosity and humility, as it is her humanity. She operates on kindness and compassion, as she does on self-effacement. Because she can be better, there is no reason to rest on her laurels.
I first remember seeing Centenera on stage in Madonna Brava in 2009, about which I had written: “Centenera’s acting affects you with a depth that can only come from real actresses—the ones who are real people too, and get affected by the world(s) around them, the worlds that they speak of through the tiny space of the theater.”
One finds that this holds true six years hence. One also finds that while we cannot live on passion alone, Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino seems pretty close to doing exactly that.
Now if only this nation knew how lucky it is to have her.