This article was originally written by Mario Cornejo as a cover story for Rogue Magazine, October 2016 issue. There’s also an adorable video of Annicka that comes with it.
She’s a little smaller than you think. No matter how often I see her, she’s always smaller than I think she is.
I first met Annicka in 2011 at a party that was aptly called The Great Cinema Party. It was a gathering of filmmakers, critics, educators and artists that was being filmed at Casa San Miguel by Raya Martin, the cinematic wunderkind. He eventually turned that party into a movie because of course he did.
“Who’s that girl?” I asked. The girl in question was laughing and dancing, flirting and just being young and beautiful.
“That’s Annicka. She’s the future of Philippine cinema,” said Raya. He’d used that line before to me referring to six or seven different people. But still, I took notice.
Later that night, the party moved to the beach. Around a hundred filmmakers and artists lay on the sand under the moon. Annicka took off her clothes and walked into the water in her underwear. Nobody was looking at the sky.
It turned out I had seen Annicka act before in a film I liked very much. Aureus Solito’s PISAY was about young kids in Philippine Science High School and Annicka played a studious young love interest, Wena. Annicka was great in it, but nothing about that performance reminded me of this free spirit swimming in the dark night waters, her white skin flashing in the moonlight as she laughed and dove below, breaking the surface only when we drunk and high onlookers were sure she was drowning.
Years later, my partner Monster Jimenez and I were writing a movie called APOCALYPSE CHILD. We needed a character who was young, who was youth. “Like who?” Monster asked me. “Kind of like Annicka,” I said. “Annicka like when we met her.” Monster understood immediately.
So we wrote the character of Fiona, a 19 year-old balikbayan. Fiona arrives into the surf town of Baler and immediately catches the eye of Ford, a surf instructor just past his own youth, in his early thirties. Ford has been the star surfer of Baler his entire life, but as he crosses the line of just past his prime, he finds himself stuck in the role of the young surfing prodigy and the supposed love child of American director Francis Ford Coppola.
“This particular girl really should resonate with him,” I told Monster. “He wants to move his life forward, and this girl should make him feel like he might actually do it this time.”
I needed a character who can make life seem possible. “If only we could cast Annicka from five years ago,” Monster said.
When we finally finished the script and started casting, we saw all manner of young girls. Some of them were really good actors who did a good job on auditions. But they weren’t quite Annicka. We needed a 19 year old, the age was a major part of the story, and while we had heard that Annicka had played a high school student just the year before, she didn’t seem like a viable option at 26 years old.
‘Let’s bring her in,’ I said. ‘Just let her read. She probably won’t work anymore, but what can it hurt?’
So she came in to audition, smaller than I remembered. She looked great.
‘You look great,’ I said. She smiled.
‘Thanks!’ she said.
I told her about her character, Fiona. In my mind, Fiona was this young, beautiful girl who had never really been hurt, because that was what I thought happened to young, beautiful girls. Monster and I handed her the script and had her read with Vives, our assistant director.
Most times when you have a reading, you’re only hoping for a sense that the actor will be able to handle the role, may have something unique to contribute. If you’re really lucky, you see a spark of life in the words as they’re spoken.
It was clear to everyone in the room that we had our Fiona. Marks on paper turned into a moment, a real moment, when she read the words.
Annicka isn’t different when she acts. She doesn’t become someone else. She just becomes herself, but more so. There’s somehow more of her, and no matter how wide the shot, her essence fills the screen. And when the scene is over, you turn the camera off and there she is, smaller than you think.
We brought her in to read with other actors, and one day it was time for her to read with our lead actor, Sid Lucero who we had cast as Ford. It was a chemistry test of sorts. Ford and Fiona had to be completely comfortable with each other, so the actors had to really get along. For example, in one scene Fiona does a headstand while naked, just to make a point. And you really have to be comfortable with someone before you do a naked handstand with them.
Sid and Annicka’s initial reading did not have the naked handstand scene. It was a simple dialogue scene and in it Fiona only had three lines. But the scene played beautifully. When Annicka left the room later, Sid just pointed to the door, and astonished look on his face.
‘Did you see her?’ he asked, dumbfounded.
With three lines, Annicka had won him over completely.
As our workshops and rehearsals wore on, Monster and I got to know Annicka better. And we saw how much she was adding to the character. And we realized that as much as we liked Fiona, we loved where Annicka was taking the character more. There was so much similar between Fiona and Annicka, the freedom of her movement, the sheer joy of life in her. But Annicka was funnier, and her laugh was light and infectious. And unlike Fiona, Annicka had a real past, had experienced real pain.
Apocalypse Child was about people stuck in their stories, and how their past controls them to this day. In my mind, the other characters, damaged people, were going to hurt a young innocent girl, like chemical waste burns a flower, destroying what’s pure around it.
It was too easy a characterization, and Annicka was bringing a more nuanced role.
‘What if it’s not about damaged people ruining a young girl?’ I said to Monster one day. ‘What if we have four characters stuck in their pasts, unable to move on from their stories, and this one young girl who has moved on, the only one who was willing to change?’
We called Annicka and asked to meet her that night. She was having dinner with her sister, but said we could have coffee outside the restaurant.
‘What’s up?’ she asked. She smiled.
‘I need your permission,’ I said. ‘I want to change your character to be more like you, but I was thinking of using some of your past.’
Like what, she said. I asked about the scars on her arms and legs. Well, she said. What do you want to know?
We talked about what made her think of doing this to herself in her youth. I wanted to know what she thought of herself now, years later.
I was scared, and she was so, so open. She seemed nervous, but reassuring. I wondered whether I was doing the right thing.
‘I haven’t known you too long,’ she said. ‘But I trust you. Go ahead.’
Beautiful girls get exploited. All the time. I felt the burden of that trust. I remembered that this was the same girl I first saw, so willing to jump into the dark waters while everyone else watched.
In the first dialogue scene in the film, Ford runs his fingers over Fiona’s scars.
‘You can ask,’ Fiona says.
‘Ikaw ba ‘to?’ Ford asks.
‘Did I do that? No, some other girl did that to herself,’ Fiona answers.
That scene, born out of those intimate conversations between Annicka and myself, established Fiona’s character completely. No more backstory was necessary, and Ford’s responsibility to be careful with this young girl was clear to the characters and the audience.
That collaboration with Annicka made me braver, more willing to try things. She has that effect. That first adjustment set the tone for the rest of the shoot, and we started to do the same thing with our other actors.
Annicka has had an interesting life, to put it mildly. And like Fiona, she’s been hurt by people who should have been more careful with her. But she’ll still look you in the eye and tell you she trusts you.
Apocalypse Child was shot entirely in Baler, Aurora. It’s a beautiful, magical surf town where Francis Ford Coppola shot the surfing scenes of the classic film APOCALYPSE NOW. Local legend has it that when that film wrapped, they left a surfboard prop behind floating in the ocean. Five local boys used that board and taught themselves to surf, becoming the first Philippine surfing champions. When shooting on our film began, the entire cast and crew fell under the spell of Baler, maybe Annicka most of all. She committed completely to her character, which manifested most obviously in two ways.
First off, she decided that Fiona wouldn’t bathe very often, so she decided not to bathe unless absolutely necessary. In the hot Baler sun, Annicka soon had a five-foot olfactory force field. As gorgeous as she was, nobody in the crew wanted to get that close to her.
But there was one person who wasn’t thrown off by her scent. I think he reveled in it. And this brings us to the second way that Annicka was committing to Fiona’s character.
As we watched Ford and Fiona fall in love in Baler, it soon became apparent to the entire production that something was happening between Annicka and Sid as well. Their eyes lit up when they saw each other, and they soon were inseparable.
I didn’t confront them directly about what was happening, but I didn’t have to. Sometimes they made some noises about their closeness being part of their acting process but it felt like bullshit to everyone. We knew what love looked like.
One night, after a few drinks, I said as much as I felt I had a right to.
‘Annicka. Be careful with yourself,’ I said. ‘At the end of this shoot, you’ll have to go home.’
She nodded. She knew what I meant, though it was obvious she didn’t know what would happen to her future either. Set romances are common enough, but there was something more happening between her and Sid.
By the end of the production, I had witnessed some amazing performances from all of our actors, and not least from Annicka. She was raw and real, a pure actor. One of my favorite scenes in the film consists of a single shot of Fiona in the dark. She says two lines and breaks my heart, even though her back is to us and we’re thirty feet away.
Soon enough, it was time to say goodbye. The wrap party in Baler was fueled by too much alcohol, and that was my first experience with fun-drunk Annicka. Much later, I’d meet not-fun-anymore-drunk Annicka. But for this particular night, things were great.
‘You don’t know how much this experience has changed me,’ she said. I hoped things would work out for her.
Months later, Apocalypse Child was finally finished and showed at the QCinema Film Festival, where it won Best Film and a few other awards including Best Supporting Actress for Annicka.
Since then the film has had it’s share of critical success, competing in film festivals in places like Italy, New York and Korea with upcoming festivals in Poland, Toronto and Laos. We’ve also had some local success with seven Gawad Urian nominations and nine Film Academy nominations, the bulk of those being for acting. Our five main actors, Sid Lucero, Annicka Dolonius, Gwen Zamora, RK Bagatsing and Ana Abad Santos made our film what it is and deserve every nomination and award they have coming to them.
They proved to me that old adage that 90% of directing actors is casting.
I’ve become closer to all of the actors since the shoot, and I’m thrilled at all the success they’ve had. But as far as their personal lives are concerned, there’s one success story that brings me more relief than joy.
One year later, Sid Lucero and Annicka Dolonius are still together, and if you want to liven up a party, you can’t do better than inviting them to your festival event or birthday party. They still look at each other like they did when they were playing Ford and Fiona, and it’s still obvious to everyone how in love they are.
I called her and asked to meet recently.
‘What’s up?’ she asked. They want me to write about you, I said. About how I met you, what it was like to work with you. But I’ve gotten to know you, maybe too well, and I wanted to know how much I can say.
She looked at me, nervous but smiling. She took a deep breath. She dove in like she always does, braver than she ought to be.
‘Write what you like,’ she said. ‘I trust you.’