Inquirer Super

Jon Jon Briones on “Ratched,” being part of the Ryan Murphy universe and bringing the Philippines to Hollywood

By: Pam Pastor

Hollywood producer, screenwriter and director Ryan Murphy, the man behind shows like “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “Pose,” “The Politician” and many others, is known not just for discovering fresh talent but also cultivating relationships with his favorite actors and casting them in his projects over and over again. The stellar list of actors who have become part of the Ryan Murphy universe include Sarah Paulson, Jessica Lange, Dennis O’ Hare, Evan Peters, Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy, Angela Bassett, Lily Rabe, Finn Wittrock, Dylan McDermott, Emma Roberts, Darren Criss, Patti LuPone, Jim Parsons and now, Jon Jon Briones.

The Filipino actor, whose international career started when he played the Engineer in the original West End production of Miss Saigon, first worked with Murphy in his brief but memorable role as Modesto Cunanan, the father of Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) in “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” That same year, Murphy cast him as Ariel Augustus in the “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” the popular show’s eighth season.

This time, in “Ratched,” which has been Netflix’s number one show in over 50 countries since it started streaming last month, Briones plays Dr. Richard Hanover—a role Murphy had written specially for him. “When Ryan asks you to do something, you say yes to it because you know it’s gonna be a good project, it’s gonna be a good experience,” Briones told Super in a lengthy and delightful phone interview.

In the series, which Briones considers his biggest Hollywood project yet, he shares the screen with a great cast that includes Sarah Paulson, Judy Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Sharon Stone and more.

We talked to Briones about the show, working with Ryan Murphy and his costars, and representing the Philippines in Hollywood.

Why did you want to be part of this project?

Well, I was asked by Ryan to be in it. He’s a genius when it comes to innovation. And so to be part of it is just a gift.

As Dr. Hanover
He wrote the role for you, right?

Yes. We were at the Emmys after party, after Darren Criss and “American Crime Story” won those awards. He told me, “Jon, you’re going to be happy about this character that I wrote for you. He’s a brilliant doctor and he has a lot of monologues.” And I went, “Oh.” Because you know, English is my second language. I was like, okay, I need to memorize this. I need to work on this.

What’s it like being part of the Ryan Murphy universe and what’s it like working with him?

When you show up on set with him, you know that everything is possible and that he has something that you’re going to be part of that is gonna be so special. Because his vision, like I said, there’s nothing like it. The way his mind works is just amazing. And also, the writing is so great that you know it’s going to be a good project. At the same time, he makes sure that he gives you all the resources, everything to succeed—be it the set, your fellow actors. It’s quite an experience and I recommend all actors to work with Ryan Murphy. He’s a genius. He’s a wonderful artist.

How did you prepare for the role?

I read the script which is amazing. It’s quite a task especially for me because this is the biggest thing I’ve done so far. And for Ryan to trust me to do this, to play this role, it’s quite a trip. It’s an amazing opportunity. So I did a lot of research, especially about mental health issues during the 1940s, I watched a lot of videos, I read a lot of articles about doctors during that time, especially this Portuguese doctor António Egas Moniz who discovered lobotomy. But you know, the thing is even if you prepare for this and study and learn, once you show up on set, things can change, for the better, of course, especially when you’re up against Sarah Paulson who’s a wonderful artist and such a giving actor.

With Judy Davis who plays Nurse Betsy Bucket
We do see the history of mental illness in the show and how it was treated in the 1940s and how things like being a lesbian was classified as a mental illness. Was there anything that surprised you during your research?

In a way it’s surprising but at the same time it’s not because things were stacked against women back in those days. Reading that scene where the husband places his wife in a mental institution because she was in love with another woman was just horrible, but at the same time we go, “Yeah but these men were able to get away with this during those times, because they can do whatever they want.” And I think that’s what the show has shown so well, the writers especially specifically, how women were treated back in those days. And Ryan even said that this is going to be a beautiful feminist story. And it is. He hired these wonderful actresses. Sarah Paulson, Sophie Okonedo, Sharon Stone, Cynthia Nixon, Judy Davis. Showing up on set with them is like showing up in a candy store.

There are some really powerful women on the cast. What was it like working with that phenomenal cast?

Amazing. With Sarah, of course you before you start filming there’s always that feeling of intimidation because she’s done this so many times and she’s an amazing actress. But at the same time she puts you at ease once you start working with her because she’s such a wonderful human being. She’s actually so funny. She’s a really funny human being. Sophie, I’m sure you’ve seen our scenes together, she’s a another giving, very generous actress. Every time we would do a scene together, even when the camera is not on her, she gives you everything she has. And with the amount of work that that was given to her in the show, she did it so amazingly. I’m a big fan of Judy Davis and we got to dance together. And of course my scene with Sharon Stone, Sharon “Basic Instinct” Stone. She’s also a wonderful, wonderful person.

Your scenes get really intense. How was the atmosphere on set?

It’s a fun set. This is what’s so beautiful about the Ryan Murphy world. It’s not just the actors, it’s everyone. The camera people, the gaffer people, the the crew, the makeup, the wigs people, crafts services. Everyone. It’s like the prerequisite to being hired in Ryan’s world is you have to be a good human being. It’s a fun set. I made friends with a lot of our crew and our cast. It just makes it easier to come to work, which makes it not work anymore. It’s fun. It’s criminal, actually, that you’re getting paid to do this.

A scene with Sarah Paulson who plays Mildred Ratched
We need to talk about that dancing scene. What was it like shooting it?

That was in the fifth episode. We were filming the fourth episode and Judy and I during our lunch break would go to rehearsal with a choreographer and we would rehearse the whole sequence which was fun. We had so much fun together. Filming it, Judy and I, we would just go for it and then we would just lose our ourselves in it. But every time we would cut, we couldn’t breathe, the two of us would be sucking air. They would blast this air-conditioning in front of me to dry me up and the makeup and the wigs people would have to retouch my my wig because the glue is coming off. They had to wait for me, they had to wait for the glue to set. Judy Davis, she’s amazing.

The sets were also so beautiful that hospital is gorgeous. It’s such a visual feast for audiences. What was it like to actually be there?

On my first day of filming, I asked the PA if I can see my office because I wanted to be able to inhabit it and look like I’d been going to this office for years. I needed to be more comfortable there. I was picturing a small office and then I saw it, it was bigger than my house and it was so beautiful. The ceilings were high. In a way, it’s like Ryan wants to dwarf his actors, that the world is bigger than they are, and how those characters maneuver their way throughout that world. The way he puts his troubled, flawed characters in this beautiful setting is I think genius because you enhance the conflict in in each character by showing the juxtaposition of their characters in the settings.

I love how fascinating the character of Dr. Hanover is. Apart from the fact that he does have secrets, he’s a nuanced and complex character. I like your use of the word inhabit—how did you inhabit the character and make him come to life?

I think it’s just trusting the script, and trusting the director and trusting Ryan’s vision in this and also doing your research. I think it helps as well that my character is Filipino. I’m so happy that they acknowledged the Filipino body in this character because that made it easier for me to to relate to it. I mean, he’s done a lot of horrible things but I needed to like this person. I needed to like this character and being Filipino himself and an immigrant, it made it a little a little easier. Inhabiting the world, his world, made it easier because of the other characters, the brilliant actors made it easier and just the writing and just being true to yourself and trusting that you’re in good hands with the director and everyone around you.

Jon Jon Briones as Dr. Richard Hanover
How does it feel to be bringing the Philippines to Hollywood? We’re so proud of you.

I’m so glad to hear that. One of my biggest purpose is to represent us there. That’s what’s happening in Hollywood right now which is great. Representation is ramping up but at the same time, there aren’t a lot of Filipino characters because the default for most parts are Chinese or Japanese or Korean. Not a lot of Filipinos and hopefully even in this small way I can contribute to that, to show that Filipinos and Filipino stories can be interesting and that Filipino actors are good. I love representing our culture. And I hope I did that.

“Ratched” is kind of a prequel to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” What was your relationship with that film?

You know, I first saw that in the Philippines. Of course, my English wasn’t very good back in those days. I didn’t understand it well enough but I know for a fact that the character of Nurse Ratched was evil, right? But also the performances were amazing, the actors that they had in that movie… Jack Nicholson. That was my only introduction to that world which is okay because our show is different from that. The only common thing is the character of Mildred Ratched and what our show has done well is show how she got to be that person.

In a scene with Sharon Stone
I think it’s amazing for you to have watched it in the Philippines not knowing that in the future, you’re gonna be in Hollywood doing this.

A lot of things I’ve seen and done in the Philippines. Never never in my wildest dreams did I go, “Someday I’m going to be in Hollywood.” Never did I say that. Even after I went to London to do Miss Saigon, I never said that. But yeah, when I visit that memory of myself, that young me in the Philippines, I’m like, “Oh my god, you don’t know what ride you’re gonna take.”

How has the pandemic affected your life and how much do you miss the theater and being onstage?

I think just like everyone else, it’s affected me a lot. There’s a lot of trying to make the most out of everything. But it helps that I’m with my family, my wife Megan and our children Isa and Teo. We’re all together and we’re doing things together which keeps us sane. I miss doing theater. I miss acting, I miss filming, I miss everything about it, I miss my friends. And at the same time I’m worried about my friends, especially those in New York who are out of work for a long time now and they don’t know how to pay for their rent, how to pay for their food. It’s worrying for me and I hope something gets done and soon.

I love that you’re a family of talents. Your daughter is fantastic. I watched a video of her singing and she’s doing theater too.

You know, it makes us very proud. My wife and I are very proud of our kids. Teo, he’s been working nonstop, he worked more than we did. And Isa is doing the same thing. She was in Hamilton and recently she was in in “Star Trek: Picard.” That’s a Filipina in Star Trek. Yes. I’m proud as a father and as a Filipino.

What would you like to tell your Filipino fans?

I want to say I hope they they love the show and I’m sure they will because it’s a Ryan Murphy show. And I hope I’m making them proud by representing them. Thank you so much and I miss the Philippines.