What drew Ginger Gonzaga to play Nikki Ramos in Marvel’s She-Hulk: Attorney-at-Law? It’s the character being a “non-competitive pal,” the actress and comedian told Yahoo Philippines in an exclusive virtual interview.
“You wanna have friends that are not threatened by you if you’re special or are competitive [...] It's easier when a character has a sense of humor, which Nikki has. Things can be less serious, and so it’s easier to be really brave. I just love that she’s just scrappy and is willing to be in the thick of things,” the Living With Yourself star explained.
This article contains mild spoilers for Marvel's She-Hulk: Attorney-at-Law.
Gonzaga joins Tatiana Maslany, Jameela Jamil, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Segarra, and Tim Roth among many more in the latest Disney+ superhero legal comedy. After gaining similar powers to her cousin Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), lawyer Jennifer Walters (Maslany) works to be both public defender and heroine as the titular She-Hulk. Gonzaga plays paralegal and Walters’ best friend Nikki Ramos.
She is one of the few Filipino-American stars to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Most notable are Jacob Batalon, who plays Ned Leeds in the Tom Holland-led Spider-Man films, and Dave Bautista, who portrays Drax the Destroyer in the Guardians of the Galaxy film series.
“I'm just excited that there’s a good handful of Filipino actors entering the MCU. I didn't even realize my friend Nico Santos (of Superstore fame) is in Guardians of the Galaxy [Vol. 3] and my friend Eugene Cordero is in Loki. Nico has already filmed the new Guardians [movie]. I didn't know he was in it, but it's really exciting,” she enthused.
But playing the protagonist’s best friend can be “dangerous territory,” said Gonzaga. “Sometimes, those characters can really be reductive. Not so much in the MCU because I think they’re all very interesting and dynamic. I love Ned, but I think it's really the actors' job to make it special.”
For Gonzaga, playing Nikki didn’t just let her tread new waters. It also gave her the chance to channel the joy she felt after watching Dante Basco play Rufio in 1991’s Hook. Also popular for voicing Prince Zuko in Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, Basco, like Gonzaga, is of Filipino descent.
As Nikki, Gonzaga sets-out to create something “special” for Filipino representation.
You'd like her when she's on screen
For Gonzaga, genuine representation in the media is a must.
To illustrate its importance, she recalled an instance when she exercised with her friends in the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. “They were pointing out that most posters [do] not show any ethnic person, like most movie posters of several companies. Of course, I’m gonna see most of these movies. They are exciting but it does set us back when you don't see anyone that can represent you in the poster.”
Just as Gonzaga debuted in the MCU, other Fil-Am artists have gotten the chance to shine in the entertainment scene. Examples include filmmaker Isabel Sandoval gaining praise for directing an episode of the true crime miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven, artist Lourdes Faberes making a splash with Netflix’s adaptation of The Sandman, and actress Ivory Aquino being cast in a supporting role in the now canceled Batgirl movie.
Gonzaga (along with her family) attended the premiere of the Jo Koy-headlined Easter Sunday: a comedy which features a predominantly Fil-Am cast and leans heavily on Filipino culture. With this, Gonzaga said that “it's definitely long overdue, not just because of representation, but because our culture is fun to see. It’s a fun culture to explore.”
She related this point to a time when she shopped a show to HBO, where Gonzaga “wanted to show my Filipino family, and it's just like if people don't get to see Filipino culture on TV or films, they’re missing out on how unique it is, and how fun it is, and how loving the family unit is, and how like there is so much cinema to be mined from that culture. Any culture really.”
However, the I’m Dying Up Here cast mate emphasized that if a role was stereotypical or would “marginalize” Filipinos, Gonzaga will drop the gig immediately.
She’d rather “trail blaze,” the comedian pointed. “I want to show really dynamic people who happen to be Filipinos, or really funny characters who happen to be Filipinos. It's really a fine line between when you’re really digging into a character and celebrating all the quirks that come with the culture and when it's a stereotype.”
Related to this, in her first seven years in television, Gonzaga saw how major roles were often given to caucasian artists and how limited her acting opportunities were.
“I can be someone’s girlfriend then they say ‘okay, we don't care if we have a diverse character here,’ but for the most part, most of the shows were specifically [for] caucasians, and you don't even have the opportunity to audition for them so there were few roles available so I’m lucky that I get what I do [and] was able to book things even though there were so few parts,” Gonzaga looked back.
As shows and movies feature more genders and races, certain viewers would take these as signs of a declining quality, and would even resort to harassing cast and crew members for it. Case in-point, Star Wars actresses Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi) and most recently Moses Ingram (Reva Sevander in Obi-Wan Kenobi) received death threats, as well as racist and sexist remarks on social media for being involved in the franchise.
The MCU itself is not safe from such dogging. Both Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk were review-bombed in iMDB and Rotten Tomatoes among other sties, and buzzwords such as “M-She-U” being thrown around by such audiences. So what does Gonzaga have to say about them? She simply rolled her eyes then let out a brief and loud “ugh!”
“If they say really messed-up misogynistic, racist rants, cool then. I don’t want to buy your tickets. I don't want to know you. I don’t want to hire you. Thank you for the information, but that type of fear that there isn't room for everyone when it’s usually from the majority, it’s a very primitive response,” Gonzaga condemned.
She then took this further, wondering “what is their life gonna be like in the amount of time that it takes to write so much hate online? They can be learning a new skill or be inspired by Filipino art, Hispanic art, or art that comes from Iceland, or if that’s fear about growing, that's [a] disservice to themselves. Whatever. Nikki won't suffer from those fools.”
Oh, Nikki, you’re so fine
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gonzaga auditioned remotely. This involved filming herself in her living room while a friend reads her lines via cellphone and conducting a network test with Maslany via Zoom call. When the cast and crew saw how she “played around with [Nikki’s character],” Gonzaga was given the liberty to flesh-out Nikki’s personality, wardrobe, and other character traits with series head writer Jessica Gao.
“Jessica is, really, a brilliant writer. She’s really funny and we both know a lot [about] comedy. It is always a constant conversation. Always allowing me to chime in, so I feel very lucky in that regard. I feel lucky that I can talk about what I feel comfortable saying different things about Nikki, and I’m heard and that doesn't always happen on the job,” Gonzaga said.
Speaking of Gao, the head writer told Variety that she initially pitched the show to focus on the trial of the Abomination (Roth), which would have spanned across multiple episodes. This idea was dropped after Gao and the series’ writing team learned that they were “not adept” at writing complex legal scenes.
When asked about this, Gonzaga praised Gao for instead applying the MCU’s fantastical elements into human situations for the show’s humor.
“It's funny to look at the simple, mundane thing[s] like ‘who’s going to pay for that car? Captain America, thanks for saving the world, but you ruined the local city transit bus.’ It's a funny thing to think about, almost like the 'realistics' on what goes into that, in combination [with] what is silly in that the characters we are representing as the legal team [are] superhuman,” Gonzaga explained.
Since Nikki is an original character made for the show, Gonzaga only did some light-reading through She-Hulk comic books. The actress wanted to avoid “accidentally” playing an already existing character in the comics, aiming for Nikki to have an identity of her own.
“I know that sounds silly, but i didn't want to adjust my performance to what I felt was correct based of Jill Stevens or other friends of [Walters’ in the comics]. I’m actually very glad that I'm an original character because I have less pressure. I don't have to make everyone happy,” Gonzaga shared. She also gave all of her vintage Ebay-bought She-Hulk comic books to the cast as thank you gifts.
On Nikki’s wardrobe, Gonzaga told The Hollywood Reporter that the series’ costume department bought some of her clothes. She also thanked costume designer Ann Foley for letting Gonzaga provide creative input.
Regarding this, she told Yahoo Philippines that “once I was at work, once I knew my character was high fashion, I just involved myself a lot in the styling of it. I gave them a lot of the clothes I wanted because I knew how I wanted her to dress, so basically once production started, they allowed me to help dictate how she would dress.”
In the fourth episode “Is This Not Real Magic?,” Nikki said “hetero life is grim,” which led to speculation that the character may be queer. Gonzaga revealed after the episode’s premiere on September 8, 2022 that she was “projecting” her bisexuality through the character.
Gonzaga said that she “always saw [Nikki] as always as a classically bi. Nikki doesn’t have shame or fear or judgment. Nikki is all about the person she’s gonna date whoever she finds cool, and nice, and fun.” Although the comedian explained that the show would not touch on Nikki’s love life that much, she believed that this was a detail that hinted “how this person lives a very independent life.”
Catch Marvel’s She-Hulk: Attorney-at-Law only on Disney+. New episodes every Thursday until October 13, 2022.
(NOTE: This article is the first of two parts. Read the conclusion here.)
Reuben Pio Martinez is a news writer who covers stories on various communities and scientific matters. He regularly tunes in to local happenings. The views expressed are his own.
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