A Filipino-American puts her fears to work in Hollywood

“Give me your sexiest wink!” yelled director Tess Paras as the actors flirted and pretended to drink beers for the camera.

They rehearsed a musical parody – the song “One Bar More” from “Lesbian Misérables,” a new sketch written by Sibel Damar as part of the ViacomCBS Showcase 2022 to put artists from underrepresented communities in front of top industry players . (The song is about how there aren’t enough lesbian bars. The Lesbian Bar Project campaign, launched in 2020, found there are only about 20 left in the country.)

A graduate of the ViacomCBS program, Paras has been an executive producer and director since her sophomore year. She’s best known for her acting roles on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Just Add Magic — and she’s just been cast in the pilot of ABC’s Filipino-US sitcom Josep, starring comedian Jo Koy.

On set, she is focused but relaxed. That’s because she created a game plan to support her mental health during a stressful 20-day shoot. She scheduled time to make sure she got enough sleep and exercise. She and her partner arranged meal prep and distributed chores so she could return to a comfortable home after each long day. And she made sure to talk to her therapist about her fears: which worries are worth focusing on and which are better let go.

As a mental health advocate in the Filipino-American community, Paras speaks openly about her struggles with depression and anxiety. But she also wants people to understand that it’s something she’s actively managing. By sharing her experiences, she seeks to normalize conversations about mental health, especially for communities of color where mental illness continues to be stigmatized.

“I have this joke that my best friends who are also comedians know what drugs I’m on,” Paras said.

But she said it was different when she spoke to her family.

“If I said to them, ‘Oh, I’m scared, I had to take a Xanax,’ people would say, ‘Are you okay? What’s wrong with you?’” she said. “And suddenly it would be something shameful to talk about instead of something to take lightly or something that’s perfectly normal.”

She has had depression since she was a teenager, but at the time she didn’t have the language to describe it.

“I think my family said, ‘Why is she like this? Why is she the sensitive one?’” she said.


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Despite being able to earn a living in Hollywood, she faces the challenge of working in an industry fraught with rejection that can make her feel like “the smallest, most insignificant person in the world.” It has helped her create art about what she was going through. And while it’s taken some time, telling her story publicly has also helped her speak to her family about her mental health journey.

There was a time when she wrote and starred in “Typecast,” a parody of Lorde’s “Royals” about actors who can’t find work unless they’re racially stereotyped. Paras wrote it on ViacomCBS’s diversity program in 2014, when she realized that “a white woman’s nerdy friend” was the only role she could audition for and it was hurting her self-esteem.

A devastating breakup led to the creation of a reggaeton dancehall mix to Frozen’s “Let It Go” called “Depression Mashup (Feat. Anxiety.)”.

And in 2019, she directed her most personal short film, The Patients, based on her experience as a survivor of intimate partner violence.

“There were days when I couldn’t get up,” she said. “I was scared and would have a startled reaction to certain things because there were certain PTSD moments I had when someone broke into my house.”

The film takes place in the hospital after a robbery. Paras’ character, Regina Ramos, is in the exam room considering her options while her family in the waiting room ponders how best to support them — and makes mistakes in the process.

“As Pinay, we don’t talk about it with our parents,” she said. “And my parents said a lot, ‘Go to therapy. Find out. We don’t know what happened.’ They create a certain distance.”

She said she wrote The Patients because she wanted to connect with her family. Paras recalls sitting nervously next to her parents at the Asian Pacific Film Festival premiere in Los Angeles.

“When I saw my mother laugh at an actress who was portraying her, it was so huge for me,” she said. “And other Filipinos will understand, but afterwards I was like, ‘What are you thinking, Mom?’ She said, ‘I’m a proud mom. will we all eat Are your friends coming?’

“That’s the A plus of a Filipino-American filmmaker’s experience [for her] to be like, ‘I’m a proud mom. are your friends coming Let’s go eat,'” she said. “Definitely one of the best moments of my life.”

It’s been a lifelong journey for Paras to learn how to value themselves, she said. As she has become more public about her struggles, she has seen how many Filipino Americans want to tell and see stories like hers on screen. People will message her after watching the film to let her know that they — or their friend or family member — have been through a similar ordeal.

But many of the conversations are private. Paras pointed this out Hellothe Filipino concept of shame.

“I think it’s difficult, especially in the Filipino or Asian-American community where if you ever share that something bad happened, it could leave a mark,” she said. “But there shouldn’t be any shame in sharing what’s going on because people will identify.

“For me, it’s about not being ashamed anymore. Just share. And when a person is concerned and a person says, “Hey, this helps me see some patterns in my life that feel unhealthy or unsafe,” then it’s a service. Then you know for sure that openness is worth something.”

The empathy she’s developed from living with depression and anxiety also helps her as a director, actress and producer, she said.

“Even now, during the showcase, this is my first time ever working with a deaf actor, and he taught me so much about how to look at a script and go through it and talk about how to make that script more friendly and inclusive for the people.” Community is power,” she said. “So because I have my own struggle, I feel like I can be a better ally for him and be more open to listening to him.” A Filipino-American puts her fears to work in Hollywood

Russell Falcon

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