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Acting will always be the “first love” of Giselle Töngi-Walters, who has been based with her family in the US West Coast for nearly two decades now.
Yet, Töngi-Walters managed to give way to other important things that also needed her time and attention.
Recently, the lead star of Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ romantic-drama, “Diliryo” (1997), finished her graduate studies at the Antioch University in Los Angeles -- in the middle of this pandemic. She started the graduate program back in the fall of 2019, that consisted of an 18-month timeline of rigorous, non-profit management courses.
“That involved six quarters of professional development and academic classes pertaining to the non-profit sector,” Töngi-Walters told ABS-CBN News. “Initially, our classes were in person, but obviously, when the pandemic happened in March 2020, all our classes in person were quickly moved online. Unbeknownst to my cohort and I, this online instruction would last over a year!”
Töngi-Walters really wanted to pursue graduate school. “I thought of non-profit management because it is similar to attaining an MBA (Master's in Business), but adding the NGO [non-government organization] social good structure,” she disclosed.
“I wanted to make sure that I learnt how to manage an organization to create sustainability for future generations.
“Also, I had a direct application to my work as I was also serving at the time as the programing director of the arts and culture nonprofit, FilAm Arts, founded in Los Angeles in 1991. They are the presenters of the annual Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (FPAC).”
FPAC has been a federal income tax-exempt organization and a staple in the Filipino and Filipino-American community for over two-and-a-half decades now.
“As I took over the helm in 2019, we had adaptively pivoted to present two festivals virtually last year,” she said. “A first-ever FilipinA Fest was broadcast on March 28, 2020. Then, in the Filipino-American History Month in October, we produced FPAC, a three-and-a-half hour show over three days that celebrated the Fil-Am artist.”
She happily shared that she has been offered by the FPAC board of directors the executive director position and she gave her nod to it.
“Being in graduate school truly deepened my understanding of programming logic models and gave me the necessary language and tools to evaluate the impact of the work that I am passionate about,” Töngi-Walters said.
“As a charitable organization, it is our mission to advocate for platforms and opportunities for the Fil-Am artist community and this really resonates with my professional goals, especially as diversity, equity and cultural inclusion becomes top of mind for philanthropic funders.”
Taking up that particular graduate school course was a no-brainer for Töngi-Walters. “Non-profits, especially in America, bring billions of dollars in economic opportunities as a sector, as well as provide services to the public that are socially disadvantaged,” she explained.
“Filipinos continue to be a historically marginalized group in America, especially when it comes to representation. I really wanted to learn how to bring more resources to the Filipino community in the arts and culture field.”
Admirably, Töngi-Walters managed to squeeze in school work, reviewing for exams, while working and taking care of her family. “Efficiently managing my professional schedule is something I have learnt over the years,” she disclosed. “I am very intentional with my time and how I spend it.
“Especially in this pandemic, I actually had to learn to set boundaries in my work, so I am not living at work and instead, just working from home. Anyone who knows me knows I always keep myself busy and I am devoted to the creative work I do. However, in order to give my best, I have to be mindful of the energy I put out into the world.”
On the day that school ended, Töngi-Walters excitedly rushed to the supermarket to celebrate her education milestone. Although virtual graduation will happen in June yet, she does not mind celebrating in advance.
Arriving in the US in the early 2000s, Töngi-Walters, who gave up her showbiz career in the Philippines, saw and experienced first-hand the lack of opportunities for Filipino actors and media practitioners.
“Non-profit management gives me the necessary understanding how to change culture when it comes to advocacy and programing providing platforms for representation,” she said.
Before pursuing higher studies, Töngi-Walters graduated with honors in 2011, with a Communications degree from the University of California in Los Angeles ( UCLA). She had a double minor in film and television, as well as digital arts and theater.
Töngi-Walters credits her husband of 16 years, Tim Walters, for allowing her to pursue higher studies. “He is the reason I am able to pursue my graduate degree,” she proudly said of her hubby. “I can rely on him to make sure the kids are taken-cared of and between all the kids activities and community service I do, it really requires a support system.
“He knows, of course, my work as an actor, but when I told him I wanted to pursue higher education, he made it possible. Tim supports all my heart's desires, from acting to producing to academics. All I am able to accomplish is a testament to his dedication and love for our family.”
She attests married life hasn’t been perfect all throughout. However, she knows she can count on her husband to be her dependable partner in raising their children and in parenting, too.
Töngi-Walters was so used to in-person learning environment, where she previously thrived academically. “So online learning was exhausting for me, especially after a whole day of zooms and being in front of a screen,” she admitted.
“Every quarter prior to the pandemic, we would have field study days, where we would visit various non-profits in the Los Angeles area to examine their non-profit business model and spend time with their executive director.
“We were made to ask questions pertaining to the operations of the charitable institution they represented and those were the classes I missed the most when we pivoted online.
“Also, a lot of the management classes I took in person had us simulate a lot of team building exercises that just aren't the same online. Luckily, I was able to meet my graduate studies cohort in person and spent six months getting to know them.”
Not every celebrity gets to prioritize her studies, probably because of the demands of her career. The sleepless nights, the shooting and taping schedules, the other rigors of the job inevitably make it nearly impossible to still accommodate pencil pushing.
The same happened for Töngi-Walters when she was in Manila in her late teens. “I was going to school at the University of the Philippines [UP], but the demands of showbiz work made it hard for me to prioritize my studies," she disclosed.
Uprooting to the US allowed her to go back to school. “Living in the US has really given me an opportunity to reconsider what my priorities are in my life,” she realized.
For her regular day job, Töngi-Walters runs a consultancy company called 7107 Media, where she has various clients who need production, marketing and cultural branding expertise.
“So I am busy on most days producing and creating media content or communication briefs,” she granted. “One of my biggest clients is Island Pacific Seafood Market.
“I am so glad to be able to share my years of expertise in the media field with the Filipino-American family-owned grocery store that currently has 17 locations up and down the coast of California and Las Vegas.”
The grocery chain is under the leadership of Niño "Jeff" Lim, CEO and founder of Island Pacific Seafood Market. “Working closely and witnessing the adaptive leadership of Jeff Lim in this pandemic has been such a great learning experience,” she said.
“Under his guidance, we also launched the first in-store media platform called IPTV [Internet Protocol Television]. I am also a consultant in the non-profit space for FilAm Arts, producing events and virtual gatherings to celebrate the FilAm multi-disciplinarian artists.
“I am proud of the work that I get to do for them every day and a highlight from this pandemic professionally has been being part of their team to launch the first ever e-commerce grocery platform for the Filipino-American community.”
Töngi-Walters moved to the US in 2000 to attend theater school at Lee Strasberg in New York City. “But I have lived longer in Los Angeles now than anywhere else,” she said.
“I have lived in the world. I met my husband in 2003 and we got married in Boracay in 2005. We just celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary.”
The couple has two children. The eldest, Sakura Anne Marie, is now 15 yand is undoubtedly a chip off the old block.
“She loves performing for the theater,” Töngi-Walters said of her daughter. “She has a strong musical theater resume and we've helped cultivate that from her early workshops in the summer, when we were living in Manila at Repertory Philippines to her current performing arts school here in Los Angeles, Haven Academy of the Arts.
“She is now a freshman student at a design high school here in the Southbay and is a budding visual and mixed media artist.”
Her son, Kenobi, is now 13 and is in middle school. “He has done some print and television projects sporadically,” the mom said. “He dreams of becoming a Disney imagineer one day and really likes to cosplay, build and design virtual worlds.
“Art will always be a significant part of how I raise my children. If the time comes when they want to pursue it professionally, I will support them, but I will always stress the value of an education.”
Understandably, migrating to the US wasn’t an easy decision for Töngi-Walters. Yet, at 21, she packed her bags and left Manila.
“I was burnt out from the demanding schedule of work,” she explained. “A lot of factors made me decide to migrate to America, although I have always been open to doing worthwhile projects I believe in, so I can't really say I quit showbiz.”
She simply relocated. “As an actor and personality in Manila, I knew that I wanted to hone my craft, which is why I went to New York City,” she said. “Eventually moving to Los Angeles after graduating in 2003, I auditioned for several years and finding that most of the parts I went in for were definitely not Asian roles.
“It was like I was having an identity crisis, as I could not resolve that I was white passing and yet, in my heart, was fully Filipina. It is only quite recently that roles are written specifically as a Filipino character.
“Yet, even so, how many medical dramas do you see have Filipino nurses in it? Hollywood has yet to catch up despite the Filipino-American community being one of the fastest growing AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] communities in America.”
Once is a while, Töngi-Walters welcomes offers to join the cast and act in Filipino films, especially those shot in the US or Canada. In 2018, she played a minor role in a film shot in Vancouver that marked the first team-up of Aga Muhlach and Bea Alonzo.
Töngi-Walters played a mom to newcomer Edward Barber in Paul Soriano’s romantic drama, “First Love.”
“I loved working with director Paul Soriano,” she admitted. “I got a call to ask if I'd consider the role and it just so happened to fall on my 40th birthday that I had to leave for the job. I jumped at the opportunity.
“I had worked with Aga in my early Regal Films days, so It was a delight to see him after so many years. And playing Edward Barber's mother seemed plausible, since he was 17 and I had just turned 40 at that time.
“All too often, many mother roles offered don't make sense timeline wise and I have a hard time accepting a role if it doesn't line up. Much to the credit of Paul [Soriano]. It was such a joy to play a cameo on his film. Acting, just like the movie we did, will always be my ‘First Love.’”
Töngi-Walters expressed her desire to work with actors whom she hasn’t had a chance to share acting credits with. “I've always wanted to work with Jake Cuenca, besides the fact that I know he also went to Lee Strasberg,” she said. “Jake seems like a very dedicated actor as I do know he has also dabbled in theater.
“Iza Calzado and Cherie Gil are both very good friends and like sisters to me, but we have never worked together, so I do hope I can be in a project with them in the future.”
Töngi-Walters was only in her teens when enviable showbiz offers came her way. “Honestly, looking back I was really not prepared for the success early on in my career,” she revealed. “When you are young and you don't have much lived experience, I did all I knew how to do... I just rolled with the punches.
“I knew, however, that I always could not turn a blind eye on the disparity around me. It didn't feel fair somehow and only years later did I understand that I've always had a social justice lens, I just didn't have a way of articulating the injustice I saw around me at such a young age. I look back fondly at the many wonderful opportunities I had in my early career as an actor in the Philippines.”
One of her most memorable starrers was "Langit sa Piling Mo" (1997). “It was a film I shot going cross country here in the United States,” she allowed. “It was directed by one of my mentors, Eric Quizon. I loved filming indie style and being directed by Kaiz [Eric]. We were such a tightly-knit group.
“Another one for the books was ‘Diliryo’ (1997), produced by the directing duo, [the late] Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes. We brought the film to the Toronto Film Festival. I learned so much about working on a set for the first time, working a character and really collaborating on creating a character with auteurs of a film.”
In 1999, Töngi-Walters charted four films to her acting credits, with a best supporting actress award to boot, for the Metro Manila Film Festival entry, “Luksong Tinik,” megged by Jose Javier Reyes.
Töngi-Walters wants to do something different that might not even be showbiz related. She is ready to recharge and travel again.
“I cannot wait to travel and do yoga!,” she declared. “Which I am actually realizing soon, as I go off to Mexico on a week-long retreat to recharge and celebrate finishing graduate school.
“I am conceptualizing some production projects simultaneously, so I will continue to work from where ever I am. I am also excited to do some furniture and lighting fixture, plus shopping. Moreover, I am considering shooting a documentary on our talented Filipino furniture designers later this year, too.
“I really am interested in crafting meaningful narratives on the talent of the Fil-Am and Filipino artisans.”
While the other activities will have to wait, Töngi-Walters has apparently a lot in her mind that she expects to see fruition this 2021.
She managed to finish graduate school this pandemic, so the rest will hopefully be just a walk in the park. As they say, if there’s a will, there’s a way. She knows and she believes that will happen, too.
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