Raymond Bagatsing on Becoming Manuel Quezon in ‘Quezon’s Game’

From 1937-1941, under the leadership of President Manuel Quezon, the Philippines opened their doors to Jewish refugees fleeing from Europe, at the beginning of what would eventually become the Holocaust. Approximately 1,300 lives were saved.

It’s a little known history about the Philippines, but what is even less known is how much Quezon had to fight to make it happen, due to the country being under occupation by the United States at the time. It’s this story that’s explored for the first time for the big screen in the film, Quezon’s Game.

Actor Raymond Bagatsing, who plays Quezon, was working on a TV show at the time that had 24-hour work days when he initially got the call about the role. As he shared via a video conference call from the Philippines, “I received a message [at 6:00AM] inquiring about my availability that day. They were offering me a role for an independent film. I don’t remember them saying specifically what the role was but they wanted me to do it in three hours.”

In his sleep deprivation, Bagatsing didn’t realize he was going in for an audition until he was handed a monologue upon arrival. Despite the misunderstanding, he performed the piece to the best of his ability, and was met with applause from the crew and a less than pleased look from the film’s director, Matthew Rosen.

Two months passed without a word and Bagatsing assumed he didn’t get the part. “Then I got another message — interestingly, it was the same time,” he recalled. “I got home at 6:00AM and they said, ‘Can you come to the office? You were chosen for the final audition.’”

Coming in dressed as Quezon and a 90 percent guarantee that he had the role, Bagatsing did the audition. The lingering 10 percent came from a fight that Rosen made on his behalf.

“The director said, ‘Raymond, I’m sorry because I had to fight for you,’” Bagatsing explained. “This is co-produced by ABS-CBN. They were considering other people — [specifically] in-house actors. I’m not a contractor, I’m a freelancer.”

Rosen managed to convince the higher ups and Bagatsing won the role of Quezon.

Audiences who have seen Quezon’s Game often went into movie theaters not knowing about this particular history. For Bagatsing, he neither knew about the history or much about Quezon at all, due to spending his adolescence abroad in Australia. There were also very limited resources available to him online aside from photographs and a few videos. Along with still doing the TV show, he also had only a month to prepare before filming began.

When it came to actually performing the role, Bagatsing went to great lengths to make his character come to life as effectively as possible.

“To keep the consistency of being Manuel Quezon was the most difficult,” he said. “I really had to get into my method actor process. If I don’t need to speak necessarily on the set, I just keep to myself and to that character and I try not to bring about the Raymond Bagatsing personality. I just try to zero in on nothing so that he can come out much more.”

“I had totally obsessed with the character at home,” he added. “I had a photo of him by my bedside just so I can download him each time, just so I can get into his psyche. For me, it was a spiritual possession. I had to be possessed by his energy or essence.”

Aside from having little to work off of, Bagatsing’s performance impressed Quezon’s relatives, some of whom he met during a VIP screening of Quezon’s Game. “I believe it was his grandson who came to me and congratulated me and said, ‘It’s uncanny how you really remind us of my grandfather.’ Some of them told me he was more hot tempered, but they said, ‘You captured his flamboyant and charming side.’”

Shooting the independent film made for stressful moments and long work hours. Bagatsing recalled how, “The scene where [Quezon] tells [Dwight] Eisenhower that he’s sick and he’s dying — that was like 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning. And we had been shooting all day prior to that. How do you feel fresh and look fresh?”

Despite the challenges, filming was a fulfilling experience, particularly with Rosen as the director. “His experience and knowledge on directing and technical, cameras, lighting is quite extensive. He’s a joke and likes to keep it light on the set, even though the theme and what we’re doing is not really light.”

Quezon’s Game has been having screenings all over the world and Bagatsing has been moved by the turnout, particularly from Filipino audiences.

“Even my own relatives and my mother’s friends in Melbourne, Australia were just so ecstatic and very touched by the film,” he said. “Even my friends who’ve seen it abroad in the U.S. and Canada — they were very touched and they cried. That patriotism was strengthened somewhat and that Filipino pride, that cultural pride of being of magnanimous heart really came through.

“Having that pride, they have done something for the western world, when we are from a really small country and not even that powerful. That gives them that pride that they are there, they’ve done something for a certain people who are much more powerful than we are, whereas other countries [that] have the power, who could have done something weren’t able to, for whatever reasons.”

Quezon’s Game is currently showing in Australia, New Zealand, Guam, and Saipan. In the future, Bagatsing hopes that more people get to watch and appreciate the film. “I just wish it to touch as many people as possible. I’m just happy with what’s happening at the moment.”