The screen and stage actress unveils the kind of strength and persistence it takes to pursue and follow through with her dreams.
The sublime and vast world of the arts is where Mara Michelle Geriene grew up in. With a painter for a mother and a musician for a father, Mara was naturally pulled into the universe of music and dance, letting her hone her musicality at a tender age. “My parents were very supportive of my music tastes,” Mara says. “I owe that all to my parents for allowing me to learn and hear everything and immerse myself in everything I could.” Admiring Celine Dion and Britney Spears, belting out their songs as a child helped her appreciate all kinds of talent in the arts. From singing her way into the world, Mara eventually came across a new passion—acting—and has fallen in love with it.
“I remember sitting there just amazed that there was a class completely dedicated to you exploring the lives of different characters, having fun, basically playing dress-up, and fully immersing yourself into another person,” she says, detailing her first drama class. The director of an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet where Mara played the titular role of Juliet turned her amazement into a turning point her life. “He said, ‘You’re good and I hope you realize you’re good. I think it’s important that we see how good you can be,’” Mara recalls. With such faith in her capabilities, she shares, “[I am] so forever grateful for having a person see that in me at such a young age when I didn’t even see it myself.” This moment allowed her to become the inspiring, hopeful, and hardworking actress she is now.
Beyond studying lines
Any up-and-coming actor is no stranger to the nerve-wracking experience of performing for the first time or working alongside long-time professionals. It can be quite intimidating and Mara admits she has been there. However, she chooses to keep a positive mindset. “I still count every experience as a new one, as an experience to learn, and I count every person I work with on set as a teacher,” she says, “That was the only way I could approach it because I was terrified.” She carries such an attitude until the present, the humility allowing her to bring out her best in every performance.
In her early roles like in Robert Soulsby-Smith’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and in her first paid television experience as Selena Gomez in the singer’s documentary, Mara took in everything she can learn from these two memorable performances. After all, an actor must study a lot more than her lines. When asked if she could even have a famous actor as her mentor, she chose Audrey Hepburn. “She was so graceful and so elegant and so incredibly passionate, kind, generous, intelligent, and brave, too,” Mara muses, “All of her life experiences [created] such a powerful force to be reckoned with, with whatever she [did on stage] or screen.” With Hepburn among her role models, it is no surprise that anyone can see Mara’s commitment to her craft as well.
Under the lights of hope
Audiences applaud the actors for their incredible performance, but what is not typically visible is the process they undergo to acquire such skills and of course, their discipline. Mara reflects on this when she reminisces her first few weeks of moving to New York to live alone and pursue her dreams. “I had never experienced being overworked, overstrained, so emotionally drained and scared because I’m in a huge city,” she admits. Living with a hectic schedule every day forced her to re-align herself with her priorities. “There was the first time I had ever really just broken down,” she discloses. At that time, she called her dad who reminded her she can always return home, but the strong drive in Mara refused to quit. The American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) where she studied, helped her get back up, “AMDA first taught me [that] I really, really, really want to do this. Second, you need to have such a clear, strong work ethic to be able to pursue what you’re doing and even make strides in what you’re doing. They always say that people who actually make it in this industry are the people who just stick around longer because it’s so draining,” she reveals.
Apart from the harsh schedules and critiques, being an actor means receiving many rejections—and Mara is not an exception to this. “The hardest thing is every day waking up and checking your email and not getting a callback,” she says. It is tough, she admits, especially when she auditioned for a role that she thinks she is perfect for but didn’t get it in the end. In spite of this, over time, she learned to handle it with grace and patience. “I go into an audition now and I have to remind myself, ‘Hey, you’re doing the best you can. You’re going to leave it all here and then you’re going to go home and you’re going to treat yourself with a face mask and watch [an] Audrey Hepburn movie and you’re going to go bed and you’re going to be okay,’” she shares.
Mara is slowly building her career and she is looking forward to the time she becomes truly established. Once, she even told the late One Mega Group, Inc. Founder Sari V. Yap, how Mara wanted to uphold her success in the American industry first and then help build a bridge to the Philippine industry. “I think we have such wonderful talented creators and artists and people in the Philippines [who] need to be recognized internationally,” she says. She mentions half-Filipino actors Shay Mitchell and Darren Criss whose successes are helping Filipinos get recognition for their talent. Thus, Mara is establishing a network in the U.S., introducing fellow Filipino actors for possible projects. “It’s just a testament of time and continuing to show everybody what talent we have,” she concludes.
Although she has big dreams for building this bridge, the pandemic brought a halt to fulfilling this. The world of performing arts is among the many industries that received a hard hit. Without live performances and shootings, artists are left hanging. Mara continues to be disheartened by this, especially when she sees fellow actors and content creators on social media struggling to make it amid the pandemic. At the same time, she keeps her hopes up. “I think as a community, artists have continued to create work and create art and share that,” she says, mentioning a quote she loves that goes, “‘Remember, in this time, you turn to artists to bring you happiness.’” The quote strongly resonates with her, giving her and other artists courage at this time.
In the meantime, Mara keeps herself busy with small, personal projects produced with friends. Among them is Bilk, a short horror film to be released on Amazon Prime this December or January next year. If she couldn’t return to the Philippines by the latter end of the year, expect to see her self-produced and edited short manifests or costume videos for Halloween. Apart from these, most of her projects would be out in 2021.
For now, she is focused on strengthening her craft by developing her improvisational skills so she would be prepared to take on any projects. “I’ve always kind of been open to doing anything and everything as long as I’m passionate about it,” she explains, though she shares leaning towards light-hearted genres and even action. If there is one thing she wants to see more of in the industry, it is works produced by and featuring women. “I think we need to hear women’s stories a lot more,” she says, “We’re funny, we’re electric, we’re interesting.” In the past decade, we are seeing this unfold and Mara is thrilled to see more works come into fruition.
Role of happiness
When asked if she could be doing anything else now, she mentioned wanting to be a lawyer. “I always joke around saying that I’d be a lawyer because I argue my way out of everything,” she shares with a laugh. This is an entirely different path in her current life, but if she would choose something a little close to it, she would want to be a writer. “Since I was little,” Mara begins, “I have journals and journals of made-up stories or things that I thought were interesting to write at the time.” Thankfully, she is able to do this once in a while, such as a piece she wrote during her years in AMDA that was produced into a film. This is only among the many achievements she is truly proud of.
The happiness that comes with success is part of what Mara truly values. To live a meaningful life, she describes the importance of general happiness, “The most important thing is making sure I’m still happy and checking in with myself every single day, being honest with myself, and continuing to ask myself, ‘Hey, do you like what you’re doing? Do you like where you are? Do you like who you spend your time with?’” When one is earnest in the answers and acts on it, Mara believes one is able to live happily as much as one can be—a sign of a life well-lived.
Photos STANLEY RAMOS
Art Direction MARC PAGDILAO and ROCHELLE PADILLA