From ‘Versace’ To ‘Ratched’: Jon Jon Briones Talks Representing Filipinos In Hollywood And Being The Hero Of His Narrative

Courtesy of Storm Santos

In Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s RatchedJon Jon Briones plays Dr. Hanover, an ambitious medical professional that runs a psychiatric hospital in the Northern part of the Bay Area in California. However, like all characters in the Murphy-verse, he is flawed, fractured and is struggling with his own demons as he attempts to manage a staff of Type-A nurses — specifically the newest addition Nurse Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) and her adversary, Nurse Betsy Bucket (two-time Oscar nominee Judy Davis). On top of that, as his flaws slowly unravel and expose his narcissism he deals with his patients that range from an unhinged serial killer (Finn Wittrock) to a woman grappling with multiple personality disorder (Sophie Okonedo).

Briones is a member of the exclusive acting collective that Ryan Murphy has been assembling since the days of Glee (perhaps even before that maybe even before that).  He first appeared in the Murphy-verse in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and American Horror Story: Apocalypse. Ratched marks the first time he is playing one of the main characters in a Murphy series.

Ratched serves an origin story for the titular character from the iconic Milos Forman-directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which is based on the book of the same name by Ken Kesey. The character of Mildred Ratched would later become known as one of the most heinous villains in cinematic history. In the new Netflix series, which debuts on September 18, Briones’s Dr. Hanover is a new character in this heightened reality in which Ratched takes place.

Sophie Okonedo and Briones in ‘Ratched’ Courtesy of Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Briones’s connection to the original film dates back to when he was living in the Philippines, where he was born and raised. The actor remembers watching the film at a young age but says that his English wasn’t good enough to understand everything in the film. However, he didn’t have to fully comprehend English to understand that Nurse Ratched was pure evil. Ratched gave him the opportunity to revisit this world and dive deep into her origin story and gain a sense of empathy to why she is the way she is. “You see how [her origin story]  shaped her whole psyche and how she maneuvered herself through life,” Briones tells Deadline. “I bought it…I was like, ‘Oh, this is great.'”

Briones first arrived in the United States in 1997 — which is not too long ago. As he mentioned, his English skills were not the best, but like many non-English speaking immigrants, he learned the language from watching TV and movies.

“I love the way the American accent sounds,” Briones said. “I remember when I was younger I would say gibberish in an American accent, trying to sound like John Wayne.” He may speak it fluently now, but he admits that he is still perfecting the language and he has a lot of help from his wife and kids.

“I’m still learning,” he said. “It’s the story of my life, I’m a late bloomer, I take my time to learn things.” English is his second language and Briones takes his time with scripts. He soaks in the scripts so he can fully understand every word and pronounce it correctly. “A week before we start filming Ratched, I need to totally memorize [the script] and totally set with it, so that there are no surprises for me,” he said.

As they say, slow and steady wins the race — and it’s been working in Briones’s favor. He has proven that you don’t have to be of a certain age to break into a new career — in his case, acting.

Briones entry into the world of showbusiness started in the original 1989 London production of Miss Saigon where he managed to land a role in the ensemble. His connection to the Broadway musical would continue throughout the years as he would play various roles, but it wasn’t until 2014 when he played The Engineer in the West End revival of Miss Saigon, a role which earned him a Laurence Olivier Award nomination. Three years later, at the age of 51, he made his Broadway debut when the production landed stateside.

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On this day in 1989, we opened a show in London that will become one of the most beloved musicals of all time. 13 of us came from the Philippines and it changed all our lives. It eventually changed a lot of people’s lives through the years. I/we owe a lot to this show! I celebrate you #MissSaigon ! You are looking good lady! #29YearsOld

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His role in Miss Saigon on Broadway would open another door that would lead to the Murphy-verse. In 2017, he met fellow Filipino Darren Criss at the Tony Awards. The Glee alum told him that he should keep his eye out for a role that is coming out. Criss told Briones that he would be perfect for it. Of course, he was referring to Murphy’s Versace, in which Criss would later win an Emmy for portraying Andrew Cunanan. The character of Cunanan is half-Filipino, so putting two and two together, it would just make sense that a Filipino-born actor would play his father.

Briones in ‘Miss Saigon’ Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

“That’s the first time I heard about it, and then my agent said, ‘Okay, you’ve got an audition for Versace,” said Briones. “So I taped myself and sent it to L.A.” He said they liked the audition and they made an offer — but he didn’t know if he would be able to do series because of his run on Miss Saigon — luckily, it all worked out because it pretty much secured him a spot in the Murphy acting collective.

After Versace, Briones continued to take the Miss Saigon stage. Murphy, Criss and Matt Bomer went to see him strut his stuff as The Engineer and afterward, Murphy chatted with him after the show and asked him what he was doing after his run on the musical ended.  He told the mega TV producer that he was going job hunting, to which Murphy said, “Oh, then I’ll just have to snatch you up.”

“I thought that was a Hollywood-talk, but he talked the talk and walked the walk,” said Briones. “I found out that there was an offer for me saying that I’m going to be in one of his new shows. Didn’t know what the show that was, but a few months later I got another phone call from my agent saying it was going to be Ratched and that he also wanted to put me in American Horror Story.”

Briones in ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story’ Courtesy of Ray Mickshaw/FX

Murphy is known for inclusive casting and amplifying underrepresented voices in the industry whether it is gender, race, age, sexual orientation, gender presentation and other communities that have been pushed into the margins. In Ratched, Dr. Hanover’s Filipino race comes into play quietly, bringing a sense of authenticity to the character and to Briones.

“I got the first three scripts and one of the lines in my first scene with Sarah Paulson’s character, Mildred Ratched, she asked me, ‘Are you of Filipino descent?'” he revealed. Even though much of that scene was cut, Briones was happy that they acknowledged “the Filipino body in this character.”

Later in the series, we see more nuances of his Filipino heritage, mainly in a courtroom scene with his wife and child. He points out, “The first mention of me being Filipino in the character was great, but we didn’t delve into it. We acknowledged it and we’ve moved on. Basically what carried through is the story of this person, how we navigated this world — but in the back of your mind, you know that he is Filipino.”

Briones has appeared in films and TV series where his Filipino heritage was essentially pushed aside. When he first started auditioning he admits that he just had to swallow his pride because there were a lot of times where he had no choice when it came to the parts he played.

“The part was always for ‘the short one’ or Chinese or Vietnamese… and always a drug dealer or a restaurant owner,” said Briones. “But what I can control is how I perform and what I give them.”

He continued, “I feel like I realized that it’s a marathon for me… it’s not a sprint. I take one step at a time.” And he did. with each role he booked, he would focus on that one and give his best — even just for the chance of being noticed for that performance. If it didn’t happen, he just moved on. There were times when Briones asked himself if this is what he really wanted it was the world of theater that helped him thrive. Miss Saigon helped him keep the eye on the prize because he kept on doing what he loved and harnessing his talent.

“If you don’t sharpen your tools, they’re not going to function well, so that’s what I’ve been doing,” he said. “Luckily, I kept on doing that until Ryan came into my life and he saw what I can do and he liked what I brought to the table and here we are.”

‘Ratched’ Courtesy of Saeed Adyani/Netflix

As Briones moves further and further into the limelight, the need to represent the Filipino community is always in the back of his mind. “My success will be other people’s success, but at the same time, it’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “You’re telling yourself, ‘Don’t mess this up because if you mess this up because if you do, you mess it up for everyone else’. There’s that extra burden that you carry sometimes.”

Even though the character of Dr. Hanover exists in a show that puts a lens on a fantastical hyper-reality on steroids, it still mirrors real life and for Briones, seeing a Filipino character allows others in the Filipino diaspora to see themselves. “I believe that’s so important — to have that story told by this body, by this person of color,” he said. “Growing up in the Philippines, I was watching a lot of Hollywood movies and you see how American Indians were depicted. We learned to hate the Indians because they’re barbarians and savages — and we see John Wayne saving the day. You never see them tell their stories. They’re just a tool to tell this other person’s story. They’re never the hero of their story.”

He added, “No matter who you are, you are always the hero of your story, even if you’re playing a bad person, but there needs to be a humanity and there’s no humanity in a person that you don’t understand. Representation does that. It makes you understand and it gives you empathy.”

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