The Unusual Suspects is a four-part genre-bending series that explores Filipino–Australian culture within a fun, fast-paced heist caper story centred around female friendship.
Real-life married couple Michelle Vergara Moore (Condor, The Time of Our Lives) and Toby Leonard Moore (Mank, Billions) play onscreen married couple Roxanne and Jordan Waters. The Guide spoke to them about what it was like working together on the series, why they chose to take on the roles, and the importance of authentic Filipino cultural representation on screen.
What is The Unusual Suspects about?
Michelle: It’s about a group of women from all different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and a very expensive necklace that is stolen. Basically, we’re not quite sure who has stolen it and for what reason – but this becomes apparent during the story. But I think also, it’s about friendship, it’s about the camaraderie between these women whose lives are so different, and it’s also about exploring Filipino–Australian culture. I tried to look up shows in America, Britain and Canada to see if Filipino stories had been told in countries outside the Philippines. I’d seen little bits and pieces on shows but they were never really focused around core actors who were Filipino – in The Unusual Suspects we have four out of the eight lead actors who are from a Filipino background.
Toby: I just love that we get to investigate that sort of Filipino culture and way of life. It was obviously very important to us with Michelle being Filipino and the fact that I was so warmly welcomed into her family and immediately inherited five brothers and four sisters just like that in this massive family. So, it’s lovely that we actually get to see that on screen for the first time that I can think of.
What interested you about the series and made you want to take on the roles?
Michelle: I’m very proud of being a Filipino–Australian. I come from a very large family with heaps of relatives. I just feel there hasn’t been a lot of representation of Filipinos in western media in general. But also, the actual story is like a genre hybrid – you’re not quite sure if it is a drama but then there’s some really funny bits and then it gets quite quirky. I just found it very fun and the script was unlike anything I’d actually ever read before.
Toby: Just on the genre hybrid, when we actually started shooting, it took on this life of its own. It’s very joyous and jovial – it’s the heist genre and then you’ve got a bit of farce thrown in there as well and then BOOM, you get hit by this pathos and you’re like, ‘Oh, now you’re making me feel things!’. It’s a welcome surprise, I think.
It was nice to play an Australian for the first time in a while – had to brush up on my accent! I find it fun to play someone who’s pretty much objectively unlikable because you can’t half-arse that, you’ve got to just lean into it. I found that quite fun. And I’ve always loved the heist genre too. So much fun. I also have to say, it looks spectacular. You never quite know how something is going to come out the other end when you are on set. I love the way it looks, it’s so wickedly stylised.
You two graduated from NIDA together but you haven’t worked together on screen until now. How did you find that experience?
Michelle: We both worked on an American show called Condor. My scenes were with an actor named Bob Balaban and Toby was a series regular, but we weren’t on screen together. It’s completely different when you’re actually working opposite each other in scenes. And often at home, we self-tape, so I’ll be Toby’s reader and vice versa. So, we’ve acted opposite each other in that respect but we’ve done nothing else on screen together and we’re actually really excited. Not only for audiences but for our friends and family as well. Toby has done so much work and been really successful and I’m just so proud of him. When we were about to shoot our first scene, Toby said the last actor I worked alongside was Gary Oldman! So, I had a lot of pressure. But Toby was just so supportive and I loved it.
Toby: Well, it only took us 18 years to work together professionally on camera. It’s funny because I had a little out-of-body experience – on our very first scene together, Michelle was doing her thing and it’s such a different character that she plays, such a departure from who she is in real life. So, in that first scene, I was like ‘Oh, this actor is really good! – oh, hang on, that’s wifey, I know her, I know her from home’. So, it was magic, it was magic. But there’s also that element of, we’ve had all the time to rehearse with ourselves – what if this is not good? There’s no one else to blame. You never have that much time to work with your scene partner, you know. You usually rehearse it once and then off you go.
The authentic Filipino cultural representation is not only in front of the camera but behind the scenes as well which was great to see.
Michelle:I completely agree - we had director Melvin Montalban and then writer/producer Vonne Patiag who are both from a Filipino background. I remember getting the audition scene and thinking I really want to be in this – this is it; this is my time to be in a Filipino show. But I also remember thinking, if I don’t get the role, I just hope they authentically cast Filipino because that’s happened to me in the past – I didn’t get a role and they didn’t cast a Filipino actor even though it was based on a real-life person.
In amongst all the fun and frivolity in the series, there’s these serious themes which pop up. What really struck a chord with you, and what would you like audiences to take away from the series?
Michelle:I feel like the writers and producers have been savvy and clever in the way that they’ve put this story across because it’s entertaining, it’s a lot of fun to watch but then they slip in all these little punches to the gut. It’s very timely for what’s currently happening in the world – there’s a lot of anti-Asian sentiment because of what’s happening with Covid. That hasn’t happened to me directly, but it has happened to my brother – he was just walking down the street with his two seven-year-old children and someone was yelling at them out of a car as they drove past about Covid. It’s cowardly and despicable behaviour and there’s been a lot of physical attacks around the world too. So, I feel like it would just be really good for audiences to see that, guess what, we’re actually human.
Toby: It’s quite skilfully crafted – we’re not bashing you over the head with issues, just dropping them in with brevity. Two overarching things are important to me and for audiences to see. Putting the shoe on the other foot and realising that your experience is not going to be the same as anyone else. So have a bit more empathy towards everybody particularly in this crazy time in the world. And the other thing is just the absolute joyousness of the Filipino family culture – they’re such a warm people. I’ve been to the Philippines maybe three times with Michelle…the positivity is palpable, lots of food, lots of karaoke – it’s such a celebratory culture and perhaps Australians haven’t seen a whole lot of that represented. So, I’m looking forward to people seeing that.
The Unusual Suspects premieres Thursday June 3 at 8:30pm on SBS, with the full series also available then at SBS On Demand.