When actress Susana Downes got the call in mid-2020 she would be cast as Gigi in the new SBS heist drama, The Unusual Suspects, she was in a doctor’s waiting room helping her ex-boyfriend get X-rays for his fractured ankle.
She was reeling from the unexpected break-up from said boyfriend, and was floored to get booked, after a year-long audition process.
“I get this call in the waiting room and I just burst into tears,” she tells SBS Voices.
“I was in absolute shock.”
Fast-forward 12 months, and Downes has completed filming her break-out role as the dreamy, ‘manifesting’ Gigi in the SBS drama alongside industry heavyweights like Miranda Otto, Peter O’Brien, Heather Mitchell, Michelle Vergara Moore and Toby Leonard Moore, a process she calls "deeply humbling" and the "best three months of her life." And after episode one airs in June, she’ll be competing in the Miss World Australia NSW contest.
"(It was) very serendipitous for it to actually come into my life,” Downes says.
Downes says playing Gigi, a middle-class girl from the Philippines who migrates to Australia to ostensibly work as a cleaner but instead dabbles in life-coaching, was like playing a version of herself. It was Gigi's optimistic spirit that helped her revive her zest for performance.
“Playing Gigi, I made the joke, she’s basically me if I had been born in The Philippines. She’s the glamour girl who also really loves working on herself and manifestation, karma, 'what goes around comes around', all that kind of stuff.
“It was really, really monumental for me. I was in a really bad place right before I booked it," she says. "It felt like I wasn’t doing anything for myself but I was sacrificing all these things for other people...it was kind of that everything happens for a reason, silver lining situation, it was the right moment for it to come into my life and really brought back purpose and why I do what I do.
"If I look back on where I was before I started filming and where I am now, it’s a complete 180. Working on this character and being this character on my own time has taught me how to put my mindset back into that winning mindset."
It is a breakout performance for Downes, after being cast in a smaller role in the 2018 SBS drama Dead Lucky. Downes, who grew up in Erskine Park and the Hills District in Western Sydney, is a self-declared "mixed kid", with a Caucasian dad and Filipino mum who migrated to Australia in the 1980's.
Her family are science nerds; her mother has a maths degree and her grandfather was a physics professor. As a young girl she was bullied in primary school for her love of performance. Seeing her flamboyant precocious daughter's gift for stage and singing, her mum transferred Downes to the McDonald College, a performing arts school in Sydney's Strathfield, which led her to pursue musical theatre at university.
Despite having support at school and at home, Downes struggled with not seeing role models like herself in the arts industry. She was obsessed with Filipino-Australian entertainer Kathleen de Leon Jones from children’s entertainment group Hi-Five, one of the few Asian-Australian women she grew up seeing on screen in the 1990s and early 2000's.
It was initially through pageants she was able to access a new audience and feed her drive for performance. She started entering pageants in 2015. Downes jokes, "karaoke, basketball and pageants" are natural Filipino sports. Travelling to the Philippines' capital Manila to compete (and win) as Miss Earth Australia was a highlight, allowing her to brush up on her Tagalog and connect with her cultural roots. But it came with a cost. Her win exposed her to racist abuse.
“I experienced a crack-ton of racism when I won Miss Earth Australia in 2019. I was being told I wasn’t Australian enough to represent Australia, or that I wasn’t the typical Australian beauty because I wasn’t a blonde-haired blue-eyed girl,” she said.
“I’m Australian as the next Australian girl. I was born in Westmead hospital!"
For Downes, acting comes with a social responsibility to advocate for a greater representation for Filipino-Australian and mixed race kids on screen.
“[Representation] was something that wasn’t a big part of TV, film and media, back in the 90s and early 2000s or even if we were - [we were] the token Asian. We were the odd one out, we weren’t the main character. It’s been a really big part of my story and my message is that we can be the main character, we don’t have to be the funny sidekick.”
The Unusual Suspects is an SBS drama that marks the first major representation of Filipino-Australians on Australian television and continues SBS’s legacy of delivering exceptional drama exploring the rich diversity of Australia in an authentic and nuanced way. It premieres Thursday June 3 at 8:30pm on SBS, with the full series also available then at SBS On Demand (full-series drop).