In the celebrated movie musical Dreamgirls, Sharon Leal emerges into consciousness as the character Michelle Morris, who replaces the soulful Effie White, played by Jennifer Hudson. It’s a riveting scene, when Leal, along with Beyoncé Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and Jamie Foxx confront Hudson, to let her know she is no longer a part of the all-girl trio The Dreams.
For Leal, that brief performance was the culmination of her love for the long-running Broadway musical, which is loosely based on the story of the popular 60s trio, The Supremes, headlined by Diana Ross. “I connected to that musical. I was obsessed with Dreamgirls. It was a project that was very close to me,” Leal says.
It was back in 1974 though when Leal lived in Manila that her parents discovered their precocious daughter loved to perform. “My father had this tape recording machine with a mike. When I’d see the microphone, I’d grab it and sing. For some reason, I would always sing ‘Tiny Bubbles.’ I don’t know why I chose that song,” she says, referring to the ditty popularized by Hawaiian crooner Don Ho.
But long before Dreamgirls or Guiding Light, the soap she gained public recognition for, Leal remembers her first public performance in Manila: her nursery school. “I went to the Jack and Jill nursery school and danced to the Hawaii 5-0 theme song. That was the first time I was on stage in the Philippines,” she chuckles.
“I guess I got the love of singing from my mom. She listened to a lot of Filipino singers, like Sharon Cuneta,” Leal says, even after the family had left the Philippines when she was six years old and moved to California.
CHARTING HER COURSE
“As a child I was very shy in school. I guess I was bitten very early by the bug,” she says. Leal looked up to jazz singers like Linda Rondstadt, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. She could have remained a fan of these singers all her life, or taken a more circuitous route to the performing arts were it not for the encouragement of her sixth grade teacher in public school, Nancy Engstrom. “She saw that I was musically inclined. During lunch break, she would play the viola and I would play the violin. She helped me apply to a school for the gifted program. I don’t know if I would’ve gotten it if she didn’t tell me about it or encourage me.”
And Leal did get accepted to the Roosevelt High School of the Arts school in Fresno, California, which she says gave her “rigorous” training from music theory to drama. “Remember the movie Fame? It was something like that. Being in that school was the first time I was exposed to a whole community of kids singing and dancing. And people took it seriously.”
It was here that she nurtured her talent in acting as well, looking up to Hollywood veterans for inspiration. “My role models in acting are Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Audrey Hepburn, Sally Fields, Robert de Niro.”
“I never really saw myself as an actress. One day an agent asked if I had ever considered acting. Then I found myself taking acting lessons. I just sort of fell into it,” Leal recounts. She did various theater workshops and came out in local stage productions of musicals such as West Side Story and Dreamgirls. She gave Hollywood a shot and became a familiar face on TV thanks to a two-year stint on the soap Guiding Light as teenager Dahlia Creed from 1996 to 1998. This gave her ground to improve her acting, and paved the way for roles in Broadway on Miss Saigon and Rent, where she displayed both her powerful singing and acting skills. Leal’s fresh-faced beauty and talent returned to television in 2000 in the legal series Boston Public. “At that point, the magnitude of what I had achieved dawned on me,” she says. Then came casting calls for the movie adaptation of Dreamgirls.
“I was very lucky enough to get an audition. I felt it was a long shot.” Leal got a call back from the director Bill Condon, and had a casting director Debbie Vanes, ever-supportive of placing Leal in the role of Michelle Morris. “It’s just one of those things that worked in my favor. People were passionate about giving me a shot.”
She then starred in two more movies, Why Did I Get Married? and This Christmas, and was hailed by Entertainment Weekly as one of its 10 breakout stars for 2007. The comedy musical Soul Men with Samuel Jackson and Bernie Mac was released in 2008. The plot revolves around two bickering, backup soul singers who reunite after 20 years and go on a road trip to pay tribute to their former lead singer. Leal plays Jackson’s daughter. “Of course, I get to sing in the movie,” she says. She’s also starred in a thriller, Linewatch, with Cuba Gooding, and is currently filming a sequel to Why Did I Get Married.
She hopes to record an album someday. “It’s best to say I’m working on it. We’re teaming up with some producers trying to create a vision for my music.” She’s recorded a number of tracks, all definitely smooth R&B, back in January 2008 with a New York-based Filipino production team called Kuya, whom she met when she was doing Miss Saigon.
WHERE THE HEART IS
Among her other memories of growing up in Manila were her birthday parties. “Parties that would go well into the night; the six-tiered birthday cake; the roasted pig in the backyard,” she recalls. “I remember the beaches, the jeepneys. The markets, the streets, the mangoes. I grew up Filipino. I was exposed to Filipino food and customs,” says Leal.
She lives in West Hollywood with her husband, screenplay writer Bev Land, whom she met in 1999 and married two years later, and their son Kai Miles. Leal keeps in close touch with her Filipino roots through her family who still live in Fresno. Family is her mom Angelita Manankil of Pampanga, her stepfather Elmer Manankil and younger half-sister Kristina. “My half-sister and I are really close. I talk to her every day,” she says.
Her enthusiasm for revisiting the Philippines was piqued recently by Apl.de.Ap of the Black Eyed Peas whom she met at the launch of Will.I.Am’s album. “He told me how warm the Filipinos were, and how proud he is to be Filipino,” says Leal. “I’d love to go back and visit sometime.”
Family and friends keep her grounded, and, we might venture to add, the Filipino sense of “utang na loob.” “It’s very difficult to get the kind of success I had. It’s hard for me to forget how hard I worked to get here. I’m just so grateful for every moment of it,” Leal declares.
“At times I’ve had to ask myself, do I want to be famous or do I really want to enjoy and love the work? I was never motivated by fame. I just love the work. I just try to have fun and not take myself too seriously,” she adds.
“It’s been instilled in me the love I have for my work. I’ve learned not to look too far ahead and treat things one day at a time,” she adds. She believes she’s moved by her instinct and a “higher force.” “I am listening to that inner voice. There’s something that’s greater than me and I am trusting in that.”
In an age where fame in Hollywood can instantly be gained by tabloid notoriety rather than talent, Leal found herself dipping into deep reserves of talent and values to get the breaks she wanted and deserved.
“Women should remember—you have to keep some kind of integrity intact. You have to have in you that sense of not selling out. The (showbiz) industry is about being ‘in the game,’ and it’s a good thing for women to be strong in their convictions and to be true to themselves.”
For Leal, the best is yet to come.
(First published in Marie Claire, May 2008; photos used with permission from Sharon Leal, main photo by Charlize Lin, Dreamgirls photo courtesy of Dreamworks LLC and Paramount Pictures)