Semi-charmed life: Meet the stars of ‘Billie & Emma’

Photos by Kitkat Pajaro


When Zar Donato first met Gabby Padilla at a reading, her first thought was: She looks familiar.

“When I saw her I was so intimidated,” she recalls. “Parang nag-pop na siya sa screen ng phone ko sa YouTube.”

“She was so sweet, so nice and friendly,” Gabby chimes in. “It felt so effortless. I mean, it felt like we just knew each other from the get-go. Sabi ko, ‘Ang pogi nito, a.’”

Weh?” Zar says, and they both promptly burst into laughter. When they’ve gotten a hold of themselves, she concludes, “So that’s where the push and pull of our chemistry started.”

That was also the day that Zar and Gabby became Billie and Emma.

Zar was a film major who grew to love the industry and hoped to move towards acting; she had tried auditioning for thesis films and never got cast. Gabby was a theater actress with a few film and television projects under her belt, including Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral, as well as some commercials — the latter of which got Zar to recognize her by her face. When the casting call went out for a new film about two girls in love, they both knew they had to audition.

[READ: We get to know the boys of ‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral]

The film is director and YS columnist Samantha Lee’s follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut feature Baka Bukas, and it follows senior high school students Billie, who had recently been outed as a lesbian and banished from Manila to the province, and Emma, who has to navigate some tough choices after finding out she’s pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. It’s also a love letter to the ‘90s, the decade in which it’s set.

The movie, which premiered and is currently screening as a Circle Competition entry at this year’s QCinema Film Festival, shot for eight days in Tarlac, Cavite, and Bulacan.

Young STAR sat down with Zar and Gabby to discuss getting into Billie and Emma’s headspace, reliving the the era of butterfly clips, and the importance of queer representation in film.

What drew you to the script and made you connect with the material?

Gabby: I love that there are so many aspects now that we’re trying to talk about and so many things that we can talk about. It’s not just about the LGBTQ+ experience, it’s about teenage pregnancy, it’s about [contemplating] abortion, it’s about the choices women and young girls have. I love that it’s not in-your-face. It’s not preachy, it’s not, “This is what we want you to think.” I think that’s why I liked the story so much, because it was a story about two girls, but it wasn’t just about their sexuality. That’s not all there is to them.

Zar: It’s light, it’s about two high school students, but the attack is heavy. You know, it has that voice [that’s] louder [and wiser]. You really think about it.  

“It’s about time that we include more LGBTQ+ voices. I think when you continue to make films like this and continue to expose people [to these stories, it reflects that] this is the world we live in.”

Being that Billie and Emma are the title characters, the film is obviously very character-driven. Getting into their headspace, did you find that you were anything like them?

Gabby: Yes. It’s scary, actually. I grew up in Iloilo, so I knew what it was like to know that there was a bigger world out there and kind of dream of that bigger world for yourself when you grow up. Even Emma’s personality, ‘yung pagka-stubborn niya. We were asked to decide what our characters’ zodiac signs were, so I decided that Emma was a cusp of Aries and Taurus, because she’s so stubborn. She’s so uncompromising, but she’s so driven also.

Zar: When I read the script, it was so accurate how [Billie was written]. Her experiences are similar to my experiences when I was in high school and elementary. And the only difference is that she was sent to the province to fix her life, [which] really happens in real life. With my experience, it’s different. I was accepted, but then the discrimination was still there, and the struggle is still there, and falling in love with a girl and [wanting to help her out], it’s still there. I feel like we’re both Pisces, because she’s more [in tune with] her feelings rather than logic.


Billie & Emma is another welcome step toward more representation in local LGBTQ+ cinema. What do you think makes it important?

Zar: Film is a really big platform, and we should be given a chance to represent ourselves. It makes audiences feel seen. [It says] “Hey, it’s okay to be gay. It’s not a big deal, it’s normal.” I think with enough impact we hopefully at least have a chance to create equal opportunities for LGBTQ+ [to tell their stories]. The purpose of the film is actually to reach out to them, to have that empowering feeling.

Gabby: It’s about time that we include more LGBTQ+ voices. We’re not single-handedly changing anything in the landscape, but I think when you continue to make films like this and continue to expose people [to these stories, it reflects that] this is the world we live in.

“For me, it means having to accept who you are, and nobody should be [discriminated against]. The film makes me feel na I’m really confident with and proud of who I am. It’s nice to have been able to see that.”

What does the movie mean to you personally?

Gabby: Besides Emma navigating her sexuality, I think her main conflict is really about her struggle as a woman in that day and age. It made me realize that not much has changed for women [since the ‘90s]. Mas na-strengthen lang ‘yung

Zar: Womanhood mo?

Gabby: That, and mas na-determine ako to stand up for all the Emmas of the world. Knowing the privilege you have and having this platform, you get to [show] that there are a lot of girls who are deprived of education, who don’t have autonomy over their bodies, and that’s what it means to me.

Zar: For me, it means having to accept who you are, and nobody should be [discriminated against]. With Billie kasi, she tries to fit in with everyone’s standards, and Emma helped her [realize] that it’s okay to be who you are.  Not just your sexuality, but your style, your body. The film makes me feel na I’m really confident with and proud of who I am. It’s nice to have been able to see that.

For screening schedules, follow Billie & Emma on Instagram.

Photos by Kitkat Pajaro
Produced and styled by Tin Sartorio
Assisted by Gian Nicdao
Special thanks to Artesania Furniture