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Ruby Ruiz Talks Playing Nicole Kidman’s Nanny

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SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for Central, the fifth episode of Expats,” now streaming on Prime Video.

Lulu Wang’s “Expats” steps into feature-length territory for this week’s episode, which focuses on the working class women by diving into the lives of the help, Essie (Ruby Ruiz) and Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla). The story steps away from the wealthy world of Margaret (Nicole Kidman) and Hillary (Sarayu Blue), instead following Essie and Puri on their day off, unwinding from their hectic work. 

Poor Essie has spent much of the series fraught with guilt over the disappeareance of Margaret’s son, Gus, blaming herself for not being there the night the young boy vanished at the Night Market. Early in this week’s episode, the nanny is Facetiming with her son, who is in the Philippines, anticipating that she will return “soon.” Essie believes Margaret will head back to America with her husband and family and terminate her in the process.

Instead, she gets the shock of her life when Margaret sits her down and confesses her torment. Her jealousy over Gus’ closeness to Essie led her to ask Mercy (Ji-Young Yoo) for help that night. In an emotional moment, Margaret makes an offer that’s just too good to be true – inviting her to work for the family in America. Essie is then faced with her own new conflict: does she return home as she had hoped or does she move to America? 

Ruiz reflects on the episode, breaking down in tears as she recalls being sent a video of Wang during a Q&A, in which the show’s creator and director praised her: “Ruby is the heart and soul of the entire show.”

“I can’t explain how happy I am,” Ruiz tells Variety. “Playing Essie, I didn’t have that intention. I’m doing my part. Hearing that from a director who I truly admire is like getting an award. It validated everything that I did.”

Read on for the full conversation with Ruiz.

This episode is a change of pace, looking into the lives of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). What was it like reading the script for it and seeing what Wang and the team had done to tell their story?

I was really surprised. I couldn’t help but call Lulu and tell her this was unbelievable. I was reading something that really speaks to the lives of Filipino workers. When I got to the scene between Essie and Margaret, I had to stop because I could see her dilemma. I could feel how hurt she was for everything that had happened to Gus and how she blames herself for everything. She doesn’t understand why she wasn’t at the night market. And for the first time, she understands Margaret as she’s opening up to her. 

Well, reading it was one thing. What was it like acting that scene out with Nicole Kidman and having it all come together?

Right before the take, Lulu asked me if I was nervous. I wasn’t because I was completely zoned in as Essie. As Essie, she’s going through those emotions thinking she is about to be fired. Instead, we hear how Margaret is tormented, but how important Essie is to the family and wants to bring her to the United States. Nicole Kidman had a long monologue, and I just had to look at her and listen to her intently as I had never heard those lines before. I did nothing but listen and react to her. The moment she said how much Essie meant to the family, I started to cry. It wasn’t in the script, but I couldn’t help but feel those words. I couldn’t help but have those tears flow. Nicole was just so convincing as Margaret. It reminded me of the time I had to say goodbye to an employer when I was a nanny in Toronto. Even though it was a different situation, there was this parallel. I felt that Nicole and I were connected at that very special moment. 

There are incredible nuances in the episode that are specific to Filipino culture, such as standing in line on Sunday at Western Union to send money home, sitting in McDonald’s and gathering with friends and other housekeepers. What did it mean to see those cultural touchpoints?

That scene by Western Union when they’re standing in the rain was real. There was a storm when we shot that. It’s one of my most memorable scenes in the whole series. When I saw the setup and all the OFWs, being in the middle of that was just overwhelming. 

Going back to the confrontation scene, watching it was an emotional rollercoaster because you feel she’s about to get fired and you feel a moment of dread for Essie. How is she feeling at the end of the conversation?

She’s confused because her mind is already set on going back home. It’s always the case that when the employer goes back to their country that’s the end of your contract. Right? But in that scene, I felt like Margaret was talking to her mother. She’s very apologetic and very raw and honest. By the end, Essie feels appreciated. Leaving Essie behind [at the end of the series], I realized how important it is for helpers, nannies and OFWs to hear compliments. It’s so innate for Essie to have treated the family as her own. So when Margaret articulates everything, it’s so emotional for her.

When you’re spending six episodes with a character, do you craft a backstory and work with Lulu? What was your process?

I read the scripts three times. I got it during quarantine and I was so engrossed in the story. I didn’t do anything because all the little details about the character were there. 

In terms of representation, Essie is the epitome of an Overseas Filipino Worker. What does it mean to have played Essie and to have this authentic character out there?

I felt I had the responsibility to be able to portray her realistically and truthfully. I had this responsibility to portray our unsung heroes. My objective as an actor was to portray that role with dignity. I want OFWs to say, “Yes, that’s us.” In one scene, I was supposed to speak English but it sounded like “Carabao English” (poorly written English), and I brought it to Lulu’s attention. I said, “I can’t deliver the line because we don’t speak the way you do, as fluent as that. A lot of OFWs are well-educated and many of them are university graduates or professors. I wouldn’t want to portray or depict an OFW that way.” I thought after six years, Essie would have assimilated and be able to communicate and deliver dialogue with correct grammar and they understood that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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