Sumalee Montano

‘We’re All Interconnected’: Fulbright Inspires Globally Minded Film Production

Sumalee Montano
Award-winning Actress and Producer
Fulbright Study/Research Award to the Philippines

Headshot of Sumalee Montano
Photo credit: "Theo & Juliet Photography"

Versatile American actress-producer Sumalee Montano is known for her portrayals of characters of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage across television and film, and for bringing to life more than 200 characters in animated movies and video games. Her first television role, as nurse Duvata Mahal on E.R., came at a time when this representation on screen was scarce. As an actress of Thai and Filipina descent, she has since advanced diverse representation in Hollywood through roles in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, This Is Us, VEEP, Star Trek Picard, S.W.A.T., and Scandal. She was recently cast as White House Chief of Staff Dana Hammond in Executive Producer Shonda Rhimes’s new comedic mystery The Residence.

Montano’s sensitive portrayals are an outcome of her background, as well as her education and thoughtful research. A Fulbright exchange to the Philippines provided Montano with invaluable insights across cultures, enriching her skills as both an actor and producer. Montano says that Fulbright “will make you a more well-rounded person, more broad-minded, more empathetic, and in my case, a better storyteller.”

Montano did not always intend to be an actor or producer. As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Montano wrote her senior thesis on migrant workers from the Philippines to the United States. She was awarded a Fulbright to continue her research. The lessons that she learned during her Fulbright year in the Philippines stuck with her. In the Philippines, she set out to interview Filipina workers, but during her project, she realized there was relatively little research on how overseas labor affects the families left behind. She then shifted her focus to documenting the narratives of the wives and mothers who remained in the Philippines and relied on remittances sent back home by overseas Filipino workers.

She recalls the stories of women facing poverty when their husbands established new families abroad, cutting off the remittances they depended on. While these women’s struggles were difficult to witness, Montano remarks “Fulbright set me on my path of telling stories and uplifting voices that aren’t usually given much support.” This experience taught her “how to find the story within the story.” She added, “You have to delve deeper, ask questions, and explore more. That’s when I found the real story that needed to be told.”

She returned to the United States to begin a job in finance. This marked a sharp transition from her work in the Philippines to employment at one of the world’s largest investment banks, an experience she has described as “cultural whiplash.” After a few years in the financial world, she realized she “preferred scripts to spreadsheets,” and left to pursue an acting career.

Montano’s Fulbright experience strengthened her connection to her Filipina roots in “a deep and meaningful way.” She drew on her relationship with her own mother, a single Filipina who immigrated to the United States, and the experiences of the women she met during her Fulbright to create, produce, and star in The Deal, a sci-fi adventure film centered around a single mother, Tala, who makes sacrifices to protect her daughter. Reflecting on her mother’s influence on the role of Tala, she notes there are parallels in the challenges they faced as part of “the dystopian world we built.”

Sumalee Montano walking with with actor filming on set
Sumalee Montano as Tala Bayani with Emma Fischer (left) as Analyn Bayani in The Deal.  Photo courtesy of Aleksandar Letic.

A throughline in Montano’s work is a focus on fostering empathy and understanding across demographics. Montano loves that she “gets to voice characters that actually match my Filipino and Thai ethnicity” in her animated roles, such as Sharon and Nin, the central Thai mom and grandmother on The Ghost & Molly McGee, and Blessie Dalisay, the Filipina mom on Fright Krewe.  She is proud that young audiences can access these representations on major streaming platforms and video games. She has voiced the thief Yuna in the video game Ghost of Tsushima, and characters in the iconic Star Wars and World of Warcraft properties, as well as recent releases Spiderman 2, Starfield, and Dead Space.

Fulbright continues to influence Montano’s choice of projects to produce. The production company she founded with partner Grace Lay, LinLay Productions, reaches global audiences with culturally relevant films. For example, Nanny, the Sundance-winning narrative about a Senegalese mother working in the United States, shines light on similar themes as her Fulbright research. She was recently a judge for the Manila International Film Festival, which aims to build bridges between Filipino-Americans in Hollywood and the film community in the Philippines.

Her work through LinLay Productions has created a platform for supporting stories that uplift and amplify talent in communities underrepresented in film and television productions, as well as intergenerational stories.  Razing Liberty Square, which shows the effects of climate gentrification on a historically Black Miami neighborhood, is streaming on PBS, and Sugarcane, a gripping documentary on the investigation of an Indian residential school, was acquired by NatGeo.

Sumalee Montano standing in front of SXSW sign with two women
Montano attended the Black Barbie premiere at SxSW with her LinLay co-founder Grace Lay (left) and the film’s director, Lagueria Davis.

LinLay Productions is also behind the new documentary Black Barbie, the story of how the first Black Barbie doll was created in 1980, which has been acquired by Netflix and Shondaland. Solidarity with the Black community is important to Montano. She says, “As an Asian-American woman, broadening the stories we tell beyond the AANHPI community reminds me that we’re all interconnected. . . . I’ve found so much joy in helping to build coalitions with other communities.”

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