An Interview With AIRMEN’S Xanthe Pajarillo and Jason Barlaan
In this guest blog post on This Filipino American Life, Xanthe Pajarillo, the creator of the web series AIRMEN, and Jason Barlaan, AIRMEN’s starring actor, sit down and talk about their new show, life in the military and the film industry, and their experiences of growing up Filipino. Pajarillo is a United States Air Force (USAF) veteran, while Barlaan, who portrays 2nd Lieutenant Anders, is a United States Marine Corps (USMC) veteran.
AIRMEN is a new web series that follows a group of Air Force troops navigating life during peacetime operations. It is a response to the lack of diversity in veteran narratives. It takes on a subject matter that is often marginalized in the entertainment industry: how military members experience their time in service, rather than focus on war or PTSD. They are currently raising funds for the first season on Seed&Spark. The deadline to contribute the web series project is August 15.
XANTHE: The first thing that I noticed was when you introduced yourself. Jason Bar-lun? I thought it was pronounced Bar-lawn.
JASON: You know it’s Barla-an in Filipino but no one gets the two “A”s at the end. Bar-lun is the American one. That’s the way most people can understand it. That’s how it was all through the military too.
XANTHE: What did you do in the Marines?
JASON: I ended up in the Aviation Support field. When we were deployed, they would call our unit to dispatch aviation assets: drones, anything that had to do with the sky to help with the war out there in Iraq and Afghanistan.
XANTHE: When you joined the military did you feel you were going to be the only Asian?
JASON: I’m used to that, growing up in this part of Los Angeles being the only Asian. You’d see [Filipinos] more so in the Navy but not in the Marines.
XANTHE: When I was talking to one of my Filipino friends while I was in the Air Force, he said that he expected that he would be the only Asian in a sea of white dudes, but then he met a lot of Asians. It depends where you are, I guess.
JASON: As a military person, are you proficient in weapons handling?
XANTHE: No. I was Health Services Management. The only time I held a weapon was in boot camp. I saw a lot of family members and airmen needing appointments.
JASON: I wanted to ask you something. The Talk of Santa Clarita podcast we did last week reminded me of your McRib thing. As a friend to you, I’m like “Was that an act?” My wife and I just finished watching it this morning, too. You don’t have to answer… [Laughs]
XANTHE: [Laughs] No, I get it all the time it’s fine. In Germany where my dad was stationed, the McRib is there year round. When we moved to the US, we wondered why McRib was only here in the fall. We made the McRib a part of our fall routine. I moved here for CalArts and got ovarian cancer. I had surgery to take it out. My dad was in Iraq. After we got together again, we wanted to do our family thing, and McDonald’s said the McRib’s not coming back. I thought, “This is not okay,” and I went to the [Santa Clarita] City Council — not because I felt like those were the correct people, but I thought someone there would get something done.
Song written in support of Santa Clarita City Council plea
JASON: I saw that video before I knew you. I thought that was a total gag. [Laughs] Now that you put it into context, you never judge. That’s a beautiful story. I never knew that. Wow, that’s so resilient.
XANTHE: Thanks. It’s been weird because I’ve gotten extreme reactions. Someone was really offended when they found out I was a veteran. They said, “You’re a disgrace to the military.” A lot of mad people message me, but some appreciate it too. I’ve had friends say “I need to go viral” and it’s actually not fun.
JASON: You lose your anonymity. They threaten you.
XANTHE: But I’ve met a lot of cool people through it too so it has its pros and cons. How was your upbringing? You said you didn’t have a traditional Filipino upbringing.
JASON: I meant in the sense of nuclear. My mom died in a car accident when I was six. My dad wasn’t in the picture, so my maternal grandmother raised us. My mom’s brother came from the Philippines and he had a drug problem. I went through a long period of time of child abuse. I know for a lot of kids in Filipino culture, that’s standard punishment, but in America it’s abuse. So yeah, Filipino traditions came in family parties. So when I see your mom cooking on set, I see the other actors and crew say, “This is awesome!” and I say, “This is standard, dude.” [Laughs]
XANTHE: This is a Filipino party!
JASON: Yeah, you just cook.
XANTHE: Well, thanks for sharing your story.
JASON: Yeah, it’s part of why I started teaching now. There’s a lot of kids that are like me. They’re down and out and want to turn to crime. I want my life to be like, “Hey, I was there, and it’s actually possible to make a good life.”
XANTHE: So you’re into teaching.
JASON: I had to put the acting thing on hold. You know, child care and going into these auditions in Hollywood… the high rejection rate is not paying off. Burning all the gas and time, paying for child care. I’d probably book every four months. Sometimes I wouldn’t even book.
XANTHE: Do you have a horror audition to share?
JASON: I wrote I knew capoeira on my acting resume. I know basic one-two movement of capoeira. It got me into an audition for a music video for… not One Direction, it was one of the groups at the time. The other kids were literally jumping off of walls, somersaults, aerials, and stuff like that. I don’t know how to do that. I had to slate my name and I had to go. She was a very well-known casting director. I did this number. I grabbed my foot and did a Homer Simpson. It was bad. The song gets radio play every now and then and when it plays, it’s like “This is the song!”
XANTHE: You hear it still?
JASON: Yeah. I have a lot of good experiences with auditions, too. I was the stereotypical Asian featured guest spot in Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson. I was an “Asian bad guy militia man.” All I had to do was fire the gun twice. I was shooting on set for twenty minutes, but I was on the lot for about 10-12 hours. That’s typical Hollywood, life of an extra.
XANTHE: Is there anything repetitive in what you’re brought in for?
JASON: They brought me in for a Benghazi movie. I could hear the people behind the camera say, “He’s not tall enough. We need more Asian.” I’m full 100% Filipino. I went home and the movie came out. I wanted to see who got my role. I’m not doubting his talent, but I was very confident in that audition. I totally killed that thing. But he was tall, darker, had a head of hair. He delivered the lines the same way. It taught me about what casting directors look for. They needed someone at the same eye line [as the lead actor.]
XANTHE: What were some stereotypes you’ve experienced from people?
JASON: My half-sister’s Black and Filipino. I would always get the dirty eye from the black community. They would think we’re dating. One night I was dropping her off at her dad’s house. We’re at a red light, and there’s this older black man who’s like, “Roll down your window!” I’m like, “What’s your deal?” He said, “Take her home! How dare you!” I said “That’s my fucking sister, dude.” The guy says sorry, all apologetic.
XANTHE: He doesn’t want black and Asians to date.
JASON: It’s very sad, but it’s also very interesting. If Magat and Anders [the two characters from AIRMEN] actually got together you could deal with that. People who don’t have those experiences and don’t want to know the different cultures. Like people who don’t take off their shoes when they walk into our homes. [Laughs] We say it as a courtesy “You can keep them on,” but what we really mean is take your shoes off.
XANTHE: At our house we tell them to take them off.
JASON: Take it off, man. These rugs aren’t cheap.
XANTHE: How do you feel about the current state of Asian representation in the media?
JASON: It’s horse shit. It’s nonexistent. It’s a pecking order: Caucasian, black, Latino, LGBTQ — which is great, but then below all of that is Asian. I can tell by the way I’m casted or auditioned, I’m never considered for those speaking roles. I’m a trained actor. I’m competent. I’m educated. I can totally do this, but I’m never given the opportunity. That’s why I commend you because you’re making it happen, which is what you’re supposed to as a minority. We need more people like you. The representation is sub-par, saying it nicely. It’s really bad.
XANTHE: How do you feel about those shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? They’re trying to add some change to that.
JASON: My sister’s a huge fan of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and I think it’s great… but it’s very centered around our culture. It’s not centered around being a human being in America. I’m watching a show called Sharp Objects with Amy Adams. Great actress. Super talented. But they’re not celebrating her whiteness. They’re just telling a story about her being a journalist. I wish the marginalized groups like the Asians and Indians, Latinos, and LGBTQ would get those kinds of shows.
XANTHE: About who they are.
JASON: Yeah, about who they are. Just the humanness of them.
XANTHE: How do you feel people will feel about seeing a Filipino in the military in AIRMEN?
JASON: You see them more so in the medical field as doctors and stuff. But as a military officer, it’s always good. It’s not out of the norm, nor is it for any kind of race, but it’s just sad how other shows create these other narratives about veterans. It’s important to show that Asian officers — they’re there, they’re real. Interracial relationships are there, they’re real. And other things you point out in your project. Very important.
Find AIRMEN on Seed&Spark, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. http://www.airmentv.com
Xanthe Pajarillo is a filmmaker, musician, photographer, and USAF veteran from Germany and Virginia. She is driven by a duty to tell stories that expand people’s empathy towards one another. She received a BFA in Photography and Media from CalArts, and will begin her MFA in Film and TV Production at USC this fall. Find Xanthe on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and on the web at http://www.xanthepajarillo.com
Jason Barlaan is a proud Marine Veteran who served honorably in both OIF & OEF as an enlisted Marine and an Officer, and has received recognition in multiple ranks. He carried over those talents into his civilian life and has credits with commercial work for USAA, Navy Federal, and USO. He loves his craft and understands the many challenges it presents, but being a Marine has prepared him to endure Hollywood and beyond. Jason loves working on projects with other Veterans!