'Multi-talented actor' Nia Peeples
I would love to go to the Philippines," says NiaPeeples, Hollywood actress, singer, songwriter and choreographer, during a one-on-one interview at a Beverly Hills hotel in which she talks extensively about her Filipino heritage for the first time.
Nia, Steven Seagal's co-star in the action-thriller "Half Past Dead," recalls the time she danced the tinikling as a little girl. The multi-talented performer is best known for her roles on two hit TV series, as Nicole Chapman on "Fame" and as an undercover cop on Chuck Norris' "Walker, Texas Ranger." She also scored a Billboard no. 1 dance record and became a host of "The Party Machine with Nia Peeples" and MTV's "Friday Night Street Party."
The way Nia recounts it, her family's beginnings in the US sound like a not-so-typical chapter in an immigrant Filipino family's pursuit of the American dream. "My grandparents on my mother's side are both from the Philippines, " begins Nia, whose father, Bob, is white. "My grandfather,Frank Nuñez Rubic, was from Manila. My grandmother, Emilia Salcedo, was from Cebu." Both are deceased. Although she never learned to speak Filipino,Nia maintains that she's thoroughly Pinay. But her family's saga explains why most migrants eventually lose their heritage. "My grandfather joined the US Navy in the Philippines in 1925 and when they docked over in San Francisco, he jumped ship so he could get his family here," Nia recounts. "My grandmother came over illegally, during the war. So when they had children, they wouldn't allow their kids to speak Tagalog and told them to act like Americans. The kids understood Tagalog but never spoke it."One of those kids was Nia's mother, Elizabeth "Liz" Joan Rubic Peeples, who, at 61, has never been to the Philippines.
Nia, who was born in Hollywood, narrates an incident that must have been
remarkable to three generations of Rubic women. "Years ago, right before my grandmother passed away, I remember going to a party with her. I must have been 13. My mother would take us to my grandparents'homes or their parties, and there were many Filipinos around speaking Tagalog. You'd pick up a few things but you don't really know. Then once, my mother asked my grandmother how her aunt (my grandmother's sister) was. My grandmother said, 'She's not really your aunt.'My mother said, 'What!?' Turns out they weren't really sisters. To escape the war, some of my folks changed names. Some of them who found a ay to get to the United States took all of these different children in with them."She adds, "My mother is really dying to find her roots back there, because we lost contact. There's a lot that we don't know, that we feel like there's a hole.
" Nia claims that her grandfather Frank was a medal-winning boxer, while his brother Jose was a Manila police chief."I would love to go to the Philippines, with my mother." Nia, who was a high school cheerleader, senior class president and homecoming queen, credits her gregariousness to her upbringing. "My entire family is like this," she states."Maybe it's because we come from so many races. My father is from the south with Scottish, Irish, English, Native Indian, Italian and all that in his blood, and he married a Filipina. That was something, especially in those times.
My parents were proud of the fact that they had three little girls of mixed blood. My extended family also had children of every color. So when our family gets together, there are different kinds of food. Individuality is always honored. I never even considered that it wasn't part of being American. It was so weird to me when I got old enough to realize that some people are prejudiced. I didn't even know that I was of a different color, until I moved to Texas when I was 11. I heard them talking about this one black kid in class and I went, 'What?'"
Still, Nia, whose exotic good looks, articulateness and engaging mien make her a standout, is proud of her mixed heritage. "I wouldn't trade it for anything," she says. "It's always odd to me when I hear Americans say to me, 'I'm German and Irish.' I'm like, that's all? How can you be only that when I'm a mixture of different races? But the one race that is the nearest would be Filipino, because it's not so far removed. "The only Filipino tradition that was handed down to us was the food and the tradition of being a tightly-knit family," admits Nia, whose real name is Virenia, after a slave in "Spartacus." "I think that Filipinos as a whole are very lovely people. And they are great caregivers. I don't know if this is also a Filipino tradition but the women in our family hold the big stick. They rule the house."
The actress, who got her first big break on the soap "General Hospital," says, "At Christmas, or other holidays or whenever my extended family gets together, we always have pancit, adobo and lumpia. I cook adobo a lot. Everybody likes it. Of course, with white rice." Nia adds with a chuckle, "My son eats rice cold out of the refrigerator." Son is Christopher, 13, from a first marriage. Nia has a daughter, Sienna Noelle, 3, with her current husband, Lauro Chartrand, a stunt coordinator who is working on Tom Cruise's 19th century epic, "The Last Samurai."
Nia's martial arts training with Lauro over the years pays off handsomely in her role as
49erSix in the slam-bang crowd-pleaser "Half Past Dead." Nia and Morris Chestnut ("Under Siege 2") and "Boyz N the Hood") lead a band of mercenaries that takes over Alcatraz, the famous prison island off San Francisco, which is imagined in the film as having reopened as a high-tech hellhole. Seagal, an undercover FBI operative posing as a convict,and rapper- actors Ja Rule and Kurupt launch into nonstop action. Nia is the film's bright spot. The New York Times' Elvis Mitchell wrote, "There is a welcome appearance by Nia Peeples as (Chestnut's) aide-de-carnage, who is so mean and beautifully lean that she seems to live up to the name of her 1986 hit, 'Trouble.'"
"The hardest part of doing this film wasn't really the physical part," Nia clarifies. "It was creating a character who was more than just running around trying to look like a tough chick, because I'm only 5'2". You put me next to Steven Seagal, who's 6'5''and there's no way that people are gonna say, he's scared of her." When she sat down earlier with a group of writers, Nia was asked, "What is the significance of all that blue make-up around your character's eyes?" She replied appropriately, tongue in cheek, to everyone's delight: "There is no significance. She was just out of her mind. She'd do it because she could." Indeed. Nia's 49er Six calls herself "the queen bitch of the universe" and she whistles to challenge her male adversaries to come out and fight her.
Asked how long it took to rehearse her duel with Ja Rule, an acrobatic combat that is one of the film's action highlights, Nia reveals, "We rehearsed for three hours and that was it. A lot of times, they find it difficult to find a woman to act as my double. When I showed up on the set, they asked, do you fight? Yeah, I can fight, I said. The reaction was like, 'Yeah, right, sure, some actress. I want to see this.'" Morris Chestnut's assessment of Nia's fighting skills was succinct: "She can kick a lot of ass. She really knows her martial arts." Is there a lot of "fighting" in the Peeples home (they moved to Vancouver a year ago, but are back in LA for a year because of Lauro's 'The Last Samurai' job)? "All the time! With my 13-year-old and three-year-old. We are all at each other's throats." But between her and her fight coordinator husband? Nia roars with laughter. "In my down time, while he's here working, I go train with him." So does her son enjoy having a mom who delivers Wushu kicks against tough rapper actors? "Are you kidding?" she answers. "He's like the star of all his teenage friends. I'm a
hip and happening mom. I dig it. I'm right there just for a brief moment. It will be over
But career-wise, has her mixed heritage helped or hindered her? "It has helped me
slip into a lot of different types of roles that other people cannot. The bad side is that I
cannot play straight ahead white roles, but there are so many people competing for those roles already. I am what I am, and I look the way that I look, and that's that. I'm very proud of every race that I am." Does she get to hang out with Filipino actors? Nia responds, "You know what's funny? The last pilot for a series I did for ABC was called 'Meet the Changs.' It was supposed to be this mystical thing about a Chinese family, but almost everybody in it is Filipino." She mentions actors like Dante Basco and Rona Figueroa. "We had a bunch of stunt people who were Filipinos," she continues. "One time we were lying on the floor because we did a scene where we got knocked out, and somebody started going, 'Pssssst!' All the Filipinos in the room turned their heads. We laughed so hard. It became a joke on theset because whenever they wanted to see a reaction out of someone, they went, 'Pssssst!'"
So what's next for her? "Nothing. I'm sitting back and I'm waiting." She laughs again. "I bet you never heard that answer from an actor before."
We are family: Nia is flanked by husband Lauro,her son Christopher (in striped sleeves),and daughter Sienna Noelle. The two kids on the opposite sides are Lauros children from a previous marriage.
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