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Get To Know Isabel Sandoval, The Filipina Queen Of Sensual Cinema

A rising Pinay director to watch out for.

Aside from being a barrier-breaker in herself, Isabel Sandoval also holds the distinction of being one of the first people to direct Andrew Garfield on a TV show.

Related: Catch These Filipino Stars In Upcoming Hollywood Projects

When it comes to Filipinos in Hollywood, it isn’t just actors appearing on the big screen that you should watch out for. There are also quite a few Filipino creatives making moves in the production side of things. One such person that you should know of is Isabel Sandoval. While you might have heard of her thanks to this viral tweet where she shared that Mark Ruffalo took a pic of her feet and uploaded it on Instagram, there is so much more to her.

As one of the few transgender Filipinas working in Hollywood, Isabel has been breaking barriers left and right. But she is slowly and surely making her way up the echelons of Hollywood. This is exemplified by the fact that she got to direct Andrew Garfield in his very first TV show. Ahead of the show’s premier, here’s a crash course on Isabel Sandoval and why you should watch out for this director, writer, and actress.


Isabel Sandoval was born in Cebu City in 1982. At an early age, she had a fondness for cinema. But it wasn’t until the 2010s that she really got started working in the industry. In 2011, Sandoval directed her first movie, Señorita, a feature adaption of her short film of the same name. The movie follows a trans woman who tries to leave sex work by working on a political campaign and raising a young boy. But soon, an old client of hers stirs up trouble. Sandoval played the film’s protagonist.

In 2012, she directed Aparisyon starring Jodi Sta. Maria and Mylene Dizon. The film revolves around a group of secluded nuns in a convent right before and during the early years of the Marcos dictatorship. And in 2014, her life would make a significant turn when she decided to transition and soon after migrated to New York city. There, she attended school and earned an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business.


The directing bug would soon hit her again and she released her third feature film in 2019, Lingua Franca. Arguably her most famous movie to date, the film somewhat emulated Sandoval’s situation as it followed Olivia (played by Sandoval), a transgender woman from Cebu working as a caregiver for an elderly woman in New York City. She then begins to fall in love with her adult grandson.

By the first scene, it is made clear that Olivia isn’t living a life of her own. She lives in constant fear of being deported by ICE. Her staying in the US depends on her getting married to an American citizen. She is trying to live her own life in the US, but is constantly reminded that her life is based and dependent on other people; her mom, the old woman, and a man who doesn’t know that she is transgender.

Inside Isabel Sandoval's radical trans female gaze | Xtra Magazine

Upon release, the movie was met with critical praise. It was subsequently nominated for a slew of awards including a Film Independent Spirit Award and a GLAAD Media Award. Lingua Franca also premiered at the Venice Film Festival, making history for Sandoval as the first out trans woman of color to compete at the Venice Film Festival. The film was later acquired and released by Ava DuVernay’s distribution company ARRAY. It’s currently available to stream on Netflix US.

Isabel Sandoval Calls For Layered and Complex Trans Characters in Film -  Variety

Sandoval has been vocal about having proper representation when it comes to portraying trans characters on screen. To her, it’s not just okay to have someone who is trans in a movie or TV show if they aren’t done properly. “It’s important that when you do have trans characters and trans narratives in your films or TV series, these characters have to be layered and complex, and multi-dimensional,” she told Variety.


Sandoval’s further exploring of femininity in cinema continued in 2021. She was chosen by high-fashion label Miu Miu as one of the female directors to be part of their Women’s Tales project, which examines “femininity in the 21st century.” Her project was called Shangri-La, a 10-minute short film about love and racial injustice where she starred as a depression-era farmhand in an interracial relationship. For a time, Shangri-La was available to stream on Mubi, but recently left the streaming service.


Isabel Sandoval clearly has been making moves in the indie and festival scene. But her career is about to go to even greater heights. In 2021 she signed with Creative Artists Agency, one of the biggest agencies in Hollywood. She also is a voting member of the Academy, the body behind the Oscars. And this year, one of her most high profile projects is set to debut with FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven. Aside from the fact that she got to direct an episode of a show from a major cable network, she also had the honor of directing Andrew Garfield in his first TV project. Until now, Andrew Garfield has appeared in movies and theater, so his involvement in the series, where he plays the lead character is bound to turn heads.

Inspired by the 2003 true crime bestseller by Jon Krakauer, the limited series centers on Pyre (Garfield), the police detective assigned to investigate a murder case that has close ties to the Mormon church. As he untangles the mystery and finds evidence linking the church to the crime, Pyre, a devout Mormon himself, undergoes an ugly crisis of faith as he begins to question his values.

On social media, Sandoval has been vocal about her participation of the production and proud of her work, as she should be. Garfield has actually talked about her directing. In an interview, he had nothing but praise on working with her. “I love her she’s incredible. She shot an episode of Under the Banner of Heaven. She was so precise, so sensitive, so professional, so talented, and astute, and I really, really enjoyed her as a director.”

Isabel Sandoval is just one of a few Filipina creatives leaving their mark on Hollywood. Others include Marie Jamora, who has directed quite a few episodes of network shows, and Bianca Parkes, the current creative director for film studio Neon. It definitely is nice to see how some of these Hollywood productions are being helmed by Filipinas. Under the Banner of Heaven is set to stream on Hulu this spring. Aside from this show, also keep an eye out for her other projects, including her next feature Tropical Gothic, a drama-thriller set in 16th-century colonial Philippines which takes inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Continue Reading: Filipina-American Actress Ivory Aquino Is Set To Play The DCEU’s First Trans Character