It’s Christmas 1982 in Chicago, Ill. and seven-year-old Freddy Rodriguez is singing Puerto Rican folk songs and dancing salsa and meringue with his cousins. It might not be the traditional holiday celebration most people in the U.S. are accustomed to, but for Rodriguez, a first generation Puerto Rican living in America, it’s everything he knew.
“One big thing to do during the holiday season was a thing called paranda, which is the equivalent to Christmas caroling,” said Rodriguez, who stars in the new family dramedy Nothing Like the Holidays. “I remember as a young kid we would go from house to house singing, but we would do it a little different. They’d invite us in and feed us and the men would drink and the women would play instruments and clap. It was really a good time when I was a kid.”
In Nothing Like the Holidays, Rodriguez hopes to capture some of the unique aspects of a Puerto Rican Christmas while telling the story of the, ironically, Rodriguez family, who live near Humboldt Park in west Chicago. Rodriguez plays Jesse, a soldier coming home for the holidays from overseas. As with any family, the Rodriguez’s find themselves having to work through some rough patches during their Christmas reunion. Along with the same surname, Rodriguez says his real family and his movie family have a few other similarities.
“I think every family is slightly dysfunctional if I were to make any comparisons,” Rodriguez said. “The other similarity would be that this family truly loves each other and really enjoys the time they have together during the holidays. I come from a very big extended family and Christmas is a big deal for us.”
Rodriguez’s yearly celebration, he said, would start on Christmas Eve when everyone would “party all day and all night up until midnight” and then open presents. Coming from a family of “modest means,” Rodriguez never expected to get everything he wanted for Christmas, but was satisfied with the love that his family gave him “that made up” for the lack of pricey gifts.
As he grew older, Rodriguez said he watched the family dynamic go through different phases around the holiday season as cousins grew up, became too cool to hang out with the rest of the family on Christmas, and then got married and had their own kids.
“I think when you become a teenage you go though a cynical period and don’t want to do all the traditional stuff,” Rodriguez said. “Then you become an adult and want to be more involved. Now, I have kids and all of my brothers have kids and Christmas has taken a whole new meaning for us. I think we all become kids again and want to vicariously relive that part of our lives.”
Aside from possibly donning a Santa hat this Christmas, Rodriguez, who has been in the film industry for 20 years, will try on another one he has never worn before. Along with starring in Nothing Like the Holidays, Rodriguez is credited as an executive producer, something he has thought about doing for a while.
“In some of my other films, I found myself doing what producers do without knowing that’s what produces do,” said Rodriguez, who has starred in such films as Poseidon and Bobby. “I think I’ve always had a knack for trying to put things together. When this opportunity came up it… gave me a chance to help. It was something that was natural for me. I just took it to the next level.”
Part of Rodriguez’s job as an executive producer was to attract talent and assist in creating a well-rounded and mostly Latino cast. To do this, he began to make calls to actors he had worked with in the past and those he admired. The first actor who made his list was John Leguizamo, who Rodriguez had acting alongside in 1997’s The Pest. For comic relief, he turned to Luis Guzman, who he shared the screen with in 2005’s Dreamer. Rodriguez also helped cast British actor Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) as his Puerto Rican father.
“I think Alfred was a thought I had just because I was such a gigantic fan of his,” Rodriguez said. “The guy was wonderful and I knew he could pull it off. It wasn’t about who the flavor of the month was or who’s on the cover of the Enquirer. I just wanted good people involved in the film.”
That’s really all Rodriguez has been looking for since his film career started rolling in the mid-90s. With early roles in films like A Walk in the Clouds and Dead Presidents opening new opportunities for him, Rodriguez soon became a household name when he earned a regular spot in 2001 on the popular HBO series Six Feet Under where he played Federico Diaz, an embalmer at a family-run mortuary. It was during this time on the small screen when he realized what he wanted to accomplish in the industry.
“I wanted to be a leading man and I wanted to be able to hold my own against actors like Christian Bale (Harsh Times) or play an action hero in a Robert Rodriguez movie (Planet Terror),” Rodriguez said. “I think I learned whatever you put your mind to you can do it. Here I am now, in a major American film that revolves around a Latin family. A lot of things I feel I’ve set out to do, I’ve achieved. I’ve learned that anything is possible.”