It’s no easy task when you’re going up against someone as physically intimidating as Vin Diesel in a movie. That’s where Cuban American actor Laz Alonso found himself when he was cast as car racing bad boy Fenix Rise in “Fast and Furious,” the fourth installment of the series.
During our interview, Alonso, who has starred in such films as “This Christmas,” “Stomp the Yard,” and “Jarhead,” talked about his own car expertise and whether he receives more calls for African American or Latino roles.
You’re a pretty scary dude in “Fast and Furious.” Is there anything intimidating about you in real life?
I think everyone has that switch they can turn on and off when they need to, but I don’t try to live my life intimidating people. I try to use love not war. That’s not me.
But it still must be fun to play a bad guy on screen.
It was fun, especially playing opposite Vin Diesel. I remember when the first “Fast and the Furious” came out and the guys that went head to head with him. For me it was a challenge because when you see the guy up front he is very physically intimidating. He doesn’t have to do much to do a lot. He reminded me a lot of bouncers in New York. You know if he needs to lay it down, he’s going to be breaking some heads. [In “Fast and Furious”] I stood up to the plate on a lot of levels from my acting to my physical presence. Hopefully, I pulled it off.
What do you think of a reunion like this – Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and the rest of the original cast? Why go back to this setup?
I thought it was really classic. They are the ones that built the franchise. They are the ones that made the franchise hot. To bring them all back for this, it’s almost like a part two as opposed to part of a series. They are the ones that make “Fast and the Furious” what it really is all about. They’re just as important to the movies as the cars in my opinion.
How knowledgeable are you under the hood of a car? Do you know what you are doing?
Yeah, I love working on vehicles. For me, what I primarily do is more cosmetic. At the same time, I used to do all the oil changes for my family. I was the only man in the house. I grew up with a house full of women so that was my job. Anything that had to do with changing tires, changing oil, tune-ups, I would do it. My uncle was a transmission mechanic. The more I wanted to learn about cars, the more he would kick me out of the garage because he didn’t want me falling in love with cars and end up a mechanic. He wanted me to go to school instead.
What kind of car do you drive?
A Chevy Tahoe. I like to sit up real high. I like to see over traffic. Especially in L.A., you’re in traffic a lot. My truck’s got a cold air intake, a throttle body spacer. I fixed it so its got more torque and horsepower. I got the 24-inch rims. My truck is tricked out.
You sound more like an offensive than defensive driver.
I’m totally offensive. A great defense is a good offense. If you can more or less read traffic, I think that’s what separates good drivers from mediocre drivers. If you can read what’s going on five cars ahead of you, you’re not going to be one of those people rear-ending other people.
You really change your physical appearance in “Fast and Furious.” Had you ever done that before for a role?
You know, had just finished “Miracle at St. Anna” and I gained 20 lbs. to play the old man in that movie. They were a little worried about me at first when I went to audition for “Fast and Furious.” When I was cast for the movie I was still clean-shaven and everything. But when I showed up on set, everyone just stopped and was like, “Whoa! Who the fuck are you?” I had come along physically. I worked with this trainer who made me hike up mountains, which I had never done before. I was on cardio twice a day and lifting heavy weight. Vin [Diesel] is just a lot bigger than me, so in order to look like I was a physical threat in the movie I had to at least look dangerous standing next to him. It was a lot of hard work.
Are you at the point in your career where you can pass on projects?
Yeah, I’m at the point where my work is being watched and scrutinized. At one point, I could do anything and no one would really care. Now, people are watching and writing articles about whether or not I had a good performance. I have to be careful that whatever I bite I can actually chew. I’m at that point where what I do can either define me or destroy me.
Can you tell me a bit about your ethnic background?
I’m Cuban by nationality. I’m the first American in my family. But you know in our Latin culture, we have black, whites, people of indigenous backgrounds. We are the entire rainbow of colors. So, I consider myself black-Cuban, which I am. At the end of the day I consider it different branches of the same tree.
Do you find more roles come your way for black characters or Latino characters and why do you think that is?
I still get more roles coming to me as a black character. I mean, look at me, I’m black. There’s no doubt about it. But in order for me to start getting more Latin roles, I have to start educating the marketplace about black Latinos. That’s a significant portion of Latin America. Almost 48 percent of Latin America are black people. When I go out for roles, there is no denying that the Latin in me is going to come out. When I drop that Latino swagger in, that’s a wrap.
I know you’ve presented at the BET Awards a few times, so I guess next up is the Alma Awards?
That’s right man. I’m still waiting for my invitation. Tell Edward James Olmos to hook me up.
I have to ask you about “Avatar.” What was your experience like working with James Cameron since this is his first feature film since Titanic?
Let me tell you something, working with James Cameron was amazing. It didn’t feel like we were doing a movie. It felt like we were inventing the light bulb. That’s really the type of environment you’re in. He’s an innovator. It’s like being in the laboratory with Thomas Edison.