Esai Morales – Superfly

June 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

In “Superfly,” a remake of the 1972 Blaxploitation film “Super Fly,” actor Esai Morales (“La Bamba”) plays Adalberto González, the new leader of a Mexican drug cartel who supplies product to the mentor of the movie’s lead character Priest (Trevor Jackson). Morales said Adalberto “fancies himself as a cool, calm and collected version” of the previous cartel head.

“I’m not reinventing the wheel with this character,” Morales, 55, told me during an interview last week. “I’m providing the weight that is necessary in a story to know that the stakes are high.”

During our interview, Morales talked about the criticism that comes for Latino actors who choose to play drug cartel characters, why he thinks TV shows and movies about the cartel industry are currently popular and whether he’ll follow in the footsteps of his “Superfly” director, who goes by the moniker Director X, and change his name. We also talked about the U.S. administration’s delayed response to the tragedy Hurricane Maria brought to Puerto Rico late last year.

I’m sure you know about the criticism that comes any time a Latino actor plays a character in a drug cartel. Benecio del Toro is getting it for reprising his role in the “Sicario” sequel. The popular Netflix show “Narcos” gets criticized for its portrayal of Latinos. Do you think the criticism is valid?

Well, at one point I agreed with [the criticism]. But I realize now that drug dealers are kind of cool, not in real life, but the personas have been glorified and humanized. You realize that the biggest and the most powerful drug dealers on Earth are not Latino or black. Latinos and blacks did not invent the drug business. We’re the scapegoats. The biggest ones are corporate and governmental. Look at any one of the major, big pharma companies that have been fined for criminal activity.

Did you shoot your scenes in Mexico?

I don’t know if I can answer that, but no. But we made it look like Mexico.

I was wondering because last year one of the location scouts for “Narcos” was kidnapped and murdered. A location scout for the “Sicario” sequel was also kidnapped while in Mexico.

I just worked in Mexico in Tecate, which is about 45 minutes east of Tijuana. It was extremely safe. When you’re in big productions, maybe you draw attention. The film I was in was very small and it wasn’t about the drug industry.

What do you think it is about these kinds of TV shows and movies that have studios making so many of them recently? I mean, besides the “Sicario” sequel, “Narcos” and “Superfly,” there was “Gringo” earlier this year; “Loving Pablo” is coming out soon; Netflix’s “Drug Lords,” “Kingpin,” “Cocaine Grandmother” with Catherine Zeta Jones. Why so many?

I think it’s because of the success of shows like “Narcos” and others. We can really go back to Tony Montana in “Scarface”…

…which is getting remade.

Well, good luck. I hope it goes well, but it’s hard to touch that one. But I think [there are more cartel movies and TV shows because] it’s a trend – power, violence, extreme risk, danger. These are the elements of the classic gangster films. In the 1930s, you had James Cagney in “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Now, we have different personalities portraying the Pablo Escobars of the world. Our society is obsessed with power for better and for worse. The power of the cartels is immense, and it is mesmerizing and is something audiences, obviously, have not gotten tired of. Because that’s where the industry is going, people like Benecio and myself are not going to get left behind when there are good characters to portray. If anyone likes to say we’re extenuating stereotypes, I would say that I agree with you except we play more than that. We play presidents, matriarchs, billionaires, business leaders. I’ve played the chief of police of the Chicago PD on “Criminal Minds.” I would understand if [cartel members] were all we played, but right now it just happens to be in vogue. I would be more reluctant to play these characters if they were written terribly as just people to hate. So, calm down. I don’t want to be incarcerated into playing roles that only appease our community. I don’t want to be limited to that.

Is there any chance you could follow in your “Superfly” director’s steps and change your name to Actor Equis?

I like the name Director X. It has a revolutionary feel to it. Many years ago, I thought about changing my name to something more understandable or mainstream or Italian. But I decided that instead of changing my name, I wanted to change how people with my name were viewed. I wanted to try to broaden what it means to be a leading man or character actor by keeping Morales and Esai.

You’re originally from Puerto Rico. We now know that there were a lot more deaths in Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria than first reported by the U.S. government. What do you want to see this country do to help its citizens moving forward? It feels like they’ve been abandoned by this administration.

I’m very dismayed by the response, despite all the real efforts of a lot of great people that are there that gave their all. I know people that went to visit folks with FEMA. I know people with the Coast Guard and the National Guard and Army reserves over there. I went there quietly. I didn’t want to make it about me, but I wanted to assess the situation and figure out how I could help. It’s a complicated situation. I do believe the president could be more conscious of who Puerto Ricans are and had a quicker and more adequate response so the death toll would’ve been minimized. But I don’t think we can shame or insult this administration to doing what we believe is the right thing. I think we have to outclass our opponents and ignore opportunities to engage with them in ugly debates.

Esai Morales – Magic City (TV)

July 12, 2013 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

When it comes to the lack of opportunities for Latinos in Hollywood, actor Esai Morales (“La Bamba,” “Gun Hill Road”) has a whole hell of a lot to say – and he expects us to listen up and take action. Recently cast in the second season of the Starz drama “Magic City,” Morales, who plays Cuban exile Carlos “El Tiburón” Ruiz, talked to me about his definition of great film and what Latino audiences need to do if they want to see more of themselves in acclaimed cinema.

New episodes of “Magic City” air on Fridays at 8 p.m. CT on Starz. The season finale is Aug. 9.

Before we start, I have to say I was a really big fan of your 2011 drama “Gun Hill Road.” That movie deserved a lot more attention than it got that year.

It’s very rewarding to me to know we made that film as a labor of love. You don’t have to have issues with your own sexuality to feel what those characters were going through. I hope more people are finding it on DVD. I want people to watch it in their homes and feel safe about allowing themselves to care for a transgendered teen. But, you know, we don’t have enough of those stories. We have all these “Fast and Furious”-type of movies that are easy and mindless. There are all these revenge and action movies out there, but we really need to get more nuanced. What we need are films about the way we care about each other and the human condition. That to me is what is so beautiful about a film like “Gun Hill Road” and why I think it was ahead of its time and will resonate for years.

Well, I could definitely feel the passion that was put into a project that covers a topic rarely seen in movies these days.

Yeah, I mean, people might say a movie like “Gun Hill Road” makes them uncomfortable. I say, “Good!” That means it’s a good movie. Movies that don’t make you uncomfortable are just for entertainment value. They’re not pushing you to consider things. They’re not pushing you to check your own prejudices. That’s what great films do. Great films make you think about yourself and your place in the universe and what it means to be alive and human and eternal. These are things you won’t get from your “Transformers” or big tent-pole movies with cartoon characters. At what point will the Latino community yearn for more than WWE-type entertainment and more for those things we see at the Oscars?

Has staying away from stereotypical roles been a conscious decision on your part during your career?

Yes and no. I never did a drug-dealer movie until I decided to take on a role in a (2002) movie called “Paid in Full.” But I liked that specific character because he wasn’t just a drug dealer. He was a person. He was a three-dimensional character just like Bob Morales was in “La Bamba,” which was one of the best three-dimensional Latino characters ever written. If you give me that kind of material, I can chew it up and give you something that shows this isn’t just some Latino. This is a person with a personal code of ethics. In that case, I’ll play the role. What I won’t do is play a character just so some All-American Anglo audience can have someone to be afraid of or want to kill. In the movies, [Latinos] are often the first to be eaten by the monster. That has to stop.

I’ve actually had that conversation with Danny Trejo before since he is usually the first one killed in his movies.

What did Danny have to say about it?

He didn’t seem to mind.

Well, he doesn’t mind because he’s blessed. He’s blessed because he’s had a very different life and it has turned into a fairy-tale life. He’s 70 years old and he’s starring in cool action movies. But again, they’re all about revenge. I mean, I can’t fault the great filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez and others for using that kind of Hollywood convention, but I challenge them to come up with some fare that straddles the line between entertainment and enlightenment. What is our place? Why are we here? What is the point of living? Is it really just to get revenge? There’s has to be more. There is more out there, but our community is used to our diet. We’re used to our telenovelas and our bikini babes. We’re loyal to those conventions. We’re a loyal market. Once you get us, you get us for life. But we have Latinos on the Supreme Court and working in the White House, but you won’t find them on TV or in the movies. Where are they? Sure, sometimes they’ll throw a Latino in there so LULAC or National Council of La Raza will shut up already, but that’s not the kind of inclusion we should be seeking. The truth is, if Hollywood doesn’t want to make room for us, we have to create our own market that will stress the need for Latinos to evolve.

I totally agree with you when it comes to those throwaway characters you just talked about. It almost feels like Hollywood knows that Hispanics are the largest minority group in the U.S. but aren’t really sure how to handle that. So, they just toss in a Hispanic character every now and then to placate us.

They’re trying to throw us a bone, but we don’t need a fucking bone! It’s time for [Latinos] to be more than spicy. We’re more than that. We’re the real deal. We’re the whole meal. There has to come a time where we can be the central people. It’s not a problem to tell incredible black stories. [Steven] Spielberg made “The Color Purple” and “Amistad” and did it with millions of dollars and production value. If we got that, we’d be much more enfranchised. Right now it feels like we’re an afterthought, like, “OK, make that guy Latin.” Those characters aren’t written with any truth to the culture. It’s bullshit. It’s not like I want to see an all Latino cast, but I want to see something realistic. But we’re conditioned to accept less than the standard. We end up going to see what everyone else sees and we don’t see ourselves.

A film like “Chavez,” which is supposed to come out later this year, makes me very nervous. I mean, here is one of those incredible Latino stories that needs to be told, but if it doesn’t do well or it doesn’t have the support or it doesn’t have the production value to get people to take notice, I’m afraid it’s going to fall through the cracks and we’re going to miss a very big opportunity to capitalize on it. I mean, it could be just another one of those well-intended films that gets lost in the big Hollywood machine.

It could be. But here’s the thing: If it’s good, it will break out. But if it isn’t, for whatever reason, it shouldn’t stop more people from making important films about Latinos. But if Latinos don’t show up for “Chavez,” who the hell will? We have to get our community more disciplined so that people can see it’s a viable business opportunity for someone to write these stories. If we’re not going to go see movies about our Latino leaders, why do we put that on the Anglo community to do? We need to get up and get out and vote with our pocketbooks. Even if you don’t think you’ll like the movie, get out and give it a shot. Get out there and spend some money on your own community. Hollywood does the minimum. It’s like, “OK, here’s something Latin. If it doesn’t work, then at least we tried.” They’ll say, “Hey, look, we tried, but you guys didn’t go [see the movie].” Yeah, but you didn’t make a great film like you did with “La Bamba.” There’s a reason [“La Bamba”] still resonates in the hearts and minds of people today. It was a great movie! It was directed and written with a sense of authenticity and pride. So, [“La Bamba” director/writer] Luis Valdez’s career didn’t go as planned? Does that mean he can never direct again? That’s really a shame.