Best known for his role as the Mexican, wig-wearing, cake-building, class-president nominee Pedro Sanchez from the surprise 2004 comedy hit “Napoleon Dynamite,” actor Efren Ramirez has slowly but surely made it a point to stray away from being typecast as a loveable albeit dorky minority sidekick.
In “Crank: High Voltage,” Ramirez, 35, plays Venus, the twin brother of the cross-dressing Kaylo, his character in the original “Crank,” who is killed off before the credits roll. During my interview, Ramirez, who ironically has a twin brother in real life, talked about bulking up for his role and explained why he didn’t end up running around with gangs while growing up in East L.A.
Did you ever think after dying in “Crank” you would be getting a call to do the sequel?
I was really surprised that I was offered the script to do the second one. I didn’t think it was going to be as intense as it was when I started reading it. I was like, “Oh my God! They’ve taken it to the next level!”
So, in “Crank: High Voltage” you play Venus, the twin brother of your character in the original. I’m guessing Venus isn’t a drag queen like Kaylo.
(Laughs) Nah, Venus is very aggressive and dark. Once I got the script, I had three months to learn everything I needed for this character. I started studying kung fu, gymnastics, weapons, and I learned how to ride a motorcycle. I started doing 1,000 push-ups and sit-ups every single day. Ironically enough, I have a twin brother in real life.
What did your twin brother say when you told him about this role?
He was like, “Hey, so if he’s a twin and I’m your twin…” (Laughs). My brother is working towards being an actor as well, which is great. But as an actor you have to work hard to create characters and take chances. My brother is barely starting his career so I tell him to do a lot more theater and stay in school and keep studying and his time will come. There are a couple of scenes we do together in [“Crank: High Voltage”]. It’s going to shock the audience.
I saw that the Mara Salvatrucha gang is represented in the film. Did you ever run into any of those gang members since you’re originally from East L.A.?
(Laughs) Are you kidding? I’ve bumped into MS [Mara Salvatrucha]. I’ve bumped into V13 [Venice 13], HLP [Highland Park gang], Lincoln Heights. It’s inevitable. If you’re Latino, you’re going to be bumping into a lot of homies. But my mom put my brothers and me into theater so that she could keep us away from the gangs. It was the theater that drove me to acting. I would take the bus for two hours from East L.A. to Beverly Hills to study.
Post-“Napoleon Dynamite,” what kind of roles do you seek out?
I want to play memorable characters. I want to take on roles that are challenging. It always depends on how deep the character is. The characters are what make the story happen. I had a film come out a couple of years ago called “Ratko” and I played a Russian character in that. People are going, “He’s Latino, but he can also play this? Oh my god!” Actors like Ricardo Montalban, Edward James Olmos, and Raul Julia, they were the pioneers who broke these rules and played different roles. I take on these roles that are different because they are different. They’re different worlds that I would never enter in real life. I would never assassinate somebody. Maybe I’d build a cake.
Speaking of Pedro, I read you chose to play that character instead of taking a smaller role in “The Alamo.” How do you think Pedro Sanchez would have fared fighting at the Alamo?
(Laughs) I think we would have won the war. [As Pedro Sanchez] Hello. I’m going to blow you away or something.