For Puerto Rican actor E.J. Bonilla, acting is an artistic outlet he hopes will allow him to affect people in positive ways. In 2009, Bonilla starred in the drama “Don’t Let Me Drown” as a New York City teenager who starts to have feelings for a girl in his neighborhood who lost her sister on 9/11. Bonilla maintains his enthusiasm for dramatic roles in “Musical Chairs,” the story of a dancer named Mia (Leah Pipes) who must learn to perform differently after an accidents confines her to a wheelchair. In “Musical Chairs,” Bonilla plays Armando, a young man who motivates Mia to enter a wheelchair ballroom dance competition.
During an interview with me, Bonilla talked about his dance background and how movies like “Musical Chairs” coincide with his career plans as an actor.
How close are you to your character in terms of dancing in public?
(Laughs) It’s something I actually do. I’ll run out into the street and start dancing. It sounds a little crazy, but when you’re in New York people don’t really care. Most people in New York are crazy anyway. I love dancing.
What is your background in dance?
Even before I knew I wanted to be an actor I knew I wanted to perform. I found that in different outlets like choir and dancing in a ballet company. I took ballet for a while and modern dance for a couple of summers. I trained hard because I wanted to see if dancing was the way I wanted to go. But acting just worked out.
Were you a fan of dance movies in general?
Yeah, “You Got Served” is my generation. I had some friends that would tell me, “We can do that! If we start training right now, we could be great when we’re in our 20s.” But we never actually battled anybody. There’ve been a couple of bad [dance movies], but most of them are fun.
Do you feel closer to some of the Latin genres of dance because you are Latino, or is it just as fun to dance to hip-hop?
When you’re boricua and you’re raised New York, salsa music is always playing somewhere in your house. In my neighborhood, the salsa music had to be blasting louder than your heartbeat. I always danced with my mom in the living room, but I really didn’t feel it like my mother felt it. But one day I woke up and it was on and the rhythm hit me.
In “Musical Chairs,” you get to dance with someone who is confined to a wheelchair. What were the challenges in doing that just from a technical aspect?
Yeah, there is a different type of physicality to wheelchair ballroom dancing I didn’t know about. It’s fascinating. You’re using all these muscles, but you have to make it look fluid. When you dancing with someone in a wheelchair you have to retrain yourself on where to put all your weight and use all these different techniques. It’s like you become they’re anchor. It’s really challenging, but beautiful, too.
I really loved one of your last films “Don’t Let Me Drown.” Now with “Musical Chairs” out at theaters, where do you go from here? What kind of roles are you looking for?
I’m glad you’ve seen “Don’t Let Me Drown.” I knew when I finished that film I wanted to tell more stories like that. That movie taught me a lot about acting. I want to tell real human stories like that – stories that affect people. I hope to be recognized for my talent and as someone who can take people away from their everyday lives even if it’s just for an hour and a half.