As a working actor for over 20 years, Emilio Rivera is known for playing some of the seedier characters in TV shows and films, including a long list of gang members and criminals. In his most recent film “Water & Power,” Rivera plays Norte, a wheelchair bound homeboy (and also the film’s narrator), who helps tell the story of two brothers – one a senator, the other a cop – crossing paths inside the corrupt political and gang landscape of East L.A.
During our interview, Rivera, 53, whose film and TV credits include “Con Air,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Collateral,” and the popular series “Sons of Anarchy,” talked about playing a character in a wheelchair, what he feels makes a good director and what he’d consider his dream role in Hollywood.
“Water & Power” was just released on VOD on Jan. 20.
What was it about your role in this independent film “Water & Power” that resonated with you?
I really liked the character. [Norte] knows a lot about the streets, but he’s also really vulnerable. That’s what I liked about it.
Norte is wheelchair-bound. Is that a character you had ever explored before?
No, I hadn’t, but I do have a couple of friends who are wheelchair-bound. I’ve had the chance to hang out with them over the years, so I just took some of those characteristics and used them. Also, during filming I was always in the wheelchair, so I was always messing around in it. I got around pretty good on it.
I imagined it might’ve been tough to learn how to maneuver it, especially if you hadn’t used one before.
Well, the first time I used it I tried to do a couple of wheelies and landed on my head. So, I had to keep practicing. But, yeah, the first time I used it, I was on my back real quick.
Your character Norte is like the eyes and ears on the streets of East L.A. in this movie. He knows everything that is going on. Did you ever play that role when you were running the same streets when you were younger?
You know, I was always my own eyes and ears in the neighborhood when I was growing up. That the best way to be so you don’t end up having to cover up for anyone else. I always just took care of myself, you know?
Playwright Richard Montoya is someone new in the filmmaking landscape. How do you think he did as a first-time director?
Richard is a great writer, so I knew he was going to be OK. What makes a great director is that he trusts his actors. Richard did that. Much props to him, man.
You’ve worked with some great directors during your career including Steven Soderbergh, Michael Mann, David Ayer, and George Clooney. Can you tell when a director has more experience? Does it feel more effortless?
Yeah, I think so. The good directors I’ve worked with over the years – like the ones you just named – will ask you, “What is your take on this?” That’s always great for the actor. It’s always better to hear that instead of, “Look, this is how it’s going to go.”
You’ve made playing gang members and other seedy characters the cornerstone of your career. How do you respond to critics who might say the roles you take are stereotypes in the Latino culture?
You know, I’ll play the nice guy when I’m ready to play the nice guy. The thing is, I’m Emilio Rivera, so I’m a nice guy every day. I like to go out and play the bad guy in movies.
What movies in your career that might’ve gone under the radar would you point to and ask people to watch? Which ones do you feel capture who you are as an actor the best?
I would like people to see “Road Dogz.” It’s one of my favorite films that I did. There were a lot of great actors in it and it’s a great story. There’s another film I did called “Never Get Outta the Boat.” I play a guy named Big Joe. He’s one of my favorite characters. These are all low budget films with no money, but with a lot of heart.
What was it like working with the late Lupe Ontiveros on “Water & Power?” Had you worked with her before?
We worked together on the TV show “Weeds” about five years ago. We got to hang out during that show and we also got to hang out during “Water & Power.” I got to have dinner with her. I was really sorry when she passed away. She was truly a pioneer and a great talent. She is missed.
How does it feel now that “Sons of Anarchy” is over? Are you having any withdrawals?
Nah, it was time, bro. We had a great ride. I made some great friends and had a lot of fun. But it was time. We were at the top and that’s when you want to go out – at the top.
You were in all seven seasons of that show. With each new season that came along, did you worry the writers were going to kill your character Marcus Alvarez off?
I had no idea what was going to happen and whether they would kill me off. I’m glad I made it all the way through. I mean, that last [episode] was one where anyone could die at any time. He was the coolest, character man. It was beautiful.
Is there something in the film industry you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do?
I would love to play a mentally challenged person, bro. I think that would be my ultimate role. You could do anything you wanted with that role and it wouldn’t be right or wrong. Also, I would like to be in a cowboy film – a real period piece. Also, a war movie would be great.
I can picture you in a Western riding a horse with a six-shooter.
Yeah, I just gotta work on that accent, man.