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.