In the drama “Filly Brown,” Chicago-born actress Gina Rodriguez (“Go For It!”) plays Majo Tonorio, a L.A. street poet who attempts to crossover into the music industry as a hip-hop artist. The film stars late banda/norteña singer Jenni Rivera as Majo’s incarcerated mother Maria. During an interview with me, Rodriguez discussed how Filly Brown can help be part of a Latino film movement and what Rivera, who passed away last December, meant to her as a friend and co-star.
Since “Filly Brown” is the first lead role of your film career, do you feel like you are part of the industry now?
It’s still a hustle. I’m still trying to prove to the world I can act and that I have a place in this industry. But it’s been a blessing. “Filly Brown” has done wonders for my career. It has gotten me the recognition I’ve always prayed for. Let’s hope that it does well in theaters because that’s all that matters. We have to tell the Latino community we can make “Filly Brown” part of the movement. If “Filly Brown” does well, more money will go into the next Latino film.
Unfortunately, statistics show Latino moviegoers don’t go out and support Latino-themed films on a consistent basis. Why do you think the support isn’t there?
I think you hit it right on the head. Latinos don’t go out and support their own films, but at the same time it’s not their responsibility. I don’t want the Latino community to think I think the reason Latino films are not doing well is because of us. It is not fully our responsibility. There are a lot of Latino Americans out there. They want to see themselves in the movies they go out to see like “Fast and the Furious” and “Total Recall” and the movies that are blockbuster hits. We want to see our brown faces in those movies. I think there is a little discrepancy in the industry where they think the only places Latinos belong are in their own movies. That’s clearly not true with people like Zoe Saldaña and Michelle Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez. We have a few heavy hitters in the industry that are doing movies that don’t have anything to do with being Latino. I know we all desire more of that.
Do you desire that yourself as an actress?
I desire to be in a big blockbuster movie that has nothing to do with my skin color and just has to do with the fact I can act my ass off. I will play the characters with last names like Sanchez and Gonzalez until the day I die, but I also want to play the “Michelle Smiths.” I think all Latino actors want to be storytellers first. I want to be an actor first and then I want to be Latina. At the same time, a movie like “Filly Brown” is not all about “Viva la Raza.” It’s not all about me speaking Spanish. But these characters carry around their culture and what defines us as Latinos.
Although being Latina comes second to being an actress, it does sound like you are very proud of your culture.
Yeah, Latinos have power. We put the President in office! There are 50 million Latinos in this country. If two million go see “Filly Brown,” then Hollywood is going to start saying, “Oh, there they are. There’s the money. Now we have to actually start casting these brown folks because they want to see themselves on screen.” As many broke Latinos as there are – me included – we actually have the power with our $15 movie ticket.
Talk about working with the late Jenni Rivera and what she meant to you on the set.
I would give this whole movie to have her back. I would give my whole career to have her back on earth. This woman was tremendous. The woman that everyone saw when she would stop and talk to her fans, that was Jenni. She was never fake or phony. Outside of my mother, she was one of the greatest mothers I had ever seen. [Her death] is a lot to deal with because we have this movie that we are proud of and want to promote, but it feels like there is something missing. But she is our angel. She helped me so much with the music. I was terrified. I had never touched music a day in my life. But it’s time to celebrate her and what she does in this film.
Along with help from Jenni, how did you confront the musical elements of the movie?
I went to NYU School of the Arts for theater and trained my ass off as an actress, so I took the same approach for music. I watched Jenni. I watched Medicine Girl (Carolyn Rodriguez), Lala Romero, Diamonique, Chingo Bling, Chino Brown, Baby Bash for hours. I watched how far they stood from the mic. I watched how they enunciated their words. I watched the way they grooved. Now you can’t get me out of the studio!
Do you consider yourself a musician now?
Most definitely. I’m very new to the music industry and pay homage to those who came before me. By no means do I think I’m at the level of any of these musicians. I am now a musician in training. I will constantly be working on my music the same way I worked toward my acting. It’s going to take time and practice and patience. I’m far from where I want to be, but I’m on the journey.