Miguel’s Wildheart is a soaring opus about the search for an authentic sense of self, one where the Blaxican R&B singer confronted his Latinidad for the first time. Since that album dropped in 2015, we’ve seen the star continue to explore his Latinx identity, teasing a Spanish-language cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and releasing a collaboration with Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas last March. Now Miguel is taking that exploration even further – he landed a role in Ben Affleck’s 1920s gangster flick Live by Night. In the film, Miguel plays a Cuban empresario by the name of Esteban Suarez, who, along with his sister Graciela (played by Zoe Saldaña), strikes a business deal with Joe Coughlin, Affleck’s character.
Make no mistake: the film is a crime drama primarily intended to entertain, but it’s also a vivid, high-quality period piece that offers a rare look at racism and the experience of U.S. Latinos in Prohibition-era Florida. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cuban laborers migrated to Tampa as the cigar manufacturing center of Ybor City flourished. There, they became part of a community of Spaniards, Italian-Americans, and Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants. Though the film takes some creative and historical liberties, at the very least, it deserves praise for actually writing two Afro-Latino characters into the film, something we don’t often see as spectators. In a particularly tense moment, Affleck is forced to explain the intersecting identities of Zoe Saldaña’s character to a baffled white resident of Ybor City. “Is she a n***** or a spic?” the white man asks. “She’s both,” Affleck responds forcefully.
We sat down to talk with Miguel about his transition to acting, growing up Blaxican in Los Angeles, and releasing new music in Spanish. He also put together a playlist featuring a few tracks from some of his favorite Latino artists. Stream it via Apple Music below:
As a Black and Mexican Angeleno, what was the experience of portraying a Cuban like?
Los Angeles is a very, very diverse place, and being Mexican and black…I can relate to being in the middle of a lot of cultures. I grew up in San Pedro, where there’s a lot of Italians, a lot of Croatians, as well Mexicans, and a lot of blacks as well.
In the film, Esteban and Graciela are in the middle of [an Italian community]…It’s the same, a really diverse culture, a lot of Italians, a lot of Puerto Ricans, a lot of Dominicans; obviously, other Cubans. Then Anglo-Saxons who lived in the area. We’re also business owners…in a time where molasses is a very important commodity. So we have to be cunning; we have to be shrewd; we have to be organized, and that’s where growing up in Los Angeles helped me. Because I got to witness a very similar lifestyle and because I grew up in a poor city with the same mixture of cultures.
Since this is your first acting role, did you do any research about the Cuban experience in that era? Or did the screenplay contextualize that for you?
Well the screenplay helped, but the book [Dennis Lehane’s book, which the film is based on] went into more depth as far as what was going on politically in Cuba and what was going on politically here in the States. I worked with my acting coach and we did some research and got a little bit deeper to build my character out.
This is before the revolution in Cuba, so there’s still a lot of freedom in the culture. It was remembered in history as a fun time in Cuba, a very beautiful time in Cuba. It was cool to go back to that and discover the lifestyle and to build the story based on our history.
“We do have a voice and I want to show that I’m one of them.”
What attracted you to this role specifically?
Esteban’s character is very parallel to who I am. He’s a businessman, but he’s an artist at heart. He’s a businessman because he has to be. For him and his sister, it’s about survival; they had to leave Cuba…They came to the States and they made a name for themselves in a time where race, culture, and class were a major factor in how you were treated. And yet still they were successful. And they were smart enough to be able to take advantage of their family business and establish themselves in a new place.
I’m very close to my brother; he’s like my best friend. We look out for each other and we’ve always looked out for each other. So that kind of sibling relationship is something that I can relate to strongly and made it really easy to fall right into the character.
I also had help from Zoe [Saldaña] and she’s incredible. That was like the icing on the cake. It was like auto-pilot when she came on and she made it really easy.
Speaking of Zoe and your role – and this is something that we’ve been talking about a lot at Remezcla recently – it’s really hard to get Afro-Latino representation on the screen, and a lot of Afro-Latino actors have been struggling to get roles. In this film, two Afro-Latinos were casted to play two Afro-Latinos, which is pretty rare.
It has everything to do with Ben’s [Affleck] vision for the film, which was for it to be very authentic, down to the character and where the person really comes from…The proof is in the details. And he had such an eye for the details all the way down to…the details of the clothing. All the clothing is authentic, 1920s-era fashion. I think that all of that adds to the message of the film. It’s awesome that there are people who really do care about these things. It was really cool to be a part of it.
On Wildheart, we heard you sing in Spanish for the first time. You also collaborated with llya Kuryaki and the Valderramas last March.
They’re incredible man; those are my brothers man.
Should we expect you to release any other original Spanish-language tracks soon?
The experience of this film really led me to taking a deeper interest in writing in Spanish. So yeah, I’m hoping we release music in Spanish this year.
I want to connect with Latinos like me, especially here. I’m mixed, and there’s so many kids out there that are mixed race just like I am. I want to connect with them as much as I can and represent for Latinos. We do have a voice and I want to show that I’m one of them, and I think I can do that in a great way. I intend on doing that this year.
Live by Night hits theaters nationwide on January 13, 2017.