Actor Carlos PenaVega (Big Time Rush) had never heard about the four young men featured in Spare Parts until he was told there was an opportunity to play one of them in a movie version of their lives alongside comedian George Lopez. In the film, PenaVega plays Oscar Vazquez, one of the four undocumented Latino high school students from Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, Arizona who, in 2004, entered the college division of an underwater robotics competition and beat every single school, including powerhouse Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their story was first written by journalist Joshua Davis in an article, “La Vida Robot,” for Wired Magazine.
During my interview with PenaVega, we talked about how much he had to study and understand robotics to play Oscar, what it was like working with his wife, actress Alexa VegaPena, for the first time, and if he thinks a film like Spare Parts can help more people understand the immigration issues the U.S. is currently facing from a different perspective.
When did you learn about the young men from Carl Hayden Community High School and what they had accomplished back in 2004?
I was on tour with [the Nickelodeon show] Big Time Rush and they called me and said, “Hey, I have a script for you.” I asked what it was about and they said, “George Lopez and robots.” That’s all they told me. I read the script and was blown away. It wasn’t about George Lopez and robots. It was about four kids who did this incredible thing. I had never heard of these boys until about two or three months before we started shooting.
“I asked what it was about and they said, “George Lopez and robots.”
So, did you go back and start doing more research on what these young men had actually accomplished? Did you read the original Wired Magazine article that inspired the movie?
I read all that and watched all these news stories on the guys. It inspired me to work hard for the role. It was a crazy experience. I had been on Big Time Rush for six years, so it was humbling to have to go in and actually work for a job.
Did you get to meet the real Oscar Vazquez and talk to him about his experience being on this high school robotics team?
Yeah, we hosted the boys on set for about a week. They showed us so many different things about robots.
Did the information sink in? I mean, a lot of your dialogue in the film is tech speak, so were you able to understand most of it, or were you just memorizing lines?
It was definitely movie magic. We didn’t have to go in and learn all this engineering stuff. We came in and the robot was already built. They let me drive it under water a little and that was about it. I don’t want to brag, but I was pretty good at it.
“I feel like the film industry has been missing something like this – a movie with a real positive message.”
Your love interest in the film is your wife in real life, actress Alexa VegaPena. Is it safe to assume the chemistry on set was natural?
Oh, yeah. Alexa and I had just gotten engaged, so it was amazing that we didn’t have to be apart and we both could be in New Mexico shooting the film. Alexa’s been acting forever, so for her to be able to walk me through my first movie was such a blessing. We shot all of our stuff in three days. It was crazy.
Spare Parts is inevitably going to be compared to other films like Stand and Deliver and October Sky. Are those comparisons welcomed or would you rather your movie stand on its own?
It’s tough. Those are great films, but I feel like this can stand on its own because we’re bringing something back. I feel like the film industry has been missing something like this – a movie with a real positive message. To me, this film is special. It looks good and the story is great. It’s new age. Don’t get me wrong, Stand and Deliver and October Sky are great, but Spare Parts hits home for me. Maybe I’m being biased because I’m in it.
Were there any teachers you remember in high school that inspired you in the same way George Lopez’s character does for the boys in this film?
Yeah, I had a teacher named Michelle Perkins. She was my English teacher at Sagemont High School in Weston, Florida. She was very supportive. And she didn’t fail me. Thanks to her, I got by.
“The movie shows that it doesn’t matter what race you are or how much money you have. You can do anything in this country.”
President Obama’s executive action on immigration this past November helped a lot of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., but it didn’t include the Dreamers. Were you disappointed in that decision, or do you still think it was a positive step forward?
You know, I think any step forward is great. Spare Parts is coming out at a perfect time, especially with all this stuff going on. George [Lopez] and I are headed to Washington D.C. tonight to meet with Senator Dick Durbin, who helped the real Oscar get his papers. We’re really excited to show him the movie because he’s a strong supporter of the Dream Act.
Do you think a film like Spare Parts can soften peoples’ hearts when it comes to immigration issues? Maybe not someone like former Arizona governor Jan Brewer, but do you think the film could help others see the issue from another perspective?
Yeah, the movie shows that it doesn’t matter what race you are or how much money you have. You can do anything in this country. That’s what is so inspiring. These kids had so many obstacles in front of them and they still did it. It’s been 10 years, but they literally changed their lives and their school forever. Students at their school have so much more because of what they did back in 2004. This movie really opened my eyes to all these issues. There’s always going to be people like [Jan Brewer], but I think if we just show people love, eventually they’re going to come around. I love on everyone, so that’s always the most important thing for me.
You’ve been known for most of your career for your role in Big Time Rush. Are you that point in your career where you’re ready to expand on your roles and find a new audience that doesn’t watch Nickelodeon? Is that important to you?
“Why would I do a film where I’m going to be half naked for half the film for no reason?”
Luckily, our audience for Big Time Rush started so young, they’ve sort of grown with us. I don’t think I’m going to have to go out and search for a completely different fan base. People who follow me have been with me for the past six years. I feel like they’re going to stay with me. I don’t want to alienate those fans. But, yeah, it’s still important for me to grow as an actor with my fans and gradually change my direction. I can’t stay on “Big Time Rush” for 20 more years and pretend I’m a 17 year old.
I actually talked to Alexa last year about that. She told me she always struggles to decide whether or not to take a role that might be considered a little more risqué than she’s used to. She said she thinks about her fans who knew her as the little girl from Spy Kids and struggles with it because you both consider your faith a very important part of your life. Are you going to let things like that factor in as more roles are offered to you?
The Bible is all about loving on each other and being a good person. I want to choose projects that will showcase that. Now, I’m not saying I’d never do a film where I play a drug dealer or something like that. I just want to look for films that have a positive message at the end of it. I mean, why would I do a film where I’m going to be half naked for half the film for no reason? I want to do something that has meaning and substance.
Spare Parts opened in theaters on January 16, 2015.