Deep into the new documentary Bronx Obama – directed by Ryan Murdock and opening the Ambulante California festival on Sunday, September 21 – we learn about the plight of political impersonators from a man that looks just like Mitt Romney. “My girlfriend always tells me, ‘You gotta have a Plan B.’ I don’t,” he tells us, “Our lives are hanging on what these guys have done. You know? We live their lives.”
This is the unique situation our Nuyorican protagonist, Louis Ortiz, finds himself in one fateful day in 2008 when a South Bronx bartender told him he looked just like a presidential candidate. It would be the moment that changed Louis’ life, and took him from his life in the Bronx to every corner of the globe. We talked to Louis about the film, about his life, and about the chances of getting a Boricua president.
Are you looking forward to the opening?
Louis Ortiz: Yeah. I mean, it’s been to the West Coast, it’s gone international, but [I’m happy] to have it in New York. That’s pretty exciting.
I knew a little about this movie going in, but I didn’t expect it to be so personal, so human.
Louis Ortiz: That’s actually exactly how I felt when I saw the film for the first time. I did not know that he was going to take it so personal. I knew I gave him all kinds of personal information about my life, but I just did not know exactly what Ryan was doing. It tells my story and it just [focuses] on so many issues throughout the whole film, such as racism, the American dream, everything.
How did the documentary come about?
Louis Ortiz: I was approached by Ryan Murdock in 2011. It was through a mutual friend. And the friend told me that, “Oh, there’s this gentleman and he’s into film.” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” When I finally met him like his aura just hit me as a good aura right away. But I just had to make sure — that’s why I didn’t open up immediately to him — it took a little time — but once I did I was happy I did, because, like I said, I could not be happier with the end result.
I’ve seen the film so many times and I’m still in complete awe.
And he asked me if he could do — he just asked me some questions at first like, “Who are you?” and that’s it. “Buddy, who are you asking me that question?”
[There wasn’t] anything I was afraid of, but just like I kind of had my second thoughts. I was wondering what he had planned, because he never actually told me his full intention. I mean, his intention was to make a documentary, but I did not know what direction he was headed, because I had so many crazy stories. So many crazy stories! My phone company, my custody battle for my daughter…
It’s kind of like I wanted this to happen, but I just didn’t know… I didn’t really know that this was happening even as it was happening. Even as it was happening. I look back at it now in retrospect and say, “Wow! I’m just glad I trusted this guy. I’m glad that I told this guy my story,” because I’ve been telling my story in the street to people, family and friends for a couple of years and all I’ve heard was, “Oh, this is an amazing story.”
But to finally have it come to the screen, I’m just — still, I’ve seen the film so many times and I’m still in complete awe, because along with the audience and the people that watch it, you know, I get emotionally involved every time I see the film. It was part of my daughter’s history and my wife’s history, and reliving the whole Dustin situation. Along with the audience I go through an emotional roller coaster as well.
Did you grow up in the Bronx?
Louis Ortiz: I was born in Manhattan. My parents are straight born and raised in Puerto Rico. Salinas, my father’s from, and my mother’s from Cayey. It’s a little small town. It’s southwest of the island. And they came to America and I was born in America in 1971. I had a structured home, thank God. And I was just a schoolboy. I was into my books. I got to skip a grade from 7th to 9th. My parents always pushed me. Like I said, it was a structured home — a sister, just four of us.
I was born in Manhattan. My parents are straight born and raised in Puerto Rico.
I think I led a normal life as a young Bronx boy, but the Bronx is not normal to a lot of people. The Bronx is a pretty — I would say — exotically crazy. It’s a melting pot of craziness. It’s just a lot going on in the Bronx growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
I was just a bookworm. My mom kept me away from the streets a lot. Never went to college. I did go to the Army at 17, learned how to take care of myself from there. When I got out it was just me against the world. I was always a go-getter, like I always looked for opportunities to take advantage of things because this is America, of course.
Some time ago — 1994-‘95 — from the same year my daughter was born is when I joined the phone company. I’ve been working since 15 years old. I’ve seen my father work two jobs, as a kid I’ve seen him work two jobs, so that working mentality has always been embedded in me.
It’s unfortunate that a lot of people don’t have that mentality — you know, the work thing mentality — but since I never lived that mentality or thought in that way, I really never looked at it, I just kept moving forward, “This is what I want to do. I want to be a phone guy and I want to make money.” Then I lost my job one day! it was a situation with some boss. Paperwork, it was some paperwork, some wrong paperwork being filed. In all that sense, it was really cutbacks but they were trying to make the cutbacks all legitimate, not just saying, “Oh, we’re laying people off.” They were just trying to fire people for any little silly stuff.
Were you politically active before you found out you looked like a presidential candidate?
Louis Ortiz: I didn’t follow it vigorously, but I did follow it on the level of, “Okay, you’re a union guy in the phone company. We vote Democrat.” I was always a Democrat, but discovering the look just bought me into a whole different level of trying to understand what a Democrat is and what a Republican is. I mean, I look like, see Democratic presidents in history, so you start studying a little more. You start trying to define what it really means the American dream.
I’ve become more politically active around election times. I don’t follow it day by day. All I follow is how grey his hair is getting, or what kind of tan suit he’s wearing, because my job is to mimic him.
All I follow is how grey his hair is getting, or what kind of tan suit he’s wearing, because my job is to mimic him.
What do you think is the biggest difference in your life since you started doing this?
Louis Ortiz: I kind of miss the 9-to-5 structure, but the biggest difference is now you don’t go down the block or you don’t take a bus ride to your job anymore every day five days a week. You sit back at home, you work with your writer and before you know it, you’ve locked down a gig and you’re off to Puerto Rico or to the Netherlands. That’s a big difference in the way you carry your life now.
I don’t ride the train a whole lot — I still do every once in a while — but now it’s all about planes, doing my homework on planes. It’s crazy. It’s normal to me right now, but at first, when it first started happening I’m like, “Whoa! This is crazy! Like I got to travel to do my job.” I was just so used to just like being stationary, you know, that structure. It’s different, very different.
What’s been your favorite country that you’ve gotten to visit as part of this gig?
Louis Ortiz: To me I would say Australia. Yeah. Australia was pretty soothing. It’s just so different. I mean, even walking around looking like Louis, the warmth that you feel coming from people and their attitudes and their way of life. There’s not a lot of horn honking. That would be the kind of place that I would love to just like spend my last few years in.
We get to see some of the Australia gig in the documentary, yeah?
Louis Ortiz: Yeah. It was a web series that we did in Australia the first time I’m there, and then the second time the songs that we performed on the web series we performed two or three of the songs for the Dalai Lama at a benefit concert.
It’s a funk band that consists of all Nobel Peace Prize winners. We got Mother Teresa on the turntables. We got Martin Luther King on the drums. We got Mandela and Obama singing, lead singers. We got Bono as a roadie. We got Einstein as our accountant. We got the Dalai Lama on the bass guitar. We got Gandhi. But it was great. It was just a bunch of impersonators pretty much summoning world peace through music and comedy. It’s called The Nobel Funk Off.
It’s a funk band that consists of all Nobel Peace Prize winners. We got Mother Teresa on the turntables.
What’s the craziest story you have of being on the road as President Obama?
Louis Ortiz: This 8-year old girl at a charter’s school in the Bronx that I went to do a free-of-charge appearance at a third grade student government inauguration. So I went up in there and all the kids went crazy. That’s the biggest reaction, that’s the set of people I get the biggest reaction from, the kids.
So they’re going crazy and they want picture and all of this, but then I looked to the side and this lady is calling me over. She said, “Please, come over here. I need you to speak to this young lady.” So I came over and the lady tells me that the girl is crying that, “She is really nervous about meeting you and she’s excited.” So I went over to meet the young lady and she was completely in tears, like she was holding her face. She could hardly even look at me. That was a powerful feeling.
I know it’s not like a politician, the young girl was not a politician, she wasn’t media, she wasn’t anybody but just a young, innocent child. And her emotions were just… looking at me was so intense, like she was crying! And I just held her and I said, “Don’t worry. It’s okay.” She knew I wasn’t him, but she was just so excited and so nervous about looking at someone that looks just like someone who she might love to death. So that was pretty intense. I still hold that in my heart still. It was a wonderful thing.
Speaking about crowd reactions, it seems to me — from the documentary — that you were largely involved in events and working with material that was sort of anti-Obama.
Can you tell me how that started and how that was to work on? I mean, it’s a really amazing story to watch. Because I don’t get the impression that’s what you thought you were going to be doing when you started.
Louis Ortiz: Yeah, I did not! I mean, Dustin Gold is a very intelligent man. He is a very intelligent man. I would say. I’ll go as far as to say very manipulative. He had a good con game when it came to convincing me into performing these kinds of jokes. His [explanation] was, “Oh, we’re performing for this kind of crowd, so these are the kind of jokes.” I don’t know, the way he made it seem it was like it was okay. Me being so thirsty to learn about the business, this whole corporate event scenario, I just dove right in not really knowing what the hell I was getting myself into.
But once I got in — and let me be clear, before I even go further — I only worked with him six months. And in those six months, I walked away from him three times because the disrespect was there, disagreements were there. There was just a huge — how can I explain this? He was good at human relations, meaning — like I explained before — he could convince you to say anything or do anything, almost. But while I was doing the work and the disrespect was there — and that’s why I walked away the first time and then the second time, and then finally the third time. Every time I walked away I sat back and it gave me a chance to think, to look at the material really good, to put that along with what I was feeling and the disrespect that I was feeling, and even though the crowds were loving what I was saying, it was like that guilty conscience [saying], “This is just not right.”
So since then, of course, I’ve gotten a new writer. I don’t have representation, but I have a new writer and there are a lot more Obama-friendly jokes that I’m starting to perform.
[Dustin Gold] labels himself as a manager. He’s trying to become an agent, I think. He labels himself as a creator, producer… Yeah, specifically for political impersonators. And the crazy thing about it — I don’t know if you know this, I don’t know if you want to put this on the record, but it’s up to you, I don’t mind — I knew, when I joined forces with him, I knew that he was just coming out of jail for stabbing a TV reality show producer. I knew, but again, the way he told me the story and the way he made it seem like this was a big opportunity for me was so convincing and so compelling that I said, “Okay. Maybe this guy did do this in self defense. Maybe this is the big platform for me right now,” because at the time there was another Barack Obama impersonator that had just recently walked away from him. [That] impersonator was already on a couple of different levels of his career. I thought — and the way Dustin made it seem was — that it was due to Dustin’s direction and management. So once he convinced me into that, he stuck me right in.
I like to joke around that I am the first Puerto Rican president.
And by the second time — actually even by the last time I walked away — I was in contact with some people that were trying to warn me about Dustin. What they warned me about him was that he was a racist. And I said, “Okay. The material that we’re performing is not written by Dustin, but it was requested by Dustin. So pretty much it was all Dustin. This is the kind of stuff that he wanted the comedy writer to write for us.”
So, like I said, some people were trying to warn me and when they finally did get to me and warned me about him I found out that Dustin was on the SPLC’s top 20 nativist list, which is the Southern Poverty Law Center. I mean, if you google him on the SPLC you’ll see what I’m talking about. I mean, he talks about hitting the streets with an AK-47 and killing all Mexicans like rats. Just like that! Like this guy is sinister.
I mean, I found out so much about this guy once I fully parted with him, I was sick, I was almost ashamed to have even worked with him. I say “almost” because I got to say I did learn a few things from him, more than a few things. I learned some of the, like I said, the corporate even scenario, he helped me with the voice, he somewhat gave me some good pointers but he was grooming me to be, I guess, a racist comedian without me even knowing it.
So tell me a little bit more about the act. Most of the clients or most of the venues were conservative political events?
Louis Ortiz: Yeah. I mean, that’s where he focused on looking for work in that area, because for some reason those were the events that paid the most. So he was out for the money and [we’d do] okes like, you set me up with a question like, “Mr. President, I noticed you were looking at your shoes. Why were you looking at your shoes?” And the punch line was, “Well, I was so busy shining Warren Buffet’s shoes I forgot to shine my own.” Or I’d say to the Mitt Romney impersonator: “I don’t know if you guys got the memo, but it’s extremely difficult to kick a black man out of public housing.” You got to understand like the majority of the crowd in these events — 90%, maybe even more of the crowd of a particular event that I was at were white.
Every time I see the movie I relive this and it just breaks my heart every time. It kills me.
Do you think there ever will be a Boricua president?
Louis Ortiz: Well, I like to joke around that I am the first Puerto Rican president. And it’s just so happens to rhyme so perfectly. “I am the PuertoRock Barack.” Yeah, I mean, it could happen!
Personally I think there’s going to be a female president next, Hilary. There’s a black one, then a female one, why not a Mexican one or a Puerto Rican one, or a Cuban one? Why not? That’s a big hope, that’s a big hope for a lot of people.
Bronx Obama will be available to download on several digital platforms on October 7.