As an artist, Puerto Rican actor David Zayas (The Expendables) said he always takes under consideration how a project is going to make audiences feel on a human level. During his 24-year career in Hollywood, he’s turned down plenty of roles that were “not a good representation” of the Latino community. “I take it on a case by case basis – role by role,” Zayas told Remezcla. “That’s how I determine that.”
In his newest film, Force of Nature, Zayas admits he didn’t think anything they were shooting would be problematic for audiences. He was more focused on how much he liked the screenplay and the fact that the movie was going to be made in Puerto Rico, the island where his parents are originally from.
“I looked at it as a good story and a good character,” he said. “I would get to film in Puerto Rico where my heart is and where I have a lot of roots. I wanted to be a part of it.”
In Force of Nature, Zayas plays the role of John the Baptist, the brutal leader of a Puerto Rican syndicate that is out to steal a cache of artwork worth millions during a Category 5 hurricane. The film also stars Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson and Kate Bosworth. When Lionsgate released the official trailer last month, people online had a problem with the film being set during a hurricane in Puerto Rico, three years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
People also criticized the movie for being set in Puerto Rico but making all the bad guys Puerto Rican and all the good guys white. For the record, all the antagonists in the film are portrayed as Puerto Ricans, but Peruvian actress Stephanie Cayo plays Officer Jess Peña, one of the main protagonists in the film.
“Hollywood gets it wrong when … a film’s trailer shows Puerto Rico during a category 5 hurricane with white heroes/victims and Puerto Rican villains,” wrote Twitter user @MrEdgardoNYC.
Although Zayas said he now “understands why people would be upset” for setting a film during a hurricane in Puerto Rico, as an actor, he doesn’t view cinema or what he does as a performer from that perspective. “In art – whether we’re talking about TV or film or theater or painting – there should be no limits,” he said. “There are certain things that you shouldn’t touch, but they are very few and far between. I want to see a film about the 1992 L.A. riots. I want to see how people interpret those stories. That is part of the art and what we do.”
As for the criticism of the negative portrayal of Puerto Ricans in the film, he said he’s always understood representation is important in Hollywood, but Force of Nature didn’t feel like other roles he had passed on before. “I see you have to be sensitive about certain issues and how you present them,” he said. “But I didn’t feel there was anything negative about the movie. It turns out there was for some people, and I acknowledge that sentiment.”
The sensitive nature of certain narratives is something Zayas considers, not only because of today’s cultural climate, but because of the “privilege” he said he has always had working in Hollywood as a light-skinned Latino actor. “I’ve always felt that I’ve had opportunities and understand that some of those opportunities came with the privilege of having white skin even though I’m Latino,” he said. “I think it would be irresponsible for me to say that I haven’t had privilege because of the lightness of my skin.”
Zayas said that it’s up to actors of color to break down the barriers that have always kept them out of films and fight for the roles they want. Zayas wanted the role in Force of Nature. He fought for the part and earned it, and he’ll continue to do it as long as the story is one that he wants to tell.
“I know what those stories are, and I know what that journey is,” he said. “As a working actor, you have to make a choice. And those choices have to come from you and your heart.”