Lou Diamond Phillips on Being America’s No. 1 Honorary Latino and Playing a Chilean Miner in ‘The 33’

Despite the fact that Latinos are vastly underrepresented in cinema, there are a few go-to actors that Hollywood turns to when looking to cast a Latino role. For the better part of 30 years, one of those thespians has been Lou Diamond Phillips. Turns out though, he’s not actually Latino. With a Filipina mother who’s got a touch of Spanish blood and an American father who’s part Native American, his features are ambiguous enough that he’s offered characters of all ethnic backgrounds. Whether he won our hearts as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba or perfectly captured the cholo bravado as Angel in Stand and Deliver, Phillips has wholly embraced the title of “Honorary Latino.”

It’s no surprise, then, that when Patricia Riggen looked to adapt the headline-grabbing news story about 33 men trapped inside a Chilean mine into a film, she turned to Lou Diamond Phillips for one of the lead roles. Alongside fellow cast members Antonio Banderas, Jacob Vargas, and Oscar Nuñez in Los 33 (The 33), Phillips plays Luis Urzua, the ballsy foreman who kept the miners alive for the 70 days they were stuck underground.

Ahead of the U.S. theatrical premiere, we sat down to chat with the charming and hilarious Lou Diamond Phillips about being an honorary Latino, pretending The 33 was a musical, and meeting the real Chilean miners.

On Playing a Character That Is Based on a Real Person vs. a Fictional One

“The pressure is a lot more intense. You have a responsibility to a real person.”

You know, the pressure is a lot more intense. You have a responsibility to a real person. In the case of Ritchie’s family, it was the Valenzuela family who was there every day on set. In this case it was Luis Urzua, who I got to meet. And you know, it’s a very complex role. His emotional journey throughout this film is very interesting, so I never wanted to be disrespectful to him. When you’re playing a fictional character, you have carte blanche. You don’t have to answer to anyone. You can almost do anything that you want to do. In this, you not only have a responsibility to the story and to the facts as they happened, but to the fact that your human being has to live with what you’re saying to millions of people around the world about them. So it is harder, and I think if you have any sensitivity or compassion as an actor, you have that responsibility.

On Meeting the Actual Miners

I actually had been shooting for two or three weeks just outside of Bogotá, Colombia, before I had a chance to meet Don Lucho, but Patricia Riggen had a very clear vision of the character’s journey. The script was very solid, so I was able to make some decisions and to follow my instincts in the characterization. And fortunately when I met Don Lucho, all it did was underline everything that I had already assumed, so thank goodness I didn’t have to change course one-third of the way into it.

And the miners were there in groups throughout the filming. As a matter of fact, Mario Sepúlveda spent a great deal of time with us. That’s because Patricia [the director], Hector Tovar, who wrote the novel, the producers – they involved the miners from the beginning. This was not something like, “We’re gonna take your rights and we’re gonna do this story and do what we want to do.” They wanted them to be a part of this. So much so that in the recent premiere in Santiago de Chile, 32 of the 33 miners were there, and they got a standing ovation from the crowd with tears in their eyes. So for them, this was part of the healing and they’re going to be benefiting financially from the film. Hopefully it will do well and they’ll get some dollars in their pocket.

On Finding Out They’d Be Filming in a Real Mine

“We would come up with some pretty silly things to pass the time. And one of them was to pretend that we were doing The 33, The Musical.”

Personally, I was relieved. As an actor, everything that you don’t have to act is a gift, then you can focus on the relationships, you can focus on the emotional life of the character. You don’t have to pretend or use your imagination. And there’s so much green screen today, there’s so much being built on sound stages. If you get too complacent, if you get too comfortable, I think you lose the edge; I think you lose the reality of the situation. And we actually shot in two separate mines in Zipaquirá, Colombia – two salt mines. And you’re living it: you’re there, you feel the claustrophobia, [and] you feel the elements. It gets into your pores and it effects how you move, how you speak, and your mindset for the entire day. I mean we were in these mines 12-14 hours a day for six days a week. And then we went down to Chile and filmed the exteriors in the Atacama Desert, literally a mile away from where the actual event happened, so there was a great deal of veracity, reality to the whole process that I think lends a real authenticity to the film.

On Pretending The 33 Was a Broadway Musical

[laughs] Listen man, if you’re gonna be stuck in a mine for 14 hours a day, you’re hoping that you’re stuck with pleasant people and you come up with things to pass the time. Once again, I think it was very much like what the miners had to go through themselves: they had to bond together, they had to support one another. The funny thing is, Antonio Banderas is a singer. He’s been on Broadway, I’ve been on Broadway, Oscar Nuñez from The Office was an absolute cutup, Juan Pablo Raba, Jacob Vargas…fortunately we had a lot of very gregarious, very entertaining guys, and we would come up with some pretty silly things to pass the time. And one of them was to pretend many, many times that we were doing The 33, The Musical.

On How The 33 Musical Could Be Like Magic Mike

At this point why not? It’d be like Magic Mike, you get a bunch of sweaty, shirtless miners on stage, it could work.

On How People Freak Out When They Realize He Isn’t Latino

“I feel incredibly fortunate that my ambiguous ethnicity allows me to do that, to morph into whatever character that I’m representing.”

Yeah, and almost offended sometimes that I don’t speak Spanish. And I wish I did. I feel like such a provincial American not being bilingual, but I’ve been incredibly proud to represent numerous Latino communities throughout my career. Now Chilean, but certainly Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, even Bolivian. And it’s kind of in the same boat as me representing Native American communities, and as a result I’ve been adopted into the Cheyenne Nation because of my work as Henry Standing Bear on Longmire. The Lakota Nation adopted me in the early nineties after Young Guns. And I look at it the same way every single time. I try to be specific to the community that I’m representing. I don’t just go in and paint it all with the same brush, and I also try to do it with respect and with dignity, because I’m representing a culture to the world. And I feel incredibly fortunate that my ambiguous ethnicity allows me to do that, and to morph into whatever character that I’m representing.

On His Connection to the Latino Community

Well, I definitely had a connection to the Mexican-American community because I was raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, so many of my friends were of mixed heritage because we were all Navy kids. So it was not a big leap for me. But before I did Stand and Deliver, I had never met a cholo; I didn’t know what that was all about. And once again, I take it upon myself to do research and to hang out with the real deal and try to adopt a certain amount of authenticity. So with all of the roles I’ve played over the years, starting with La Bamba and Stand and Deliver, [they] have only increased my respect and my gratitude toward the communities that I’m representing.

On Feeling Accepted By Latinos After Playing Ritchie Valens

“I’m grateful for the experience and acknowledge the fact that it was my Cinderella story and I wouldn’t have a career without it.”

I’ve felt accepted from day one, and it goes back to La Bamba. Some people raised their eyebrows, yeah, but for 30 years now like you said, some people look at me like an honorary Latino, or an honorary Lakota or Cheyenne. I think it’s because everybody knows that I’m sincere, and where I’m coming from is a place of respect. And I’m not trying to cash in on being “ethnic” you know? I mean, these are the roles that I’m right for physically and when I take on these roles I try to get them right.

On People Yelling “Not My Ritchie” At Him

You know what, it still happens every week. Somebody yells from across the street. So it’s one of those things that will never go away. Obviously I’m grateful for it. Recently HLN screened La Bamba quite a lot for Hispanic Heritage Month. And even though it’s a little annoying when I’m out shopping, I’m grateful for the experience and acknowledge the fact that it was my Cinderella story and I wouldn’t have a career without it.

The 33 opens in U.S. theaters on November 13, 2015.