In the last 32 years, Mexican American actor Alejandro Patiño can’t remember a time when he said no to a role he was offered.
“One time, I was doing a movie where I had to do a scene in a g-string,” Patiño told Remezcla during an interview earlier this month. “I always want to prove to myself that I’m willing to take those chances as an actor and do what the storyline needs.”
Patiño follows that same mantra when he is offered roles many would consider stereotypical. His first acting job was in 1987 when he played a character called “Cantina Tough” in the straight-to-video action flick Nightforce, which starred Oscar-nominated Linda Blair (The Exorcist). Since, Patiño has been cast as everything from a fruit vendor in the 1998 crime drama La Cucaracha to a goat truck driver in the 2010 comedy Our Family Wedding. He was described as “Mexican Man #1” on a 2004 episode of Arrested Development.
Best known for his role as Ralph the Gardener on hit TV show Desperate Housewives (he was hit by a bus and died in season two), Patiño said he feels fortunate that his acting career has lasted for as long as it has and doesn’t regret accepting so many stereotypical roles.
“Whenever I had the opportunity to play one of these characters, I always took it,” Patiño said. “Some Latino actors don’t want to play the gardener or the immigrant. I took [those roles] because I thought, OK, right now I’m being put into this stereotype, so why negate that if that’s what they’re looking for? That’s how I’ve made a career.”
In one of his newest films, Papi Chulo, Patiño said that although he plays an immigrant, the role felt a lot different from others. He knew it was special the moment he finished reading the script.
“It wasn’t your typical characterization of a day laborer or immigrant,” he said. “It had heart. These types of characters just aren’t highlighted enough. When I read it, I thought, ‘This is going to be magic.’”
In Papi Chulo, Patiño plays Ernesto, a Mexican day laborer who is hired by Sean – a lonely, gay weather forecaster (Matt Bomer) – to paint his deck. Later, Sean offers to pay Ernesto to simply hang out with him and be his friend, although the language barrier keeps them from holding substantial conversations.
As one of the two main characters, Patiño was excited about the scope of the role and getting top billing. “[Ernesto] is a day laborer, but it has something more to give than the two or three lines I usually get,” he said.
Patiño was also happy to get back to his roots by playing a character who performs manual labor, since he, himself, started in Hollywood in the 1990s as a construction worker making props and building sets for TV shows, movies, and commercials. When he was a teenager, he also spent a few summers working in the fields with his aunt in Northern California picking produce like broccoli, strawberries and celery. He refers to it as his “first paying gig.”
“There’s something beautiful about waking up early in the morning before the sun rises and seeing the mist rise on the coast while you pack lettuce,” he said.
While Patiño hasn’t been back to the fields in over 30 years, he respects the immigrants who come to the U.S. to do such labor-intensive work. Like filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning drama Roma did last year, Patiño hopes a film like Papi Chulo can educate viewers about the importance of immigrants in the workforce.
“Growing up, our family had a nanny,” Patiño said. “Those are the kinds of jobs immigrants take on — working in the fields, doing janitorial work. Some people say, ‘Immigrants are taking our jobs!’ But immigrants made this country. That’s what this administration still hasn’t gotten into their heads.”
Papi Chulo is playing in select theaters.