From ‘Raising Victor Vargas’ to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’: Victor Rasuk On Growing up in Post-Warhol NYC

The submissive has all the power and, at the end of the day, the most fun. Fifty Shades of Grey articulates some of the delicious details behind BDSM relationships, most importantly that they are consensual. Part rom-com, part PSA, and certainly a faithful adaptation of the book by E.L. James (who is half Chilean, btdubs), Fifty Shades is not a bad way to spend your Valentine’s Day.

Overall, the film gets high marks for character development, which is corroborated by a strong performance from Dakota Johnson as Anastasia. The kink-and-mouse affair between her and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) takes center stage and is pretty much all you’re watching for the duration of the film, and that’s a good thing. The audience will be treated to Grey’s opulent lifestyle (in other words, lots of high gloss production value) via Anastasia’s aspirational gaze in the same way Pretty Woman kinda conjures Cindefuckingrella. There are moments of romance and candor and silliness — in the way that sex and gooey stuff can be silly — that will charm you.

Unfortunately, it fell short in the hawt department: the sex scenes are overly-staged and lacking in intensity. The soundtrack is eclectic with music from Sia and Beyonce, but really it’s The Weeknd who owns that Dolby sound system. A nice surprise is actor Victor Rasuk, who plays José Gonzalez. The lovelorn José sits deep on Anastasia’s bench as she perceives him a safer alternative to the dangerously alluring Grey.

Rasuk is perhaps still best known as Victor Vargas from Peter Sollet’s first feature film Raising Victor Vargas. He then went on to a powerful performance as Tony Alva in Lords of Dogtown and has since been making the rounds on the small screen in shows like How to Make it in America and Stalker. Bright smile, homie-next-door with a devil-may-care confidence that’s steeped in self-awareness, Rasuk always stands out. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we love watching him: he’s a courtly dude with a huge spirit, who invites us to dream as big as he does.

Victor Rasuk in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’
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Before the hotly-anticipated Fifty Shades release, we talked to Victor about what it’s like to work on a franchise, the best advice he’s ever gotten, and about the gig that instilled the ethos he still holds to this day.

As soon as I knew I was going to talk to you, all I wanted to say was, “Yo, Victooooor!!!”

Victor Rasuk: “Yo, ladies! Wassup, ladies!” That’s from Victor Vargas — that’s hilarious!

I’m excited to talk to you, man. Congratulations on all the great work you’re doing and all the good stuff that’s coming your way.

Rasuk: I appreciate it, man. I be reading you guys. I know what you guys are doing over there.

You read Remezcla?

Rasuk: Of course! You all be breaking the news with TMZ quickness. I be like, “Dayuuum. Yo, they quick.” [Laughs]

I wanted to talk a little bit about the movie but this also a really great opportunity for us to catch up with you. My first question is about your character José. Can you tell us a little bit about him and how you prepared for that role?

“I wouldn’t call myself a method actor. I respect other method actors but I don’t make it as complex.”

Rasuk: José is a young student at the same college as Anastasia. He’s a photography major and he is also secretly in love with Anastasia — for many years. The book mentions in little excerpts that both their dads, Anastasia’s and Jose’s dad, served in the military or something like that. So, I think they go way back even before they went to college together. Anyway, he’s a young guy who’s in love. It’s like, guy-loves-girl but girl-doesn’t-love-guy-back kinda situation.

What did you tap into in order to create him?

Rasuk: One of the first things I try to do with any role is like, you want to try to relate, right? That’s the first you want. How much I can relate to this role? And then the second thing, whatever I can’t relate to, I try to fill those holes. Obviously, I wasn’t a photographer so I took photography classes. I bought an old school camera, a Nikon F1, a 35mm camera not a digital one, and I just started carrying that around and taking pictures and learning how to work an old camera. When it came to liking the girl and the whole majestic period before telling her, when you have those feelings, I related with José on that level. So the love aspect and expressing my love, I was able to do, because I’ve been through that. But the photography part, that was the hole that I had to fill. I wouldn’t call myself a method actor. I respect other method actors but I don’t make it as complex.

You made your bones in the indie industry and now do bigger movies, what was it like? Are there any differences? Things you liked? Didn’t like?

“I caught New York in an amazing time. It was the post-Andy Warhol, post-Basquiat era.”

Rasuk: When you’re working on a studio movie it’s not an indie movie so they’re never running out of money. You pretty much have everything you need. Not that we need a lot but just like, you want a little snack; there’s a little snack. You want a little extra security; there’s a little extra security. So we had that, thankfully. But the cool thing was that when you walked onto set and you had just read the book, you could see the characters in the book in real life. Also, I was able to see firsthand the process that Jamie and Dakota go through, ’cause every actor has their own, so it was just cool to be there and catch a glimpse of what their process was.

I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about the New York City that you grew up in, that Lower East Side. What that was like for you?

Rasuk: It was dope. I always say I caught New York in an amazing time. It was the post-Andy Warhol, post-Basquiat era. The East Village and the Lower East Side were popping. When I was growing up, that was when Tompkins Square Park was called Tent City. You had the squatters, you had the drug dealers, you had the drug addicts, and you had homeless people kinda setting up shop. So, what was cool for me was that I got to see that firsthand, and it gave me a real sense, at a really early age, of what is real and what is fake, you know what I’m saying? And so being able to be in this business, which unfortunately is filled with a lot of fakery, I feel like I’ve been able to weed out who’s right for me and who’s not and who sort of has ulterior motives when meeting me. I’ve also had a great team of people around me so I’ve been really lucky in that sense, too. But New York and the Lower East Side were instrumental.

Raising Victor Vargas
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You still come back?

“On a summer day, I’ll watch the basketball games on Tompkins Square Park ’cause I used to play in those games.”

Rasuk: Yeah! I was there last night. I always try to hit up certain spots, like I’ll go to my boy’s. He’s got a bar called The Handy Liquor Bar. I’ll go there and go see my boy, he owns that spot. And then I love the food at Esperanto, so I’ll go to Esperanto ’cause it’s right in the hood. And then you know, I always try to walk by Tompkins Square Park and I’ll reminisce. On a summer day I’ll watch the basketball games on Tompkins Square Park ’cause I used to play in those games. And I still do but I kinda eased up a little bit because you get hurt and that’s like, that’s your money right there! You’re done. You’re outta commission. So you gotta chill with that. And I play hard. I mean, I’m only five seven but I act like I’m six feet and I be playing hard like a center.

So when you think back to Raising Victor Vargas, which I think is almost 15 years old now.

Rasuk: I can’t believe you just said that, it’s crazy!

When you think back to that time — if you ever catch snippets maybe online or if you ever see stills of yourself — what rushes through your mind when you think back to that movie and that time in your life?

Rasuk: It was the most innocent and inquisitive time in my whole life. And it set the precedent to my adulthood, to be honest with you, when I look at that. It was probably the most important time of my life.

How to Make It in America
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Why do you say it set the precedent?

“I think that allowed me to be confident and not feel embarrassed because of the environment that I grew up in.”

Rasuk: Well, because you’re fully engaged and you’re fully learning and your mind is still developing around that time, you know? I was learning so much and I was absorbing so much and I was growing. I was also meeting new people. Growing up in my neighborhood, you’re around Dominican and Puerto Rican people but it was at a time when I was around white people, but also people who were creative and had the passion to be creative, too. And I think that allowed me to be confident and not feel embarrassed because of my environment that I grew up in. You know, if I would have been like, “Oh, I love acting! I love film!” dudes or even chicks would be like, “What the hell is that? That’s soft,” or whatever. “That’s a softy thing” or whatever they want to call it. It was 100% such an innocent time in my life, but I was so open-ears to everything. There was nothing that I wasn’t picking up. And I think that when you get older everything becomes second nature, drama becomes second nature, your reactions become second nature. But when you’re so young everything is so heightened, you know what I’m saying?

You feel it in multiple ways. And it resonates for much longer.

Rasuk: Yeah.

So I was peeping your Instagram and I saw some pictures of you and the great Luis Guzmán, and I started thinking about mentors and how they play such an important role particularly for Latino talent. I was wondering if you wanted to share any advice that you’ve gotten throughout your career from any Latino actor or mediamaker. Who was it and what they said to you?

Rasuk: I’ll tell you right now, Luis Guzmán. Luis and I are two boys from the same neighborhood, obviously two different eras. The greatest advice that he gave me and he lives by his advice, too, is that, “Vic, just be patient.” We all live in the generation of the right now so he’s like, “Dude, be patient. Everything in your career is going to pop off when it’s supposed to pop off. You just have to put in the work and learn and enjoy the journey.” And that would be my advice to anyone because when Luis told me that, all that made sense. And he’s living proof.