Johnny Ortiz Wants His Role in ‘Soy Nero’ to Change the Military’s Policy on Undocumented Soldiers

Soy Nero (I Am Nero) is a story about reaching the gates of heaven and being kicked back into the gates of hell, according to co-writer and director Rafi Pitts. The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival this year with a razor-sharp inquiry into the U.S. military’s distressing record of deporting green card holders with residency permits after they serve in the army.

Green Card Soldiers enlist, fight and die for America yet full citizenship is not guaranteed upon return from the perils of war. Soy Nero exposes a sad and hidden reality for nearly 3,000 veterans since the Vietnam War: service and survival are not enough because foreign-born fighters can still be rejected and sent home.

Soy Nero is also a dispatch from the front line, where soldiers are forced to combat racial and socioeconomic tensions within their units as they fight for democracy in the face of oppression.

Johnny Ortiz (American Crime) plays the protagonist, Nero, a pensive Mexican teen who grew up in Los Angeles before being deported as an undocumented immigrant. Beneath a cascade of patriotic fireworks, he crosses the border illegally to join the armed forces. In hot pursuit of the American dream, Nero first must conquer a Middle Eastern warzone alongside two African American soldiers. And the film’s charge crystalizes in this vignette with a warning from Bronx (played by Aml Ameen), who tells Nero, “You’re only an American if you die here and make it back alive.”

The 21-year-old American actor of Mexican and Guatemalan descent is no stranger to trauma. His childhood in Los Angeles’ Highland Park was tainted by gangs, violence, and even jail. He tried to pull himself out of the turmoil at one point by calling 411 and asking the operator how to become an actor. Now, he uses his rising influence to encourage troubled kids to strive for more in life.

We chatted with Ortiz about his portrayal of Nero, his dark past, and the upcoming election ahead of the movie’s screening at Los Cabos International Film Festival (Nov. 9-13), which just revealed its official lineup. Here are the highlights.

UPDATE 9/29/2017:  Soy Nero opens in theaters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palm Springs, Dallas, Houston, and other Texas cities on September 29, 2017.

On the borders portrayed in the film and the borders that show up in real life

There’s always going to be a way to get inside the country. It’s not going to stop. But borders are actually a safe way to keep a record of people who are coming through the country… Though it should be more lenient to let people come to work. Borders, on the other hand, also create chaos. Officers are racist. They should only have that job if they have a human mentality. They should be there to protect the border from people who are bringing drugs or legitimately dangerous situations.

On facing discrimination

I went to Mexico with a friend [an actor in dystopian horror flick, The Purge] and we waited for six hours in the line for U.S. passport [holders] and cars. An African-American officer told us we had to go to a different line, which would’ve put us back another six hours. As we realized this, the officer asked me if my friend was my boyfriend and then said, “You know if you want him to cross with you, you should marry him.” I asked to speak to a supervisor, who recognized me from American Crime. He was a fan and ended up helping us. If I wasn’t voice, I’d be voiceless. I want to give other people a voice.

On putting on a stoic face in Soy Nero

Every life experience has helped me act. Acting healed me; it gave me peace. I was a very angry, bitter person. But acting gave me a way to express myself without being judged. When I’m doing something based on a true story, I feel really inspired, but then again you can also feel really depressed.

On the film’s incisive depiction of undocumented soldiers

Even my military advisor was told he had to go back to his country [Mexico] after serving! When stories haven’t been told, and then they’re revealed, it can open doors and opportunities. Soy Nero made a lot of buzz and I hope things will change. Maybe if more minorities go into law? I’ve personally experienced a lot of racism, and it’s always been a white person that’s put me down. It’s not every white person, to be clear. But it can be the people who are in power. We can change it if we can get into those positions. Not everyone has the guts to do it.

On the upcoming U.S. presidential election

We shouldn’t be dividing each other. We should unite as family. There are a lot of ignorant people in this life who think that immigrants should get deported, but we’re all immigrants. I hear that it comes down to money. Money influences everything so I’m trying to motivate minorities to get government jobs, to grab positions that can influence the world.

Los Cabos International Film Festival runs November 9-13, 2016.