The first time Marquis Rodriguez met Raymond Santana Jr., the man he’d be playing as a teenager in Ava DuVernay’s four-part series When They See Us, was at the table read for the project. Script in hand, the actor found himself in the awkward position of trying to get through the day knowing his lines would soon put him en route to telling the story of a young kid who had his life stolen once back in April of 1989. That’s when Santana Jr. and four other boys were rounded up in Central Park and all but framed for the rape of a jogger. Dubbed “The Central Park Five” and saddled with convictions that were, years later, proven to be unfounded, the young boys ended up serving time in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. As DuVernay’s miniseries title suggests, this Netflix production hopes to tell their stories and return to them the dignity they always deserved but weren’t granted.
Rodriguez, like his fellow young castmates, felt the immense responsibility of such a mission on that very first day. But he also found great inspiration. “It immediately struck me how much of a light he is in a room,” he said about meeting Santana Jr. that first day. “He literally lights up a room when he walks in. And to think of all of the things he went through, to come out the other end and still be that person is absolutely mind-blowing to me.” It’s what guided him to play young Raymond (Freddy Miyares plays him as an adult): “What was most important to me was to try and figure out who he must have been when he was a kid, when he was just 14, before he went through all of this. Kids of color in this country and everywhere aren’t allowed to be children. So it was important to me to show him being a child. And show him having fun and enjoying himself in a way that was pretty quickly robbed from him.”
The black and Puerto Rican actor (Saturday Church), who grew up in Bed Stuy in Brooklyn, heard about Santana Jr. and the other four boys quite early in his life. One of his mom’s greatest goals, he shared with Remezcla, was to keep his son well-informed. “It’s good for a young man of color to know about the source of gross miscarriages of justice that happened in this city and everywhere else. I think it was her way of keeping me safe. You know, for us, ‘The Talk’ is about the police and about our criminal justice system and how it doesn’t really necessarily serve us.”
His job portraying young Raymond as he’s picked up by the police, coerced into making false allegations against other kids, and later realizes what the prosecution (and the New York media) had in store for all five of them, was made easier by his scene partner: John Leguizamo, who plays his father, Raymond Santana Sr.. Rodriguez had nothing but praise for his co-star, who helped him weather grueling interrogation scenes that are every black and brown boy’s greatest nightmare.
“He’s an absolute titan! He’s an incredible actor. And I got to see him work and got to see him digest notes from an angle and in a way that I’ve never seen actors do. He’s a very immediate actor. And that’s an amazing energy to have in a room when I have to do a scene where I’m in a position I’ve never actually been in [in] my life. And it’s all there. For me, it’s one of my biggest fears to be in a situation like that, so to have an actor that’s in it with you and ready to go was a huge honor. I felt like I was getting a private master class every time I was on set with him.”
Rodriguez will likely get plenty of more of those master classes in the near future: his next project is the as-yet-untitled Game of Thrones prequel series, which already boasts Naomi Watts, Denise Gough, Alex Sharp and Miranda Richardson. The spinoff will take place thousands of years before the events of the banner HBO show that recently aired its final episode. Which is about as much info as Rodriguez was able to share with us. In the meantime, he’s eager for audiences — especially young adults and kids — to see When They See Us and learn a painful history, but also a powerful story about how the criminal justice system sees boys like Raymond Santana, and how we should see them instead.
When They See Us is available to stream on Netflix.