At Sundance, Latino Actors Reflect on the Difficulty of Getting Cast in Lead Roles

Lead Photo: Richard Gunn, Michael O'Neill, Wendell Pierce, Alfre Woodard, Chinonye Chukwu, Richard Schiff, Michelle Bonilla, Danielle Brooks, Aldis Hodge, Jed Bernard, Alex Castillo and John Churchill attend the 'Clemency' Premiere during Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2019. Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images
Richard Gunn, Michael O'Neill, Wendell Pierce, Alfre Woodard, Chinonye Chukwu, Richard Schiff, Michelle Bonilla, Danielle Brooks, Aldis Hodge, Jed Bernard, Alex Castillo and John Churchill attend the 'Clemency' Premiere during Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2019. Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images
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Save for a few exceptions that have attained mainstream success, Latino actors, writers, and directors in the United States continue to suffer from lack of access to the industry in comparison to their Latin American counterparts. Engaging with an industry that deems Latinos as niche and that doesn’t know how to cater to the vastly diverse experiences and cultures within the Latino community can be, to put it mildly, discouraging for emerging creators and performers. Add to that the miniscule number of Latinos in gate-keeping positions with the power to greenlight projects – that the promise of success feels so far off, it appears like an illusion.

With the rise of discussions about inclusion, as well as some quantifiable efforts from studios and organizations to better representation, the concern is whether true improvement is trickling down beyond major players or if it’s become stagnant for those out of the spotlight’s reach.

Remezcla talked to four Latino actors with films at Sundance this year, none of whom are the leads but who stand out regardless of limited screen time. We discussed their most recent roles and their observations on whether Hollywood’s loudly heralded shift towards increased representation feels real to them.

Octavio Pizano, Ms. Purple

Octavio Pizano in ‘Ms. Purple’ still. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Best known for his work in the series If Loving You Is Wrong, Mexico-raised actor Octavio Pizano met Asian-American director Justin Chon at an acting group in LA. Fond of each other’s sincerity, the two quickly became close. “We had many conversations about breaking stereotypes, similarities between our cultures, and the racist undertones in our own communities,” said Pizano. Six months later, Chon, who had at that point found moderate success with his second feature Gook, offered the actor a part in Ms. Purple, a new project set in culturally dynamic Koreatown.

In the film, Pizano plays a valet boy who befriends a Korean-American doumi (a hostess paid to cater to businessmen’s whims at a karaoke bar) whose life is in turmoil. Shot on location at a karaoke club, the role required him to react to real situations around him, including drunk people yelling in Spanish as they were trying to shoot a scene. Being bilingual, he pretended he was the target of the expletives and went along with it. “Rather than losing that take, I took it in, reacted as if they were talking to me. I’m a border kid, switching back and forth [between English and Spanish] comes natural.”

One instance that captured the intersection of people from different backgrounds coming together is the quinceañera that Octavio’s character invites the protagonist to. Though the scene is relatively short on screen, it was significant for the production. “That night was like everyone’s quinceañera,” said the actor. “It was also the last scene we shot, a real party with real mariachis.“ Going through Pizano’s playlist to find the right song to play during that joyful moment, Chon found Chavela Vargas’ Paloma Negra, a heart-rending track that he couldn’t use for the celebration, but saved for a poignant moment, reaffirming the diverse setting of the Los Angeles-set story.

Films like Ms. Purple are not commonplace in Pizano’s career. In spite of having auditioned for shows with largely Latino casts like Netflix’s Narcos and FX’s Mayans M.C., he hasn’t managed to break through. “It’s about Hollywood’s perception of what a Latino actor looks like and acts like, a box I don’t fit in.” For him, the biggest takeaway from working with Chon is that, “We have to tell our own stories, not wait for them. That means writing, producing, and directing.” Pizano has already started directing.

Andrea Suarez Paz, Sister Aimee

Andrea Suarez Paz attends the SAGindie Sundance Filmmakers Reception on January 28, 2019 in Park City, Utah. Photo by Fred Hayes/Getty Images Entertainment

Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her work in Sam Fleischner’s Stand Clear of the Closing Doors back in 2015, actress Andrea Suarez Paz has had a difficult time landing anything remotely as substantial since. After countless auditions, she finally landed a significant part in a feature, Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann’s religious road-trip comedy Sister Aimee.

Set at the beginning of the 20th century during the Cristero War in Mexico, the movie features Suarez Paz as Rey, a stoic and wise leader smuggling weapons for the rebels. To prepare, the actress researched the Mexican Revolution, in particular seeking any information on the role of women, who are rarely recognized for their crucial contributions. “Pancho Villa was a big misogynist who never gave the women any credit,” she told Remezcla.

In order to fulfill her potential, her character had to become stronger than the men around here. She found resonant parallels between what the narrative tackles regarding women’s struggles and today’s fight for gender equality and against the pay gap. “She had been very big in the revolution, like a glorious “generala,” but she hadn’t really gotten the recognition because she was a woman,” said Suarez Paz regarding the backstory she created for Rey based on her findings.

This role is an anomaly for her. Even when she is cast in short films or episodic content, the majority of the roles are undocumented or women crossing the border. Of course she would be intrigued to depict other characters, but Suarez Paz admits the ones she does get don’t bother her. “I am honored to be playing those roles,“ she stated. “I know that what I play are women that have a special strength.”

In an industry that tends to dilute what makes an individual unique, the actress has learned to value the person she is and not the person others would want her to be, even if this means limited opportunities. “I love the way I look, and I sound the way I sound, and I’m happy with what that is. It’s important that whoever hires me understands my essence.”

Alex Castillo, Clemency

Alex Castillo at The Wolf Hour party at DIRECTV Lodge at Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2019. Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for AT&T and DIRECTV

When Guatemalan-American actor Alex Castillo got the opportunity to audition for Chinonye Chukwu’s debut feature Clemency, he thought it was a mistake. “Normally I play fathers, police officers, or victims that are dads or cops,” he told Remezcla. Compelling prospects don’t come around often even after 15 years in the entertainment business.

Assuming he probably wouldn’t get the part, Castillo hoped they would at least consider him for something smaller. He thought, “Maybe I’m not right for the part, but I’ll do a good job and they’ll give me ‘Dad No. 3’ or ‘Cop No. 2.’” But playing against type worked, and he was granted the chance to embody a challenging character: Victor Jimenez, a death row inmate during his final moments.

Aware of how the role could be seen as stereotypical, Castillo chose not to focus on Jimenez’s reprehensible acts (which were based on those of a real person) and instead concentrated on his relatable humanity. “Yes. He has committed a heinous crime, but he is still a human being.” Filming the execution required him to be strapped to a gurney in a catatonic state of mind. In the emotionally charged scene, Jimenez prays for his life while the medical staff struggles to administer the lethal injection. They shot it about two dozen times, and Castillo credits co-star Alfre Woodard’s kind gestures between takes with keeping him on track during the process.

Castillo is only in the movie for a few minutes, but they are unshakable. “Even though my time in the film is not significant in terms of the amount of screen time, it is significant in the amount of impact.” Chukwu’s Clemency won the top prize at Sundance and will surely spark conversations around capital punishment. For Castillo the visibility, he hopes, might lead to new horizons. “I’m ready to stop playing dads and cops. I want to tackle complex roles.”

Alma Martinez, Ms. Purple and Clemency

Alma Martinez at the Center Theatre Group 50th Anniversary Celebration on May 20, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Center Theatre Group

Alma Martinez doesn’t have any patience left for films with no people of color. The veteran actress, who made her big screen debut in Luis Valdez’s Chicano classic Zoot Suit, is a scholar with a PhD from Stanford University and a fierce advocate for the inclusion of US Latinos in the arts.

With a career spanning nearly four decades, Martinez has seen the ebbs and flows of the industry that today, at least in theory, appears more open to Latinos. Numerically, she believes, the potential for getting hired is higher, but the types of characters offered remain questionable. “Even though now there may be more roles, the writing hasn’t changed and still comes from a white male perspective. Consequently, the roles are the same,” she told Remezcla.

She feels similarly about the notion that more women are now in decision-making positions or that there are more studio productions with female leads: “It’s a wonderful achievement for women, but if it doesn’t include women of color for me it isn’t an achievement,” she firmly noted.

By the same token, Martinez refuses to equate the success of Mexican directors in Hollywood with the advancement of US Latinos, as their experiences are distinct. For those from this side of the border, the battle is first to assert their identity in a society that rejects their mere existence. “We have a bigger obstacle in order to have our young rising artists really rise to the top of their artistry,” she explained. “They are fighting against a culture that refuses to embrace their lived reality, their presence, their brown skin, their immigration backgrounds, their mastery of a second language, a second culture. When they should be creating their art, they are fighting to break through and be understood and let in. That’s a very different reality than Mexico City.”

For a performer and academic like Martinez, it’s fitting that the two Sundance dramas she has roles in, Ms Purple and Clemency, were both made by directors of color. She has one-scene parts in both, one as a caretaker and the other as a mother watching her jailed son’s execution. Both movies portray the country as it looks today, and that’s all Martinez is asking for. “The directors have taken for granted that their audience knows that this is a deeply diverse and integrated reality. This is how we live, side by side.”