By Jack Rico
For the Latino moviegoers who have already seen Argo or those who will now see it due to the 7 Oscar nominations it received today from the Academy, you might be submerged into the controversy that has arisen from the big reveal in the movie… Ben Affleck who directs and stars in “Argo“, is named Tony Mendez, an obvious Latino. So why did Affleck (an Irish guy) play him as opposed to a true Latino actor? What did Tony Mendez, the real life CIA agent that inspired the film, think? And is he really Latino (I couldn’t find any detailed news on his heritage on the web)? Many Latinos are upset at Affleck’s logic here so I decided to go to the main source – Mendez himself. In this exclusive interview, I asked him about his Latino roots, Affleck’s decision not to hire a Latino thespian to play the lead role and much, much more.
Jack Rico (JR): What is your full name?
Tony Mendez (TM): Antonio Joseph Mendez
JR: When I first saw “Argo,” I was stunned when Ben Affleck’s character revealed himself to have the last name of Mendez. Was the star character of one of the best movies of the year Hispanic? I then tried to look for as much information as I could about your Hispanic heritage and I couldn’t really find anything that officialized you as a Hispanic. So now that I have you exclusively here… what is your nationality?
TM: I was born in the U.S. in Nevada and my family came there, to this location, Eureka, Nevada, during the time of the gold rush.
JR: So, the 1900’s?
TM: Turn of the century. My great-grandfather came from Italy and he married an Irish woman and there was a French connection there. So, that’s my mother’s side. On the other side, on my father’s side, his family was originally from Mexico.
JR: Wait, what part of Mexico?
TM: We don’t know, it’s kind of a mystery surrounding him, because we think our name might not be Mendez, but Gomez. There was a time that he was living in Los Angeles and my great-grandfather… great-grandmother, his daughter was killed in an automobile accident, she was a young woman. He didn’t get along with her sister and from what we understand he took the two boys and disappeared and renamed himself and the boys Mendez. So, that’s where it gets cloudy.
JR: Do you speak Spanish?
TM: No, I was in a household without my father because he was killed in the copper mines in Nevada and my mother’s side didn’t speak Spanish and there was nobody around speaking Spanish when I was growing up. I’ve studied languages as part of our training, but I don’t have a native language other than sometimes English. *laughs*
JR: But you did learn Spanish while you were in the CIA, correct?
TM: You end up speaking whatever you need to speak, to defend yourself. We had people who specialized in area studies, languages and so forth working with us. In a real expatriation, you would at minimum have an artist and a linguist, because you need to be able to read and write this stuff so you can make false documents and whatever else, you need to be able to create it.
JR: A lot of Hispanic moviegoers when they found out that the name of Ben’s character was Tony Mendez they immediately thought – “why is Ben playing a Hispanic character?” Ben is obviously not Hispanic. No one has been able to get a legitimate answer on the matter, until now. Were there ever discussions at any point, maybe even from Ben, to have a Hispanic actor play you and maybe just have himself concentrate in directing?
TM: Never heard of it.
JR: Did you feel okay with Ben Affleck playing you as opposed to maybe somebody else?
TM: Yeah, but I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic. I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert. If I had been in a different family circumstance, I might have felt that way. But, mostly, my family was at odds with each other in a playful way, they weren’t talking about heritage in that regard.
JR: In the Hispanic film community, there is much debate surrounding this topic. Many Hispanic actors feel their progress halts when Hollywood decides to place an anglo star name in a Hispanic role. When you see Ben portray you on screen, do you feel he represented you with integrity? The right way? Did you see yourself in him?
TM: What I already knew about Ben was that he was a real diligent creator down to the fine nobs in the clumps of dirt and so forth, that he was real. What I found about him when he’s acting is that he does the same kind of due diligence on the part he’s playing. A lot of things I kind of discovered about myself he had already up picked on and was portraying them on the screen.
JR: He almost did you better than you do yourself.
TM: He knew more about me that’s for sure
JR: Thank you very much Tony, I really appreciate your time.