By Jack Rico
When “Filly Brown” makes it’s theatrical release on Friday April 19th, many Latino moviegoers will be awaiting to see Jenni Rivera‘s first and last performance on film. But what many will also be seeing is the nascent of a brand new star in Puerto Rican actress Gina Rodriguez. From the hood to the big screen, Rodriguez is ready for the lights of Hollywood in a big way and it looks like there is little that can stop her from achieving it.
The path is inevitable, but the journey towards that destination are always full obstacles. In Rodriguez’s case, proving to Hollywood what a Latina can do is a big motivation to succeed in an industry plagued with sterotypes. Learning obsessively how to rap proved an intense, but attainable challenge. But perhaps the biggest chllange she’s faced, both profesionally and even personally, is the death of one of her friends and inspirations – Mexican superstar Jenni Rivera. In what is one of the most candid and heartfelt interviews I’ve ever had the pleasure in doing, Rodriguez opens up like she never has before about how Jenni Rivera’s death affected her ever since that fatal day on December 9th, 2012.
In my interview with Rodriguez, she unreservedly shed tears as she spoke to me about the discomfort and difficulty of having to deal with the media attention brought her way from Rivera’s passing while promoting this film, the moments that most touched her about her relationship with her and the day she realized she wanted to walk in her footsteps. She also talks about the craziness of going toe to toe against Tom Cruise at the box office and a possible new rap album on the horizon.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): Thanks Gina for your time. How much weight and importance are you putting into ‘Filly Brown’ to be a career breaker or a career maker for you?
(GR): Well I think with great courage comes great fear. I think as artists we take a leap of faith almost every single day of our lives, you almost feel out of control because you want it so bad, your desire is so great and there is no one direct journey to get there. For me it was never about making it, I grew up in the hood in very humble beginnings so money comes and goes, but the idea that you are actually given the opportunity to perform and act, that is what I sought after.
I didn’t get in this business to have Louis Vuitton bags or Jimmy Choo shoes, I got in this business to be a story teller and I got in this business to change the way minorities are viewed in the media. Right now I think “Filly Brown” did exactly what it needed to do for my career, it got people looking at my work and it got me recognized for what I can do on the screen, anything [else] that comes from here on out is a blessing.
I have no idea what is going to happen on Friday the 19th but what I do know is that I put my love and my heart into it, I have a new family, I learned how to make music, what more can I ask for at this point. I just hope that I get some support out there and people get to watch my work.
(SBC): Speaking of a new family, you had an incomprehensible loss in Jenni Rivera. I can only imagine how tough that must have hit you. Can you take us through the first time you met her, what impact she had on you, and your reaction when you found out that she passed away?
(GR): When I found out that they were going to ask Jenni Rivera to play my mother I knew of her music, I knew that she [started] where Selena left off, she was the continuation of that musical journey, she was the new Selena for so many people that were missing Selena at that time and then she grew and created a name because of her beautiful story. I’ve known about her amazing journey and story so I was very excited and I was praying that she would take it. I was saying: “Oh my goodness please let her say yes.” When she said yes, they told me that we were going to do private coaching together because this was her first acting experience and I was like: “Yes! Let’s get in it, let’s do justice and do the best we can,” because the role that she plays is not easy. To me its comparable to Monique in “Precious” and she [is amazing in it.] This is a woman that is “La Diva de la Banda” she is all eye lashes, hair extensions, gorgeous gowns and sexy makeup; and she loves representing herself as a beautiful, strong, curvy and powerful Latina. In this movie she got stripped down, she had to take out her extensions, at times she would sweat and in close-ups you are in a really vulnerable place, so I’m like: “Okay, let’s go in and do a month of training and get everybody on board!”
Her and I create a relationship that is so strong, my trajectory [in the film] is due to my mother [Jenni] so our connection is so important and I am always looking for the truth in any situation in dealing with my art and how much we can prepare to bring all of that when the cameras say action.
The first day I met her, I’ll never forget, she rolled up in a black Lexus with leather interior; she had a cap on, her hair down kind of inconspicuous. So she pulls up and rolls down the window because she sees us standing outside and she says: “Hey guys!” like she had known us forever. Right away two girls notice that it’s Jenni and they freak out and they scream: “Jenniii!” They were 13-year-old girls and she puts her hand up and says: “I got this, nobody needs to protect me.” She gets out, she hugs the girls, takes pictures with them, they are crying and she is talking to them in Spanish and English letting them know: “I’m here, thank you so much for your support.” I’m staring at her [thinking] that is the way you pray and wish famous people are going to be like. You never know in our industry, I don’t understand how people can let it go to their heads because it comes and goes, one minute you’re hot and one minute you’re not. When you see somebody so generous, beautiful and compassionate you’re like: “That’s what I want to be, that’s how I want be when I grow up.”
So she comes in hugs us and and says: “You’re my daughter? You’re playing my daughter? You didn’t tell me my daughter was so beautiful” and she got me blushing. Then we went right in and started telling each other our stories and it was probably the most powerful day I’ve ever experienced. Getting to know her that first day, seeing who she was that first day and just being like: “That’s who I want to be.” We had an amazing time on set and after the movie wrapped that was my movie mommy. We had a lot of great successes together, We went to Sundance together and we went to the Imagen Awards last year –which I was blessed to be able to host – where she got the Lifetime Achievement Award and Lou Diamond and I got Best actor and Best Actress for “Filly Brown.” Then [the movie] finally got picked up and it was supposed to go to theaters, but unfortunately the distribution folded and Lionsgate swooped in and became our angel… but then Jenni passed.
December 9th, 2012. I’ll never forget it, I was in my car with my boyfriend driving to my best friend’s birthday party when I get a call from my friend Jeremy Ray Valdez and he says: “I have something really terrible to tell you. Jenni’s plane, it went missing,” and I say: “What are you talking about…is this a stupid joke?” and he says: “I wish I was joking.” I got off the phone and went on Google and put in her name and it said: “Jenni Rivera’s plane has gone missing, presumed dead.” (She begins to cry) It was some of the worst moments after that because she was the first woman in my whole life to pass away and God willing I won’t have to experience that for a while. My heart just broke because you just think: “What’s the point?” She has five kids and two grandkids and I love every single one of them. I couldn’t stop thinking about Johnny, her youngest who used to come on set with her all the time.
What followed was a very interesting experience because then [the movie] got a lot of attention and I didn’t want attention in my direction because you pray for support from you community, the general market, your friends and family, but you never pray for this. What followed was a very scary situation that I wasn’t prepared for, I wasn’t prepared to get attention because of someone’s death and I still don’t want it, not like that. In the few weeks ‘till Filly’s release I’ve been praying for the strength to figure out how to honor her, how to celebrate her life and really keeping the integrity of the film and knowing that this film was great when she was alive, because she does a phenomenal job, everyone in that movie does a phenomenal job and we put our heart into it so we want to make her proud, give a good piece of art and we want to keep working hard just like she did when she was on this earth.
(SBC): Thank you for being so honest and open with me Gina. I think one of the things that people will always be saddened by was not being able to witness Jenni’s inevitable crossover rise. She was about to hit it big. She was debuting as an actress, there was talks of an English album, she was about to do an ABC show, and like Selena, I think that everyone thought that her potential was cut short.
(GR): For so long it was like: “Oh, she died too soon, she died too soon,” which obviously we all believe and feel and selfishly we want her back. But she did so much in the 42 years of her life and she created gold out of freaking rocks dude, she created a legacy that has touched millions of people; she left behind music that will last forever and people will sing, cry and dance to forever; she has a movie in which people will see how amazing she was in acting. Although she did not get to show the world how much she can do she at least showed that she could act, she could sing and that she was an amazing mother. If I can do as much as she’s done in 42 years of life, I would be blessed.
(SBC): As I saw the film, I kept on seeing shades of Eminem’s “8 Mile,” but with a Latina twist to it. Do you agree?
(GR): I feel like that is a very blessed comparison. I think “8 Mile” is an awesome movie with great music “Filly Brown”. I feel very lucky that they are comparing it to such a great movie and just like Eminem’s stands on its own I think “Filly Brown” [also] has legs and is really breaking stereotypes and flipping things on its head . [Having] a female rapper, a mother in prison and a single dad that is raising the kids it’s a nice little twist of what we are used to seeing and I’m very much proud of the music, I put my heart in and lots and lots of rappers also put their heart into this movie and supported me. That it is a beautiful comparison and we would be blessed to have the light “8 Mile” had and we are just hoping that people get out there and take a look and make the judgment for themselves.
(SBC): At the start of our conversation, you mentioned that one of the reasons you got into this business was to change the perception of minorities in media. What exactly happened that ticked you off so much that you’ve been carrying this sentiment for so many years?
(GR): Well I wasn’t necessarily ticked off and I feel very lucky that I don’t hold a grudge, but I’m starting to understand the imagery more and the older I get and the more I work in the industry I’m starting to see the opportunities that are given to us, I’m starting to see the characters that we play and I’m starting to see the commonality between them. Now I think [that even] with every culture in our country, at the end of the day we are a human race, we all tell the same story and all feel the same emotions. I’m just trying to create a place outside of stereotypes that have plagued the Latino community and start creating a stage where young girls and young boys can look at the screen and see us become lawyers, doctors and bankers, and say: “Yo she’s doing it, I can do it too.” Growing up I didn’t necessarily feel I looked like the women on screen but what I did know was that I could tell a story and I could do it like nobody’s business.
(SBC): How did you end up becoming the lead of the film? Weren’t you originally a dancer?
(GR): I was a salsa dancer growing up from age 7 to 17. I’m Puerto Rican so my parents loved it, they were so proud. When it came to college I knew I wanted to go outside of the world of dance so I studied theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. It’s important for me to have a good education mind you I’m still paying them, I still owe like some of my organs but that’s beside the point because it was well worth it.
“Filly Brown” came to me specifically because my homeboy Jessie Garcia saw me in a movie called “Go For It” and he presented my work the director of “Filly Brown” and said: “You know I think you should take a look at this chick,” next thing you know I’m auditioning. At first Filly Brown was supposed to be a spoken word artist. Now, I’m like every other girl, I write poetry to get over every breakup possible so spoken word made a lot of sense to me, but when I was in the audition room they changed it to a rapper and I was like: “woah woah woaah,” because that is a whole other ballpark. When you are doing hip-hop it’s a competition, you have to bring it and you have to be authentic. Growing up in the inner city of Chicago I grew with hip-hop and I knew what a competitive art form it was. When I booked Filly Brown, four days later I was in the studio and I was surrounded by these amazing Latin underground hip-hop artists so I had to study like a hawk, it was like going back to college, it was understanding that this was something I had to learn because if I didn’t come correct I would just get played. I hope I did the music justice because you can’t get me out of the studio now, I love making music!
(SBC): Some people discover parts of themselves, some hidden talents they didn’t know they had before. If the movie goes well, a lot of people are going to associate you with being a rapper. They might want more of that. Are there any discussions of you actually doing a rap album as an extension of your Filly Brown character?
(GR): I think the most beautiful thing about discovering that I can make music while making “Filly Brown” is that now I can tell people that it’s never too late to learn something new. After [the movie] I picked up the guitar, I picked up the ukulele and my boyfriend is teaching me how to play the violin. But rap, I would be blessed if people wanted me to continue to make rap, I definitely have interest in making more albums outside of the soundtrack and there is about five to six songs that I did that aren’t in the movie. There are definitely talks of me making more rap, I have my own band, but I will be rapping until the day I die. I will be Betty White status rapping to my grandkids.
(SBC): Last question. This week “Filly Brown” will be going head to head with “Oblivion,” Tom Cruise’s brand new big budget sci-fi romance film. Tell our visitors why they should spend their $13 watching “Filly Brown” instead of “Oblivion”?
(GR): “Oblivion” is an entirely different movie than “Filly Brown”. I would encourage people to go see the movie that they feel calls to them. I think that “Filly Brown” does have the opportunity for the Latino community to cross over into the mainstream, [because] it’s a movie that is relatable to absolutely everyone – no skin color is discriminated from this film. I think that we have this movie that is full of heart, great great acting, amazing actors and some badass music. “Filly Brown” can do something triumphant for Latinos, it can show that we deserve a place in Hollywood and it is just as grandiose as “Oblivion.”
I think that [Latinos] deserve to have movies that have millions of dollars behind it like “Oblivion” does, but we don’t live that life, that’s not our reality. Our reality is that we have “a little engine that could” and we are hoping that people will help push it. We need support to show the world that one day my face could be all over the world like Tom Cruise’s because we’ve [already] seen [his] face so maybe we should introduce a new person to Hollywood and not just me, it could be [anyone from the movie’s cast] because we have a lot of up and coming talent in this film.
(SBC): You never know, maybe one of these days it could be: “Tom Cruise and Gina Rodriguez in…”
(GR): (She laughs.) That’s true, you never know. I’m here in my first lead in a feature film, I’ve come from the hood of Chicago and I’ve been waiting for this moment for over ten years so you definitely never know. If I could do it, you can do it 10 times better so follow your dreams.