By Jack Rico
Transcription done by Mariana Dussan.
As The Weinstein Company is making an invigorated Oscar push to drive their dramedy “Silver Linings Playbook” to a historic upset over the leading favorite front-runner in “Argo” in the Best Picture category, I had a lengthy and very enjoyable discussion with one of its co-stars – Puerto Rican thespian John Ortiz who plays Ronnie, best friend to Bradley Cooper in the film.
With over 20 years in the business, Ortiz has consolidated himself as one of the most dependable Hispanic actors in Hollywood. His oustanding character actor work such as Guajiro in Carlito’s Way, Juan Abreu in Before Night Falls, Octavio in NARC, Jose Yero in Miami Vice, amongst many others, puts him, well poised to be a part of the Oscar discussion in the next 10 years, the way Demián Bichir was in 2011.
I had such a great conversation with Ortiz. He gave me so much about the business of how Hollywood ticks, insights that no one has gotten yet regarding behind-the-scenes of the film. I also asked Ortiz some tough questions such as if Bradley Cooper really deserved an Oscar nomination, if Silver Linings Playbook was a tough movie to sell to the public, and his answers were as honest and revealing as you can ask for in an actor in Hollywood. He also revealed who is the best Hispanic actor walking today, what Ridley Scott really thinks of him, the challenges of his ethnicity, an update on the new Chavez movie he did with Diego Luna, and his chances of winning an Oscar in the next 5 to 10 years.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): I’ve seen many of your movies and I’m so glad you are getting a lot of kudos in big films like “Silver Linings Playbook” which a lot of people consider to be one of the best movies of the year. Your involvement in the film is memorable and I wanted to talk a little about you and the film.
John Ortiz: It’s been a big surprise. I kind of joined the project a little late in the ball game, I was in the middle of doing “Luck” for HBO and I was looking for something completely different so this kind of fell into my lap and I am so grateful for it.
(SBC): Why were you surprised that you were going to be involved in this film?
John Ortiz: I joined the cast late. I think there were some casting issues with someone else’s schedule so they were under the gun already in Philadelphia in production and I think the actor just couldn’t work it out and they had to find a replacement and I was one of the choices.
(SBC): Do you know if the actor was a Hispanic actor?
John Ortiz: I don’t think so; I actually don’t know who it was. I didn’t care to ask I didn’t think that was important for me to know. If anything it probably would have messed me up. I’m always surprised people don’t use their imagination more and cast whoever might be a good actor.
(SBC): You have usually played characters that live on the periphery and support the leads, but it’s great to know you are playing a character that is not ethnic; he’s just plain ol’ American.
John Ortiz: Yeah, I love that and I think Bradley cooper and David Russell loved that idea as well. Bradley knew a little of my work from my New York theater days, but we never met so when he heard that I was available and up for it he said, “Oh my God, we can get John Ortiz?” I was extremely flattered by that because it was never a question of: “wait a minute, John is Latino so is that going to work?” There was no question at all, it was a matter of the caliber of actor I am and they thought that me and Julia Stiles would be a very interesting pair, and I think it works really well.
Then the research I did for my part – I’m not denying my ethnicity, I’ve used that. Growing up in actually helped me a lot. This was a guy that was driven to – very much like myself – get out of the hood. His parents might have kept him out of public schools because the schools where he lived were a little bit too dangerous so he went to catholic school and that’s how he met Bradley’s character. was quite ambitious because of his background, he really wanted to not live a desperate life and that’s where the job came in and climbing the ranks, but unfortunately, the movie shows us that that comes with quite a bit of pressure.
(SBC): Let’s talk comedy. The film is undeniably a tragi-comedy. There is that bite to the movie and to a lot of the characters. In your particular case, your character Ronnie has some funny moments, but there were also very dramatic ones. How were you able to balance both out?
John Ortiz: I think what makes things funny is how borderline tragic they may be or how serious they are, there is a fine line. I think all great comedies are based on a certain amount of pain and I think that was the nucleus of the dynamic that you talk about between me and Bradley or character in isolation. He has all of this suppressed pain and angst that he hasn’t been able to deal with. That is why the first time my character is introduced and he sees Bradley, he is not only relieved to see his best friend, but he is more relieved to finally be able to talk to someone that he feels comfortable with because he hasn’t been able to express all his angst, so he has all of this shit that’s in him and he hasn’t been able to release it. When it’s finally released, it sometimes comes out very funny because it’s very organic, almost like a volcano, like an eruption and he is bombing all of this stuff at and it’s quite funny.
(SBC): How have you managed to escape the inevitable ethnic Latino/Arab role in your last three movies that Hollywood casting directors have a reputation in doing, usually reserved for actors with a darker shade of skin? I look at “Silver Linings Playbook,” I look at “Jack Goes Boating,” I look at “Public Enemies” and I say: this is a guy that’s sort of crossed that line, sort of broke through that ceiling where other Latino actors only wish they achieved. How have you managed to avoid it as of late?
John Ortiz: I haven’t managed to escape it entirely; it’s really difficult because I have to say no a lot. I get a lot of offers that are for a lack of a better term, stereotypical Latin roles, that aren’t very enlightening or challenging to me and I have to say no to them, which kind of hurts my checking account.
One of the most important things, if not the most important, is not necessarily what I’m doing, but who I’m doing it with when it comes to acting and projects and that’s why I think Philip Seymour Hoffman and I had a tremendous amount of success with LAByrinth “Jack Goes Boating” started as a play and there was never a result to it, it was always just about working together with people that you truly enjoyed and developing it and seeing what happens. Because of that approach I’ve been able to not only have these relationships but people have really gotten to know me, know a lot more than just a Puerto Rican man who deals drugs on a corner, or a Puerto Rican janitor.
There is a great scope of humanity out there that inspires me as an actor and as an artist, I am intrigued by and I want to play them and I want to do a lot. I feel like I have been able to cross a bit, but there is so much more that I want to do, there are so many other kinds of folks out there and characters out there that I haven’t played yet. I think besides my own personal desire to do that I feel like relationships like the one I have with Philip Seymour Hoffman, like the one I have with Michael Mann – I don’t know if you heard this but… when I showed up for “Public Enemies” and an actor saw the picture of the guy I was playing he said – “he doesn’t look anything like John” and Michael said “John can do anything.” He said that because he got to know me and I think that is a genuine affection, he knows what kind actor I am, I know what kind of director he is and I would do anything for him. — And there are several others like Gavin O’Connor. These are folks I try to check my ego at the door and give myself over to the work as much as I can, because I am not playing myself, I’m playing someone else. I’m not going to deny that there is fear, but there is a certain amount of fearlessness that you have to have when you are giving yourself to someone else that is not you and you are portraying a character, so I think Michael Mann and Philip see that in me and I see that in them and David O. Russell as well.
We as actors sometimes didn’t know what the hell to expect going in, it was incredibly spontaneous and in the moment and he inspired us. He was this bright volcanic fireball, this truly mad genius. of the actors in most movies after a take or set up run to their trailers and isolate themselves, in “Silver Linings Playbooks”, we all hung out in that apartment. It was like Thanksgiving dinner, not a dysfunctional one where family members are hating each other, but one that was truly loving and people wanted to be around each other. We really just hung out, I rarely went to my trailer in between takes, and Bradley rarely did. We sat there whether we were talking about the scene, coming up with ideas or just talking to each other or just being quite around each other, but we were there. I think that is all a testament to someone like David O. Russell who created that kind of environment where the work, even though it was hard as hell and challenging, it was at its core satisfying, gratifying, and really, really enjoyable and it was a blast to do.
(SBC): All the leads of “Silver Linings Playbooks” were nominated for Oscars in all the acting categories. Bradley Cooper is the one that a lot of critics are uncertain if he has what it takes to win an Oscar for Best Actor, for this, or any other movie, simply because his roles have been in comedies. What do you think his chances are come Oscar time and do you think he is an elite actor?
John Ortiz: I think <Bradley Cooper> is one of the best actors out there. I knew nothing about him before this. I didn’t see the “Hangover” movies or any other movies he was in. <“Silver Linings Playbook”> was the first time that I not only met him, but the first time that I saw him work and I was instantly impressed and I really, really mean it. The guy was so committed to the character. He was so focused; he worked so hard and he was so in it. The great thing about life in general is that it evolves, we all evolve and a lot of times people think only one thing of you and there is a lot of judgmental folks out there who think they know it all, when in fact, they don’t know anything. They may know something that happened, but it’s not the end-all, it’s all about the journey and it’s all about the process, especially, when it comes with acting and with art in general, it doesn’t ever stop, nothing is ever definitive. What’s beautiful about what is happening with Bradley is because it’s his hard work, he is evolving as an actor and he is only going to get better and I am so happy for him. I sent him a text the other day and I told him “this has been huge time for you, you’ve handled it superbly and you inspire me.” I think he deserved to be nominated. To tell you the truth it’s not all that important to me at the end of the day, but when it comes to this case, knowing the work that he did, it matters a little to me because I loved seeing him nominated, I truly think he deserved it. That role is so tricky, it’s a very, very hard role to navigate and he did it seamlessly I thought. It’s so easy to go into any kind of a stereotypical zone with it and he was so human, he was so specific, he had the comedy he had the drama, he was a real person. To really play someone who has that condition and is dealing with that condition on an emotional level is really, really difficult. A lot of times we run across people that we have no idea that have all of these extreme conditions and issues because you don’t see it and that was that case with him and it was beautiful.
I think the world of him, I really do. He not only did an amazing acting job, he was also one of the leaders on the set, he was a cheerleader, he wore an EP (exectuve producer) hat as well, he was aware of the schedule, – I think he has an executive producer credit on and I’m glad he does because he really put on many hats – and was also able to carry the movie, he is almost in every scene. The other thing about him which not many people know and I think they’ll get to know and you get it when you meet him is that he is an amazing man, he is one of the nicest, most generous men I know and I’m so glad he is my friend.
(SBC): One thing that you did touch upon was how tricky the character is, but the plot of the movie is also a little hard to sell to audiences. Two mental people that are crazy are trying to reconstruct their lives – doesn’t necessarily sound like the most appealing movie ever. So how does John Ortiz sell this movie to the public?
John Ortiz: You know, it’s a love story. I think the movie crosses genres, obviously it’s like a dark comedy but it’s so many other things. It’s so hard not to fall into clichés with this, but I kind of want to say… No matter how fucked up things seem, we shall overcome. No matter how fucked up things seem, love will prevail.
I think that’s what’s so smart about what the studio is doing because it’s so hard to encapsulate it into one little thing, but because the word of mouth and the buzz has been so strong, gradually people are going to have the kind of response that’s like: you just have to see this movie, I can’t really describe it, but you just have to see it. It’s funny, it’s sad at times; it’s exciting, it’s sexy. Hopefully the word of mouth is the thing that is going to get people in the seat and then ultimately people will talk about it together. I just spoke to someone that is going to see it for the third time; I think it’s that kind of movie.
(SBC): I thought you were great in “Pride and Glory.” I thought that was one of your best performances to date.
John Ortiz: Thank you for saying that. I loved that movie.
(SBC): The opening scene in “American Gangster” was visceral and powerful and I said “Damn this guy brings it!” I think you are one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood.
John Ortiz: I have a funny story about “American Gangster,” after we were done in the ambulance scene, I sat down because I was exhausted and Russell Crowe walks up to me, pats me on the knee and says, “I just have to tell you Ridley Scott just came up to me and he said ‘man that kid’s got 12 speeds.’” I kind of laughed and then he grabbed my knee harder and said “Listen to me, he doesn’t say this shit too many times so you should feel really good.”
(SBC): When are you going to do a Spanish language movie? Have you done one? Are you planning on doing one?
John Ortiz: I haven’t done one, I’d like to. I’m going to be in – it’s not Spanish language – the Cesar Chavez movie, I got a small role in that. Diego Luna is directing it and John Malkovich is producing. There is a little Spanish in it, but it’s spoken in English and it’s basically the life of the farmer’s union leader named Cesar Chavez.
(SBC): Who do you play?
John Ortiz: I play a composite of a couple of characters who is kind of the antagonist of César Chávez, but was one of his workers.
After that, I might not be able to do a movie I really want to do this season in Chile, it’s about the miners I would have played the miner who ran the New York City Marathon and does the Elvis Presley impersonations. We are trying to work out a schedule, but I don’t want to have too high expectations so I think I’m not going to be able to do it but who knows.
(SBC): Did the Chavez movie already wrap?
John Ortiz: Yeah we wrapped in the summer, did a reshoot in September. I have a really small part in that, but I did it, again, for the people. I really admire Diego Luna and I think he is going to be a really, really fine director someday. I think he already is and he is only going to get better and I just wanted to work with him. There is a really great cast: America Ferrara, Rosario Dawson, and Michael Peña plays Chavez.
(SBC): How is your Spanish? Do you speak, write and understand Spanish?
John Ortiz: Yeah, it’s not that bad because I was born and raised in Brooklyn so I got the Nuyorican stigma, it was half and half. I was raised by a single mom who spoke English to me, but when she worked, my grandmother raised me and that’s when I spoke Spanish. I read it, I understand it and I speak it, I don’t speak it perfectly, but I speak it.
(SBC): Any interest in directing for your future plans?
John Ortiz: I do, I’m just waiting for the right thing. Just like what happened with “Jack Goes Boating,” I never thought I was going to be a producer. It just happened organically. I really want to direct at some point, there are a couple of things I’m trying to get the rights to that I might not direct, but I’ll produce.
(SBC): Outside of yourself, who do you think is the best Hispanic actor in Hollywood?
John Ortiz: I have to say Javier Bardem. I think he is amazing. This is another guy I’d be lucky enough to meet and work with and I think he would feel the same way; we would work with each other again no matter what it is. I think he truly is on a whole other level.
In that movie last year where he played the father, <Biutiful> oh my God! that broke my heart, I almost wanted to throw up. That is like a barometer for me whether a movie is good or not, whether I have the impulse to throw up in a good way. Throwing up and crying.
(SBC): If I were to say, in the next five years what Hispanic actor will be nominated for an Oscar, I would put you in that conversation because of the quality of acting, because of the roles that you are choosing. Do you see yourself in the Oscar talk in the next five years?
John Ortiz: I wish, I would be so honored and blessed. The key for me is to stay as humble as possible, not assume anything and just go with it. The trick is finding the role and I am by no means a victim, but going back to my original topic, those roles that are Oscar caliber don’t come my way as often, but they will someday and that’s why I’m also developing my own stuff. Hopefully you’re right, in five years I’ll be up there and you know what… you are one of the first people I’ll think of, because no one has ever said that to me, so thank you.