Actor Freddy Rodríguez has been picking up the pace of late. By now clearly established as one of the most malleable actors of his generation, Rodríguez is ready to take on more. In addition to enjoying a starring role in his latest picture, Nothing Like the Holidays, Rodríguez has also parceled out a share of the producing duties for himself.
Partnering with longtime friends and producing team Robert Teitel, George Tillman, Jr. and Rene Rigal, Rodríguez acts as executive producer on the movie, a multi-layered family drama about a Puerto Rican clan gathering for the holidays under less than ideal circumstances. Rodríguez, playing Jesse, a U.S. solider fresh off a tour of duty in Iraq, pivots with understated, almost stealthy confidence at the center of the story, playing off a cast of industry vets that includes Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Peña, Debra Messing, Luis Guzmán and John Leguizamo.
“As I was cutting the film, I noticed how incredibly present Freddy is,” says director Alfredo De Villa. “You can always cut to him; you can always rely on him to act truthfully and surprisingly in the situation at hand.” De Villa’s movie, while falling roughly into the thematic and tonal universe of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, gives us characters whose thoughts and feelings are found just a little closer to the surface. Consistent with his best work to date, Rodríguez masterfully emphasizes presence over raw performance, drawing the audience in quietly.
A native of Chicago, where he went to an arts high school, Rodríguez was able to return to his hometown for the project—a first since beginning his professional career nearly 15 years ago. As part of the producing team, he was also able to participate in developing and shaping the project from its inception. “I was interested in what soldiers go through when they come home,” Rodríguez says of his attraction to the project. “They go through so many traumatic experiences: They come home and on the one hand are longing for the comforts of home, but on the other hand they feel lost. I found that fascinating, so we tried to incorporate that into the story line.”
Nineteen years old when he landed his first starring role (in Peter Pistor’s The Fence), Rodríguez is now well into the second act of an impressive career. His credits to date include both television and film, working with some of the most exciting directors in the industry, including Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror), Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”), M. Night Shyamalan (Lady in the Water), Wolfgang Petersen (Poseidon) and the Hughes brothers (Dead Presidents). Reflecting on the path he has taken since the early days, Rodríguez laughs, “I used to run off of instinct and inspiration, now I’m much more aware of how to break it down technically.”
Here, the veteran actors talks about how he found common ground with the veteran soldier.
Phillip Williams (MM): Was there anything you picked up in the research for this movie that ended up in the character?
Freddy Rodríguez (FR): I remember when I moved out to L.A. to work; I was 19 years old. I had never been away from my family and then, all of a sudden, I was thrust into mainstream Hollywood, doing big Hollywood movies, away from my family. That was a culture shock for me and I had a hard time dealing with that. So imagine a kid the same age, thrown into another country where his job is to kill—to defend his country. That really hit home for me when I was doing the research… If I felt lost when I was in L.A. in a cushy hotel room doing a cushy movie, I couldn’t even imagine what these guys go through.
MM: Do you typically come to set with a sense of how you want to approach the character?
FR: I do, though I take a different approach with every character. With Jesse I wanted to focus on the anxiety underneath and how that contrasted with the holiday spirit and what the family is going through. If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, there is a certain feeling that goes with that; your heart is pumping, you are constantly in your own head. Those were the building blocks of who he was going to be.
MM: Do you show up with the character intact?
FR: I have a rough idea of what I want to do, but once we start filming I have to get it quick. There’s a difference between rehearsal and actually performing on camera. In rehearsal you have an idea of where you want to go but when they yell “Action!” my brain goes to a certain place and I allow it to go there for the two months that I’m working. It’s mentally exhausting to go there, and you get those juices flowing, but if you get them flowing too early you might deplete the well.
MM: When you’re working as an actor, responding to the director and the other actors, how do you switch into producer mode?
FR: I think it comes after the day is done—or before—but I tried not to come across as “the producer” with the other actors, because I wanted to protect the sense of us as a unit, working as equals. I wanted everyone to feel comfortable. Sometimes when the producer is on set it can get uncomfortable from an actor’s perspective; I don’t want to come across as their boss.
MM: Which directors have had the strongest impact on your work and your perception of how to make movies?
FR: The Hughes brothers had an enormous impact on my career; I would watch movies with them every day. They taught me how to dissect movies and performances. They taught me how to distinguish who was really good and why. They taught me about nuance. I really learned a lot from those guys, they have incredible instincts. A lot of that came because I was young. I was a theater actor, I didn’t know anything about film at all; they taught me a lot about film.
MM: It is amazing how often great actors seem to be doing so little. They seem to be…
FR: …I’m a great advocate of that—of subtlety, of nuance. I think that’s evident in Nothing Like the Holidays… I remember watching early Al Pacino—The Godfather movies, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico—and it really blew my mind that the same guy was playing those characters; he had a nice balance of subtlety and external qualities. I remember watching Benicio Del Toro for the first few times and feeling what an incredible talent he was. And Anthony Hopkins—he’s like the master of subtlety—saying so little and yet so much at the same time.
MM: Do you see yourself directing at any point?
FR: I think so, sure. It’s definitely in the near future. I wanted to first try producing before I tried directing—to see if I was equipped to do it, to see if I liked it. I liked it very much. I think I’ll do a bit more producing before I try directing.
MM: Do you have a sense of the sort of material you’d want to direct?
FR: No, I just want to always try and tackle things that are new and different. I’m re-teaming with Rob, George and Rene to produce a film early next year in Puerto Rico; a film that will be a cross between Carlito’s Way and City of God. It’s going to be filmed in a ghetto in Puerto Rico called La Perla (The Pearl); there’s never been a full-length feature shot there. Kind of like City of God, where you actually got to see the favelas like that, in a full-length feature. Those are the types of films that attract me, as producer and actor: Something that is completely different.