Actor Freddy Rodriguez is probably best known for his role as Federico on “Six Feet Under” and more recently, for his recurring role on the hit comedy “Ugly Betty,” as well as dozens of supporting roles in different movies. For the new holiday movie Nothing Like the Holidays, Rodriguez took on a new role, that of executive producer, as he helped assemble a cast of some of his friends and some of the best Latin actors working today, including John Leguizamo, Luis Guzman, Elizabeth Peña, Jay Hernandez, Alfred Molina and Melonie Diaz.
Rodriguez himself has a key role in the film as Jesse Rodriguez, a soldier returning home for the holidays and bringing his entire crazy family back together, including his older brother Mauricio (Leguizamo) who hopes his family will get along with his stiff non-Latin wife (Debra Messing), his sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) and her dreams of stardom and his parents Anna and Eduardo (Peña and Molina), who have been having their own problems after their kids went away.
ComingSoon.net spoke to Rodriguez earlier this week about how this project came together.
ComingSoon.net: How did you first get involved with this? Did you actually find the script and get a director and everything from the start or did you come on board after it got rolling?
Freddy Rodriguez: No, no, I was there right from the beginning. My producing partners, Bob Teitel and George Tillman and I have all known each other over a decade. We’re all from Chicago and throughout the years, we’ve always talked about getting together and doing something in Chicago. About three years ago, Bob Teitel came to visit me on the set of “Harsh Times” and we just sat down had lunch and decided that we were going to get serious about putting something together. So for three years, we had a lot of ideas for a lot of different projects, but this one took precedence among the other ideas that we had.
CS: Then you found writers and found the director?
Rodriguez: Correct. Bob’s the one who had the idea for it and then we just went out and hired the writers and everyone else to put it together.
CS: I know John had worked with a lot of the other actors before, but how many of them had you worked with besides Luis in “Dreamer”?
Rodriguez: I worked with John before. We did a movie called “The Pest,” it was a terrible comedy we did about thirteen years ago maybe, 1996? I worked with Debra Messing, we did “A Walk in the Clouds” about 14 years ago. It was actually our first film. I worked with Luis Guzman, Vanessa Ferlito was in the other half of “Grind House,” and we’d do a lot of press together. So it was a lot of six degrees of separation in this film.
CS: Did that contribute to the ease of everyone working together and creating a family?
Rodriguez: I think so, yeah. I think that was part of it. I also think that the cast was on the same vibe. I think we all had just the same energy and I think subconsciously when I was casting the film, I tried to look for actors who I felt would all get along like that. We built this wonderful camaraderie before we started filming and I think that you can see that on screen.
CS: Talking about the casting, you all came from very different backgrounds, he’s from Queens, you’re from Chicago and Alfred’s from England, were you all able to find some similar experiences or common ground you could draw from?
Rodriguez: Right. Although Alfred is British and John’s from Queens and Luis is from the Lower East Side, my concern was that I got the best actors on board, and if you get the best actors, no matter where they’re from, they’re going to embody the characters and the surroundings and play it as truthfully as possible. I wasn’t worried about that at all.
CS: This is certainly some of the best Latin actors, but there doesn’t seem to be any one actor that stands out and everyone is being treated on the same level. Is that what helps make it work as an ensemble?
Rodriguez: I think so. You mean that there are no actors that are super high profile? ‘Cause I think what we tried to do here… you know every year they do the All-Star game, whether it’s the baseball All-Star game or basketball All-Star game, I feel like this was the All-Star movie. We’ve assembled the dream team, and so when you have an All-Star game, there isn’t really one basketball or baseball player that’s singled out. It’s usually the whole team that’s showcased, and I think that’s what’s happening here.
CS: Besides casting, what else was your role as executive producer? John said you were the one who came to him for his role.
Rodriguez: I did, yeah, yeah. Actually, when we were developing the script, John was the person we had in mind, which was interesting, because I’ve seen John play a character like this, sort of Wall Street, and that’s why I thought that would be really interesting for him to play that because I didn’t think people were used to seeing him that way.
CS: You got a funny bunch of people so who was the funniest on set?
Rodriguez: Well, Luis and John were definitely the ones always cracking jokes, and Debra is hilarious and Jay Hernandez is very funny, too. He’s really good at imitating people.
CS: Did he have an imitation of you?
Rodriguez: No, he hasn’t done it in front of me, but he would imitate Luis a lot. (laughter) He’s really funny, people don’t know that about him.
CS: What was it like going back and shooting in your own hometown?
Rodriguez: It was surreal shooting in Chicago. It was. My personal life back home and my professional life has always been really separated. When I go back home for the holidays or for the summer, I’m not Freddy the actor, I’m Freddy, the guy from Chicago, so it’s the first time where both worlds merged. It was surreal to get to produce a movie and be responsible for bringing a movie to Chicago, get to shoot in the older neighborhoods that I frequented as a kid. To have my parents come on set whenever they wanted or to see people I haven’t seen in a long time walking around the neighborhoods where we were shooting at, it was just surreal. I think it still hasn’t hit me. I think once the movie comes out, it’ll hit me.
CS: What drew you to Alfredo De Villa to direct it?
Rodriguez: We met with a lot of directors who all wanted to direct it, but we felt that Alfredo had the best pitch. I think his sensibility was more on the same page as ours in terms of how we wanted to execute the film. He was very mindful of us keeping the balance of like stereotypes and cliches and it having a universal theme or feel to it, where some directors came in wanted to beat you over the head with stereotypes, you know? (laughs) Or go the other route and not make it authentic at all, so he just had the right balance and I think he just knew what we were trying to do.
CS: One of the things about the script and direction is the balance of humor and drama. Was that because you were able to be involved in helping create that balance?
Rodriguez: Well, that was always the goal from the beginning. We didn’t want to make the typical holiday movie. Those movies are wonderful, but we just didn’t want to go that route. We didn’t want the slapsticky, falling off the roof after you’re hanging the Christmas lights humor throughout the whole thing. We wanted this film to have a little more emotional depth than the average holiday movie.
CS: Did you talk to any war veterans to get into the mindset of playing that role?
Rodriguez: I talked to a few vets, but a lot of my research came from reading material, documentaries. There was this one specific documentary that the name escapes me, but it was about letters soldiers wrote home to their families, and to me, that was the best research, because I feel people in general bare their souls when they’re writing letters, instead of right here, doing an interview, but there’s something different about when you’re writing a letter. I was interested in that. I wanted to go deeper than just a 1 on 1 interview, and what I found was just frightening what these guys go through in the post-war traumatic syndrome that they’re suffering and the anxiety, the re-assimilation that has to happen when they come home to their own families and their own friends, and they’re kids! These guys are kids, they’re like 20 and 21 year olds that have to go through that.
CS: Have you watched a lot of the Iraq war documentaries that have come out?
Rodriguez: I don’t in general, no, because I just don’t, but I did for this film.
CS: Can you talk about the movie’s title? For a long time, it was called “Humboldt Park” but then that changed to “Nothing Like the Holidays.” I know there was another similarly-titled movie coming out around the same time but it gives the movie a very different vibe.
Rodriguez: The reason why we changed it was because unless you’re from Chicago, nobody knows what Humboldt Park was and we wanted the film to have broader appeal, in all honesty, we wanted people in Iowa to go see it and we think “Nothing Like the Holidays” has a more universal ring to it.
CS: Can you talk about the marketing of the movie? It seems to have shifted a bit more recently, going more zany and more like other holiday comedies. It’ll probably appeal to a wider audience but do you think that might hurt with the audience it was intended?
Rodriguez: Yeah, I haven’t seen the zany ads you’re talking about. I think they’re definitely focusing more on the comedic aspect of the film, because during the holidays, families are together and they want to see films like that, that make them laugh and make them feel good, so I just think they’re going for a broader audience with it. But I think when people go to see the film, they’re going to see that it has much more depth than just the zany aspect of it.
CS: Why do you think it’s taboo to break bad news over the holidays and has it ever happened to you?
Rodriguez: No, it’s never happened to me. I think it happens during the holidays because people are together, first of all. Usually during the year, people are so busy with their own lives and they finally get together for three or four days, and people drink, you know. I think there’s just this element of ease during the holidays and people all just want to get what’s off their chest.
CS: Do you have any plans to return to “Ugly Betty”?
Rodriguez: Not at the moment, but as Sylvia Horton, the creator of the show always says, “You didn’t die!”
CS: Would you like to go back?
Rodriguez: It all depends. It all depends on what the storyline is going to be and what’s going to happen with the characters.
CS: Are you drawn more to doing television or films or producing?
Rodriguez: I’m drawn more to quality and so if the quality is in television, I go in that direction. If it’s in film, I go in that direction. But I don’t limit myself or discriminate against any of the mediums.
CS: So you’ll be keeping your hands in producing though?
Rodriguez: Yeah, I’m producing a couple films next year and I’m taking a more active approach in the producerial part of it. There’s one I’m doing in Puerto Rico next year. We’re going to be the first full-length feature to shoot in this area called La Perla, and it’s going to be like “City of God.” The Perla is the equivalent of what you saw in the favelas in that film.
CS: As an actor trying to produce more movies it must end up taking a lot more time, so is it hard having to turn down acting gigs or limit what you do to produce your own movies?
Rodriguez: A little bit, yeah. There was a gig I had to turn down recently, but it was a very big time commitment in another city and it would have taken away from me producing these projects we have coming up.
Nothing Like the Holidays opens nationwide on Friday, December 12.