Get familiar with Chicago native Gina Rodriguez. The star of directors Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos' buzzed-about indie flick Filly Brown, out on DVD today, Rodriguez is an up-and-coming actress poised to make a name for herself in Tinseltown within the year. She's already garnered acclaim from the Latin community, but given her upcoming projects, the rest of the world is bound to take notice.
The 28-year-old multitalented performer has got a slew of projects lined up, most prominently her upcoming Navy-centric FOX pilot Wild Blue. And she's not stopping at TV stardom. She's looking to be more than just another actress, she's looking to be a role model.
We got a chance to speak to Rodriguez about her upcoming TV show, how Filly Brown helped her find her musical voice, and her goal to inspire young girls.
Interview by Stephanie Goncalves
What is Filly Brown about and who do you play?
I play Filly Brown. She's a girl from East L.A. Her real name is Maria Jose Tonorio. She is the eldest of two daughters, definitely the matriarch of the family, and she's being raised by her single father right now because her mother was incarcerated for narcotics. That's really where you begin the trajectory of her story. It's her going back to see her mother in prison and being requested to help her mother get an appeal. It's a journey that actually leads to her discovering her music. She goes from an indie to a big label to all out explosion, and it kind of all comes crumbling down on her. It's a beautiful story of hope, fighting for dreams, and family coming together.
Why do you think the film is so successful and has gotten such a positive response from viewers?
It is so much a story for the first, second, and third generation Latino, and not only that but the first, second, and third generation immigrant story, if you will. I was born in Chicago and my parents are from Puerto Rico. I have rice and beans in the house and then hot dogs and hamburgers when I walk of the house. It's that duel identity. For me, that story had yet to be tapped into.
So many of us Latinos are born here in this country, where English is our first language and Spanish our second. I am completely consumed by this stereotype of what Hollywood and America believe our life is like. This movie shows that our stories are all the same. At the end of of the day we are all one race, which is the human race. Filly Brown could have been a black girl, a white girl, an Asian girl. The story is relatable to all people, but it's very special to Latinos because it's a story we can also call our own. We had A Better Life last year and of course we had Selena and Stand and Deliver—all these stories that represent our community.
The acting in Filly Brown is so strong—Jenni Rivera, Lou Diamond Phillips, Edward Olmos, Emilio Rivera. There are so many strong actors that just happen to be brown. I think that Filly Brown really taps into that demographic, and there are a millions of people who can tell that story.
How did it feel to win the Imagen Award for Best Actress?
It was incredible! Imagen was the first award nomination I had gotten and it was for my last film Go for It! I was up for "Comedic Relief" then, so to win the Imagen Award for Filly Brown even though we had yet to hit theaters was such an honor because they were the first ones who had recognized my work to begin with. It was like coming full circle and it was everything I had obviously prayed it would be for me. So the Imagen awards were huge, and I got to host, which was even greater.
I definitely didn't think I would be winning against Eva Mendez and Eva Longoria, so it was very much a surprise, but a pleasant surprise with my parents in the audience. But it's like, who cares about the awards? Seeing my mom and dad smile, that is my award right there.
You do a lot of rapping in the film. Did you rap before or was this a new thing you had to teach yourself?
I never rapped before and I never had done music prior to the movie. Filly Brown was suppose to be a spoken word artist and I had done spoken word. Like every girl, I write poetry—come on now. But rapping was a whole different ball game, especially growing up in the inner city of Chicago. Coming from very humble beginnings made me a part of that culture, and at home in the inner city of Chicago, that's very prominent. I grew up listening to hip-hop, and when I went to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, I was submersed in New York's hip-hop culture. It was already a part of me, but I never touched the mic.
This film gave me an opportunity to take a leap of faith. As my father used to say, "You have to jump off the mountain. God will provide the parachute or he'll teach you how to fly." I took that leap.
I definitely didn't teach it to myself. I had so many wonderful people around me, the music producers on the film—Silent Giant, E-Dub and Koolaid. They gave me a safe haven. I was in their studio four days after booking Filly Brown and I was surrounded by all these Latin underground hip-hop artists—DJ Dominator, Medicine Girl, Lala Romero, Flo Pain, Chingo Bling, and Baby Bash. That was the greatest gift because, obviously, rapping over people's songs or imitating people was not going to work, especially for the story. Filly Brown had to discover her voice, and I had to discover mine too.
Now, I'm in the studio all the time, doing my own songs. "Dream Big," one of the songs that opened the movie, was actually the only one I was able to write while we were shooting and it got into the film. A year and a half later, I'm finding myself writing all the time, and it's crazy! My whole trajectory has been acting and now given this gift of music, I have to keep exploring this.
So you're recording an album?
Oh yes girl! I'm already working on it, what you know about that? i'm working on it! [Laughs.] I am talking to some major labels and some indie labels as well, because you definitely have more control of your sound that way. I'm going to go all in and give it the same kind of heart I gave to acting.
What inspired you to join the entertainment industry?
I salsa danced from age seven to 17. I was in a little company when I was younger and then I went to an adult company when I was in high school. For my family, they were so proud that their little girl, in too many sequins and a set of braces, was dancing to traditional Puerto Rican music.
I have two older sisters—one of them is a banker and the other one is a doctor —and I grew up wearing my sister's clothes until I was 16. My sisters were making moves that were crazy to our community, to our family. They were getting the best education and they were shattering stereotypes. I had these women in front of me doing what they love to do and fighting for it, whether we had money to pay for college or not, and it inspired me to do something.
I get invigorated when I make people laugh, cry, decide something new about themselves, or discover something real about themselves.
For me, the salsa dancing was beautiful and it was great, but what I realized when I was dancing salsa is that I love to move people. I think God blessed me with a empathetic heart and I love to feel other people's feelings. I get invigorated when I make people laugh, cry, decide something new about themselves, or discover something real about themselves. I realized I was doing it a little bit when I was dancing, but I wanted to use my voice. I wanted to tell stories.
When I was watching television growing up—I'm 28 years old now—I didn't see me. It wasn't until I was 15 or 16 that J. Lo came around. I didn't see my body type on screen. I'm a normal girl. I'm not two pounds. Don't get me wrong, people who are naturally thin are fantastic, and thick girls are gorgeous, but I'm not a cookie cut-out.
When I watched classics, I remember asking my mom, "Where are the Latinos? Were we not born yet? Were we not around?" She was like, "Oh no babe, we were around. They just haven't seen us yet, and you're going to make that splash." Then came J. Lo, Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz, and America Ferrera. They helped me decide what I wanted to do, which is inspire and empower girls.
Tell us a little about your Fox pilot Wild Blue and your involvement.
It's from the writer of Justified, Taylor Elmore, and the executive producer of Breaking Bad, Mark Johnson. Michael Dinner is also directing and producing. It's just a fierce group of talented people. There's nothing more exciting than working with people you trust and are excited to learn from, and that's how I feel about this project.
The show is about the ups and downs, the upstairs and downstairs pressure cooker, of the U.S Navy. We are going to be shooting on an amazing U.S. Navy carrier, too. It's such a phenomenal dramatic script, and it's really going to move people.
I play Pilar Robles, who is the toughest aviator pilot in the force. She's super strong, super fierce, and she's brilliant. I got to do some Navy training to get in tip-top shape for the role.
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