Like every other twenty-something Latino I know, I grew up watching Dirty Dancing (and don’t tell anyone, but I still watch it when it’s on cable). So you can imagine my excitement when Kenny Ortega—the man who choreographed the film (and that unforgettable “Time of My Life” final dance number), called me to talk about movies and television: I was happier than Octomom during a routine labor sesh! If there’s a behind-the-scenes Latino in Hollywood who is a genius at his craft, it’s undoubtedly Kenny, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. The National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP), whose mission is to promote the advancement of Latino film and media arts in all genres, just honored the famed Spanish director of High School Musical 3 with the Outstanding Achievement Award (their highest honor).
Read on to find out how Kenny feels about winning the award, what he thinks about the current state of Latinos in film, the Quinceanera Broadway musical he plans to direct, and his favorite TV shows (you can’t visit Vivo Por TiVo without telling us what those are)! He also dishes exclusively to me why he respects Zac Efron’s decision to drop out of the Footloose remake he’s directing.
How did you feel when you found out the NALIP chose to honor you with their Outstanding Achievement Award?
It’s extraordinary! I just know that the organization is made up of so many incredible minds and enlightened people. So of course for me it was such an honor and I was just deeply touched. I’m speechless. My heart swells. I feel great pride.
Are you working on any upcoming Latino themed projects with any Latin stars anytime soon?
Well you know, I have for many, many years worked with Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan from the very, very beginning, before it was even Gloria—when it was Miami Sound Machine. And Gloria and I and Emilio are really looking forward to bringing something to Broadway someday, and also doing an independent feature. There are a couple of projects that I’m not at liberty to talk about because they’re new. There’s one really big one in development, which I have been working on for over 2 years. It’s a Quinceanera musical project. My head and my heart are absolutely invested in Latino themed projects and artists.
What do you think of the current state of Latinos in film?
I would like to see the state swell, and open up more opportunities for more diverse and versatile roles for Latinos. I have seen a change and a growth and we have advanced. I've been in L.A. since I was 23 years old, and I am having my 59th birthday on Saturday, and I have seen the community become more enlightened. But absolutely when you think of the size of the Latino population in the U.S. and the impact it has on the culture of this country, we’re still way under in realizing more positive roles for Latinos in motion pictures and television arts.
Thanks to Universal's specialized marketing to Latino groups, the Fast and Furious sequel made a killing at the box office: $71 million in its opening weekend. Why do you think more studios do not make a stronger effort to market to Latin audiences?
I think there’s a wake up call kind of happening. But people are not always ahead of the curve. There are some very talented marketing executives and teams out there, and I’ve worked with some of them. Disney certainly gets it. But people are slow about figuring out what this country is really made of.
You’ve directed several TV shows in the past, like Gilmore Girls, and Ally McBeal. How would you improve television?
A lot of what the networks put out there is what they think is safe. They think, 'We know people are going to watch this because we’ve done some testing, and we know they like this,' rather than having the courage and confidence to be able to sustain through the rougher periods of building an audience, and putting something out there that’s original and fresh and informative and entertaining, and broadening the mind. If I could be in charge, I would give ideas a greater chance to grow and find an audience. When I made Dirty Dancing as the choreographer of that movie, it opened to barely nothing—about $4 million. But in those days, they allowed those movies to build by word of mouth. If that had never occurred, Dirty Dancing would never have become the biggest, most successful independent motion picture and soundtrack of all time!
Is TV all bad?
No. I’m always impressed when there are shows whose ratings aren’t huge, but they’re allowed to stay on the air because the networks think they’re relevant and artistic and smart and intelligent. I just directed a new television series—a pilot for David E. Kelly that hopefully NBC will be picking up for the fall. I’m very excited and keeping my fingers crossed. It’s called Legally Mad.
Do you watch any TV shows?
I watch the Disney Channel (laughs) because I like to know what my friends and colleagues are up to. I watch a lot of news and documentary television because I’m very interested in what’s going on in the world. I also like Pushing Daisies and The Office.
Your next film is the highly anticipated Footloose, remake—which your friend and High School Musical star Zac Efron recently dropped out of because he doesn’t want to be typecast as someone who only works in the musical genre. Do you agree with his decision?
I’m totally 100 percent behind Zac and the decisions that he makes. There was always the possibility that he wasn’t going to do it. He’s got a career to think about. He’s done four musicals, so he wants to have a broad and ranging career. I’m fine with it. The project will go on and be great!