Oblivious to his living conditions at the time, actor E.J. Bonilla, a Brooklyn-native proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, grew up in an apartment so cramped, just navigating through it was a maze. Yet, it wasn’t until he paid friends a visit and noticed some of their homes had a second floor that he realized the disparities in living conditions. Up until that point, he didn’t think he needed much else. He was convinced he had everything he needed right by his side: a loving and supportive family.
Today, it’s that very family that anchors him as he goes from one audition to the next in the hopes of making it so big one day, his acting chops become the sole reason he gets hired.
We spoke with the actor about his recent roles, family and his unshakable determination to be more than a Latino actor. Read it all in our exclusive interview below:
You played Denny Padilla on the A&E series Unforgettable. Despite being resuscitated after CBS’s second cancellation, the series was recently cancelled a third time by A&E. Were you sad to watch it go? What was it like to be on the show?
I had a great time – James Liao is an amazing actor, Poppy Montgomery is really cool, La La Anthony is amazing. All of my castmates on that show were a huge part of me learning so much about primetime television. I’ve never been a part of a show like that before, a series regular. I’m so grateful for the experience.
In The House That Jack Built, you play Jack Maldonado, an ambitious young Latino from the Bronx who makes questionable choices in order to keep his family close, but his plan quickly backfires. What would you say is the biggest takeaway from this film?
Sometimes you try to hold on to something so tight because you’re so afraid of it going away, that you stop allowing yourself to appreciate it. You can’t white-knuckle love. You can’t force things or people to happen. All you can do is enjoy what you have while you have it.
Speaking of which, Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
I kind of fell into acting in 9th grade. There was a dance performance of Grease. The guy who ran it was our gym teacher. As a joke, I was like, ‘Hey, you know what, if you guys were to do that, I’m in.’ I was kind of joking and the show came around, and he really got me to do it. And for me, that show was the beginning of the rest of my life because it’s what introduced me to the stage as a performer in that way.
What did your family have to say about your dreams of becoming an actor?
My family played a big role. They didn’t tell me not to do it. When you’re a Puerto Rican boy from the hood and you say you want to be an actor, a lot of other families will be like, ‘What is wrong with you? What? Why?’ It doesn’t make sense. It’s not the most viable, efficient job to have. You’re choosing to be broke to do what you love, so you have to really ask yourself: How bad do you really want it? What are you willing to give up? How hard are you willing to fight for what you love?
You’ve been in shows like TV Land’s Younger and a while back, you were on ABC’s Revenge. Whether it’s a TV show or a movie, is there a dream role you would like to play?
Especially because I am an actor of color, so often I am playing characters that are created around the fact that I am of color. My dream role is just real stories. I love the idea of affecting people. I would like to be this great, amazing superhero, but at the end of the day, I just want to get to a point that I’m such a talent, that people hire me the way that they hire Oscar Isaac. He’s an actor of color who gets casted for roles that have nothing to do with him being of color. I want to get to get to that place where I’m hired to play a character that has nothing to do with me being Hispanic because the truth is that by me being the person that I am, I am already waving my flag. I want to be seen as an actor who happens to be Latino, not a Latino actor. I’m grateful to those Latinos that came before me, and I look forward to being a part of the next generation that helps to break down those walls even more.
How can Latino artists, specifically actors, break down those walls?
The way to really break those boundaries down is for us to make movies that have people like us, that cast people of color, but have nothing necessarily to do with us being brown or us being from the hood or us going through economic struggles. It should just be about us being people…and then the rest of the world will catch on.