Exclusive: Freddy Rodriguez Makes Great Movies, Not-So-Great Pasteles

If you go to your local multiplex this weekend and see Nothing Like The Holidays on the marquee, thank Freddy Rodriguez. The 33-year-old actor not only stars in the movie, he also earned top billing as its Executive Producer by developing the script and recruiting its solidly Latin cast. We spoke to the Chicago-bred boricua about why he decided to bring a brown Christmas story to life onscreen.

You grew up in Humboldt Park yourself. What were the most important elements of your neighborhood that you wanted to portray?

A lot of people actually don’t know about Humboldt, which baffles me because it’s such a big community in Chicago. In the past it's never been portrayed in a positive view, so I wanted to change that. But at the same time, we had to include a little bit of the stereotypes and cliches because they come from a real place. Especially with Jay Hernandez's character--those are real people, man. There's real gangbangers in that neighborhood.

What kind of feedback are you getting from everyday Latinos who have seen the movie?

It’s been all positive. I think that the Latino community is really embracing this film. I keep seeing people come out of it with shocked looks on their faces, like, 'Wow, I’ve never seen one like this before! And that’s very gratifying to me, because that’s what I set out to do when I began toproduce this movie.

Why do you think you were successful in getting it made?

We faced a lot of challenges trying to get it off the ground, but I think the key was to assemble a cast that made the money people feel secure that we were putting something good together. Plus, the world is obviously changing, and people are more receptive to a film like this. They’re more receptive to having an African American president as well, which is symbolic.

How did you put together such a great cast?

I’ve known John [Leguizamo] for 13 years, and I always had him in mind to play Mauricio. I think it’s a character you don’t normally see him do—he’s usually crazy and plays these more kind of urban roles, so to see him as an uptight, whitewashed lawyer was different. Once me and John got on board, it snowballed from there. I look up to John and Luis [Guzman], so it was a blessing for me to be in a position of power to hire them and show them how much I appreciate their work.

Because your character is dealing with the trauma of war, you had to be very serious and intense in a lot of the big family scenes. What was that like?

It was hard! At the dinner scene, where Luis and John are all laughing and joking around, I kept wanting to join in. I constantly had to check myself. But I’ve never laughed as much as I laughed on this movie, off-screen. Typically when you do a film, the actors will get along somewhat but when the director yells, 'Cut!,' everybody flees to their trailers. In this film we were always having lunch together, we would stay onset and joke around...it was just a blessing.

How did you research your role as an Iraq war vet?

I found that when soldiers write letters, they're baring their soul. So I read a lot of those, and I watched a couple of documentaries about how they're feeling when they have to reassimilate to their homes. It’s heartbreaking when these guys go off to war, and when they come back the people that they love have moved on. Whereas they're still mentally in the same place from when they left three years before.

Are you planning to produce more films after this?

Yes, I’m doing a movie in Puerto Rico next year. It’s gonna be the first full-length feature shot in this area called La Perla, which is a well known ghetto out there. Nobody’s ever shot a full-length movie there, so I’m excited to be the first.

That's where Calle 13 is from. Any plans to include them or their music?

Maybe [laughs]…there’s gonna be a lot of, you know…ah, I can’t say. You’ll see.

Boo. Okay...so is a holiday celebration in your family anything like it is in the movie?

I come from a really big extended family, so there could be like 50 people at one time in one house, with all my brothers and cousins and uncles and aunts. There's a lot of eating, a lot of--as John says in the movie--“conversating,” a lot of kids running around with gifts and stuff. It’s organized chaos.

What's your favorite dish?

I love pasteles. It's almost like a Puerto Rican tamale, ground plantains with meat and potatoes and all kind of stuff on the inside, and they wrap it up in a banana leaf and aluminum foil and they boil it. It's delicious, but it’s so hard to make! So you really only get it around the holidays.

You don't cook it yourself?

Nah man, I can’t cook. But I make a mean ice. And a mean toast.