Anthony Nardolillo is living proof we don't have to follow the path society has paved to reach our dream.
With no prior experience in film, ten years ago Nardolillo wrote and directed a twenty-four-minute short film "Mano" alongside Giancarlo Esposito and Laz Alonso. The short film, which earned the award for Best Cinematography at the 2008 Soldance Latino Filmmakers House, sparked his love for working behind the camera.
Now the director is once again showing us his impressive talent with his new film, Shine. Shine, showcases a tale of two brothers, Jr. (Gilbert Saldivar) and Ralphi (Jorge Burgos), once renowned salsa dancers, who after the death of their father alienated each other.
We caught up with Nardolillo to talk about how he got started as a filmmaker, gentrification in Latin neighborhoods and much more.
Read it all in our exclusive interview below.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
I came to LA 10 years ago. I came because I got discovered as a dancer to auditioning for a movie, but I was still working corporate. I met Columbus Short and I was trying to do the acting thing and he flew me out for Stomp The Yard. I’m actually in a scene with Columbus and Chris Brown. They needed a Puerto Rican with cornrows and I had cornrows so that's where they put me. That's where I met Gilbert. But, it was on the set of that movie that inspired me to think, “Man, we need something like this for Latin music and dance.” He goes, “Bro, you’re a businessman! Go write a script and raise the money.” Everyone’s got a script but no one's got money. So, I did it. I wrote a script, I met a producer. I said, “I want to shoot a trailer to showcase my vision.” He said, “Why don’t you just make a short film?” I didn't even know what a short was. But, I carved out a short with Lee Thompson, – the late Lee Thompson, god bless him – Laz Alonso and Giancarlo Esposito. Lee and I ended up co-directing it because we couldn't find a director. That's when I found that my true love was behind the camera.
Tell us a little bit about where you grow up?
I grew up in Brooklyn. Then I moved to Italy. I’m half Italian and half Puerto Rican. I really embrace my roots. I speak Spanish, I speak pretty good Italian. I grew up on salsa. I grew up listening to Eddie Palmieri. There are songs that are almost so nostalgic that I smell habichuela and Pine Sol. So, I grew up and my father worked along side the Italian police so he moved to Italy and then we came back and moved to D.C. We would still go to New York every week because that’s where home was. I went to elementary school in Brooklyn and then I went to college, studied finance and played college football. I never would have thought I was an artist. I played college football! I used to weigh like 235. But, I was always that guy getting into activities. I was the first non-black NAACP president for like four states. I was really passionate about civil rights.
When did you start embracing your love for dance?
After graduating, I got a job and started working corporate but I still needed to somehow express my salsa. I met a dance instructor and she's like, "I want to train you." So about 15 years ago she training me and immediately I was touring the world. I was doing what these guys did. I was teaching. I was working corporate at the time. So, I would have a suit on during the day, take the jacket off, throw in the earrings and I would dance ‘til 5 in the morning. I would teach workshops and perform and that’s where my passion for dance really started. So I came to LA to teach on a salsa cruise and they were having auditions for a movie and that's’ where I kind of got discovered. I walked in, the auditions were over and I asked if I could still audition and they said “no, they're over” but it was all LA cast. I was like, “C’mon, I’m a new yorker." I just started dancing and then the floor kind of opened up. They go, “Can you act?” and I said “Yeah, I can act!” I had never.
While I was still working, I drove up to New York and started taking acting classes. I’d work til 1, leave early, drive 3 ½ hours to take class in New York and then come back to D.C., and then sleep in my car until I got a job in California. I ended up on the set of Stomp the Yard and that's how I got into film. You could say that’s how I got the spark – if I wasn't a dancer, I would have never found my love for film. I think I definitely have had a path in life and I’m following it. But, I will say that why I got to where I am today was because of understanding the money and working with people and being collaborative and innovative. I didn’t go to film school – I've directed a lot of commercials like for Target, Maker, and Revolt and that was kind of my classroom. In a way, it’s a good thing it took 10 years because, at the same time, I was honing my skills.
Your portrayal of Latinos is super genuine compared to mainstream films. Tell us a little bit about that.
I thought, “If I'm going to make a mark, I've got to have a real message. I have to have a real theme.” At the time, I was walking the streets and I always walk the streets of Spanish Harlem and the barrios for years– it's crazy to hear how much stuff has changed over time. It's crazy how it's all changed. I was an anchor and as I dove more and more, I became really passionate about it and when I scouted, I would interview people in the neighborhood. I went in. If you saw, every extra in there is from the barrio.
I will say, there are a few latino movies that we have out there every year and they do well, but some of the more mainstream ones that come from the studios are lacking authenticity. I give “A” for effort because it’s a step forward but you can’t just call it Latino and throw it at us. So, what I’m happy with [Shine] is it allows us to drive the narrative and give the real latino experience. That’s how we talk! That's what we eat! That's how we dress. We’re not all gangbangers. I was adamant about showing a different side.
Which is amazing because a lot of people can relate to.
A lot of people can relate to it. I think everyone in that theatre can relate to every character in that movie. I’m also Afro-Latino. My grandfather is trigeño, a bodega owner and all. The Latino experience is also sometimes white-washed. If we’re going to criticize then we have to look in and we have to be consistent. We have to be diverse across the board and I was adamant that I was going to have people of color, of different ethnicities from the neighborhood, and also behind the camera – as you saw the crew. We’re telling a story about people who are diverse and it has to be diverse all the way through. We did that and it felt good. The energy, it was something magical and it felt good.
You recently spoke about gentrification in a recent interview. Can you tell us more about your thoughts?
We’ve had to make something new our home. We plunge into the unknown. This is a real, true message as those new faces move within us, we can't let them move on without us. It's so true! I was so adamant about it. Even in the cafe scene, the dialogue, when we rehearsed I was like, “Guys, if we were to go to a real company with a board of directors and have a real debate, Kim, I want you to have a real platform. Put the script down and tell me why you believe gentrification – what’s it’s real impact on the neighborhood?” And it came alive. The art, the music, it was all created right on these streets! I was interviewed by Remezcla, and they asked me what I think needs to happen with gentrification. I said that gentrification is economic development and economic development is improving facilities, utilities and has renovations. But you have to integrate the community and there’s got to be balance and you can't strip the cultural identity. You can improve buildings, people can move in, but it had to be there. You know what's crazy, we went back to that cafe scene to do pickups, six months later it was gone. Gentrification was happening under our eyes.
What was your mission with the film?
One of my mission, I wanted to do something to showcase homage to the elders but that resonated with the younger generations. You saw, we had young dancers crushing it. You can be cool and eat pastelillos and listen to Ismael Rivera from 1965. It's still cool! I think with music and dance, we can create some trends because they're still hip and they're still culturally grounded. I took this movie as far as I could and I would not do anything different.
For more information on Anthony Nardolillo check out his website.