People often struggle to fulfill a life-long dream, particularly if they come from humble beginnings, but those determined enough to achieve their goals don’t let anything stand in their way. That’s certainly the case with both actress Gina Rodriguez and the title character she plays in the new Lionsgate independent music drama, ‘Filly Brown.’ The low-budget film, which was written by Youssef Delara, who co-directed the film with Michael D. Olmoswhich, chronicles the obstacles women overcome to accomplish their dreams. Rodriguez was honored with the Best Actress Imagen award for Best Actress for her portrayal of strong, independent character.
‘Filly Brown’ follows a young artist who strives to find her voice and seize her dreams without compromise. Majo Tonorio, who also goes by the name of Filly Brown, is a young, raw hip-hop artist from Los Angeles who spits rhymes from the heart. With her mother, Maria (Jenni Rivera), in prison and her father, Jose (Lou Diamond Phillips), struggling to provide for his daughters, Majo knows that a record contract could be her family’s ticket out. But when a record producer offers her a shot at stardom, she is suddenly faced with the prospect of losing who she is as an artist, as well as the friends who helped her reach the cusp of success.
Rodriguez generously took the time recently to talk about portraying the title role in the independent music drama over the phone. Among other things, the actress discussed how Filly Brown being a strong, fearless Latina woman convinced her to take on the role, even though the character does have some differing qualities from her own personality; how she studied established and up-and-coming hip-hop women artists to help her prepare for the title role; and how ‘Filly Brown’ screening at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival fulfilled a life-long dream.
Question (Q): You play the lead role of Maria Jose ‘Majo’ Tonorio in the new musical drama ‘Filly Brown.’ What was it about the character and the script overall that convinced you to take on the role?
Gina Rodriguez (GR): Well, for me, as soon as I read ‘Filly Brown,’ I found that the character was a strong, fearless Latina woman, and a strong woman in general. The fact that they wanted to make her Latina was awesome for me; obviously being Latina, I thought, oh, nice! Seldom do you get strong female lead roles in general. It’s tough to come across scripts that you’re drawn to that encompass a strong, independent woman character.
Also, it gave me a chance to get into a whole other role with music. Filly Brown was a spoken word artist-turned-rapper. That was a challenge, because I had never actually have done that before. So I was intrigued by not only the character, and her dedication to her family, but also that I was going to be entering a whole new art form. I was happy to be giving my all to that art form.
I also liked all of the actors who would be starring with me in the film. Lou Diamond Phillips played by father, and Jenni Rivera played my mother. I was beyond honored, and I knew the directors, Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos, had an amazing direction for this film. So I felt blessed to be a part of it.
Q: Besides the strong Latina presence, like you mentioned, were you able to relate to Maria at all? Did you do any particular research for the role before you began shooting?
GR: Well, I specifically studied hip-hop artists and the whole genre of hip-hop, including Latin underground hip-hop and mainstream hip-hop. I watched these rappers’ form and how they work in the studio, including if they work with the lights on, and how they collaborate with people.
I went to theater school and trained in acting (at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts), and have many acting techniques that I came from. When it came to music, I had no idea where to even begin. So I studied all these amazing singers around me now, and artists from back in the day. I studied old school women rappers, like Queen Latifah and Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown and Salt-n-Pepa. I watched these women who were in a form of music that was more male dominated. I also got to work with women currently in the industry. For me, I was so far away from music that if I didn’t get that opportunity to study the women artists, I don’t think Filly Brown would be as authentic as she is.
In hip-hop, it’s all about competition and bringing what you’ve got. I definitely have street cred, because I grew up in the hood (in Chicago). I had never touched music before, so I really had to pay homage to people that came before me, and had been doing music for five, 10, 15 years.
Filly Brown was so vastly different from me-she’s got a chip on her shoulder and she’s tough, and I’m a wimp. (laughs) In comparison, I’m not as tough as Filly Brown is. But I took so much away from her, including her fearlessness and her ability to jump into something, even though I had no idea what I was doing.
Q: Also speaking of the film’s music aspect, you mentioned the late singer Jenni Rivera, who played your character’s mother in ‘Filly Brown.’ The film was her only feature film acting appearance. What was it like working with her on the set?
GR: Well, our characters’ relationship is vital to the storyline. Filly Brown’s journey is wrapped around their relationship; she does everything to bring her mother out of jail and help her mother have a better life than the situation she’s currently in.
I worked closely with Jenni and her family to get to know her better. That was beyond an honor, and I got to work closely with her prior to shooting. She helped me so much with the music. That first-time experience I was having with music, she was having with acting. We understood that fear of being the best you can, and getting an opportunity and having to go at it the best that you can. That’s the general theme of the movie, and that’s what I tried to do with the music.
We were able to bond over our first times and switching roles. That woman was incredible because she taught me so much about who I want to become and who I admire in this industry. That represents the change we want to see in the world. She represents so much for the broken woman, and fought so hard for the strength of the broken woman, and I learned so much from that. That woman was incredible.
Q: One of the co-directors of ‘Filly Brown,’ Youssef Delara, also wrote the script. Do you prefer working with helmers who also pen the screenplay?
GR: There’s something definitely to be said about a director who knows the story intimately, because it’s their story. Youssef was inspired by the spoken word artist, and lived with Filly Brown’s story for a few years before we shot it. So he knew the characters so much. It was amazing to have a director know the character so well, and was able to shape the character around me.
Youssef knew how to bring me on course if I ever strayed away. It was my first time working with music and having all these amazing people around me who were teaching me and showing me the way. I was constantly learning and picking up something new. So to have a guide like Youssef was priceless.
Having the two directors together was unstoppable. Michael is so much based on performance, and Youssef is so much based on technique, because he comes from the editing world. With the story, he made sure all the transitions were there and we had all the shots that we needed, and having the full story.
Being on an indie film was pretty difficult. We were short on time and had a very small budget, so it was difficult to get all the shots we needed. Doing an indie film is one of the most difficult things, but the fact that you got it done was one of the biggest challenges of all. But the fact that we were able to get it done with such great actors, we were able to get a great piece of work. I think that came from the directing duo, with Youssef editing’s experience and Michael’s performance base, they brought those two strengths together. They made sure we were on our acting game and were getting everything done. They were really pushing the story forward. I couldn’t have been luckier to have the two of them together; they definitely balanced each other out very well.
Q: Speaking of the fact that ‘Filly Brown’ had a smaller budget, it was one of the most buzzed about independent films at Sundance 2012. What was your reaction when you found out that the movie would be playing at Sundance, and that it was receiving positive feedback from audiences?
GR: There’s actually a tape online of the first time they told me we got accepted into Sundance. I was a hot mess, but everyone can see my reaction, and it’s everywhere; anyone can see it. I freaked out and flipped my chair back, and I started crying and screaming.
I have been a fan of Sundance as long as I can remember. I have desired to go to Sundance with a project my entire life. It was one of my biggest moments, and I’ll never forget it. I found out on November 30, 2011, and I’ll never forget that date. It was literally the day that changed my life. Sundance gave the film and my performance a credibility and recognition. It changed the game for me, and I could never repay them for that.
My experience at Sundance was all my dreams combining in one. It was the most magical experience ever. I pray that every actor gets the chance to experience that, and I also pray that I get to experience that again. It was outstanding, because you’re amongst your colleagues that you respect and admire. It was like a Bat Mitzvah, and I was finally an actress. It’s never something I’ll forget.
Q: After ‘Filly Brown,’ you’ll also be seen as Alexis Fish in the upcoming dark comedy ‘Sleeping with Fishes.’ What convinced you to take on the role of Alexis, and appear in the film?
GR: After Sundance, I was looking for another great project. I come from humble beginnings and without money. Money is the last of my concerns because it comes and goes.
But when I read ‘Sleeping with Fishes,’ I was drawn to it. I’m Puerto Rican, and since there are so few of us, it’s seldom that you get any stories written about us. But it’s also a comedy and a slice of life for any normal woman in the world. This is a girl dealing with terrible heartache, and she’s not at the place she wants to be. Her family gets on her case, and so many women can relate to that.
The movie also features Ana Ortiz from ‘Ugly Betty.’ She’s brilliant, and I learned so much about comedy from her. I also love Steven Strait; (his show) ‘Magic City’ is to die for. Our arc was fantastic, and to have an interracial couple on screen is great. There were so many firsts for me with this movie, and I was delighted to be a part of it.
Nicole Gomez-Fisher has a great voice, and she’s a great writer. It’s always a little nerve-racking to work with first-time directors, but she was beyond a blessing. She had such an amazing crew around her. So we were able to get a really great indie film that will speak to a demographic that hasn’t been spoken to yet. So I’m really excited about that.
Q: Besides films, you have also appeared on several television shows, including ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ and ‘The Mentalist.’ What is it about television that you enjoy so much?
GR: I love television. Right now, I’m prepping for pilot season and crossing my fingers. But I love the idea of being able to develop a character. I come from theater-I went to NYU Tisch. So doing plays, you live with the character.
What I love about television is that the story continues, and it’s not the same story each week. We actually get to develop and tell this whole new story every week. You get to live in this whole fantasy world, hopefully for a few seasons, depending on how long the story runs. To me, that would be such a blessing to have that. Being able to explore a character for years is exciting, and a challenge, to me.
I’ve done a few recurring roles that have allowed me to spread my wings as a character. But for me, doing a TV show for a few successful seasons would be my ultimate goal. I want to show the world my true side-that I’m not a cookie-cutter Latina Hollywood woman. For me, it’s exciting to be on TV and show a woman who hasn’t been represented yet.
Q: Besides ‘Filly Brown’ and ‘Sleeping with the Fishes,’ do you have any upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss?
GR: I sure do. I had a movie at SXSW (last month) called ‘Snap.’ I’m also going to shoot my next film, called ‘Marching Banda,’ which was announced on Deadline. I’m teaming up with Youssef and Victor Teran from ‘Snap,’ who co-directed that film. (Teran also produced and wrote ‘Snap,’ and produced ‘Filly Brown.’) I’m working with a team that I trust and believe in so much. It’s becoming a Johnny Depp-Tim Burton situation. (laughs)