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'Mi Familia': Casting for Authenticity

June 04, 1995|Gregory Nava

It took film director Gregory Nava four years to find funding for his feature film "My Family/Mi Familia . " Armed with what he thought was an excellent script, he found unflinching opposition from studios that thought a movie about family values (much less a movie about a Chicano family) would never be profitable and who balked when he insisted on an all-Latino cast.

Nearly a month since "My Family/Mi Familia's" limited release, and after grossing nearly $8 million at the box office, Nava can confidently say he was right in protecting the integrity of his project--especially considering that "The Perez Family," another Latino-themed movie, but without the Latino cast, is foundering both critically and popularly.

On the wake of his recent success, Nava talks about the difficulty of taking Latino stories to the big screen, the importance of casting Latinos in Latino roles and the future of Latinos in film. Nava was interviewed by Leila Cobo-Hanlon.

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With "My Family/Mi Familia," I wanted to show our culture the way it is. I wanted to show that we were Latinos and we were family people. I wanted to do a movie about an American family, because we're all American. I wanted a movie that would make the audience laugh and cry. But it was almost impossible to find the money to do a film about family and family values.

Also, from the onset, I insisted that the cast had to be entirely Latino. I wanted to take the audience to a house in East Los Angeles, and only Latinos that had lived in houses like that could bring that to life. My insistence in using only Latinos was one of the obstacles [in making the film], but to me it was more important not to make the movie than to make it in a ridiculous fashion.

In order for someone to play a Latino, they have to learn how to pronounce Spanish, how to act Latin. It's something Latins naturally bring to the stage. In "Mi Familia," I didn't have to teach my actors any those things. Of course, it's possible for actors to learn those things, but that's the exception.

Also, in writing and directing, we have to use our beautiful stories for ourselves or we're never going to enter the mainstream. What are we going to make our entrance in the mainstream with if we let others tell our stories?

And I think it's clear that the audience likes the Latino cast. I feel "The Perez Family" is miscast and . . . certainly the Latino audience rejected it for that reason. If you make a Latino movie, it's really clear the Latino audience doesn't like non-Latino casting. They want their own up there. So with Latinos rejecting a Latino film, you're in trouble. Of course you want to reach a non-Latino audience, but [Latinos are] your core audience.

"The Perez Family" has been rejected by all audiences, and our film has been embraced. I hope that sends a signal to people, but unless we talk about it and write about it, they won't get it in Hollywood.

We're not in a world where there's an even playing field. We're not in a world where blonde parts are played by Latinos. We're in a world where the main Latino roles are played by non-Latinos.

And in cases where [actors] slap on greasepaint [as Marisa Tomei did in "The Perez Famly"] to play a Latino role, I say they shouldn't get those roles because Latinos are not getting them. I had to fight for years to get Latinos in my film. They [Hollywood studios] wouldn't think about putting greasepaint on a white actor to play an African American or a Native American. But we as Latinos don't raise a fuss when this happens.

I was in a situation with an executive who was Asian, and he said, "When are you Latinos going to get together and put a stop to this, because we wouldn't tolerate it." And they don't. And African Americans don't. But we do. And maybe we ought to get a little bit upset about it. And unless we raise a stink, they'll keep doing it.

Marisa Tomei is not playing the part because she's the best person for the part. [She is cast] because she's bankable. As long as we don't give those roles to our Latino actors, we won't get a Latino star. So we're kind of shooting ourselves in the foot.

[Bringing about a change] could take a long time or it could happen quickly; it depends on a lot of factors. I think "Mi Familia" participates in the growing awareness and understanding, but I think it takes more than one movie. I think we have to create more opportunities and that would start to create a snowball effect.

I would tell people that [in "Mi Familia"] it was creatively right to have Latinos to make a Latino household. I can start from there and go on as opposed to starting from a place of teaching people how to be Latino and speak Spanish. So I have people who already know that; we can work on the intimacy. That's what is so important about this film, that it is so intimate.

Jimmy Smits told me the other day that he was in San Antonio and he was mobbed by people in church saying, "You told our story." And they had tears in their eyes because they were so happy.

And when I was in Taos [N.M.], I got an award from the mayor, who is Latino, and he couldn't speak, because finally he felt our story was on the screen and it really moved him.

These are the most important things over and above the fact that the movie did well at the box office. The fact that it touches people is very beautiful.

When I was in Cleveland there were no Latinos in the audience, and they came up to me and said, "That's just like my Greek family," and, "That's just like my Hungarian family." Things like that really mean a lot to me.

I think the secret of the success is that we told a good story about people. And a good tale well told is always welcome.

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