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He adds the salsa to the big dance

Talk about moves -- Freddy Rodriguez has gone from gifted embalmer on 'Six Feet Under' to love interest on the hit 'Ugly Betty.'

January 17, 2008|Denise Martin | Special to The Times

When we last saw "Ugly Betty's" lovelorn Gio, the pint-sized sandwich guy from Queens with eyes for Betty, he was getting schooled on the dance floor by her boyfriend, the nerdy accountant Henry.

Actor Freddy Rodriguez, who portrays the impish Gio, disputes that version of events: He got to dance with Betty first in the episode. And his dance ended with a passionate dip. "Hey, I got to show off some of my moves too!" he said with a laugh.

As we head into the season's final two episodes -- a result of the ongoing writers strike -- Gio seems to be gaining in the battle for Betty's affections. (Series insiders, however, tell us that the sparks between Betty and her two suitors will be far from resolved after next week's season finale airs.) Because production on the show wrapped last month, storylines are in a precarious state, and even Rodriguez, who initially signed on for 12 episodes, doesn't know what is in store for his character.

"No one has told me anything. I wish I knew," he said. "The last couple of months were weird on set; they were tough. We were one of the last shows to shut down. Everyone is just hoping things work out."

Rodriguez, who turns 33 today, was recently seen romancing the gun-legged Rose McGowan while battling zombies in "Planet Terror," the first chapter in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's double-feature ode to '70s exploitation films, "Grindhouse." But the actor is perhaps best known for his breakthrough role as gifted embalmer Federico on Alan Ball's HBO drama "Six Feet Under."

"It's hard to top an experience like that. It was unreal," said Rodriguez, who earned an Emmy nomination in 2002 for the role. After four years on "Six Feet Under," however, movie roles began coming in and he shifted his attention to the big screen. Aside from "Grindhouse," he appeared in last year's Emilio Estevez-directed "Bobby" and had a small role in M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water." While the writers strike rages on, he will be in Sundance promoting "Bottle Shock," based on the true story of the first non-French vineyard to win a world wine-tasting competition, in which he appears with Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman.

With the influx of film work, Rodriguez said he was content to put TV series on the back burner indefinitely until he got a call from "Ugly Betty" creator-executive producer Silvio Horta, who wanted him for a one-episode stint playing Betty's dentist -- a character with whom Henry's girlfriend, Charlie, would have an off-camera affair. The plans fell through, and when a second offer came to play a new love interest for Betty, Rodriguez resolved to make it work.

"It's fate. You don't often get a second chance in this town," he said.

Well-acquainted with the series' love-it-or-hate-it, over-the-top approach to comedy, Rodriguez knew finding a place for Gio's more unflappable wit would take some finessing. "I had to figure out what my niche was. Gio is brash and tenacious, but he's still a lot more subtle and less out-there" than, say, scene-stealing duo Amanda and Marc, Rodriguez said. "He balances out everyone else."

While Henry is Betty's nerd match, cool guy Gio is her affectionate pest. When they first meet, he unabashedly wails along to Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart" right before helping her steal a wheelchair for work and reignites her ambition to write by making her rethink her role as Daniel's assistant.

He even gives her a nickname, the Eater, a compliment meant more as a dig toward her Mode colleagues who order the sandwiches he sells. (To their horror, he later giddily informs them: "There is no such thing as fat-free mayo. There's 125 calories of pure fat per tablespoon -- and I put two in every sandwich.")

"It's pretty hard keeping a straight face sometimes," the actor says. "If there were a blooper reel, it would last several hours."

Rodriguez has quickly won over fans, evidenced by online message boards dedicated to "Ugly Betty" now rife with Henry vs. Gio debate. Still, when you ask him, Rodriguez admits he's actually a Henry fan. "Henry's awesome," he said. "But it can't be Henry and Betty all day long. You need some spice. That's Gio."


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