Exclusive: GUN HILL ROAD’s Judy Reyes Interview
Judy Reyes’ big break came when she played opposite Sam Rockwell in the 1992 independent film ‘Jack and His Friends,’ and she has been acting steadily ever since. She is best known for spending eight seasons making us laugh as Nurse Carla Espinoza on SCRUBS.
Judy’s latest project, the independent film ‘GUN HILL ROAD,’ takes on a much more dramatic tone as it focuses on a man (Esai Morales) returning to his home in the Bronx after spending three years in prison only to find his wife Angela (Reyes) estranged and his son Michael (Harmony Santana) going through a transformation well beyond his scope of experience. The first feature-length film from director Rashaad Ernesto Green, ‘Gun Hill Road’ was one of sixteen films accepted into the prestigious Sundance Film Festival 2011 U. S. Dramatic Competition.
Daemon’s Movies recently talked to Judy about why she wanted to play Angela, what makes ‘Gun Hill Road’ so special, and what her next film, ‘Without Men,’ is about.
Congratulations on your first Sundance Film Fest. How is it?
Judy Reyes: Thank you. It’s amazing, actually. We’ve had a phenomenal response to the film. I just got out of an afternoon screening in a twelve hundred seat theater that was sold out. We had a terrific response to the film this afternoon as well as at our premiere last night. So it’s been very moving.
I read that all your screenings are already sold out.
Judy Reyes: That is correct. We were trying to sell this matinee out and we did yesterday. So it’s been very exciting. It’s the way to come to Sundance for the first time. So I’m thrilled.
Now, I understand that ‘Gun Hill Road’ is a very special film. Can you tell us about it?
Judy Reyes: It’s the story of a father played by Esai Morales. He plays Enrique. He comes out of prison after three years expecting to go back to his old hood and his family, reclaiming his place as a husband and a father only to find that his wife has been estranged and his son is completely different. He’s actually going through this intense identity crisis and sexual transformation. It’s throwing a wrench for lack of a better term into all his plans to come into his family the way he saw. Everything is completely different and that’s how we come into the film.
I play Angela, the mom, and I’m kind of trying to be a peacemaker while I’m going through my own transformation and trying to hold the family together and support my son and trying to keep my son’s transformation from his father rather unsuccessfully it turns out.
So in some ways it seems that this film is about acceptance of all kinds in this family. Is that right?
Judy Reyes: Absolutely. Acceptance in all it’s forms in a family, and thematically, with this particular family, we’re a Latino family, which I think rarely has explored I guess in feature films particularly, in this Bronx environment and it’s a little bit autobiographical where the writer/director is concerned. He based it on what happened in his family, to a relative of his. So it comes from a real place with real people. He mixed up professional actors with actors who’d never worked before. Michael is a newcomer and an actual young man who was going through his own transformation while we were shooting. Rashaad Ernesto Green, the writer/director, scoured New York for months looking for the real thing and found it in Harmony Santana who does an amazing job of bringing this pain of change.
I guess you could say that it’s puberty and choice and transformation on the screen and the struggle for acceptance from his father. You see that and you cannot help just be moved. Even as a person who worked on the film, watching it, finally having detached from just the journey that I’d made and watching it myself as an actor, just watching the film objectively you can’t help, but be moved.
What is it about the Bronx that’s so unique to make it so important to the story?
Judy Reyes: I’m born and raised in the Bronx. Esai is born and raised in the Bronx. Rashaad Ernesto Green was raised in the Bronx. I guess it’s just as unique as the Coen Brothers setting their film in ‘Fargo’. It’s just unique and specific to this story. I think specificity is essential to any story. Where you’re from, in terms of Enrique, the father, Esai’s character, I think it’s kind of like made the man that has issues with his son.
In terms of Angela it’s made the woman that can or can’t handle her husband and her child in this particular circumstance and gives her the strength to be the support that she is for her son. It makes Michael, the child that goes through this particular transformation in this particular way. And it makes these people just like everybody else, but the specificity is what makes the tale special.
As you said, it’s the tale of acceptance of any kid who wants to be accepted while they’re changing and trying to be themselves because they can’t help it. What makes it special is it’s commitment to being specific to this place and time.
Was this a role that you sought out or were you approached for it?
Judy Reyes: I was offered this role. I was just truly blessed to be offered this role. I think based on the wonderful Lifetime film that I did called ‘Little Girl Lost’ and of course my work on ‘Scrubs’ and I guess that Rashaad knew that I was from the Bronx and I could bring this particular authenticity to the role and they were trying to figure out who could play opposite Esai Morales because I know that Rashaad wrote the role, when he was writing the script he was writing the role of Enrique with Esai in mind. So they needed someone to play opposite him who was age appropriate and could bring all that they could bring. Knowing that I had done that Lifetime film they thought that I would be perfect for it. I was just blown away when I read the script and I would’ve done it for free if I had to. But I did it for almost nothing.
It is an independent film after all –
Judy Reyes: Exactly.
What’s the first thing about the script that grabbed you?
Judy Reyes: I’m trying to think. I think it was the opening of the script when you meet my character who’s getting ready for the homecoming and how she kind of handles everything, like a multi-tasking Latin mom. It’s just so reminiscent of not only my mom, but the moms that I grew up with, just the irritability combined with the strength and patience and handling an environment full of kids and people and trying to prepare a homecoming all at the same time with so much going on inside. I think that you have to see it, but it was all captured in the script so specifically, as I was saying before, that I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is amazing.’ And I couldn’t put it down. And there were so many colors, so many instances that were just like that, that I felt myself doing and that I wanted to see myself doing. It also scared the shit out of me, to be honest.
That’s a good thing in a role –
Judy Reyes: Yes, exactly. It scared me. I knew that it was going to be a real challenge.
Part of the challenge for Angela in the movie is her marriage. How was it working with Esai? Did you click right away?
Judy Reyes: We clicked and fought like dogs in a good way because we challenged each other. We fought. What we did was, because I think that we come from the same acting school, quote unquote, and we would slip into the characters and just give each other shit all day long. We’d just bust on each other for no apparent reason and then apologize to each other and hug, but like brotherly and sisterly and then we’d just slip into character all day long. It was just like theater all the time. We had total respect. I’ve been a fan of his since like the ‘Bad Boy’ days. I thought, ‘This guy is an awesome, awesome actor.’ You cannot take your eyes off of him in the film. You can’t. He’s just magical, as well as Harmony Santana who’s just a find. You will be blown away by these two.
What was it like working with Harmony since she had never acted before?
Judy Reyes: The thing about Harmony, because she’s never had to before, and I got to New York early to actually work with my acting coach because she wasn’t available and so I did all the acting that I could with Rashaad and with Harmony. I got to establish a real relationship with her. I got to meet her mother and talk to her about Harmony because Harmony was in the midst of her transition while we were working with her. So she was actually a he throughout the process of becoming who she became which you meet throughout the film. So it was a chance for us to get close and for me to understand and learn and what goes on in the film actually went on during the film making process. And she’s gentle and what Rashaad calls as the truth. He says, ‘She’s the truth.’ So she doesn’t give a false moment, not even as a person, not even in the rehearsal process. She doesn’t pretend to understand what she doesn’t understand and she doesn’t give you anything that isn’t real. She’s a sweetheart.
Did you all know at the time that you were doing this that it was going to be something special?
Judy Reyes: We did. And as indie films do it, it was in a heat wave in the middle of the summer in the South Bronx and it kicked our ass. There were moments that we were terrified that we weren’t going to be able to finish this film. But nobody ever quit. Nobody ever walked away and we got it done and here we are.
Since you’ve been at the festival in middle of all the attention have you had time to see any of the other films at the festival that you’re competing against?
Judy Reyes: No. That’s my regret. I’m here and I’m doing my job for the film and it hasn’t afforded me an opportunity to go see other films. And I have to leave tomorrow to get back to my little girl. So that’s one of my regrets here because I would love to be here to support other films as well. I’m hoping that down the line I can make it back here to Sundance and just see movies until I pass out.
I just read that ‘Without Men’, another indie film you did, just received distribution. Congratulations –
Judy Reyes: Yes. I read that yesterday as well. My PR people sent me that info. I was like, ‘All right. Not bad.’
Can you tell me about that one?
Judy Reyes: Without Men’ is a bit of a magical realism tale set in an unspecified time in Latin America and it’s a comedy. It’s about a town where all the men, in wartime all the men in this particular time either get killed or are sent to war and the women are left to fend for themselves and they have no idea what to do. So the wife of the mayor, played by Eva Longoria, becomes the mayor herself and then in rides a mysterious stranger played by Kate del Castillo and helps them take over the town and fend for themselves until the men return and then all hell breaks loose. But it’s about a place that doesn’t know what the hell to do with themselves without men. And then they learn how to take care of themselves. It’s really sweet and funny and really colorful and really farcical.