Exclusive: GUN HILL ROAD’s Esai Morales Interview
Over the years, Esai Morales has played a wide variety of roles: from Ritchie Valens’ ex-con brother in ‘La Bamba’ to Lt. Tony Rodriguez on ‘NYPD Blue’ and Joseph Adama in Syfy’s short-lived ‘Caprica,’ he has done it all, gaining fans and critical praise each step of the way.
In his latest project, the indie film GUN HILL ROAD, Esai is Enrique, a man from the Bronx just home from prison who finds his family life much changed. His wife is possibly involved with another man and his son is going through a transformation beyond what Enrique can understand. In order to keep his family together, he must change his own ideas of what it means to be a husband and father. Gun Hill Road just screened at Sundance, competing in the U. S. Dramatic Competition and scoring a distribution deal with Motion Film Group.
Daemon’s Movies recently talked to Esai about why he wanted to play Enrique, what he thinks audiences will take away from Gun Hill Road, and what’s up next for him.
Congratulations on a successful Sundance Film Festival. I understand there were sold out screenings, standing ovations and a distribution deal for ‘Gun Hill Road’.
Esai Morales: Not too shabby for not winning any major awards.
I have a feeling most people would take the distribution deal over an award any day.
Esai Morales: That’s what I told my friends. I was like, ‘You know what, be grateful and sometimes these movies, the award is when you watch it and you watch other people’s reaction next to me.’ I’ve seen other award winning things that don’t have the same emotional impact. So I’ll take it.
How was it watching other people react to such an intimate film?
Esai Morales: Mind blowing. It was really freaky. I was nervous. I didn’t expect the movie to be as good as it turned out to be, to be honest with you. That’s no aspersions to anyone, per se, but it was just such a small, little heartfelt film. Rashaad [Ernesto Green] had never done a feature length film before and you have some concerns. So when I saw the rough cut I was like, ‘Wow. This is not bad.’ Still, I was thinking, ‘Are they going to get it?’ Then when I saw it on a screen and all the nuances that audience picked up on I was blown away.
How did the role of Enrique come about for you?
Esai Morales: According to Rashaad, he had written it with me in mind and I thought, ‘Well, why not explore it?’ He wrote it with me in mind. I’m a founder–Jimmy Smits and myself are founders of an organization called National Hispanic Foundation For the Arts and we try to help people with Hispanic backgrounds. We provide for a small scholarship, but more importantly we provide connectivity. Connectivity is very crucial in this town because if people don’t know you they don’t want to hire you. They don’t trust you. So it can be rather incestuous this town, or nepotistic to some degree.
Anyway, he told me, a year before or something, ‘I’m working on a script. I’m going to give it to you.’ You hear this stuff all the time, and you say, ‘Yeah, okay. Sure.’ You encourage it. But you don’t think that this is something that can easily get into Sundance. When I finally read it I was like, ‘Wow.’ or read anything at that point.
Is the story told primarily from Enrique’s point of view?
Esai Morales: Well, kind of. I think it has multiple points of view, but Enrique is an important piece in this. It’s funny because you wonder should this be Michael/Vanessa’s, and I don’t want to give it away too much, but it has different important points of view.
But I think the audience for this film should be guys like Enrique. I think there’s a reason for calling it ‘Gun Hill Road’. It sounds like a bad ass gangster flick. Partially it is, but imagine this movie is completely about the subject matter that it delves into, I don’t think that a lot of quote unquote straight men would go see it.
I read one review where they said that we focused so much attention on my character. I won’t describe how it was described, but the reality is that I think there’s a wisdom. I think that Rashaad was very smart to couch it in street conventions for film. This movie feels like part ‘Bad Boys’, part ‘Mean Streets’, part ‘The Crying Game’.
Enrique also issues in his marriage. What do you think people will take away from this film in terms of being both a husband a father?
Esai Morales: I think what people will take away, I hope that they will is that the road to hell can be paved with good intentions and as much as you love your family, if you really don’t know how to accept children for who they are anything you may be trying to do to quote unquote help or fix them may be more damaging. But that’s not it in a nutshell. If I had to put it into a nutshell I think that people will come away with the fact that children are not merely a reflection of their parents. They have their own identity and an identity that you cannot force on them.
Gun Hill Road is actually a road in The Bronx, right?
Esai Morales: Yes. It’s a very, very long street. I grew up not too many roads away from there. As a matter of fact, it’s so strange and I just thought of something. I remember having a bottle cracked on my head. I wound up in the wrong area at the wrong time and some neighborhood boys surrounded me and they asked me some questions and I really didn’t know what to answer and crack. It was a Michelob bottle right on my head. Here’s the weird part. It didn’t break. Those bottles, those Michelob bottles are very thick and they’re not easy to break. I just remember being like [hums]. Not fighting back at that point. Just going, ‘Okay. Ha, ha, ha. I’m awake.’ But Gun Hill Road has a lot of impact for me personally, I guess.
Also, Judy Reyes was raised around there and Harmony is from there. How important do you think it was to have all these Bronx natives in the film?
Esai Morales: I think it was crucial. No matter how wonderful an actress Meryl Streep might’ve been, she just wasn’t right for the part. So, I’m grateful that Judy did this role. Judy is Dominican. I’m Puerto Rican. Harmony is Puerto Rican and Dominican. How do you cast like that? Rashaad is kind of like the David Lean of Bronx casting. I don’t know. David would wait for days just for the right sun, for the right sky.
This was Rashaad’s feature and Harmony’s first acting job. Did that put any pressure on you being the real veteran of the group?
Esai Morales: Thank you for being kind in your choice of words. I’m the old dog. A little bit. I have to say that you go into these things knowing that eighty to ninety percent of the time it doesn’t work out because of those things, because of the inexperience of one or more of the key players. It was just a risk that I had to take.
For me it was a very big sacrifice because my lady is seven months pregnant. That’s like the home stretch. I went and I left her in L.A. I went to New York and she couldn’t come with me. I would’ve loved to have brought her with me, but after six months you can’t fly. I left her for five weeks to go make this movie for no money. I mean, it’s not like it’s my first feature film. So the pressure was on in more ways than one. It was a risk as an actor, as a veteran. I’ve done so many movies that mean well and they just end, or well, you never know. I really thought about it and I thought, ‘I want to do this.’ I just didn’t know when I was going to get another chance to play, not just this character because I’ve played similar characters, guys who have come out of jail or are in jail, in the Bronx, that kind of thing, but someone dealing with the sexual identity of his own son. I just thought it was fascinating.
I said, ‘Honey, I know. I know. I just bear with me.’ I came home three weeks before she was due. I was terrified that she’d be early a month so. Terrified. She said to me, ‘Okay. I’ll support you, but are you going to be okay if you miss the birth of your daughter?’ That was the hard part for me. That could be my only daughter. I’m forty eight. It’s not like I’ve got twenty more years of having children. If I missed the birth of my only child, she said, ‘Could you handle that?’ So I said, ‘I think we’re making something here that I think will pay off. And then we ended up at Sundance.
I understand that the initial release of the movie will be in places with a large Hispanic population, but I think it could play to larger audiences. What do you think?
Esai Morales: I agree. I think it can play wider, but I think the strategy is to play it safe to a degree, kind of like the way that Tyler Perry plays to his specific, core audience. We start there and then we branch out, but you don’t want to take a shot and then not get it. The neighborhood needs to know that it’s of it’s own. The community needs to know.
The hard about being dealing with Latino, as opposed to, say, African American films, is multiple. It’s twofold and very, very tricky. With the exception of ‘La Bamba’ which was in the ’80’s, not a lot of films know how to unify that market. Our people don’t speak English, like, normally, universally, in the way that African American community has after hundreds of years of being here, and we all come from different parts of Latin America. Some from Europe in Spaniards. Caribbeans. You’ve got American Latinos and they all have specificity from their different places. So to make a movie that can strike a chord in all those communities is very difficult, but I think that this with the response that we got from so many non-Latinos that said, ‘I love your movie.’ Little old white ladies coming up to me, like, I thought they were going to mug me, but they just wanted to say ‘I love your movie.’ It’s wonderful to see the crossover.
For the transgenders in the audience, this was their ‘Gone With the Wind’ or something. I don’t know. This was, like, validating. It’d be like, ‘Finally. Finally you treat us like more than a sideshow, more than a freak show.’ That’s what a lot of people in this situation feel like, that despite all that the try to fit in with society people can’t get over their private sexual circumstances. So this movie is a watershed, or it can be. I hope it is. I hope it’s successful because I think it’ll show people that you can be a human being no matter what your issues are. No matter what feelings you have, that you’re still a human being. No matter how you feel about the body that you’re in you’re still a human being deserving of love.
I can’t think of a better message, to be honest with you.
Esai Morales: There isn’t one and this film really helps people understand someone that’s so different. It’s like ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman,’ you know with Raul Julia and William Hurt. What they go through there and how they change–it’s moving and sad and beautiful and I was crying my eyes out at the end. In Gun Hill Road, you have that with Michael/Vanessa and the way Harmony plays it–you love Harmony. There’s no way around it. You’re not human if you don’t care about Harmony.
I’m very sorry about ‘Caprica’ being cancelled. Do you know what happened there?
Esai Morales: I can’t say exactly what happened. It’s all about numbers. It’s all about the mathematics. I can’t begrudge SyFy. They have a business to run. I’m sad that it happened because it was really helping to re-brand the network like they wanted to, but I don’t think that they had the fiscal patience. When you have a show like ours that was upwards of $2 million an episode and Snooki gets punched in the face and gets eight million people in her first season, you try to compete against that.
Has that soured you on television?
Esai Morales: No. I can’t afford to be sour on television right now. I have a baby and a lady to feed and take care of. I really need to find a great show to be on. TV is the great communicator and also the great payer. It’s just mathematics. I would love to do indies and theater for the rest of my life, but I cannot afford it.
Do you have anything else in the works right now?
Esai Morales: Well, we’re looking at pilot season and we have a couple that are very interesting, very nice. There’s still more to come, but I’ve decided to start developing projects. I want to become Tyler Perez–that’s a little joke there, but it’s also important because I think that our market needs to be unified and I want to be the Spike Perry or the Tyler Lee. Obviously, I’d like to make my own name at it, but for now we’re developing three ideas.
One that’s sci-fi which is funny because I had all these people approach me with sci-fi titles that were very cheesy. But that’s what they do. ‘Mansquito’, ‘Sharktapus’. They make those movies for ten cents in Romania or Bulgaria and then they come here and they’ve got fans. The teenagers love that stuff. So we were looking at titles and I heard one that wasn’t rather silly and we’re developing from there. It’s a little bit like backwards engineering. ‘Here’s a little title that we think we can market. Lets build it.’
There are two others. One is more ‘Pineapple Express-ish’, a comedy kind of thing. And I can’t give you the title because it’s so good. I love it. Then one more that’s like a nice date movie for the Latino core audience, but should be good enough – I watch Anglo films and I’m not completely Anglo. Why can’t people from not within our community enjoy movies that deal with us, too?
There’s no reason at all –
Esai Morales: Exactly. That’s the thing. ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’. Those are the types of things – ‘Mama Mia’ – that have ethnic flavor, but they appeal to everyone, that’s the kind of thing that we want to do with this romantic comedy.