May 23, 2008

Actor Manny Pérez embraces Latino-themed roles

By Kiko Martinez

When actor Manny Pérez moved from the Dominican Republic to Rhode Island at the age of 10, he was quickly intrigued by the theater company right around the block from his house.

Although he knew very little English, Pérez said he prepared his role as a pirate in “Peter Pan” and confidently auditioned for the role.

“I auditioned and got cast,” Pérez said. “Ever since then, I haven’t stopped acting.”

Pérez started his professional acting career in a 1993 Japanese action film called “New York Cop.” From there, he went on to earn small TV and movie roles in productions including 1996’s “Courage Under Fire” starring Denzel Washington, A&E’s short-lived TV series “100 Centre Street” directed by icon Sidney Lumet (“Network”), and TV’s “Third Watch” as the character Manny Santiago.

In the last two years, Pérez has kept busy in the industry. He started in 2006 with roles in “Bella” and “El Cantante.” He also starred in five episodes of the FX Network hit drama “Rescue Me.”

During a phone interview, Pérez, 38, discussed how he gets consistent work in the film industry, what it’s like to play the bad guy in a movie, and why he thinks Latino-themed movies don’t do well at the box office.

I was looking at your filmography for the last two years and I was wondering if you get any sleep? You have parts in a lot of movies.

Manny Pérez: I feel like in this career work is rare. When you get work you have to enjoy it and ride the wave. Last year was an amazing year for me. In 2006 and 2007 I did 12 films. It’s pretty amazing. There’s no stopping. Actors complain that there is no work so when you do get work you gotta enjoy it because it doesn’t come often.

So, on that note, when a role does come your way, are you an actor that can say no to a part or do you take everything that you get?

Actually, I am picky. I turned down three films last November. My whole career I have been playing the bad guy. I think I have that bad-guy look. I am offered tons of bad-guy roles. I don’t mind taking them as long as there is a journey for the bad guy. I don’t mind playing the stereotypical bad guy but there has to be a heart to the guy, you know?

So how do you make each of your bad-guy roles different?

I try to find the fun and the heart in the character. In real life, every bad guy is bad because a circumstance makes them bad. If a child is raised to steal when he is three years old, when he grows up and becomes a thief, to him he’s doing the right thing because no one else told him otherwise. I feel it’s important to know where you are coming from with the character.

Why did your parents decide to move the family from the Dominican Republic to the U.S.?

We were raised in the mountains. We were farmers. There was no education for us. There were 11 of us – me and 10 other brothers and sisters. My father wanted a better life for his kids.

That is a huge family. Did you get any attention with all those kids in one house?

I never got any attention. To this day I still don’t get attention, so you figure that one out.

Would you consider “Bella” the high-point of your career thus far?

Well, the great thing about “Bella” is that it’s the story of a Latin family and it’s not your stereotypical movie. That film to me has been a little miracle. It was the highest grossing film in 2007 with a Latin theme. I was also in “El Cantante” that year and I never though a little film like “Bella” would beat it.

Simple question: Is it hard to be a Latino actor?

I feel that the problem with Latinos in general is Latinos. I don’t think we are as united as we should be. That was the problem with “El Cantante” and why it didn’t make any money. It should have made a lot more money. The problem is Latinos don’t support Latino projects. That’s the problem with us. It’s not Hollywood, it’s us.

How do you remedy this problem?

Dude, I honestly thought that would happen this year by supporting our films. What happens with Latinos is that we’re used to a third-world-country mentality where we will buy a bootleg copy of a movie because we save $5. How do you fix it? I have no idea. Maybe it’s going to take another generation to fix it.

So, will you still be comfortable accepting roles in Latino-themed films knowing that you’re not getting the support you would like from Latino audiences?

The truth is I would love to do other mainstream projects. The problem is they’re not making the mainstream projects about us. So, I have to stick to the independent market, which I love.

You wrote the film “Washington Heights” a few years ago. As busy as you are, do you ever get to sit down and write anymore? Is this something you want to try again?

In my off time I’ve been writing. I’m working on a film set in the Dominican Republic. It deals with corruption in the country, sort of like a “City of God.” It’s written already, I’m just trying to find the funds for it. I’m very excited about it. To me, this movie is like my baby.

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