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REELING FILM FESTIVAL Nelson Rodriguez tackles immigration, love in 'En Algun Lugar'
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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In the movie En Algun Lugar—which will be shown at the Reeling Film Festival on Sept. 22-23—Nelson Rodriguez and Andrew L. Saenz play a Chicago couple ( Abel and Diego, respectively ) who face a complication when it turns out that one of them is an undocumented immigrant.

Rodriguez—a local actor and recent Windy City Times 30 Under 30 honoree who won't see the completed film for the first time until Reeling ( a promise he made )—talked about the movie's plot, filming in Chicago and Mexico, and the concept of straight actors who play gay.

Windy City Times: Tell me how the title of the movie relates to the plot.

Nelson Rodirguez: From my understanding from [writer/director] Tadeo Garcia, a loose translation of the title is "A Place to Be," while the direct translation is "Someplace." I think the movie holds on to the idea that things are better somewhere, in some other place. Eventually, we'll get to the place where you can be somebody—that's how it ties to the movie, specifically Diego's journey to become an American citizen. Then there's an issue with his mom [who's in Mexico], and decisions have to be made.

WCT: Chicago is practically another character in the movie. You filmed in Boystown and a couple other spots. I didn't recognize the bridge you two crossed, though.

NR: Oh, that's the 95th Street bridge. We were all over Chicago, from the South Side to the North Side. We were up in Rogers Park in The Armadillo's Pillow bookstore for one scene, and were in Boystown for the nightclub scene. We were at a concert hall as well. It was really important that Chicago be represented, and that it felt authentic to where these characters would live.

WCT: And you filmed in Mexico as well?

NR: Yes—we were there for eight days. I couldn't believe it was happening. We were in small-town Mexico, southwest of Mexico City—specifically, Jalpa, Zacatecas. Actually, Tadeo's family has land there; he has memories of going there as a kid. It's very important to him that, in the story, [this area] was represented as part of his own journey. He also knew certain things, like the time of the year when the fair [in the film] takes place. The cinematographer, Charlie, did a beautiful job.

WCT: You looked different in the film [in terms of weight] than you do now.

NR: Yes—I happened to gain weight before starting the film. It wasn't specifically for the role; I was taking medicine and it made me a bit heavy.

WCT: Because there's a scene in which your roommate mentions your weight, I thought you had gained weight for the role.

NR: Actually, we didn't improv that; that was already in the script. Also, the roommate was already a fit guy, and I've never been an athletic guy. So even if I had been thinner in the movie, it would've made sense for him to tell me to hit the gym.

WCT: I get various answers to this question, but what is it like filming the love scenes?

NR: At first, they're as awkward and uncomfortable as you'd imagine them to be. The sex scene in Mexico was our first day of filming, so we giggled a lot and tried to get into the moment. Once we felt we got the vibe of what was happening, it was just a matter of doing it. I was very lucky that the crew made things as comfortable as possible—and Andrew's a total pro.

WCT: Andrew is actually straight in real life. There's a school of thought that only gay actors ( who are underrepresented ) should act in gay roles. How do you feel about that?

NR: I go back and forth about that, honestly. It's important to me that gay actors get the opportunities to tell their stories, so I totally hear that point of view—but I also want to play straight characters, as a gay man. I don't want to be limited that way, so it would be hypocritical of me to say, "You can't play the gay role, but I can play the straight role."

I often prefer, in my own work, to cast queer actors in queer roles, but I never make it an [iron-clad] rule; allies are a part of our community, and there's artistry behind what they can bring to the roles as well.

Andrew's such a great guy; it never felt like he was putting on a "queer persona." He was living truthfully as [a character] who happened to be gay.

WCT: Obviously, this movie is very timely...

NR: It got very timely very fast.

WCT: I don't want to reveal too much about the movie, but there's a point in the film where a quote from then-candidate Donald Trump is used.

NR: And he hasn't stopped saying inflammatory things.

WCT: Indeed. What was the most difficult scene for you to film?

NR: It wasn't necessarily the most difficult—but I wonder if I made the right choice right after I find out that Diego's mom is actually in Mexico, and that he's undocumented. It's a very important scene, but I wonder if I balanced that correctly in the moment as [Abel]. It's such a hard situation and I knew what I had to get to, in terms of leaving [Chicago]. I don't know if I was too harsh or if it made Abel more sympathetic.

WCT: What do you want people to take away from the movie?

NR: Even without seeing it yet, I want people to see this glimpse of what being undocumented is like—to see the pressures and situations undocumented people face. People are in those situations every day, and some people get the wrong idea about the undocumented and have these stereotypes.

WCT: For example, Diego speaks perfect English.

NR: Exactly. So I want people to learn that this is a real community, with people of different backgrounds, different levels of education; it's a very diverse community and it's not just what the media pushes at us. Hopefully, people will sympathize with that struggle and take action, like donating a few dollars to the ACLU.

WCT: Let's wrap up with a general question: Who are a few actors you'd love to work with?

NR: Oh, my gosh. My favorite actor is Jake Gyllenhaal, and he's always been my favorite actor—back to when I saw October Sky in middle school; I decided then and there that he was my favorite actor.

There are also local actors I work with whose work I really admire. I really like Henry Godinez; I really like his work and his energy is really positive. And there's Sandra Marquez; she directed me two years ago [in the play Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown] and I loved working wit her. I'd kill to be on stage with her, and I one tight little scene with her in this movie. [Godinez and Marquez] have the credentials and resumes someone like me would love to have in 20 years.

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