Esai Morales not only stars in the film, "Gun Hill Road," but served as executive producer.
In addition to his film and television work, Morales joined with actors Jimmy Smits, Sonia Braga, Merel Julia and attorney Felix Sanchez in 1997 to co-found the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.
How did you first hear about the “Gun Hill Road” project?
Rashaad Earnesto Green, the film’s writer and director, was a three-time recipient of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts Scholarship. He approached me at one of the foundation galas and said, ‘I’m working on a story inspired by a real family member and I wrote it with you in mind.’ So that peaked my interest.
And then I read the script and thought, wow, what a special tale. It’s so different from any other Bronx-related story with the usual crime and 'gangsta stuff’. This has some of that because my character is no angel – but it’s not a gangster film. It’s not a gay film. It’s not a Latino film. It’s a universal theme – the triumph of love over intolerance.
Would you call this a message film?
I would say this is a very, very subtle message film, only because it doesn’t tell you what to think or do. It basically shows you what happens when a parent’s expectations are not met, and frankly, turned on its head.
The over-riding message, I think, is that as a society, we should really stop trying to fix each other until we fix ourselves first. And that love should be the motivating factor behind all attempts to remedy any situation within a family.
If you truly love your family, you are going to embrace their differences and respect who they have become, in spite of your expectations.
“Gun Hill Road” premiered at Sundance earlier this year. How was it received?
Every screening was sold-out. We got standing ovations at the end, and especially Harmony (Santana). When people realized that the actor who played the spiritual backbone of this film was a real transgender teen, who never acted before, and she did an amazing job.
Financing independent films is usually a challenge. Was this your experience serving as executive producer?
These kinds of scripts are very difficult to finance because they are not the usual, genre films that fall neatly into a category – 'Hey, here’s a coming-of-age transgender story, starring a first-time transgender actor!' It’s not the first thing people think of for financing.
I personally contributed 90 percent of what my salary would be because I believe in the film. I believe in the humanizing qualities of this film.
I became somewhat of a champion for the film because we don’t have enough films from this community. The Latino community in the Bronx is one of the most underserved communities, as far as representation of their stories.
This film is a work of art – from a community that is rarely represented authentically.
How are audiences around the country reacting to the story?
A lot of people are shocked. Of course you’ll get the one or two percent who think it’s a little too graphic and the sex scene made them a little uncomfortable. And I say to them, ‘Good. You actually were forced to think about something and react – and maybe even check your own prejudices?’
That is the power of a film like “Gun Hill Road.”
Have you had responses from members of the transgender community?
Yeah, I have. And a lot of messages on my Facebook page. One person wrote that they had to look away from the screen various times because it was so dead-on to their experience that it brought back a lot of issues they faced in their own life.
“Gun Hill Road” is, after all, a family drama. Did you draw from your own family experience to play this role?
I’m not married. I just had my first child. My gal and I believe that we’re going to wait until society stops insisting that we get married. We’ll figure it out on our own. I just don’t want lawyers and judges involved in our relationship.
I’m very happy. My gal is from Brazil. She’s there now and I’ll be joining them in a few weeks, but I’m staying home to promote this little movie - that I believe has the power and the potential to not only save relationships, but lives, as well.
But, in taking this role, and being a father, did you imagine yourself with your daughter growing up and telling you she was transgender?
Yes, and it’s funny because when we were making the film, I didn’t know if she was going to be a girl. And I asked my gal at one point, ‘Honey, what would you do if our son turned out gay?’ And she paused for a bit and said, ‘Take him shopping?”
And I said, ‘Okay, cool.”
Being gay is not something you can smack out of your kid. That’s wrong. If your child is different in this way, it’s a blessing. It’s all how you choose to look at it.
It’s difficult to get some people to come see this movie, even within the Latino community. And I think on some level it embarrasses them, Latino males especially.
I want to say to them, ‘Come see the film. It can help give you the permission, the space, with which to love unconditionally, your different children.’
The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts offers academic scholarships to members of the Latino community to advance their presence in the media, telecommunications and entertainment industries. For more information go to: http://www.hispanicarts.org
“Gun Hill Road” opens in an exclusive Coachella Valley engagement on Friday, August 26 at the Cinemas Palme d’Or.
Meet Esai Morales in a special film screening and audience Q & A on Saturday. August 27 at 7:15pm.
Tickets are available at the box office, or by calling (760) 779 0430.