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Dare to Dream: An Interview with Gina Rodriguez
5/2/13 at 10:50 PM ET - exclusive interview by Dante


Gina Rodriguez interview

"Dream Big" is the opening song of Filly Brown, the new movie about a young woman focused on family and dreams of making it big in Hip Hop.  But the song's title can just as easily apply to the life and career of actress Gina Rodriguez, star of the film.


Rodriguez, a native of Chicago, honed her acting and spoken word skills in New York.  Only a few years after relocating to Los Angeles, she landed the lead role in Filly Brown, and found herself working with film and music veterans Edward James Olmos, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Jenni Rivera.


Gina immersed herself in the world of writing and recording rap, working with a variety of established Hip Hop artists to add authenticity to her performance. The actress took time to speak with us about her preparation for the film and her keys to success in our latest interview. How did you get involved with Filly Brown?


I did this movie called Go For It. I shot it half in Chicago, half in Los Angeles. I play like an off the wall comedic crazy character that's Puerto Rican. And a really dope friend of mine Jesse Garcia, amazing actor, he had seen the movie at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. He had worked with my two directors prior to watching the movie. He also knew Filly Brown was in the works with them, they were trying to find their filly Brown. He brought me to their attention. Next thing I knew, I was in the audition, auditioning for them. 


At first Filly Brown was a spoken word artist, which I had done spoken word prior back in New York City.  I was like dope. I read the script, I loved the script. I love the fact that it was a Latino telling it. I loved that it had music in it, and that she was fierce, and she was ferocious.  I was very excited about the project, but I was definitely excited that it was a spoken word artist. I went into the audition, they said "alright, so it's going to be a rapper now." Oh, alright... Well okay, I've never done that before. Really I hit like a crossroad. I think we all hit these points, all the time, every day in our lives. Yeah, I'm an actor, I'm not a musician. So... Duh....  Or you say, alright, I can do this, I can learn. I am a human being that's capable of learning. God gave me strength and the ability of art, and I'm going to learn.


So I went in with that mentality. I went and auditioned for them. I did like a spoken word piece, and they asked me if I had anything else. I was like, yeah, I wanna freestyle for you. I had no idea what I was doing at that point. I was like oh my goodness, what are you doing, you're putting your foot in your mouth. But really, my pops always said you've got to take a leap of faith, and God will either provide a parachute or teach you how to fly. And one of those two went down, because the next day they brought me in. They said 'Edward James Olmos saw your tape, and he said you've finally found your Filly.' I was like (speaking in sassy voice) 'you betta shut your mouth, I am gonna slap you right across...' No, I'm kidding.


(Both Laugh)


When somebody says that about Edward James Olmos saying that about you, you're like, alright, I've made it. I've arrived. I'm done, I don't even need to do this. From that moment on, I gave all my time and effort and devoted to being the best musician I could possibly be. To authenticate the role, and to give homage to the Hip Hop culture, one that I definitely was raised on coming from the inner city of Chicago. The rest is history. Is that what they say? That's what they say, right? (laughs).


So who wrote the lyrics to the songs used in Filly Brown?


There's a lot of different... Did you get to see the film yet?


I watched it before it hit theaters.


So you know that it goes through transitions, she goes through transitions. We ended up taking music from a lot of different people, there were a lot of people working on this project.  I went into the studio four days after booking the movie, and I was in the studio about a month laying down six songs.


The Filly Brown song you hear three times that transforms was written by the amazing female rapper Diamonique. They had already found this song before I came on board. They put me in touch with a few different other rappers so that I could not only watch them write the songs, the way they wrote the songs, how they spit in the studio. So I can actually learn at the same time. I watched these different artists like a hawk. I had Medicine Girl, Slow Pain, Chingo Bling, Baby Bash, DJ Dominator, Lala Romero, Diamonique, Chino Brown.


All these different underground Latino artists around me, showing me what they knew best. The beautiful thing is that a lot of them worked on the movie, so I was able to do it right back at them via acting. I started writing about three weeks into the movie. The song you hear with "Yo soy Latina, that's a beautiful hue" which is almost like spoken word rapping it, that was written by the director. That was kind of the base of his script. That rhyme was where he started.


Which director, Youssef Delara or Michael Olmos?


Youssef Delara, the writer. I started writing three weeks in. I was around that music for almost two months. I was in the studio for eight to ten hours a day, every day, five days a week. If I wasn't watching somebody, I was doing it myself. If I wasn't watching someone write, I was in there trying to write myself. Trying to figure out what this form of art was about. We're all artists.  God made us all artists, we're all creative. I think that art scares a lot of people, because we get judged. Art is subjective, everybody believes something different, everybody holds a different feeling.


Three weeks in, I was on set, and was like 'man, this is crazy.' There's Jenni Rivera right there, Lou Diamond Phillips, there's Edward James Olmos. This is out of control, man. (recites lyrics) 'I dream big, everyday life's a memory, I wish you could see what I see, I could be whatever I want to be.'  This is coming from a poor girl from Chicago. I didn't grow up with money. I definitely didn't grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I wish I had a trust fund, because that would make acting a lot easier (laughs). That was my reality. I grew up with two hardworking parents, blue collar workers that worked every day of their life to make sure we had the best education possible, so that we did not struggle. You know?


Here I am on set, I'm living my dream.  I worked hard to get this place, I've been working at it many many years, I look a lot younger than I am. I write this down, and I'm like, I'm gonna write my own rap. I'm gonna rap. I'm gonna write it. I can do this. I started working with B Millz, that's my love interest [in the movie], that's his studio.  Just do some solo stuff, on our one day off. We had only Sundays off. Go in there and just rap, play, pretend. I wrote Dream Big, the opening song to the movie, with B Millz on a Sunday working together. We ended up recording it, loving it, gave it to the producers, and they ended up using it as the opening song in the movie. That's my prize possession, my love, my baby, that song. Because it's the only one I actually got to contribute to the movie, at least lyrically.


You worked with Diamonique from Inland Empire. I've known her for maybe 10 years, terrific voice and great artist.


Love her. Love her! Ahhhh! What I discovered was in the Hip Hop game, we all know it's about competition. It's like 'yo, I'm so much better than you because of so and so, woo woo woo, I got more money than you.' But I now do my own rap, I don't want to rap about that.  I want to go old school like Will Smith did, where little kids can rap along with me. I'm saying empowering words, and uplifting people. That's the kind of stuff I want to rap about. That's what Dream Big is about.


One thing I realized in the game, people are so competitive, almost so competitive they don't want to share their voice. The one thing I think I admire the most about Diamonique is that she shared her voice. Not only her voice but she shared her lyrics, she shared her talent, she shared her experience with me. And I will forever thank and appreciate Diamonique for doing that.


Because as a female in the game, there's only a few of us. We've got to uplift each other, we can't tear each other down. Diamonique is just that, she lifts the people around her, she doesn't tear them down. That to me is an even more responsible artist. That to me is an even more admirable artist, and I love that woman. She gave me a gift, dude. And I can never repay her for it.


It shows in the music. I understand that Silent Giant actually has you doing live shows?


Yeah, they had me do live shows to really get me in the groove. Right before we left to Sundance, I had performed in Tulsa, Okahoma and Midland, Texas. I got to actually open for Bun B from UGK. Which was outrageous because I love Bun B. It's so sad, I can never remember his partner's name that passed away.


Pimp C from UGK.


There you go. I love UGK. Even though they're lyrics are like, whoah, I love their voices, their sound was so smooth like butter.


So do you perform as Filly Brown or as Gina Rodriguez?


I've been performing prior to the movie release as Filly Brown. But now that the movie is releasing, as much as I love that name and have been rapping with that name for so long, it's sad to have to get let go. It's the same thing that happened with Filly. It's the trajectory, you have to let things pass to go into new chapters of your life. I'm sad 'cause now that the movie is out, I don't own the name anymore. It's owned by so many others outside of my control. So I'm going to start rapping as Gina Rodriguez, or I guess I'm going to have to come up with my own name, right? (laughs)


We'll come up with something clever.


That's what I'm talking about. Hey, if you've got any ideas, throw them this way (laughs).


So you've been in the arts for a long time, but you've also been Salsa dancing since you were seven years old.


Yeah, dude. I started as a Salsa dancer. I would go every year to the Puerto Rican Day Parade with my parents, mad pride. I must have been five or six years old, I saw these little girls dancing on stage, they had their little dresses. I was definitely a tomboy growing up. They were so beautiful, they looked like little dolls. They were dancing, their smiles were so bright.


I was looking through the audience. I don't know if you've ever been to a Puerto Rican Day Parade, or any parade for that matter Latino, we come out in force. I'm looking out into all these people. I'm seeing them smiling, and laughing and dancing with each other. Kissing, holding each other, looking at their child, dancing with each other, re-falling in love. I was like, mommy I want to do that. She was like, you want to do what? I want to dance. Puerto Ricans, in all of our Christmas parties and all of reunions, obviously there's nothing but Salsa and Merengue going on.


But I was like, I want to be on stage, I want to make people laugh and cry. I want them to hug and kiss because of whatever feeling they're getting right now. 'Cause I was getting this feeling, I don't know what it is, but it's making me excited. It's making me strong and powerful, it's empowering me. I want to do that. I want to give that to the people. I want to look into a crowd and see people smiling, and laughing, and crying. So my mom was like alright, no harm no foul. And of course there was so much pride, they're like 'my little girl dances Salsa!'


I was about 17 years old before I graduated high school, and I traveled all over the country, and to Puerto Rico, the islands.  To dance Salsa with a company called Soneros del Swing. And from that moment on when I had this opportunity, it led me to acting. I realized that I love to create stories. And then I realized, well now I can create stories with my voice. I can tell stories, I just don't have to put them through my body. And so then acting was the next approach for me.


I went to NYU Tisch School of the Arts for Theater, to study, to get trained. It's so important in this industry to have a foundation of education and training. And to respect the art. It's like a doctor, 'Nah I didn't actually feel like going to medical school because I'm beautiful, I'm just going to be a doctor.'  No no no, you're not going to use that scalpel. You know what I'm saying? I think that the same respect for acting needs to be held. At least for me it needs to be held, to pay homage to all the people that have performed, learned so many different techniques, and have learned how to be true storytellers. 


So from there, from the acting I continued to hustle and grind. I moved to L.A. four years ago. When Filly Brown came in front of me, my pops was like 'take a leap of faith, God will either provide a parachute or teach you how to fly.'  What I realized is that it's another form I can tell stories, another way. Melodically with my voice and my body coming together, I think it's just a combination of what God has set me up for, and I feel so blessed for that.


Do you have any advice for Latino aspiring actors?


Get an education. Whatever that may be. Whether it's the best school you can afford, or it's community college, or it's the theater in your neighborhood. Learn the art, learn the business, because then nobody can take that away from you.


The industry is very difficult, and if you're coming into the industry for money, then I would turn around and be a lawyer. Because money is not guaranteed, and even when it comes, it can go away the next minute.  What you need to do is you need follow your heart, and you need to follow your purpose in life, and if that's art, you're doing it because of that.


So get a good foundation of training, get a good foundation of education. Because when you aren't booking a job, or you aren't acting, nobody can take away your talent. Nobody. They can take away your money, they can take away your house, they can take away your friends. They cannot take away your talent. Really what that boils down to in my opinion is they cannot take away your character. God gave it to you, so fight for what you believe in, don't give up. Anytime you fail, get up and brush off your knees and keep trying. If you do right by the Lord, you are bound to see success. You are BOUND to see success. And trust me, if I can do it, you can do it ten times better.


Gina Rodriguez official website:

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