Talent Scout: ‘Filly Brown’ star Gina Rodriguez is the Puerto Rican Lauryn Hill
We’re down with Filly Brown.
You may remember the piece we did on Filly Brown, one of Sundance’s gems this year.
Directed by Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos (Edward James Olmos’ son), the film centers on a Los Angeles teen named Maria Jose “Majo” Tonorio who turns to the art of rap to cope and help her mother out of prison. Majo is played by Gina Rodriguez, a budding Puerto Rican actress who hails from Chicago.
Back at Sundance, we spoke to most of Filly Brown’s cast, which includes La diva de la banda Jenni Rivera (who plays Majo’s drug-addicted mother) and the seasoned Lou Diamond Phillips (who plays Majo’s father). Sadly, we missed Rodriguez after she was whisked away in a car, but luckily we recently got a chance to chat with her in time for Filly Brown’s opening night screening at the 13th Annual New York International Latino Film Festival (which runs until this coming Sunday).
Though she’s on the brink of stardom, Rodriguez has already secured a talent development deal with ABC and is set to star as a female boxer in an upcoming biopic by Michael D. Olmos. In short, she’s doing her thing and we’re totally rooting for her.
As for Filly Brown, Rodriguez’s background in spoken word and salsa dancing proved helpful for her role as Majo, but conquering the role of a rapper was a monster. The actress’ bubbliness radiated through the phone as she discussed the excitement of learning the hip-hop craft for her role, female rappers today, and (unfortunately) the stereotypical roles she has come across during her career so far.:
I’m a trained actress and it’s so important for me to give respect to each art form; the benefits of knowing the craft and paying homage to all those who worked so hard before you is so vital to me. For me, getting into hip-hop… it was like, come on girl? For one, I grew up in the hood in Chicago so hip-hop has been all over my life. I’d do my little beat box… it was definitely something I had been around before, but it was something I had never jumped into.
When they changed Filly Brown from a spoken word artist to a rapper, I thought, ‘Okay, if I’m going to do this, I gotta go in hard and authentic,’ so of course I listened to all the greats (Biggie Smalls, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Queen Latifah). For me, it was going back to the roots of hip-hop, that competitive mindset… I’m very noncompetitive so I had to take this persona that was so not like me. I also watched these amazing artists like Chingo Bling and Medicine Girl… all these underground Latino artists who have been doing this for years. It was about watching them and making sure that I saw their technique – close to the mic, away from the mic – some of them wanted the lights off, others on. I took their energy and advice and tried to find my own energy in a very small amount of time.
What is the hardest thing about rapping?
I’m a rapper now! [Laughs] I was really blessed; I think I’ve always had a mind for music because I was a salsa dancer for many years, so I have that rhythm and tone. It’s about finding that melody and voice. Besides the fact that I can do anything I put my mind to, this experience taught me that everybody can. We all have this bubbling beauty of art because our natural creator is an artist. We have it inside of us and it doesn’t matter if you’re the most technically trained singer or you have a crappy voice like me… it’s about believing in yourself.
What do you think is most appealing about female rappers?
What’s so crazy is this notion that females are sweet, delicate, and that men are stronger and hip-hop is about strength and competition and ‘I’m gonna smash you down!’ And the funny thing is, we carry babies. We go through labor, ‘Y’all don’t even know strength!’ To me, the appealing thing about women in hip-hop is that we’re defying this image of women. We’re strong, sexy, confident, and have just as much to say, if not more. I think the collaboration for me is finding my voice of being a delicate flower (which I am) and also letting them know I handle my business.
Have you thought about really pursuing hip-hop?
Absolutely. I can express myself in a new way now – a totally different way. Before I was able to only express myself through acting – now I can express myself through music. I bought a ukulele and a guitar – I do folk music now. I’m kind of a Puerto Rican folk singer… Ya’ll don’t even know! [Laughs]
Word? That’s great!
Yea, it’s a little Lauryn Hill action.
Who are some of your favorite female MCs?
I am a big fan of the old school work, like Salt n Peppa – they were just where it was at for me. I like Iggy Azalea – she’s super dope. I’m also digging Azealia Banks [who’s currently on the cover of Vibe with Diplo].
As an actress, have you ever come across roles that felt like the Latina stereotype to you?
Oh yes, for sure. In between Sundance and this last movie that I did, there were a lot. I’m trying to make my name known and let them know what I’m about… but when you choose those roles like ‘Stripper with a heart of gold’ and ‘Third chola to the left’… those roles are not going to break barriers. Those are not going to further anything but my checkbook. To spend on what? That’s not why I do this. I’ve been eating Ramen my whole life – I can keep doing that. Coming off a movie like Filly Brown (which is very much anti-stereotype) how do you say no? You say no because you want to keep your integrity. I’ve had to say no a lot in these past few months and its not like ‘No, I’m too good for that’ – it’s more like, ‘There’s definitely a girl who wants that role’… and honestly and morally, I don’t. I can’t.
Check out the trailer for Filly Brown below: