Jesse gets big: playing a gay cholo in Quinceanera, the summer's hottest gay movie, Jesse Garcia is on the path to stardom.
"It was like somehow Carmen Miranda had taken over Jesse's soul," recalls Wash Westmoreland, who cowrote and codirected Quinceanera with his real-life partner of 11 years, Grief director Richard Glatzer. (Their previous film collaboration was the gay cult fave The Fluffer.) "Jesse knows how to work it," confirms Glatzer. "I've worked with people who are straight but playing gay, and in subtle ways they always want to let you know they're straight. Jesse never had to say anything about his sexuality. I don't think the crew knew what he was, and he didn't care. Then he threw Meringue in there, and it was, like, 'Wow, this is a very liberated, fun guy.'"
And if Quinceanera's any indication, this liberated, fun guy can also break your heart. In the film, a contemporary kitchen-sink drama set in Los Angeles's rapidly gentrifying Echo Park neighborhood, Garcia plays a streetwise car-wash attendant named Carlos. When we meet him, Carlos has already been kicked out of his house for being gay and is living in a small guesthouse with his warm and wise great-granduncle Tomas (The Wild Bunch's Chalo Gonzalez). Complications ensue when Carlos's female cousin Magdalena (newcomer Emily Rios) moves in with the pair after becoming pregnant while planning her 15th birthday celebration, or quinceanera. And then there are the trio's new landlords, an upwardly mobile gay white couple (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood) who get Carlos liquored up at a house party and then put the moves on him.
"Carlos's story line is the nexus of looking at homophobia in the Latino community and racism in the white gay community," explains Westmoreland, who moved with Glatzer into the same Echo Park neighborhood five years ago. "When we first auditioned Jesse, we immediately saw this incredible vulnerability that was perfect for the part." They just had to rough him up a little. "We kind of created a veneer over the sensitive Jesse," says Westmoreland, "and made Carlos from that, with the gang clothes and tattoos and the shaved head."
The end result is a tender and indelible portrait of a young man trying to find himself in a rapidly changing world--and a career-launching performance for Garcia. "Jesse, as an actor, has so many emotional layers, and he's so ready to go to places and try things," says Glatzer. "He's almost a return to that kind of '50s innocence, like Brando and Dean, where you don't need to think of what you are sexually, you just go with it."
You sport a much rougher look as Carlos in Quinceanera. How did you get involved in the project?
I met the casting director in a workshop in Atlanta four years ago. I was online checking a couple of Web sites that I go to, saw that he was casting it, and I e-mailed him and said, "You gotta let me read for this!" The script had so much complexity and so many layers.
Have you played a gay part before?
Yes, but more comedy stuff. I'm actually trained in comedy, and I've always done sketch comedy and improv shows.
How did you prepare to play Carlos? Did you do much research into his world?
My main thing was knowing my lines and looking for different things in the relationships with all the characters. Some people would go and hang out with gay cholos and stuff like that. I talked to one guy about dialogue and getting the slang down, and then really just went with what I would do in that situation if I was this guy.
Carlos gets kicked out of his house for being gay. Have you met any Latinos that has happened to?
I've heard of stories where people get disowned and get kicked out of the family. It's hard to generalize but there is a sense of machismo there, so it can be a very taboo thing. But I've also known a lot of Latinos who are very open-minded.
What did you think the first time you saw the movie?
[Casting director] Jason Wood [who also appears in the movie as one half of the gay couple who seduce Carlos into a three-way] and I and my girlfriend were sitting in the back giggling through the whole movie, especially when our seduction scene came up. My girlfriend was hitting me, going, "Shut up." When I watched it again at Sundance, I cried in the parts you're supposed to cry, even in my scenes. I was getting all tearyeyed at myself. [Laughs]
What was it like to shoot that drunken seduction scene?
Well, I haven't drank in, like, six years, but it was cool because we had rehearsed it. Because I'm friends with Jason, we had to get our giggles out, but then we discovered a lot of things as we went, like subtle little looks.
What was it like working for two directors who also happen to be a couple?
They were always on the same page, and if they ever had an issue, they would discuss it first and then come to us. Never would one say one thing and the other say another.
The movie won the two top dramatic prizes at Sundance. What was that night like?
We knew we had a shot at the Audience Award, but when we got the Grand Jury Prize it was a shock. As soon as I saw [jury member] Miguel Arteta walk up to announce it, I thought, Holy shit, we won, because they're going to have a Latino announce a Latino film. So by the time he said, "Grand Jury Prize: Quinceanera," I already had my camera out; I was taking pictures.
What do you think the people in your hometown in Wyoming would think of the movie?
It's an interesting question. It's not that closed-minded of a town, but it is rural. I'd like to think they'd be open to it. They have a three-screen cinema there, and I'm trying to see if I can get a print and ask them to play it for a week. That'd be great.
What would they think of you being in The Advocate?
I don't know. I don't think anyone is even going to know. My real friends in Rawlins, they'd all think it's cool.
Did you know any gay people growing up?
No, but it wouldn't have mattered to me if I had gay friends. As a kid, I was very open. I was big into studying civil rights on my own. I remember reading books on abolitionists and Frederick Douglass and the Underground Railroad and being really pissed off at what went on.
Where did that sense of fairness come from, your family?
Maybe a bit. I grew up kind of religious, so maybe that has something to do with it.
I read you were raised as a Jehovah's Witness. Do you still practice?
No. I just kind of take things from different religions.
Did you celebrate your birthday growing up?
I didn't celebrate anything. The last birthday I remember, my aunt made me a Superman cake when I was, like, 4 or 5.
Did you ever feel cheated?
I didn't. I totally believed in it, and I used to do Bible talks and get up in front of the whole congregation. I still don't really celebrate anything, but if people want to throw parties and invite me over for Christmas dinner and stuff like that, I'm going to eat.
Were you living in Wyoming when Matthew Shepard was murdered?
Yes, I was in college. I just remember thinking, What the fuck, man? What was going through those kids' minds to do that to Matthew? It brought a lot of shame to this small town in Wyoming, causing it to seem like this hate town, which it's really not. There's racism and sexism and homophobia everywhere.
What do you hope people get out of Quinceanera?
I think it's a movie that after you walk out of the theater you feel satisfied [about it]. There's a lot of heavy shit in there, but you feel good when you walk out.
How would you describe this time in your life?
It's exciting and fun and strange and surreal, but it's what an actor dreams of. Opportunities for other movies and TV shows are there now that weren't there a year ago. I've met with almost everyone in town, and I feel like I'm getting to read for a wide variety of roles, not just Latino roles.
In the meantime, you've got Quinceanera promotion to keep you busy?
Yes. We're doing eight cities in 13 days. And I have two new pet dragons at home that I'm hoping to breed. But I'm not sure if they're male or female.
What if they're both male, and they're gay?
I'll be open to it. It's not an easy road, though. There's a lot of sexism in the bearded dragon world.
And not a lot of support. It's like, where's their pride parade?
There's got to be a down-low bearded dragon group somewhere. But hey, if that's the direction my dragons want to go, I'm not going to say, "No, you can't be gay." I just want them to be happy.
Hensley is the author of Screening Party (Alyson Books').
Photographed by Randee St. Nicholas for The Advocate