If there was some kind of Hollywood award for actors in cult classic films, Carlos Carrasco would have several on his mantle. From the iconic Buena Vista film Blood in Blood Out to the blockbuster Speed, Panamanian actor Carlos Carrasco has been delivering tour the force performances since his beginnings as a theater actor in New York. Take his role as the conniving Popeye in Blood In Blood Out to his role as Ortiz in Speed and you will find an actor whose range is unparalleled. We sat with the legendary actor in Los Angeles to discuss his latest ventures in La La Land.
CB: What is your greatest memory from working with Taylor Hackford in Blood in Blood
CC: Taylor provided a great object lesson in leadership: “If you lead, they will follow.” This crystallized for me on the very first day of shooting, which happened to be inside the walls of San Quentin prison, in the facility’s dining hall, surrounded by 500 plus real inmates recruited as “extras” at Taylor’s insistence and for whom the words “Quiet on the set!” seemed to translate into “Get louder!” All of us, cast and crew, had been prepped for weeks on the protocols of prison behavior, how not to talk to the convicts, how not to give them cigarettes, how to keep our distance. And now, at the hour of reckoning, all of that protocol was quickly disintegrating at an alarming rate. Here we were, all crammed together in this roiling mass of growling, heaving human flesh supposedly ready to “make art” and yet, as you looked around, imbued by the realization that there was no way to get this melee under control, you could
not help but see the glazed look on all of our team members’ faces that shouted “What the f..k have we gotten ourselves into?” I looked at Taylor, surveying the scene from an elevated platform; and he too seemed momentarily paralyzed by the impossibility of the task he had set before himself. And then his demeanor changed subtly, as if a mask had fallen into place, he threw his shoulders back and called out “Roll ‘em!” The cast and crew did as they were trained to do, cameras rolled, sound sped and the actors walked the walk. Somewhere along the middle of the scene (it was my big scene), the heaving monster began to settle, the 500 wild men started to listen; and by the time Taylor yelled “Cut!” on what was probably an unusable take, we were on our way to making a movie. It was an amazing display of “I am leaping off this cliff and I expect you to follow me.” I’ve never forgotten that, or hesitated to apply it to occasions in my own life. You must begin.
CB: Describe shooting conditions inside San Quentin Prison.
CC: Where to begin? First off, a tour of such a facility at a young age would probably go a long way toward dispelling the romance of living “on the wild side.” It is certainly not a place you would want to end up in. To me, one of the most striking realities of life within those walls was revealed on a first visit as we looked out over the vast central prison yard and saw the
self-segregation imposed by the different ethnic groups: all the white men clustered in one corner, working their weights; all of the blacks doing the same in another; and the Latinos holding court on their own. Curiously isolated in the middle of the yard was a ramshackle structure emitting thin wisps of smoke which we were informed had been set aside after a lawsuit as Native American sacred land. Needless to say these divisions inform daily life within the prison resulting in the inevitable gang affiliations, simply motivated by the need for self preservation. The reality of shooting inside a working prison was was highlighted on a couple of occasions by actual stabbings taking place in the yard, in both cases resulting in a complete lockdown and suspension of shooting. Even the great Taylor Hackford’s protestations of “We’re losing the light!” could not bypass regulations in those circumstances. “Sorry, Hollywood,” the warden said, “this is a working prison not a movie set.” On a lighter note, it took the 500 plus inmates selected as background players (after a proper screening to determine they were not likely to lapse into mass-murder mode) only a day or two to figure out that Hollywood-style catering was far more attractive than the bologna and apple in a paper bag lunches they were issued daily while the Hollywood crowd enjoyed steak and pasta. Having quickly sussed out the concept of “continuity,” they promptly threatened a strike which was swiftly remedied by the additional of an extra catering truck strictly for the inmates. And this is why budgets rise.
CB: Did you know at the time the film was going to become a cult classic?
CC: Not a cult classic necessarily. What we did think at the time was that we were blessedly involved in one of those watershed productions like “The Godfather” or “Platoon” which would launch multiple careers. Unfortunately, history overtook our production in the shape of the Rodney King riots, which threatened to burn L.A. to the ground. In the wake of such social upheaval, the studio became understandably wary of releasing such a potentially “incendiary” film, particularly as there had been scattered confrontations at test screenings; so the opening kept being postponed in spite of the marketing being out and the trailers running in theatres. In the end, someone decided that the solution was to change the title and the film was finally released as “Bound by Honor” with minimal rebranding. The result was that upon opening, it sank like a stone at the box office and those great career breakthroughs we were all expecting never materialized. It wasn’t until the video release, six months later, that the cult thing started to happen and slowly build. At first, I dismissed the recognition as a bittersweet remembrance of failure, but as time went by and the volume and enthusiasm of the fan base continued to grow, I came to realize that I had been blessed after all with an opportunity to speak for a proud and vital community that for so long had felt excluded from the broader cultural conversation.
CB: How did you prepare for the role of Popeye?
CC: Language. People find it hard to reconcile, as they so identify the actor with the role, but a great deal of my training and preparation was as a classical actor- as in Shakespeare, Moliére, Sheridan. I have, on occasion, been accused of “trying to sound white” and probably lost jobs because of it. Nevertheless, as a classical actor, you learn to approach a role by tackling the text first, analyzing its rhythms, cadences and imagery and experimenting with the sounds themselves and the physical responses they evoke in your being. To me, Popeye’s language was almost a foreign tongue- I don’t speak like that, I didn’t understand half of Jimmy Baca’s imagery- so it became a matter of internalizing that language and those sounds and trusting that what came out on the other end resonated as “true.”
CB: You started as theatre actor. How were you able to make the transition to film?
CC: With great difficulty. Though the organic process of arriving at a characterization remains the same in both mediums, the technical delivery of that characterization is radically different. After years in the theatre of being conditioned to “do it for the folks in the balcony seats,” it becomes very challenging when two feet away from a camera lens to undo all that muscle memory and trust that “the balcony seats” are indeed right in front of you. What you used to do with a broad arm gesture, you must now do with a shift in eyeline; what once worked by raising your voice now is more effective by going into a whisper. The inverse, of course, is also true for those that become established in film. I recently saw a very celebrated movie star address a classic role on Broadway surrounded by a top-notch ensemble of New York theatre veterans. Had I not known the play and the arc of the character, I would have been hard pressed to understand the performance as all of the acting choices were so infinitely subtle and precious that they simply did not “carry.”
CB: You were also in another iconic film, SPEED. Did you know at the time the movie was going to be the box office hit that it was?
CC: Yes. It was a rocky start at first, as a major rewrite during the second week of production distilled what had started as an ensemble piece into a star vehicle, but once the early footage started reaching the studio there were suddenly a lot more “suits” on the set every day and the buzz began. By the time principal photography wrapped, it was clear that something special had happened and the push was on.
CB: From all the actors in the “SPEED bus” who did you keep in touch with the most?
CC: Most of us have crossed paths now and again at events, auditions or just life. Some of us are Facebook friends and keep in touch that way. I see Danny (“Stop the bus!”) Villareal at Latino
CB: Who is Carlos Carrasco today? What are your goals as an actor, producer and now
director of the short ONE?
CC: Carlos Carrasco today is a failed retiree. After loudly proclaiming my retirement over four years ago, I currently find myself busier than ever. with directing, acting and producing projects. I guess my immediate goal is not to fall down in front of everybody, and I’ve even gone back into physical training to try to avoid that. What I like about producing and directing is the increased ability to tell the stories you want to or feel need telling. As an actor you are generally in the service of someone else’s story; and sometimes the two align but most times you’re just there as a hired gun with very little control over the ethos or messaging. I have
specific ideas about what a creative environment should be, what a collaborative work process should look like and what the function of the finished art should be in our cultural conversation. Our current short, “One”, for example tackles the ongoing crisis of black drivers shot at routine traffic stops. Our main characters are two young African-American guys, a white cop and a Latino “angel.” There are no villains in it. I won’t tell you the end, but hopefully it’s a piece that will spark some positive dialogue towards a solution.
CB: How was your experience working as a Klingon on Star Trek?
CC: Four hours going into makeup; another 90 minutes getting out. That’s over half of your day just sitting in the makeup chair. The makeup was so severe that hours of overtime were routinely added into the budget in order to protect the actors’ facial skin- better two long days in makeup shooting at marathon pace than four of putting it on and peeling it off. The first time I was cast was as a guest on Deep Space 9. I called my friend, Armin Shimmerman, who was a regular on the show and whom I had met doing “Richard II” at the Mark Taper Forum to ask him what the secret to Star Trek acting was and he said “You’ll be fine- just do what you did in Richard.” Once I found myself under layers and layers of makeup and hair, furs and high heels while expected to deliver high-flown, intricate language, I knew just what he meant. That was one time when all those years of bellowing iambic pentameter into the woods at an outdoor theatre in the Berkshires translated into good preparation.
CB: To date, what was your favorite role?
CC: Something in another box-office dud. Though I am not particularly known for comedy, I enjoy doing it a great deal. Some years ago, I had a one-scene role in a road comedy called “Double Take,” written by George Gallo, the author of the Robert De Niro/Charles Grodin classic “Midnight Run.” I played Capt. Garcia, a Mexican military officer who arrests the wrong guy
and has grand visions of collecting a huge reward and becoming famous. It was a deliciously ridiculous scene, and we all swung for the fences. To this day, I still shake my head when I see it- and then I crack up.
CB: Describe your current and future projects.
CC: In 2018 I have been blessed by three back to back acting offers, two of which will be taking me down to my native Panama with the third being shot back here in L.A. The first film, “Diablo Rojo PTY” or “Red Devil” is an action/horror/thriller about a small group of passengers trapped in a haunted bus hurtling through the Panamanian backwoods (Bus movies seem to be a recurring theme in my curriculum vitae).
The second “,Just Cause,” is about the 1989 U.S. Invasion of Panama to seize Noriega and the collateral damage it caused; and in August we will be shooting a light comedy called “Turnovers” about a group of misfits trying to make a go in the restaurant business. AND THEN, in the fall, I will be producing the fourth edition of Panafest, a film festival designed to cast a light on the emerging film industries in Panama, the Caribbean basin and Latin America in general. Last year we screened twenty eight films from over ten countries and had a blast. Come see us this year; I can probably get
you in. http://piffla.com/
Editor In Chief