Ismael Cruz Córdova
Similar to his character Lino in Miss Bala,Ismael Cruz Córdova is an actor that is filled with range. From his days of competitive swimming at a NYU private prep school to his devotion to charity in Puerto Rico, the star of stage and screen is someone that puts passion and love into everything he touches. Ismael Cruz Córdova may be acting in a movie, or singing on stage, but he challenges every one of his crafts like a true artist. The Laterals asks a few questions, but Ismael poignantly reveals his soul and effortlessly conveys the things that drive him.
I look at your bio and think this person is an opportunist. He took his talents from swimming and went from public school to private school, and then took another opportunity into drama, and eventually winds up in NYU's acclaimed Tisch school. How much of this attitude is derived from your culture?
I’m a product of my culture, no doubt. I come from resilient people. Even through centuries of colonization, we’ve been able to hold on to our identity and make so much out of so little and become a force in global culture, especially in the arts. However, I think perhaps the main thing that made me seek opportunities and work hard and be prepared was the environment in which I grew up—a poor household, lacking many opportunities including education, and simultaneously just being “different.”
I was ostracized more often than not by one factor or another in a variety of environments. There were many odds against me, socially, financially, and the identity I was growing into. I learned very early on that no one was coming to save me, save us.
My mom imparted that to us, that we were on our own. Not in a pessimistic way, but in a way where we had to become proactive, resourceful, and strive to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, violence, teenage pregnancy, and voicelessness that had plagued and defined my family for so long.
She helped us understand that we were responsible of shifting the story of our family, and I took it upon myself to take it a step further and help shift the course of the communities I am part of and represent.
A working actor faces many challenges. What were some of yours when you started out?
When I started out as an actor, I was 15 years old. One of the first challenges I faced was the opposition of my family, and like many people they did not believe a creative enterprise is something legitimate or something that can be an actual job. So, I did everything in secrecy.
I would take 3 buses over 2 hours to go audition in secret, take classes, work. I had to, as a very young teen, have the resolve that this was what I was going to do. The little money I made I started saving, so that I could become financially independent once I left my home.
I was very resolute on this being the path I wanted to follow. The challenges just kept on coming through the years. Later when I finally made it to NYC and graduated from NYU, I couch-surfed for a bit over 5 years—a period where I was homeless and went from home to home, couch to couch, to try and build this dream from below the ground up.
Socially, I’ve also had to fight against the profiling that people of color receive when portrayed in the media, the roles that we are offered, the roles that we are considered appropriate to perform, and the spaces we are allowed or invited to join. The challenges continue, but that resourcefulness I’ve worked on since I was little, plus knowing my mission in this life, helps me keep navigating them.
What were some of the important lessons you gleaned when balancing school and your art?
Going to drama conservatory makes school and art very close to being the same thing. You’re getting your schooling, while exploring and growing as an artist. At the moment, I was going through some deep growth and change as a person, working many jobs to try and survive and eat, while going through some deep grief. I think the balance was allowing school, art, and life to continue flowing and informing each other.
I had to learn how to feel deeply and allow myself to have all my human issues and troubles and pain, while always keeping my artist side aware of it and having my artist side take note of it, so that I could create art from it. It’s a little bit twisted, but artists are consistently watching themselves live and feel—no matter how hard or painful what they’re going through is—but it’s what we do. We explore human behavior and complexity and ask a thousand questions and represent it from a million perspectives.
New York is incredibly diverse, but it also has a strong Puerto Rican community. Was is personal when President Trump responded so mockingly to Mayor Carmen Soto after hurricane Maria, and his stance on providing aid?
The people of Puerto Rico, we have rebuilt the island with our hands and through our own efforts. We are resilient, resourceful, smart, entrepreneurial, vivacious, creative, and hard working. We will continue to rebuild our island while remembering the thousands of brothers and sisters we lost. History will take care of the rest. But we will, as we have so far, take care of building our present and telling our story.
What were some of the things you did to help family and friends after hurricane Maria?
After hurricane Maria I visited the island to assist directly in the rebuilding efforts, helping friends and family clear rubble, delivering food and first-necessity supplies, lamps and all those other essential things that the people needed. However, I soon realized that I had another role in which I could be deeply impactful on a longer term basis as a public voice: to keep the conversation alive in the media, help bring awareness to the disaster and help fundraise through social media by becoming part of a network of artists in the Diaspora called Voices for Puerto Rico.
Miss Bala is a remake of a very popular Mexican film. Were there any concerns about paying homage to the original?
Miss Bala was made with the desire to reimagine more than a remake. The effort was to bring the movie to this day and age, create a more active and empowered central female figure while also reaching wider audiences. There are always direct comparisons, but our concern was mainly to be make a project that we were proud of. And, personally, I wanted to be as truthful and honest with my character as I could, to bring layers of humanity and complexity to a character that could be easily written off as a “villain,” the bad one; instead we see layers and complexities, that make the audience scratch their heads as to why they’re rooting for this guy. And while doing all this, we wanted to continue breaking barriers and making history by being a big studio production with 95% Latino cast and crew with two Latinx leads. It was a joy and a great responsibility that we accepted and carried with us every moment.
The movie is intense and fast-paced. What were some of the scenes that you really enjoyed?
I definitely enjoyed the action sequences, like the shoot-out between the DEA, local police, and Los Estrellas. But it was the slower paced scenes, the more intimate ones, the ones that carried tension and many layers of feeling and strategizing from both Lino and Gloria that I enjoyed most.
I appreciate when as an actor you can be still, or slower and more deliberate. When you can breathe into a scene, without words, you can share looks, glances, breaths, and communicate with the other that way. I think it allows the inner life of the characters to express itself, and in turn it allows the audience to connect with them and meet them get to know them and connect their own stories with those of the characters. That fusion is key for any movie or play.
Your character, Lino, starts off as cruel, but then there are some emotional scenes toward the middle. Did you enjoy playing a character that has a mercurial range?
I enjoy playing complex and deeply layered characters. I believe and know we are all more than just one thing—good or bad—we are all of it. It’s important to show that and allow people to understand humanity as an unfolding, living, breathing, evolving thing. It is not stagnant, and it never stops changing and transforming. So yes, I enjoyed crafting Lino to be so much more than meets the eye.
With the film based loosely on the Mexican drug cartel some of the scenes can be gruesome. Were there any scenes difficult to film?
The one that was most challenging was the one where I shoot a woman after finding out her betrayal. To me, it’s more challenging in the aspect of safety—gun safety on set—than the reality of the character. I’m very good at understanding the fictional world in which I’m working in, so I don’t get so affected by it really.
Your co-star, Gina Rodriguez is better none as a sweet-heart in Jane the Virgin, but she does a incredible transformation in the film. What was it like to act across from her?
It was a gift to be able to work with someone so strong, gracious, and giving as a person and an artist. She is the real deal. Every day she carried the responsibility of being a leading woman with grace, strength, and fearlessness. I was made better by working with her. Not one doubt about it.
Movies can be quite hectic. What are some thing you do during an intense filming period to help you relax and unwind?
While on set, everyone in the team is working under intensely stressful circumstances, long work periods, little rest, distance from their loved ones, etc. So, I try and bring some good vibes, so we can all loosen up together. I bring with me a good Bluetooth speaker, and I always make playlists. Especially at the hair and makeup trailer, more often than not there’ll be a passionate sing along or a dance party… often both.
Outside of acting, what are some of the crafts and hobbies that you enjoy?
I love music. I love to write songs and play with that world. Maybe one day I’ll put out a musical project. I also enjoy photography and dance, so you can find me working at those consistently as well. Arts in general keep me inspired and busy when I’m not acting. I’m also very active in terms of fitness. As an actor you have to take care of your body; it is your tool, and staying healthy and maintaining a proper fitness level helps in keeping a fine-tuned instrument and its expressiveness and ability to adapt to different physical challenges. It also just helps de-clutter the mind. Us artists we have a lot of that, mental clutter.
You have a terrific story about breaking into the silver screen. What are some tips you want to give to those that are entering the craft?
One that you hear often but needs to be repeated is that you must know that this is something you have to do. It is important, with anything in life really, that you feel passionate about it and that you can endure the sacrifice and the obstacles, challenges, trials, rejection and still be willing to keep going on because this is your thing. This journey is filled with rejection, and a thick skin is necessary. Discipline is of the utmost importance; without that your wick will burn quick. And kindness. At one point people will know you have the skill and talent of acting, but then what will make you be someone they want to hire? Being a good person, a team player, someone that’s reliable and that you can take with you abroad to some remote locations for months and months on end, someone you can count on, who will be always be ready to put their best effort to make this project a success. And keep those who've supported you from day-one close. Very close. And believe in your gut, follow your instincts, stay present, grateful , passionate, and move forward. Like a wise mad said, “One day. Haters gonna hate. So, you keep doing you.”
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