ABC's 'American Crime' Created by '12 Years a Slave' Oscar Winner John Ridley to Star 'McFarland, USA's' Johnny Ortiz (EXCLUSIVE)
It's been a pivotal year for 18-year-old actor Johnny Ortiz, who has landed roles in ABC's "American Crime," created and executive produced by Oscar winner John Ridley ("12 Years a Slave") as well as Disney's "McFarland, USA" alongside Kevin Costner and Carlos Pratts, among others.
Ortiz is a part of what he calls an "acting bubble" of young, aspiring Latino actors in the Santa Monica, California area where he met and became close friends with Golden Globe-winning actress Gina Rodriguez, who stars on "Jane The Virgin."
"We were so excited for her. It was a great show and she won a Golden Globe, and not only that when she went up there, she owned that speech, saying: 'this represents more than me, it represents my culture' -- that was a beautiful thing," he told Latin Post in an exclusive interview.
Ortiz, an American of Guatemalan and Mexican descent, hopes that actors like Rodriguez and himself will help change the landscape for Latinos on TV and film.
ABC's "American Crime"
In "American Crime," which will premiere on March 5 in the post-"Scandal" timeslot, Ortiz plays the central role of Tony Gutiérrez, an impressionable teen who got in way over his head even under the watchful eye of his dedicated and hardworking dad Alonzo Gutiérrez, played by Benito Martinez ("The Shield").
"I play Tony Gutiérrez, a young kid who's growing up in a single-family home. It's about how he makes a bad decision, and with that bad decision how it leads to his arrest. He's the suspect of a crime," he explained. "My character goes through a lot of growth. It's about faith, the human spirit and family."
Dubbed a "gritty drama," "American Crime" also stars Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning Felicity Huffman ("Desperate Housewives") and Oscar winner Timothy Hutton ("Leverage"). The show tells "the story of a young couple in Modesto, California, who were attacked in their home. The case sends shock waves into the community stirring up tensions across racial lines."
The truth is that Ortiz experienced his own, real-life version of "American Crime" on the streets, but luckily his love of acting got him off of the streets and away from gang life.
"I was an ex-gang member and I didn't know how life was going to treat me. ... My mom always put me in smart schools, but I was always ditching class and I was hanging out with thugs, so I can relate to the character being in and out of jail," he explained. "I said: 'What am I am doing with my life? I can do something better.' So I started taking theater classes, which was an opportunity that I took from Career Day in middle school."
With the help of a life coach at school and an agent, Ortiz is back on track, landing acting gigs and he pays it forward through the Boys & Girls Club of America, CASA and The Los Angeles Mission.
"I am blessed that God gave me this life" he said. "I used to live a whole different life. I tell everybody that you can do anything in life just put your mind and your heart into to, you can do it. Sky's the limit."
While both "American Crime" and "McFarland, USA" address racial tension in their respective ways, Ortiz is thrilled with the execution of both the film and the new ABC pilot and is learning from the experienced talent that surrounds him on set.
"American Crime" deals with a lot of race and different ethnicities where it brings them together and shows the human side. The show is not about undocumented people. ... It deals with race and the human side and why do they do it (pre-judge or dislike in the first place)."
Does it touch upon racial profiling?
"It actually touches the base of that, of how people go through trouble because of what skin color they have. ... It's every important to John Ridley to show something that is real and not fake. Tony Gutiérrez has his papers, so he doesn't deal with that but it (the show) does deal with that topic of race and how Latinos get treated. It shows that background."
"American Crime" is unlike shows like "Criminal Minds" or "True Detective," where the point of view comes from the detectives, or from profiling criminals and their behavior, Ortiz pointed out.
What was it like working with Oscar winner Ridley?
"It's been great, I love the way that he directs. He has directed four or five scripts. ... It was fun experience working with him. He's very smooth and he's knows what he wants, and most importantly he's bringing reality to ABC."
"What I like about him is he is very kind and sweet," he added. Ridley made sure to take care of his cast and crew by paying for catering and massages on set right from his own pocket, Ortiz pointed out. "We had a great experience on set. We filmed in Austin, Texas for four months."
Based on the 1987 true story, "McFarland, USA" follows novice runners from McFarland, an economically challenged town in California's farm-rich Central Valley, as they give their all to build a cross-country team under the direction of Coach Jim White (Costner), a newcomer to their predominantly Latino high school, according to the film's official website.
Coach White recognizes the McFarland students' "exceptional running ability" as he gets to know them personally. Then it becomes clear that the power goes beyond their physical talent, but it stems from their strong family bonds, their "unwavering commitment" to each other and their amazing work ethic. With hard work and determination, the students overcome the odds and evolve into a championship cross-country team who leave behind an enduring legacy and a new take on the ever-evolving American dream.
"My character is Jose Cardenas. He is the poorest and shyest kid," he explained. "It takes place in the '80s and I had to wear a wig for four months. We also had to train, run cross-country and eat healthy."
While Ortiz loves sports -- from soccer to boxing and breakdancing, he still suffered from shin splints and had to learn the discipline of a runner as well as the correct form.
The cast of "McFarland, USA" also had the opportunity to meet the real-life runners on which the film is based. They were "super-excited and stoked" about the film, Ortiz added. Unfortunately, Ortiz's character is in the military and was serving at the time so they were unable to meet.
"It's such a great story, I look forward to seeing it with everybody," he said.
In honor of the runners and the people of McFarland, California, a greatly-needed playground will be donated to the town to benefit the community.
"There was a population of 3,000 back in the '80s. Everybody knew everybody," he said. "Now it's grown and there's a lot of farm-working there and there are kids who need help," Ortiz explained.
Colombian superstar Juanes wrote an original song titled "Juntos (Together)" for the film, which he will perform at the Grammys on Sunday. Juanes traveled to McFarland to film the music video, where he received a huge welcome. He also joined the McFarland community's festive Holiday Parade and followed up with an impromptu concert for the fans.
"That's great, it's exciting. We couldn't ask for more!" he said of Juanes' Grammy performance. "Juanes is a great guy. ... Having someone like him make such a powerful song for 'McFarland USA,' showing us his love and support has been great."
What does Ortiz want people to take away from "McFarland, USA?"
"I think they are going to take away what real life is ... I hope that more movies come out like this, like 'Spare Parts,' (starring George Lopez) and not only that, but that life is a struggle and what people go through that isn't always seen."
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