Chicago native Freddy Rodriguez—familiar to audiences as Gio, the love interest of the lead character on TV's Ugly Betty and from playing a variety of film roles in Bottle Shock, Grindhouse, Bobby, Poseidon, and others—now stars in Nothing Like the Holidays, a warm holiday dramedy opening this Friday. The movie focuses on an extended Latino family returning to their parent's Humboldt Park home for what may be their last holiday together and stars John Leguizamo, Debra Messing, Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena. Rodriguez plays an emotionally scarred war vet who has just returned from Iraq. The movie, filmed entirely in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago, also features his debut as an executive producer. The 32-year-old, married father of two young sons chatted with Windy City Times during the city's first snowstorm of the season—the perfect time to talk about a holiday movie—just hours before the film's Chicago premiere.
Windy City Times: It's nice to tell you that I was in Humboldt Park just today.
Freddy Rodriguez: Oh, what were you doing there?
WCT: [ Laughs ] That's where I live.
FR: Okay. I'm sure you didn't live there in the '80s, when I frequented that area.
WCT: No, probably not such a good idea for a middle-aged gay man to hang out there in the '80s.
FR: [ Laughs loudly ] I think you're right.
WCT: Can you talk about that incredible cast that you assembled for the film?
FR: I feel so blessed to have gotten everybody that was in it. In Hollywood it's kind of like in real life. When you assemble good credit, which is done by the work that you choose and the quality of the work that you do, so when you call people like John Leguizamo or Debra Messing or Alfred Molina they go, "Oh Freddy? Oh yeah, sure, I'll come and play" because they trust you. They know you're going to bring the same quality that you have in your past work to the job you're doing now.
WCT: Now Debra Messing plays the outsider in the film, in a manner of speaking and, of course, because I'm a gay man I watch every movie from a queer perspective; I can't help it. [ Rodriguez laughs. ] I assume, as a Latino, you watch every movie from a Latino perspective?
WCT: So I'm wondering how the mother character who keeps nagging Debra all through the movie about having a baby would react to the news that one of the sons or daughters coming home for Christmas was gay? Would it have been World War III?
FR: You mean in Latin culture? It's hard to make a general statement …
WCT: From your perspective.
FR: I think so. I think the mentality toward that is so old-school and, especially when its first-generation Latinos, I think [ they ] would react the way you just described. I think second- and third-generation Latinos are more accustomed to that and would be more receptive to that information. I think it depends on the person or how Americanized they are.
WCT: I'm part of a gay couple living in Humboldt Park so I'm very much a part of the gentrification that's going on there. I'm just curious: Having come from Bucktown, a neighborhood similar to this one in Chicago, what are your thoughts on gentrification?
FR: Well, I think it's good and bad. I lived on the borderline of Bucktown and Humboldt Park since 1979-1980, and I've noticed that when the gentrification started happening is when the area really started to get cleaned up and become safer. The gentrification helped push the bad element out. So in that sense it's good. I feel like it's bad when the gentrification overpowers the area, especially an area that is labeled as "Little Puerto Rico" because, when that happens, the area loses its identification and it no longer is Little Puerto Rico. So as long as it's balanced, it's fine.
WCT: You play such a great diversity of roles—what draws you to a particular role? Is it that you want to just try everything?
FR: Yeah, I think wanting to be diverse is definitely a factor in my decision making but first and foremost, it needs to speak to my soul. There's something inside of me that needs to tell me, "Yeah, you can do something with this character" or, "This is a project you need to be a part of." If it doesn't speak to me then I can't do it because I will do an injustice to the character. As tempting as some of these roles are financially or just to be part of a cast that is of big notoriety, there's been times that I've passed just because I don't feel it.
WCT: I've got to ask you about Ugly Betty, which has a big gay following.
FR: I've been told that.
WCT: Any hints on the upcoming season? Will your character, Gio, be back?
FR: As far as I know, I'm not coming back but I was talking to someone on the show and he said, "Look, you didn't die so there's always a possibility that you'll come back" and I enjoyed myself very much on that show so we'll see what happens in the future.
WCT: This movie has to be like coming full-circle: You left here almost 15 years and now you're back as an executive producer, starring in a movie filmed in your hometown. How does it feel?
FR: It's surreal, to be honest with you. That's the word that pops in my mind. It's been a surreal experience and I don't think it's really hit me yet. Maybe after the premiere tonight and when the film comes out when I see people's reaction it will hit me. But it's been truly a surreal experience. It's the first time that I get to bring a movie back to the neighborhood that I frequented as a kid, to get to see people in these neighborhoods that I haven't seen in 20 years. I mean, it's the first time any of that has ever happened—that I've integrated my personal life with my business and it's been wonderful.