“Collisions” star Jesse Garcia: Deportation family stories have “always been relevant”

“If people of color want their story to be told, they need to put in the work and produce their own material.”

Published October 3, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)

"Collisions" (Fuse TV)
"Collisions" (Fuse TV)

Jesse Garcia, best known from the Sundance darling “Quinceañera,” exudes charisma starring as a reluctant caretaker in the film “Collisions,” which airs on FUSE TV Saturday, Oct. 5 at 9 pm ET. This timely melodrama concerns the impact of deportation on a Latino family.

Garcia, who also produced the film, stars as Evencio, the estranged uncle of 12-year-old Itan (Izabella Alvarez) and her younger brother Neto (Jason Garcia, Jr.). When their mother Yoana (Ana de la Reguera) is detained by ICE, Evencio, a trucker, helps his niece and nephew try to locate their mom.

“Collisions,” written and directed by Richard Levien, opens with a statistic that “every four minutes a U.S. citizen child is separated from a parent by deportation.” The film also features a Mexican proverb about being born either “under a lucky star,” or “into collisions.” Both messages ring true over the course of the film.

Evencio is hardly fit to take care of the kids. He drinks, smokes, curses, and generally does not put the children’s needs first. (One dramatic moment has Neto wandering off unsupervised). In fact, Evencio only agrees to help Itan after she offers him money. But “Collisions” allows the themes of immigration, being undocumented, and deportation come across clearly. Itan tracks her mother’s progress through the system on her cell phone, while Evancio, Itan, and Neto encounter roadblocks trying to find Yoana. The film also emphasizes the idea of having one foot in the homeland and one foot in the new land, searching for a better life.

Garcia’s canny performance grounds the film. He gives a relaxed portrayal of a man who is both jaded and resigned towards a system that is designed to oppress him. He has a marvelous rapport with Garcia, Jr. as Neto and some nice conflicts with the feisty Alvarez.

In a recent phone interview, the actor/producer spoke with Salon about “Collisions,” his experiences as a Latino actor, and the importance of creating his own opportunities.

This film is your first full producer credit after you executive produced “Hostile Border.” What motivated you to produce this film?

There are a couple reasons why I came on to produce this. When Richard [Levien] first reached out to my manager to see what my interest was, I read the script and said I like what’s here and would love to have a conversation with Richard about it. He got to me because [producer] Vincent Cortez was a fan of mine and he thought I could be a good fit for this. I talked to Richard, and from the “Quinceañera” days, I’ve grown a lot as an artist, a filmmaker, a director, and producer. I’m a lot pickier about what I want to do.

The character I got to play here was different. I asked, "How much collaboration are you willing to have?" Some directors are set on their words or have firm visions. He was open to all ideas. If I’m going to do a smaller movie, then I want to say what I find is dishonest and collaborate on it. And he was down for that. He was sitting on the script for six years. I said, "There were key moments that I’d like to show you. There are honesty points in here that need to be addressed because people in the Latino community will be on you because you’re a white man telling an immigrant story. You have Latino producers, but as a white helmer, you’re going to get shit." He was sensitive to that. I told him about a scene, and he was writing things down and wanted to make sure the story was told right and as honestly as we could within a budget and the means to tell the story. We figured things out. I wanted to be an actor-producer, not just to get more money, or back points. I wanted to be able to give him notes on set and do a refresher of the script—which was what we shot. The actors all had their notes; it was a collaborative process. That was the reason why we did it. It was small budget, and we shot in San Francisco and the Bay Area. We got a lot done for very, very, very little money. It came from a lot of heart and grassroots.

Can you talk about the appeal of making a topical movie like “Collisions,” and the opportunity to move audiences and possibly change minds?

I personally didn’t have an agenda. I wanted to tell a story about family, and love, and connection, prejudices, and things that will move people. There are issues in the story that people will tell me are so relevant, but for the time I’ve been doing movies of this kind, this issue has always been relevant. There are issues of immigration reform, deportation, and separation of families. I won’t get into the politics of it, but I wanted to tell a story of this family so people were affected emotionally. It will raise awareness, but it will be a catalyst for conversation, regardless of the political climate.

The situation for undocumented families is explained well here, in how the process (sometimes) works. Can you talk about your knowledge and experience with this system?

My dad came from Mexico and he was deported once or twice when he was young. And he’s had to cross back and forth a couple times. He’s used a coyote, so it has affected my family. He’s a citizen now, but there was some fear. My parents wanted us to be aware that things could happen, and that my dad, his brothers, and sisters did cross. "Don’t get in trouble, don’t get pulled over," they’d tell us. I knew there was anxiety and fear around that but in my adult life, I have been harassed by police, and discriminated against, and had people throw their keys at me to park their cars. I know the system, and I read things, but I don’t let it consume my life. There are these problems, but what is the solution? We need to know how to solve things.

You were born in America. What is your family background? Do you have one foot in the new land/one foot in the old land like the kids in “Collisions”?

It’s an interesting topic for me. Even though my dad is from Mexico and both my parents speak Spanish, my sister and I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. There are theories why. They wanted us to assimilate, and we wanted to blend in on our own because we were picked on growing up and in school. So, I grew up without Mexican culture. But it’s always been there. I rebelled against Spanish movies and music. I have a deep profound appreciation for it now, but I didn’t start learning to love my culture until 2003-2004 when I did “Walkout” with Edward James Olmos. I learned about the movements and the walkouts and how kids are being treated and discriminated against and how it affects families and kids and cops beating them. That’s when I started learning about my culture. I grew up without my Mexican culture. Both of my feet were firmly planted in Wyoming. That’s all I knew.

How did you research the role of playing Evencio? Do you drink, smoke, and curse like a truck driver? Did you learn how to drive an 18-wheeler, and sleep in a cab, dodging lots of lizards?

All of those things! [Laughs] I don’t smoke or drink. I stopped drinking 19 years ago because I don’t like it. My dad and sister are both truck drivers, but I’ve never been in the truck with them. The drama is happening to the kids and Ana’s character [Yoana]. That was the allure. I wanted to play it where I can be kind of an asshole and drink and smoke and have no responsibilities. other than myself and be funny and dismissive because the drama isn’t happening to Evencio until late in the film when the relationships change. For me, it was just having fun. Evencio didn’t not like the kids—they were just inconvenient. They disrupted his routine.

Evencio sings and dances to Mexican music. Are you a good singer or dancer?

[Laughs.] I think you see in the movie, that’s about my range. I’d love to take lessons and learn how to do it. I did have a test for “Coco,” the animated movie that Gael Garcia Bernal ended up getting. They said I wasn’t a bad singer, I just don’t know how. I’d like to take lessons, but I like to have fun with it.

What observations do you have about being a Latino actor? You work regularly, but it seems to me that your best film roles are in indie productions and you work largely on TV and make shorts. Can you talk about the struggles and achievements you’ve had in the industry? You seem to be positioned as a character actor. But I like seeing you steal scenes in films.

I feel like I am a character actor. I’m the hybrid of a leading guy—but I tend to do character-y things. I like to do that. It’s fun, and interesting. Most big movie stars are character actors. Javier Bardem—anything he does, I wish I could do that. Weird shit that I can produce and direct so I don’t have to wait for opportunities from other people. My journey’s interesting. I moved to LA in December 2003. The second I landed I was doing online casting, student films, and auditioning for as much as I can. When I booked “Quniceañera,” it was from meeting Jason Wood, who did a casting workshop in Atlanta. But that was after a year of being in LA. It went to Sundance and started my career. I don’t have the TV face—not super angular, actor/model looking. I’m a different breed. The Latino stuff is interesting—the inner conversations of my friends…. They cast so and so—light-skin Latinos who pass as white to fill a quota. But I am not that person. I’m in a middle zone where you can’t figure out what I am.

You have to create your own opportunities…

I’m always shooting shorts. I grab my camera and shoot something. It will be cool or interesting or weird. When I hear new actors are struggling, I ask them: What are you writing/producing? You have to be writing producing your own material at all times. I refused to keep waiting for people to give me an opportunity. My manager and agents work super hard, but some films I’ve gotten are through friends, referrals, and folks who know my work. “Under the Same Moon,” I got from my lawyer, who said I should meet Patricia [Riggen, the director]. I flew myself to Mexico to be in it. I’m happy to pay for my ticket to work on a cool film. Being proactive and creating my own opportunities—I’m always trying to work when there’s downtime.

There are too few Hollywood films that represent Latinos. Most of the work is independently made…

I’ve said it before, Latinos can be their own worst enemy. There are so many different cultures, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvador, Dominican, etc. They are so proud of their own culture—they see a Mexican film and say they can’t relate to that. If you build an empire one brick at a time, you need to support each brick. The cultures don’t support each other.

I went to a blockbuster [film] with a buddy. There was a black guy who was a janitor, a Latino gardener, and an Indian doctor. I asked my friend, "Do you think that’s a fair representation of the people in that metropolitan region?" He said, "No." And I said, “Why don’t you think you noticed that?” We’re not represented. If people of color want their story to be told, they need to put in the work and produce their own material. Otherwise you can’t complain. If you’re bitching about problems and not being a part of the solution, I don’t hear you.

Were you, like the Mexican proverb says, born under a lucky star, or into collision?

[Laughs.] To me, I’m not sure if collision to me feels like a struggle. I’m a little combo of both. The struggle to me, I have no problem with. The stuff I’ve gotten in my life is opportunity meets preparation. I’m blessed. I have a cool house in Austin I enjoy, and a career some may say is successful. There are times when it’s soul crushing. In 2010-2013, I was couch surfing and had no money. Me and my dog were housesitting for free and I’d Air B&B my apartment to pay my rent. I didn’t work for two and a half years after “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.” But right now, I’m at where actors want what I have. So, I’m very grateful for my opportunities. But I want to direct my own stories and TV shows, and organize a team of my friends to work and grow and make money and effect change. It’s a grind. But you have to keep going at it. There are things I still want to accomplish. I’m still in the game. 

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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