Wednesday, May 14, 2008

HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS SPENT THEIR SUMMERThe Evening Class Interview With Elizabeth Peña

Narratives about Chicana agency are something of a genre all on their own, presaged by the literary work of such distinctive authors as Ana Castillo, Denise Chavez, Julia Alvarez, among many others. Often in their stories the men are handsome and virile. They inspire and frustrate desire all in one fell swoop. But it's through frustrated desire that these women relinquish the confinement of their socially-sanctioned romantic illusions to discover their own embodied realities. Georgina Garcia Riedel's debut feature How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer (2005) affectionately revolves around this theme and—comparable to such cinematic predecessors as Real Women Have Curves—articulates self-empowerment intergenerationally through the shared experience of three Mexican American women, namely the Garcia "girls"—a grandmother (Doña Genoveva—Lucy Gallardo), a mother (Lolita—Elizabeth Peña), a daughter (Blanca—America Ferrera). All three negotiate their desires as they "grapple with romantic drought" over the course of a long, hot, dusty summer in an Arizona border town; a town where "you can't fart without everyone smelling it."

Notable for its calmly observed moments of Chicana sensibility—what cultural critic Amalia Mesa-Bains might describe as the aesthetic of domesticana—I have to take some issue with Dennis Harvey's otherwise fair, favorable, though qualified review for Variety. He caught the film at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and complained that it "linger[ed] on domestic-life details beyond the requirement of insight or entertainment value." I couldn't disagree more, especially within the awareness of domesticana, which celebrates the persevering strength of the quotidian in the lives of Chicana women. Watching Doña Genoveva daydreaming while she sorts her frijoles harkens back memories of my mother's and my grandmother's kitchens. But along with the taken-for-granted maintenance of the everyday, the Garcia "girls" likewise articulate some remarkably brave moments of female sexuality: not only is the white-haired Doña Genoveva shown naked taking a bubble bath but her frustration in the face of her burgeoning desire is poignantly revealed and—with considerable grace and tact—Riedel develops her liaison with her gardener Don Pedro (Jorge Cevera, Jr.). Likewise, Peña pleasures herself with a vibrator whose batteries are frantically borrowed from the TV's remote control and Ferrera celebrates the arrival of her period; rejoicing when blood shows up on her panties. In an industry all too quick to pronounce each and every virtue of flexed virility, I find Riedel's exhaltation of the feminine admirably compensatory. Which is not to say Garcia Girls is simply a feminist tract; it's pervasive humanism discounts such a reduction.

Despite its favorable festival reviews, however, Garcia Girls floundered finding distribution until Maya Releasing accepted the challenge and picked it up. I've got my eye on Maya Releasing. They're a Latino-run distribution company focused specifically on the growing U.S. Latino market. Along with the nationwide release of Garcia Girls this month and August Evening in August, they've just picked up SFIFF51 favorite Sleep Dealer for early next year. The company owns a multiplex in Salinas, and is developing others in Bakersfield and Santa Fe, N.M. My thanks to Sonia Rosario, Vice President of Marketing at Maya Releasing, and Susan Steeno of L.A.'s GS Entertainment Marketing Group for arranging time for me to talk with Elizabeth Peña whose performance as Lolita in Garcia Girls "expertly glides … from emotional shutdown to oft-hilarious expressions of embarrassed erotic disarray" (Harvey, Variety).

Peña started her film career in 1979 with El Super, right after graduating from the High School of the Performing Arts in Manhattan. Her big break came as the maid-turned-revolutionary in Down and Out In Beverly Hills. Since then she has appeared in numerous films including La Bamba, Lone Star (for which she won the 1997 Independent Spirit for Best Supporting Female), Jacob's Ladder, Transamerica, Tortilla Soup, D-Wars; the list goes on and on and—thankfully!—continues to the present day.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Elizabeth, let me get my fanboy stuff out of the way—you have been one of my favorite actresses for years!

Elizabeth Peña: Thank you!

Guillén: As a Chicano, you remind me so much of my sister and—as I've watched your roles over the years—you've reflected so much of what she's expressed to me of her own life experience and it's great to see it interpreted on the big screen.

Peña: That's awesome! Thank you so much.

Guillén: This particular project—How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer—intrigues me because of its belated distribution. It's been a few years since it was actually filmed?

Peña: We shot it in 2005, took it to the Sundance Film Festival where it was very well received, took it to a bunch of festivals where it was well received, but could not find a distributor. Part of the problem with finding a distributor was because they had no idea how to sell this movie.

Guillén: I'm excited that Maya Releasing has accepted that challenge and picked it up because they have some strong ideas about how to get these stories out to the public that wants to see them.

Peña: Yes, I'm so excited. It's a horrible thing when you shoot a film with your heart and soul and nobody sees it. What's the point of making a movie if nobody sees it, y'know?

Guillén: How do you feel as an actor when a film's been delayed for so long? I was noticing at IMdb that—since you filmed Garcia Girls—you've gone on to do 18 other film and television projects!

Peña: Yeah, I've been lucky; but, Garcia Girls has stayed with me; with all of us who participated in the movie. The biggest heartache would have been for a talent like Georgina Garcia Riedel [to go unnoticed]. Her first movie is so friggin' awesome and it's such a personal piece! For me, the joy is having—I hope!—everyone love it so that Georgina can keep on doing her wonderful thing.

Guillén: How did you become involved with Georgina and the Garcia Girls project?

Peña: I was shooting another movie at the time. At the same time I was prepping a film that I wanted to direct. She sent the script to my manager and my manager sent me the script. I loved it; but, I told Georgina over the phone, "I love it but I don't think it's humanly possible for me to do it." Then my movie got delayed by six months and I wrapped the other movie and Georgina—to her credit—she's incredibly stubborn that woman! [Laughs.] She's hard-headed. She kept calling until I said, "I'm available and I'll do it." That's the way we got there.

Guillén: So what was it about the character of Lolita that you wanted to embody?

Peña: What originally lured me to the project wasn't the character of Lolita itself; it was the fact that Georgina had three completely different generations of women. They're Chicana women, which makes it a little bit more poignant because of the Catholic in-bred thing in our DNA. Even if you're not a practicing Catholic, it somehow stays in there. In American cinema and in television for that matter—with the possible exception of Desperate Housewives—women over, literally, 35 are non-sexual, except for getting raped or beaten. They don't write roles for women that express and explore older women's sexuality and I found [Georgina's script] so fantastic; to have a 70-year-old woman have sex, y'know? I loved the character of Lolita obviously, I loved her on the page; but—once I started to embody her—it was rough because she's such a frustrated lonely person that it was quite challenging to play that consistently. I actually started grinding my teeth again when I started shooting that movie.

Guillén: You did a great job. My colleague Dennis Harvey described your performance in his Variety review as "expertly gliding from emotional shutdown to an often hilarious expression of embarrassed erotic disarray."

Peña: Oh wow! I never even read that. Awesome!

Guillén: Which is to say that your comic timing is accomplished, tender and human. Did you train in comedy?

Peña: I trained as an actress so that covers everything from the classics to Greek tragedy to comedy to slapstick to contemporary to theatre of the absurd. I started my training very early in life and covered all of that. One of the things that a lot of young actors don't do today is to hone their craft. They want to be movie stars. But for me, if you love something so much, you should just do that. Do it even if you don't get paid for it. Then find somebody to pay for it.

Guillén: There were three moments in Garcia Girls that amazed me for their bravery. First, Lucy in the bathtub naked.

Peña: Isn't she awesome?

Guillén: She's absolutely awesome and clearly fearless. Second, America when she's checking her panties to see if she's had her period. And third, you pleasuring yourself, which—to add to my amazement—was the image of you used on the original movie poster. These are amazingly brave feminine statements in a film.

Peña: [Laughs.] I was excited to do something like that. We all were.

Guillén: Are you familiar with the work of Amalia Mesa-Bains?

Peña: No.

Guillén: Amalia is a cultural critic who writes a lot about Chicano/a and Latino/a issues and she's coined a term domesticana, which is an aesthetic based upon the everyday artistry expressed domestically by Chicanas and Latinas. In my opinion, How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer inflects that aesthetic spirit of domesticana; the script captures that spirit so masterfully.

Peña: That's Georgina, man, she rocks!

Guillén: My understanding is you're actually Latina, Cuban-American?

Peña: Yes.

Guillén: Do you find your experience as a Latina is in any way differentiated from the experience of a Chicana? You've played several Chicana roles.

Peña: I've actually played so many Mexicans in general that Cubans don't believe I'm Cuban! [Laughs.] A woman is a woman is a woman, regardless; but, obviously your culture infuses how you behave. In playing people of a different culture, I've discovered there are so many different types. The woman living on the border in Lone Star is a completely different type of woman than the woman who lives on the border in Arizona, down to their behavior and how they wear their make-up. And those two are completely different than Rosie in La Bamba. I'm completely fascinated by the Mexican culture in general; it's got so much going for it.

Guillén: Another aspect that intrigues me is that in all three of those roles, you're playing partially-assimilated Mexican women, which strikes me as parallel to the processes of womanhood in general adjusting to masculine culture. It's like you've expressing two negotiations at once. Is that something you're conscious of when you're creating these characters?

Peña: I try not to intellectualize too much. If I were to do that, then I can't act. What I try and do is find the soul of the character, what's making them beat, what their beat is, do my homework, and then just prepare to be in the moment. I may have planned something in my head last night when I was doing my homework for the scene and then I get to the set and the director asks me to do the scene juggling bananas on a bicycle. I have to be able to retain my homework but react to what's actually happening around me.

Guillén: Can you speak to what it was like reacting to Lucy and America?

Peña: Oh God, it was great! It was really smooth. I didn't know either one of them personally, we met, and it was amazingly fluid. We're three completely different people in real life, in our backgrounds and everything, but somehow our chemistry together was fluid and terrific.

Guillén: Will the three of you be doing any promotional work with the theatrical distribution of the film?

Peña: This is what I've been doing. I haven't stopped talking in four days! [Laughs.]

Guillén: That's excellent. I was so pleased you were still willing to talk about the movie after all this time. That speaks to your commitment to the project.

Peña: Thank you. Y'know, when you do a film, you've pretty much committed to it whether you like it or not; the film is forever. If you believe something is worthy—well, I wouldn't do a project if I didn't think it was worthy. I'm stupid like that. I could be rich by now….

Guillén: Do you have daughters?

Peña: I have an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son.

Guillén: Have your children seen any of your work?

Peña: The most enthusiastic they've ever been about my work was twice: first, when my daughter was five years old, we were walking through a mall and—this doesn't happen very often—but that particular day about five or six people from different places kept coming up to meet me and get my autograph. My daughter took a long pause after the fifth person and looked at me and said, "Mommy, who are you?" [Laughs.] Then, the film that made me a star in the house was doing the voice work for The Incredibles. I could have won 18 Oscars and for them just been Mom. But for The Incredibles?!! Forget about it, it was embarrassing, when the movie came out I couldn't walk with my children without them screaming to total strangers, "This is my Mom! She's the voice of Mirage in The Incredibles!"

Guillén: That's really sweet. What are you working on now?

Peña: I just wrapped Humboldt Park about two months ago. The script is awesome and the cast is amazing. That's with the wonderful Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodríguez and Debra Messing. That's going to be coming out on Thanksgiving of this year. I've got another movie called Love Comes Lately, which is a German and American co-production with Barbara Hershey and Rhea Perlman. That one's coming out in October. And there's another movie that I actually did two years ago ironically called Adrift in Manhattan and I was just told three days ago that it's got distribution and that will be coming out sometime in late October.

Guillén: I'm delighted that you continue to do such fine work collaborating with such distinguished acting ensembles and especially want to thank you for taking the time today to talk about Garcia Girls. It's been such a pleasure to chat with you.

Peña: And you! You're a delight. Thank you.

05/17/08 UPDATE: Via Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily, Nick Dawson interviews Georgina Garcia Riedel for Filmmaker Magazine and Joe Leydon reviews Garcia Girls for the Houston Chronicle. Leydon writes: "With equal measures of discretion and honesty, Riedel directly addresses the sensuality of all three women, achieving an almost startling sense of intimacy in scenes that range from mesmerizingly intense and gently comical. Very gently comical."

Cross-published on Twitch.


Anonymous said...

I'm sooo jealous. I even watched every episode of "Shannon's Deal" because of Elizabeth Pena.

Michael Guillen said...

Heh. I am totally nuts about the sweet rasp in her voice.

Carlos Reyes said...

She is lovely, and she reminds me of a sister I have as well.y

muneca55 said...

so happy this movie finnaly come out, because it was filmed in my hometown.

Bob Turnbull said...

Oh that voice...It's all kinds of sultry.

What Peter said. Terribly, terribly jealous. I remember watching some of Shannon's Deal as well simply because of her.

I'm glad she's finding so much work. I'm going to make a concerted effort to see Garcia Girls.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for your comments, all.

I hope people do see the film. Like most first features, it has its learning flaws; but, Reidel's talent is promising and I hope her work is encouraged.

Doll, that is so cool that the movie was filmed in your hometown. Did you get to watch any of the shooting?

As for Elizabeth, you should have seen me when they offered me the interview! I didn't know what to do with my hands! Heh.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Michael! Aaaagggh! This was a great interview. Ms. Pena has long been a favorite of mine as well, but I don't know if I would have been able to get the fanboy stuff out of the way! I once saw her in a Japanese restaurant near my wife's parents' house, and I was so flummoxed that I couldn't bring myself to even say hello. You've made up for that and more for me with this wonderful interview. I just saw the movie last night and she brought her usual A-game to it. I saw Joe Dante's The Second Civil War on the big screen last month too, so it's been a pretty good year for seeing Elizabeth Pena on the big screen for me so far. I hope the momentum continues. She's wonderful. Thanks for this terrific interview!

Michael Guillen said...

Dennis, how great of you to stop by. Thanks! Now that you've read the interview, I'm sure you're kicking yourself for not going over and saying hello. She's an accessible artist appreciative of her fanbase.

How are things in your neck of the woods?