Staying humble in Humboldt Park (and Hollywood)

Freddy Rodriguez broke out of his neighborhood and went on to Emmy-nominated success. But when an even bigger opportunity struck, he brought the cameras back home.
LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD Native Chicagoan Freddy Rodriguez, producer and actor for Nothing Like the Holidays, has a good head on his shoulders, despite Hollywood success.
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Freddy Rodriguez has spent his 15-year acting career dealing with copious numbers of dead people, whether battling zombies in Grindhouse (2007), prepping corpses on Six Feet Under or holding a dying Bobby Kennedy in Bobby (2006). But with his new movie, Nothing Like the Holidays—which depicts the misadventures of a Latino family reuniting for Christmas—he’s dealing with a much more upbeat story line and, thankfully, lots more living, breathing humans.

Holidays marks a big step up the Hollywood ladder for Rodriguez, an Emmy nominee for his role as Federico Diaz—the restorative artist and eventual funeral home co-owner on Six Feet Under—who is making his debut as an executive producer on this project. Featuring an impressive cast, including Alfred Molina (Frida), John Leguizamo, Debra Messing and Jay Hernandez (Crazy/Beautiful, Hostel), the film was not only a chance for the Chicago native to positively portray successful Latinos, it also offered the opportunity to film primarily in his near Northwest Side stomping grounds. While cameras and movie stars no longer turn heads in the Loop, bringing a full-fledged film production into the working-class immigrant neighborhood of Humboldt Park (for three months during this year’s bone-chilling winter, no less) marked a special occasion.

“People were thrilled to see us,” Rodriguez says. “People would walk up to me who I hadn’t seen since 20 years ago in grammar school.”

Rodriguez teamed up on the production of Holidays with fellow Chicago filmmakers Bob Teitel and George Tillman Jr., who have a history of bringing films back home (Soul Food, the Barbershop films). He credits their expertise with film budgets and casting for making the production come together affordably and creatively. He’s also thankful they’d established a precedent for shooting in ethnically authentic Chicago neighborhoods.

Chicago has changed plenty since Rodriguez, 33, first took to the stage at the age of 13. While speaking about his upbringing in a Puerto Rican Catholic family, he breaks into an incredulous smile recalling how much areas like Lincoln Park and Bucktown have changed from the rough-and-tumble minority neighborhoods of his youth into the largely Caucasian yuppie enclaves they are today.

“I love my family…but I can’t imagine bringing my kids up in the same kind of streets that I had to walk,” he says. “Those areas were rough, man!”

Nonetheless, when he was 13, a theater troupe came to his school, offering acting classes and the chance to perform in plays. Rodriguez decided to audition for the yearlong opportunity to test his wings as a performer—but mostly to skip out on a math test.

He aced the audition and became a frequent star of school plays at Lincoln Park High School, showing enough star power to land a local agent and a role in major Hollywood movies—the Keanu Reeves romance A Walk in the Clouds (1995) and the heist thriller Dead Presidents (1995)—at age 19, just a year after graduation. It was a decidedly different path than the job/marriage/house-in-the-neighborhood life his immigrant factory-worker parents expected for him.

Freddy Rodriguez, John Leguizamo and Vanessa Ferlito in Nothing Like the Holidays
SIBLING REVELRY Freddy Rodriguez, from left, John Leguizamo and Vanessa Ferlito take a break from the usual family holiday madness.

“They didn’t really get it at first. I have a brother in real estate, and they understood that more. When you’re an immigrant and your kid does something creative…they don’t really relax and appreciate it until they see you on the screen, having some rewards for it,” he explains, stroking his goatee and chuckling. “Now they can tell it’s a real career, thankfully.”

Unlike most other young actors who arrive in Hollywood, Rodriguez already had buzz attached to his name when he moved to L.A. at age 20. Still, he never embraced the city’s party scene.

“I married my high-school sweetheart, and that keeps you out of trouble,” Rodriguez says of his wife of 13 years, Elsie, an interior designer with whom he has two sons—Giancarlo, 14, and Elijah, 10. “I didn’t go out and rage in my 20s because I had the responsibility of a home life. I’m happy it kept me grounded, but having a life in Chicago, too, is what has really helped me keep my sanity. You can have real conversations here about something other than show business, and people don’t want something out of you constantly. That, and the food is real and a lot better here.”

To that end, Rodriguez bought a Gold Coast condo two years ago. He and his family come back for most of each summer, spending their days on Oak Street and North Avenue beaches.

“I love the weather in L.A., but that’s nothing in comparison to the food and lifestyle in Chicago. I need to see my Cubs, get my batteries recharged and have lots of pizza at Father & Son or Giordano’s,” he says. “The one place I have to tell everyone about is Rumba [351 W Hubbard St, 312-222-0770], because it’ll remind you of 1930s Havana or 1940s Puerto Rico, and the food and service is amazing. Live bands play there every night while you eat, and the food will blow your mind.”

Ultimately, he says it’s his down-home attitude combined with his Christian faith that have helped him weather the storms of his career—he admits he wishes he could drop “30 percent” of his films from his résumé.

“Weekends are key…I try to take time between projects to be around my family as much as possible and make up for being away on a set or location,” he explains. “But most of all, we have great summers in Chicago. I go to the beach every day with the kids, ride bikes along the shore.”

It’s that family spirit he feels will make Nothing Like the Holidays resonate with viewers beyond the Latino community.

“When’s the last time you saw a film with a mostly Latino cast that really carried over to everyone and became a hit all could relate to?” he asks, adding you’d have to go back to the mid-’90s Latino film explosion that spawned Selena and Desperado to find that kind of crossover appeal. “We wanted to show that [Latino] families are like everyone else’s. You laugh, you cry, you fight and make up. But in the end we stick together and form the rock on which a good life is built.”

Nothing Like the Holidays opens December 12.

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