Remaining compassionate at certain life-changing situations is a big challenge and not that many films have succeeded in teaching us to deal with that. Often it does not even matter how incredibly tragic and heartbroken the situation is – being in that kind of state of mind and remaining cool and calm seems almost impossible. Only those, who have kept the ability to think clearly and soberly during a family tragedy, are capable of maintaining compassion. “Frontera” certainly is one of those films that make us think; learn to be kind and helpful in the times, when we expect it the least from ourselves.
We got the opportunity to speak with actress Michelle Rios, who plays the role of Flora, an undercover hero and a sheriffs assistant, who helps Roy (Ed Harris) to solve puzzles of the story.
Apart from her acting career, Michelle Rios is a writer and singer, who has performed throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe in countless theatrical, operatic and concert venues and along with talking about her experiences on “Frontera” we got to explore many aspects of the life and career of this multi-faceted performer.
MMM: Thank you for taking your time to talk to me about “Frontera”. How did it happen that you ended up playing Flora?
Michelle Rios: I had worked with the director Michael Berry at the public theater in New York City. Believe it or not, Michael is also a singer (Michael and his wife are music theater performers at Broadway), and we had done a musical together. So, we were doing reading of the show called ‘Giant’ by Broadway composer Michael John LaChiusa. During the rehearsal Michael Berry came up to me and said that he was writing a screenplay with Louis Moulinet (a real good friend of mine), and there was a role in it and whenever writing it – he was thinking about me. I said – ‘Oh, really?’ You know, people say a thing and you say that’s great. He also said that it would be great if down of the line things move forward and if I could read it. I replied saying – “Sure, keep me posted”; and of course, I moved forward with my life. All of a sudden I got a phone call from Michael saying: “Hey, Michelle, it’s me Michael Berry, do you remember me?” I answered that of course I did. So he told me about the screenplay he was writing a while back and the role of Flora. He wanted me to read for it, as they were seeing people then and he wanted the producers to see me. So I thought – “Oh My God!” I was in the middle to finishing my master degree and I had to put myself on tape within a week. Soon he called me again offering the role, as they thought I was perfect for it. It was interesting, because when I read Flora, I told to myself that she was a very interesting character – a behind-scene, quiet type. But as a Mexican-American woman, she plays a big part in helping to solve big puzzles. And of course to work with Ed Harris on daily basis was really great. I think both – Michael and Louis, as well as the producers just believed in me.
MMM: You share screen with Eva Longoria and Michael Peña. Michael is a wonderful actor. And I’ve never seen Eva Longoria playing like she did in “Frontera”. How was it working with them?
Michelle Rios: Michael Peña is a very organic actor and I consider myself in that same lace. The interrogation scene that I had with him was great. I really like working with a partner through the scene. We improved into that scene a lot. The camera was rolling and we just kept having conversation. A lot of those scenes of course had written dialogues, but a lot of it was really coming from a place of establishing relationship. That’s how Michael works – from inside out.
Working with Eva it was a little bit different. I did some work with her: it was not in the same conversational way, but more of establishing relationship. Eva has a very bubbly personality and a very social person. Meanwhile, Michael Peña sometimes can be like a big kid and working with him is really enjoyable. He is so focused, grounded and consistent. I could say the same about Aden Young, who played the sheriff. He is such a constant actor and such a fun, down road guy. I think Michael Berry wanted us to bring in authenticity – he wanted people to be real.
MMM: You said that you found Flora’s character very interesting when you read the script. What about the entire story of “Frontera”? What was your first impression?
Michelle Rios: I am very much involved in works which have political and social relevance and I consider myself really lucky about it. I got my MFA in Community base theater practice, which is theater for social change. I believe that art should have a strong message, allow the audiences to be educated about particular issues that are happening. What really attracted me in “Frontera” is that both Louis and Michael wrote the story based on the two different viewpoints about the border. You get a white American man’s perspective and you get Louis Mexican-American perspective: both of them grew up in Arizona. Louis, particularly, lived on a border. He knew what it was back in a day when there weren’t wall surrounding people. He recalled the times when it was not a big issue to cross the border, play baseball and then cross the border again to get home. So films like this allow people to sit back and think. After the L.A. premiere of the film, people were leaving the theater saying: “Wow, I did not know that was a case”. The film has huge impact; people can get educated or search on the internet to find out what’s happening, to get a sense of reality, because a lot of it can’t be seen in mainstream news. Meanwhile, it is very difficult in Mexico right now and people cross the border in a hope to find a better life. This is why I am so proud of being part of this film. The story is a very human, it does not go deeply into political aspect, but let’s one think about it, maybe provokes people to read more about border politics, conflicts and corruption – issues that a lot people in the United States chose not to talk about. People would think that Mexicans are coming to take their jobs, but that’s not a case and there is much more to it. Ed Harris’s character mirrors such a highly conservative republican viewpoint, while towards the end he realizes that Miguel (Michael Peña) is just trying to make a better life for himself, his wife and daughter.
MMM: I would also like to ask you to talk about the scene with Paulina (Eva Langoria). On her way to cross the border illegally she was beaten and violated. It seemed that Flora was so angry seeing Paulina in that heartbroken condition, that once she got a chance, she brings Paulina to the police department where her husband was held in custody. Flora was quite brave that time, when she literally threw Paulina into the bar, where her husband was.
Michelle Rios: I saw Flora as a person, who realized that they are part of who she was. Because Flora is Mexican-American and she thought that was what she had to do. We need more people like Flora to create chances and just act. I believe, that was a moment to explore justice, because this man was accused in a crime he did not commit. So at that moment I felt it really empowering to be able to portray someone who could step into that role. And it makes me wonder how many people have been able to do what Flora did given such an opportunity. The film explored it in a very emotional way. When you play a detective or police officer, you cannot get too emotional. Michael kept telling me to keep it very professional, as my character knew she was traumatized and she saw people like that on daily basis, which made sense. It’s almost like you meet a social worker – they always keep it on a professional level. And I could see Flora that way. So when Eva Longoria’s character came to me out of women prison, Flora did feel compassion, but at the same time there is a nurturing. And when all these thoughts were circling in my head, at that particular moment I found my character.
MMM: The nightmare for the protagonists – Roy, Paulina and Miguel starts because a few young men wanted to play a guardian of the US border and test their shooting skills, and also worth to mention about the parents, who leave the gun in a place accessible for kids.
Michelle Rios: Louis mentioned that to me too. And it’s really sad that kids sometimes do this kind of things just for fun or score: “Let’s shoot Mexicans today”. Again, it is a horrible reflection of what society has done to some of these kids. When you think about it politically, in the United States it is to divide what’s happening between Republicans and Democrats. It is just black-and-white: you have got the conservatives and the liberals. There are many other issues in the United States apart from immigration reforms. A lot kids grow up believing that Mexicans or African American are bad people, still thinking back before civil rights moments. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of racism and discrimination.
MMM: Michelle, you are a singer and an actress. You have performed in countless theatrical, operatic and concert venues. How do you find time and energy to do all of these?
Michelle Rios: Wow. Lately, I’ve been teaching Scene study at Concordia University, directed a production and also did a musical this summer. I’ve gotten better in saying ‘no’ to some offers and ‘yes’ to some others. So I don’t agree to do everything. Sometimes you get to a point in your life, when need to find a moment of stillness. I do projects that really move me, that I believe need to be done – mostly then tend to be of political nature or social relevance. I’ve worked in various theaters as means of conflict resolution, used theater as a means of adequacy with First National youth, worked with LGBT queues to tell their stories. For me music and theater are means of healing and in the meantime doing projects to educate and allow people to think about those provoking works. I like exploring music from different cultures and finding common threads. I believe that music can be powerful to tell the stories and I always find time to do what sparkles in my interest and moves me.
MMM: You have shared stage with the tenor Placido Domingo and worked with Marc Antony. Can you tell a little bit about your collaboration with them?
Michelle Rios: I was in opera with Placido Domingo in Washington D.C. and it was many years ago. It was called Goya – about the Spanish painter. It was interesting to work with Maestro Domingo. I was in the ensemble and it was wonderful to be a part of it – to watch his work, to hear his voice on a daily basis. That was very exciting. As to Marc Anthony, we worked together in a musical called “The Capeman” on Broadway. Paul Simon wrote it. I had extreme real pleasure working with Paul Simon and Mark Anthony. Mark played my brother – Salvador Agron. The story was based on a real story that happens back in 1959 where Salvador was the youngest person sentenced to electric chair, though the sentence was not executed. He was an immigrant kid in New York, discriminated for being Puerto Rican, who got into trouble in a big fight and ended up killing two white youths. It’s really an engaging story. Paul Simon was so intrigued by it, that he created the musical.
MMM: Any future film plans or are you going to get back to stage?
Michelle Rios: I would love to do another film. To me “Frontera” was a huge highlight, because of the people I worked with: particularly – Ed Harris. He has always been one of my favorites and to be in the same project with him was just wonderful: such a lovely man! Getting back to the films, I would love to do something important and special. I’ve been in touch with Louis and with a young actor Michael Ray Escamilla, who played Jose in “Frontera”. Since me and Michael did theater years ago, we are thinking about the possibility of doing something together. I’ve written a few scripts, so let’s see what happens.
MMM. And back to “Frontera” – how would you define the film in a few words?
Michelle Rios: I would describe it as a story about humanity and compassion set on the U.S. – Mexican border. It explores border corruption as well as how two different sides are affected by the tragedy and how we all are somewhat connected. Good and bad exist on both sides. For example, in the film Coyote – a Mexican-American man, was a really bad guy, while Julio Cedillo, who played the role, is such a sweet man. “Frontera” is about humanity and how we should remain compassionate and empathetic where people are coming from, and having real understanding of their situation instead of taking one of the sides.