Miami-Bred Actor Roberto Sanchez Returns to Little Havana for MIFFecito: "It's Surreal"

Roberto Sanchez in a still from Lake Los Angeles.
Roberto Sanchez in a still from Lake Los Angeles.

Though actor Roberto "Sanz" Sanchez lives in Los Angeles, he has a strong attachment to Miami. He grew up in Little Havana, after immigrating at 3 years old from Cuba to meet his mother in 1969. Tower Theater takes up a big part of his childhood memories in the neighborhood. Now that movie house will host a major film in his acting career during the Miami International Film Festival's mid-season mini-film festival MIFFecito.

In Lake Los Angeles, a film by L.A.-based indie director Mike Ott, Sanchez stars alongside a 10-year-old girl played by Johanna Trujillo. The two portray distinctively different immigrants who connect on a slight but sublime level. Exquisitely shot and patiently paced, the film stands as one the more soul-stirring selections of the the mini film festival. It marks a rare lead performance for Sanchez, who is mostly known for his work as a character actor on film and TV. Sanchez says he's extremely proud of this film, whose subtle drama belies a profound link between these two characters.

Sanchez spoke with Cultist via phone ahead of his visit to present the film next weekend.

See also: MIFF Director Jaie Laplante Talks MIFFecito Lineup at Tower Theater

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New Times: Were you born or raised in Miami?

Roberto Sanchez: I was raised in Miami, and when I was 19 I went into the military (U.S. Navy), and then I was gone for many years. I had started modeling and doing commercials. I went back to Miami in 2001, and while I was there -- I was there about a year -- I booked my first film, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and then, boom, that got me out to L.A.

So you are coming to Miami for this screening. Do you visit Miami often?

Sure, sure. I got my whole family over there. It's just -- for work purposes -- L.A. is the place to be right now. But I try to go at least two or three times a year, to go back to Miami.

Growing up as a kid in Miami, you must have some nostalgic memories of the city. What's Miami mean to you?

It's just so many things, man. Aside from it being my home, I guess it's the timing of everything. The fact that I got a film that's going to screen there that's very close to my heart, and it's going to be screened at the Tower Theater, which is a theater I used to go to as a kid to watch karate movies, and I've heard over the years that they renovated it, and now it's reopened, and it looks beautiful. And the fact that I can go back home and show my own film, it's surreal, man. It's like a homecoming of sorts for me, so I'm hyped. I'm totally excited.

This movie is actually the third in a trilogy. Do you play the lead in the other two films as well?

There are three films, there's also Littlerock and Pear Blossom Hwy. It's interesting, it's the same character, but yet it's not. It's Mike's way of kinda fuckin' with your head, man. For the first two I have much smaller roles, but for this one here, he kinda wanted to focus a little more on my character and the little girl played by Johanna.

I'm sorry I haven't seen the other films. I'll probably go back and look for them. So who does Francisco come out being then?

(Laughs) That's tough, man. That's a tough one. I think in this film, really, you get to see who Francisco is. The first time that you see him, he's working as a cook in a kitchen, so sure, it's me. I go by the same name, Francisco, but it's almost as if Francisco exists in a parallel universe in that it doesn't necessarily tie in with the Francisco we saw in the second and third, but yet it's the same person, so it's one of those weird dynamics; it's kind of an alternative reality type of Francisco.

If he doesn't really connect these three films, what connects them?

I think you can make the connection that it's people who are searching for a better tomorrow, better opportunities, maybe even to find themselves. There is one thing that links all three -- especially with the first and the third one -- it's almost like this person is in this foreign land and how he copes in trying to find the American dream...if that even exists.

 

How did you get involved with these films and Mike Ott?

Through a regular audition. The first one was Littlerock. I went in, I met him. It was a general audition, but I just fell in love with the direction. The type of film that he was making was something that I had never done before, very artsy, very lost in translation type of film, and I just fell in love with his vision. So we did a short film version of that, and when I saw it, I just fell in love with it, man....When I saw it, I said, "Dude, I don't care what you do, man, from now on. I don't care if you do a short film, feature film, a commercial, a porno flick. Whatever you do, man, I just want to be part of it." So I've been very fortunate to now have done three films with him.

Did he tell you it was going to be a trilogy?

We didn't really know that my character was going to be such a big part of the third one, but you know, the whole thing with Lake Los Angeles is, Johanna's part, the part about the little girl, that's actually the story or a similar story to a student of Mike. Mike teaches directing at USC [University of Southern California], and I guess a former student either experienced something like that or knew of somebody who experienced that, and he just always remembered that person's story, and at one point he decided to do a film about that and then, as we got to know each other, he found out about my background, and how I came to this country and decided to combine both stories, and I think he's done a phenomenal job with it.

Yeah, and it can stand on it's own, too.

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

You tell me, what does it say about the undocumented immigrant experience

You're talking about such a delicate topic. There's just so many ways to look at it. But I think with Mike's film, it just shows that it's just people that are just in search of happiness, of a better opportunity, a better life, which I think we're all entitled to have that opportunity. With Johanna, the young little girl, she's coming here thinking that she's gonna meet her dad and maybe start a new life, and all these great opportunities and then, with my character, he's been here awhile. He came here to search for those opportunities, but for whatever reason, they never quite materialized.

So it's a beautiful story about when these two people meet and that moment in time and subsequent actions that take place right after that. So I think it really just shows from a child's perspective and an older person's perspective how we all come from different backgrounds, you know? She's Mexican, I'm Cuban, and we all come here searching for that same dream, which I think that everybody has the right to try to pursue that.

Though they don't share a lot of screen time together, the land really connects them in a nice way.

Oh, absolutely. Obviously, when we shot it, we had an idea that it could really be something special. Mike has this thing for the desert. All three films were shot in the desert, and he had somehow managed to capture the beauty and the sadness of the desert and/or desolation of the desert, and when he puts that together with the story, man, it's like it's own character. You see my character and the child's character, but you see the background, the mountains. The desert itself is almost like a third character, it seems like. I think he did a phenomenal job.

Based on your filmography, which spans 20 years and includes over 80 credits, you do seem to keep busy. Is it easy for you to get work?

You know, I've been very blessed. I never truly wanted to be an actor, even though as a kid, I used to watch films and for some reason I would find myself repeating the lines that were being said on TV or in the movies. I didn't know whether it was ADD or something else. But through modeling and commercials, the opportunity presented itself, and I started late in life. When I booked my first film I was 38 years old, which is extremely late for this game, so to think about what I've been able to do in ten or 11 years -- I've been very fortunate, man, and it's been such a great ride, and now to finally be able to go back home with my own project, it's almost like the icing on the cake, man.

Roberto Sanchez will be present at the screenings of Lake Los Angeles on Saturday, October 18, at 9 p.m. and on Sunday, October 19, at 6:30 p.m. as part of MIFFecito, which is hosting all its screenings at Tower Theater. Tickets are $12 adults, $11 seniors, $10 members, $7 students. Call 1-844-565-6433(MIFF) or visit miamifilmfestival.com/miffecito for tickets. Visit miamifilmfestival.com or call 305-237-FILM(3456).

Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.

Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.

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