BY MADELEINE MARR, mmarr@MiamiHerald.com
Esai Morales got an education while filming Gun Hill Road, which opens Friday. The 48-year-old native New Yorker plays Enrique, recently home from a stint in prison for drugs. But his home is not how he left it. His wife ( Scrubs’ Judy Reyes) has taken a lover, and his teen son, Michael (Harmony Santana), is checking out life as a cross-dresser.
We talked to the former NYPD Blue star about the movie, named after a street in the Bronx where it was filmed.
How did you get involved with this project?
I was inspired by its relevance. When I read the script I was like, “Wow.” I’ve been around 30 years and found the humanity and pathos just dripping out of it. I was very emotionally affected. The film really takes you on a journey, which is why you go to the movies: To take you out of your normal life and put you in different circumstances that you respond to. I found it very compelling.
With Chaz Bono being on “Dancing with the Stars,” the transgender issue is getting major attention.
It’s so easy to judge from the outside. Unless someone comes at me with their sexuality, I can’t voice an opinion. Society has taken this corrective approach on people, but it’s their body, their voice.
Harmony, who plays your son, was a first-time actor. What was that like?
Working with her was tough, often because she had no experience acting, and it didn’t come naturally. There were times when she was being a little shy, and I thought, “I hope she brings it.” It’s incredible to see her evolution. Her character shares so much of her soul with you. It would not have worked with someone who was just acting like they wanted to be female. But she did an amazing job.
“Gun Hill Road” is somewhat similar to Benjamin Bratt’s 2010 movie “La Mission,” about a Latin father dealing with his gay son.
I know we have our comparisons. But La Mission wasn’t about the transgender or transsexual community, how they have to wear clothes to keep down their genitals or explore surgical options. We are a different animal. You can hide being gay. In Gun Hill you are taken into a world many find hard to reconcile. We really humanize the issue.
You have a baby daughter [Marina, born last year]. What was it like playing Harmony’s dad?
I felt for her character. I thought, “How can the father redeem himself? He’ll find the guy who deflowered his child and kick his butt!” [Laughs.] One of the genius things about the film is that it parallels a lot of women’s issues about dating and sex and intimacy.
If you had a son and he told you he wanted to change his sex, what would you say?
I’d have a lot of compassion. You feel betrayed by your body, by nature. These kids don’t know any differently. It starts at 3 years old when they look at themselves in the mirror. You can’t slap this stuff out of a person and say, “Be a man!” You just can’t.
IF YOU GO
GUN HILL ROAD opens Sept. 16 in Miami at O Cinema & The Tower Cinema and in Fort Lauderdale at Gateway 4.