East L.A. Has Never Looked So Good
By Bel Hernandez
East Los High is not your typical high school drama. The show is set in East Los Angeles where many from the West Side are afraid to venture. Well, not to worry—series’ co-creator/producer and director, Carlos Portugal gives you a glimpse of East LA rarely seen on film or TV. It will definitely make you take a second look.
East Los High has been in the making for the last three years. To call it an ambitious project would be an understatement. The show employed close to one hundred Latino actors, a writing staff that consisted of twelve Latino writers and a production that was shot over a period of four months in and around East Los Angeles. And here’s the best news: it’s a great show! It’s dramatic, sexy and extremely funny in all the right places. Last week, The Los Angeles Times singled it out as one of the top shows to watch in its’ “Summer Sneak Peek” series.
At the heart of the story are two teenage cousins—Jessie, a 16-year-old virgin (Janine Larina making her acting debut) and Maya (Alica Sixtos, Quinceanera), a troubled runaway with a violent past — both in love with Jacob (Gabriel Chavarria, Freedom Writers), a popular football player. As the forbidden love triangle unfolds, Maya, Jessie, Jacob and their best friends face true-to-life decisions over twenty-four, half-hour episodes. East Los High will be premiering on Hulu this June 3rd, streaming alongside high profile shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and Law and Order: SVU.
As we all know, a good project begins with a great script. Portugal knew that the right writing team would be key for this project and he knew just where to find them because he had worked with several of them throughout his career in Hollywood.
One of the reasons for the show’s success, Portugal attributes is due to the talent of the female staff members. He co-created the show with Kathleen Bedoya and then hired a group of Latinas from Los Angeles to work with him on writing the show. Sasha Stroman, Shelley Acosta Smith, Zoila Galeano, Dianna Perez, Charo Toledo and Evangeline Ordaz were all part of the writing staff. He also hired Cris Franco and Joaquin Palma to help create the strong male characters. It took Carlos and his staff over a year to write the 600 pages of script.
“I only had three “no’s” for the writers. No gardeners, no gang members and no maids,”Portugal recounted. “Although there is nothing wrong with these types, I feel that we are over-represented by gardeners, gang members and maids in TV and movies. I know that a lot of my actor friends are sick of playing them. It’s time to create new characters for Latino actors to play and show the world the potential of their range as actors,” Portugal explained.
With this in mind, we sat down with Carlos Portugal to talk about his new series, his future and past projects.
Latin Heat: Tell us about yourself?
Carlos Portugal: I was born in Cuba and grew up in Miami. I came to Los Angeles to attend USC film school. I came to LA with plans to be a writer but I learned that if that’s is all I did, I was going to starve. I had to learn to diversify. During the past twenty years, I have produced reality shows, directed independent movies, written American daytime soaps, produced on-air promos, written African-American sitcoms…name it and I’ve done it! The best part is that it’s made me an extremely well rounded professional. I can write, produce, direct and edit. One of my first jobs was working as a promo producer for the Fox Latin American Channel which was launched in 1993. From there, I became the Creative Director for Fox Kids.
LH: You are in a very elite group of Latino show runners. How did you move up the ranks to become a show runner?
CP: Like most things in my life — by accident. In 1996, Sony had just bought Telemundo. My good friend and mentor, Nely Galan who at the time was President of Entertainment at Telemundo, recommended me for the job. Since the Sony executives didn’t know any other Latino writers, they hired me on the spot to be the Executive Producer for Solo en America, a remake of One Day at A Time. Talk about trial by fire! My first season as a show runner was complete insanity. I remember sitting in the writer’s room and thinking I was sitting in the Titanic, I was so horrified by the challenges in front of me. However, I knew it was a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity, so of course, I took it and ran with it. I wound up overseeing the writing/producing of 66 half hour episodes for the next 3 years. I learned a lot in those three years – it was like the equivalent of ninety-three years in film school!
LH: What is the genesis for the making of East Los High?
CP: I was approached by a wonderful non-profit organization, Population Media Center (PMC). They were interviewing writers for a program they wanted to produce which addressed awareness and prevention of the high rate of teen pregnancy among Latinas in the U.S.. We also worked with a great team of advisory board members such as National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies and Planned Parenthood. Pregnancy and sex are two of the themes we deal with in the series. PMC provided the funds and said ‘you are the Latino voice’… so they empowered me to hire the writing staff and write the show from a Latino perspective. Katie Elmore is the executive producer. She has been an amazing production partner during the last three years.
LH: Can you talk about the casting process and your cast?
CP: Blanca Valdez, our casting director did an incredible job. She brought in tons of talented actors to choose from for this series. The young actors (who play High School students) were all so good, very natural, and extremely professional. None of the actors was ever late to set – and we shot for 67 days.
But I noticed that the actors that came in to read for the adult roles, all seemed to put on this pseudo Spanish accent. It was driving me crazy. Finally I realized that it came from them having to spend years putting on accents for Anglo executives. I finally asked Blanca to just tell them to do it in their regular voices – and then their talent really shone through. We ended up with a terrific cast.
I can’t tell you how proud I am of all the actors who worked in this show. Directing this show has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I owe it all to the great group of actors.
LH: What are the marketing and distribution plans for East Los High?
CP: While I was working on the editing, Katie Elmore and The Alchemists (our producing partner) took the lead in finding the distribution. Hulu loved the show and we love the way Hulu sees the show. Not only will it air on Hulu Plus but also on regular Hulu and Hulu Latino. Both Hulu and Hulu Latino are free.
That means anyone in East LA, New York, Miami or anywhere in between can watch the show for free on Hulu just like they watch any other TV series. And to me, young Latinos are the most important audience. After all, we created this show for them.
LH: Music plays an important part of the show. Tell us about the music we can look forward to?
CP: We must have over 150 songs in the show! I told my friend Margaret Guerra Rogers, who I was truly blessed to come work as our music supervisor, ‘I don’t want it to just be mariachi, or boleros, or hip-hop or Latino pop, I want it all.” She blew me away with the choices!
We have a lot great young artists from East LA like Flakiss, her songs are very prominent in the show. I also love this singer from New York, Sanchia. She is hot! We use one of her songs for the opening credits. It’s called Soy Fabulosa. And she is!
I hope that the show provides the artists with a lot of new fans. Viewers will be able to find all the songs from the show on the East Los High website where there will be links back to all the artists’ websites so you can download their songs.
LH: What is the essence of East Los High?
CP: Although the topics deal with sex, social issues, pregnancy etc., the story boils down to empowering all girls. You see them as they go through all their drama, at the beginning coming off a little rough around the edges …and at the end of the series they all begin to get their lives together. At the end of the day, it’s a fun, sexy love story but it’s also about connecting our viewers to the resources they need if they ever come up against some of the issues the characters face. The website has one of the most comprehensive list of links and websites where young people and even their parents can go for information on everything from sex and education to where to go if they want to download Flakiss music.
LH: What other projects do you have coming up?
CP: My second movie Pop Star, which I co-wrote and directed is premiering on Lifetime on June 29th. It’s a teen romantic comedy about a young Latina who performs in an indie band and who winds up making a deal with a handsome record producer who just might be The Devil. Christan Serratos of the Twilight Saga franchise plays the lead. She sings four original songs. Not only is she a great young actress, she has an incredible voice. Walter Perez from Friday Night Lights plays her brother. He’s a got a big future in movies.
LH: What determines if there will be another season of East Los High?
CP: The reactions from the audience, the ratings, and of course, money.
Already the social buzz buzz has begun, and if it is any indication of what the reaction will be when East Los High premieres, I think we should look forward to a new season.
Janine Larina as Jessie Martinez
Gabriel Chavarria as Jacob Aguilar
Alica Sixtos as Maya Martinez
Tracy Perez as Vanessa de la Cruz
Noemi Gonzalez as Soli Gomez
Danielle Vega as Ceci Camayo
Hector David Jr. as Cristian Camacho
Jorge Diaz as Paulie Hernandez
Ruben Garfias as Hernan Aguilar
Richard Azurdia as Ramon
Monica Guzman as Lupe Martinez
Jossara Jinaro as Reina
Catalina Rodriguez as Paulina
East Los High on Website: http://www.eastloshigh.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EastLosHigh. Twitter: @eastloshighshow