Recast into a role that was intended for Lupe Ontiveros — Julia has been on an emotional whirlwind.
By Elia Esparza
This summer was to be another busy one for actress Lupe Ontiveros. She had already accepted a role in Director Scott Sanders’ Aztec Warrior (Lionsgate) which was shooting in July in The Big Easy, Louisiana. Meanwhile, another actress, Julia Vera was looking at a calm summer. She didn’t see much work on the horizon… but, there’s a reason for everything.
Julia and Lupe’s paths crossed many times throughout the years as both actors were usually auditioning for the same roles. Both have a strong comedic spirit but are as different as night and day. Another commonality they shared was that they were both Tejanas (Texans) living in California and working in Hollywood. They were both mothers with a strong belief in family. It was inevitable that, although competitors, they would become good friends. “Mostly we always talked about family,” says Vera. “We exchanged stories and had some good laughs.”
As Aztec Warrior’s production date approached, Sanders and the cast couldn’t wait to begin working on the hilariously fun film. Leading the cast were Luis Guzman (The Mysterious Island), Eugenio Derbez (Mexican comedic superstar), Terry Crews (The Expendables), Nadine Velasquez, and Ontiveros (Desperate Housewives). A week before filming was to begin (according to sources close to the film) Sanders received an unexpected call and without any forewarning, the director was notified that Ontiveros was pulling out. Everyone assumed it was due to a scheduling conflict or that she had gotten a better offer. Only a select few knew that Ontiveros had weeks to live, losing her battle with cancer.
The recasting of Lupe’s part was in full gear and telephone calls and emails were flying back and forth at full speed. There is no shortage of Latina talent but finding the right “mama” was important. She had to be funny.
Actress, Julia Vera’s name was mentioned several times and after a few more telephone calls and emails, Vera found herself on a plane heading to New Orleans to fill some pretty big shoes.
As the old show business saying goes, the show must go on. No matter the enormity of setbacks, filmmakers have a duty to ensure their story reaches the big screen.
Vera had no idea that Lupe was dying. “I happily assumed she had moved on to a better offer somewhere else,” she recalled. It wasn’t until after her friend Ontiveros passed away, that Vera realized just how significant and precious her casting in this “mama” role had become.
So just who is Julia Vera?
We know she has appeared in numerous hit television shows (The X-Files and Brothers and Sisters), some feature films (Speed and Blow), and countless commercials… we know she’s a skilled actor. The question was, what made her special enough to step into what would have been a custom made role for Ontiveros?We sat down with Julia recently to talk about all that has been stirring in her heart.
Latin Heat: How did it come about, you being cast in a film that was originally offered to Lupe Ontiveros?
Julia Vera: I received a call from a producer friend [Ben O’Dell] on the 4th of July asking if I was available to work on a film in Louisiana and would I be able to fly there immediately.
LH: When you first learned the role was being recast from Lupe (who has her own acting DNA) was this a little disconcerting for you?
JV: My first thought was that she had probably gotten a better offer. That Lupe! She was not about to solicit pity from anyone. She knew she was sick since [last December] but she didn’t tell anyone. She was brave. She was strong till her last breath. Even her closest friends didn’t know.
LH: How did you attack the role without trying to give the director “a classic Lupe”?
JV: That thought never occurred to me. I read the script and it was comedic. I knew I had to play it straight. Comedy is suppose to be funny to the audience not to the performer. I have my own physicality. Lupe was a very small woman and I looked like an elephant next to her. I had done some improvisation in Reno 911 and other shows. The director encouraged that kind of performance. Also, playing a mother who loves her children was on par with my reality.
LH: How does your acting differ from that of Lupe?
JV: Lupe was a pioneer. She got her start when things were still pretty difficult for Latino actors. There was a pause from the Ricardo Montalban, Dolores Del Rio, Rita Hayworth, and Rita Moreno eras. It was like starting all over again. El Norte is a classic now. I read all the difficulties that were experienced by the director and producer Gregory Nava. Lupe was so brave to stand up to SAG [Screen Actors Guild] for that film. Me, I came in when things were all set-up. It was easier for me thanks to the hardships endured by actors like Lupe. She was a true actor.
LH: A little about your background… As a Tejana from Laredo, how did acting come to be your calling?
JV: In Laredo all the children are exposed to the arts, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, and painting. I usually got cast in all the plays all the way through high school. College was mostly music.
LH: Tell us something about Julia Vera that most of your most of your fans don’t know about you.
JV: That I started my acting career at age 46, after my kids were grown and gone. I am a widow and have five children. My oldest [Pembrooke Andrews, a sound supervisor] has three Emmys and a Golden Reel… I still don’t know what that is. I also have five grandchildren which I consider my reward for raising five children and my most precious reward is my great-granddaughter who is five. She and I have a lot of fun! At the drop of a hat we take off to Disneyland (our favorite place) or to the movies.
I also like to give back. I do that by coaching actors and they don’t have to pay me unless they get the job. I also give my paycheck back to those that are producing on a shoestring. Sometimes I have a hard time going out and it takes a lot for me to attend events. I just go by how I feel that day.
LH: What advice would you give young Latinos trying to break into acting today?
JV: Study acting. Take a dance class so that you can get in touch with your body and a singing class so that you can expand your lung capacity. Keep taking classes all through your acting career. Technique is important. Various methods like Miesner, Stella Adler, and Lee Strasberg are tried and true. As in all careers, you have to invest time and money.
LH: If you could sit with Lupe to talk about your recent work experience, what would the conversation be like? Let’s say you’re sitting at some sidewalk cafe in paradise. Give us a sampling of how the imaginary dialogue would go.
JV: I believe in God and I believe we all go to heaven. I would probably ask her if she is having fun. She loved having fun. We never talked shop, only about our families. She was a dear friend. But, OK, here is how I imagine it would go:
You didn’t give me much time to prepare for your role.
I hope you like my version of “mama.”
I didn’t plan to give you anything! I fought hard
pero… ya sabes…
Yes, you did! Have you met up with Ricardo?
No, but Herve Villechaize, you know ‘Tatto’…
the only other actor shorter than me…
pues can you believe he’s still ringing a bell? Imaginate!
Driving me nuts! Next thunderstorm, I swear that will be
me banging him with his ding dong!
Ha, ha, you never disappoint!
Everyone misses you for that, especially your family.
My kids and family mean everything to me. I do know how
strong they are and it was a privilege to raise my beautiful boys.
And my grandkids… Wow. They are something.
Yes! Oh, and speaking of privileges, because you’d had been cast
I inherited one mighty fine wardrobe. The makeup lady even
asked if I wanted false eyelashes! Gracias, mujer!
Pues, only the best for us Latinas!
Always demand the best.
But you know what the best for me is now? No
more spandex or girdles to wear!
Demand the best, amiga, you know why?
Yes, because we deserve it.
Mujer! We earned it! At least I’ll never have
to play another maid again! Dang, but I
forced directors to bring out the best maid in me ever!
Nicholson never knew what hit him!
I had a lot of fun on Aztec Warrior.
I couldn’t be you, but I did my best “me”.
I would expect nothing less from you.
Thank you for stepping in.
No, gracias a ti… you left your footprint for my benefit
and for so many others. I will never forget you.
No te preocupes, amiga…
just keep the laughter alive!
With that, a breeze sweeps through us and she is gone.
Aztec Warrior will always be remembered as the last movie that Ontiveros was cast in and had to opt out of. But it will also be a pivotal point in redefining Julia Vera’s own stellar career.
Julia Vera you have a great name and we wish you continued success. Aztec Warrior belongs to both you and Lupe.
About Aztec Warrior
Aztec Warrior was co-written by Scott Sanders (Black Dynamite, Thick As Thieves); Don Handfield from an idea by Handfield; and Javier Chapa. Sergio Aguero and James McNamara, executive produced and Chapa also produced. The action story finds its hero (Guzman) up against El Diablo (Derberz). The action story takes place in present day San Antonio, Texas and Mexico. Aztec’ is about the entertaining sport of Mexican wrestling (lucha libre) and not much more is known other than that it’s a comedy.
Cast: Luis Guzman (The Mysterious Island), Eugenio Derbez (Mexican superstar), Terry Crews (The Expendables), Nadine Velasquez, and Julia Vera. (Release date: 2013)
Edited by: Casandra Moreno Lombera