November 27, 2017
TheBoxingBar.com : Daniel, where is your family originally from?
Daniel Villarreal : From Mexico. They lived in Durango and then moved to Chihuahua. They crossed over to Texas and then scattered from there. I was born in El Paso.
TBB : From what I hear, there are a lot of crazy areas in and around El Paso. What was it like when you were growing up?
DV : Yeah, I guess you could say that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a border town and that type of environment, but it could be hectic. In the 60’s in El Paso/Juarez there were a lot of soldiers coming out of Vietnam and getting stationed at Fort Bliss. There was a lot of heroin being crossed through. Soldiers were getting high. So I became aware of that stuff at an early age. My aunt and uncle ran a corner market where a lot of soldiers would come in and get all their groceries before they went and holed up to get high.
TBB : Then you came to L.A.. I read a story on how you got your very first role in the movie, “Stand and Deliver.” How exactly did that happen?
DV : I was hanging out with my friend who was in a band out of East L.A., and a professor from UCLA came to interview her for a documentary he was working on about Chicano bands. His assistant turned out to be Ramon Menendez, who later directed “Stand and Deliver.” That was in 1984, and in ’86 Ramon gave me the script to “Stand and Deliver” which originally was titled “Walking on Water.” Once I read the script I let him know I wanted “In”, and told him I would do anything to help out in getting that movie made. I was placed working in the production area at first, and somehow ended up acting in the movie. So actually it wasn’t in my intentions, but it came out that way.
TBB : Did they see something in your look or demeanor to make that decision? Or what do you think it was?
DV : I was helping Lou Diamond Phillips get prepared for his part as a gang member. I was also helping the actor that was originally cast to play my part (Chuco “The Finger Man”), but it didn’t work out for him. He ended up playing Escalante’s oldest son, and I wound up playing his part, The Finger Man.
TBB : What did you think of that change of working in the production area to being cast as an actor? Were you pretty nervous about that?
DV : I felt welcomed by the talent. Everyone was very supportive. I had been part of the film since its beginning, so I felt pretty comfortable.
TBB : When I think of you playing that character in the movie, the first image that comes to mind is in that scene when you walk in to Mr. Escalante’s classroom for the first time and you give him that intense stare-down. You looked like you were naturally good at playing the part of a “cholo” or maybe you were just naturally good at acting. Or maybe both. What do you remember about that first scene of yours in that movie? How did it feel being in front of the camera for the first time on a film?
DV : I grew up loving movies since I was like four years old. All kinds. Especially gangster films. So by the time I did “Stand and Deliver”, I was already a fan and admirer of great actors like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. I guess you could say all of those early gangsters in movie history like Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and guys like that. They were an inspiration. Recently, I watched "Stand and Deliver" and I did notice that intensity that you speak of. It has to do with being aware of the camera. I don’t think of anything else while I’m acting. I stay focused on what I’m doing and that’s it.
TBB : How old were you when you did this film?
DV : I was 26 and we were all playing 17 and 18 year olds.
TBB : Myself, I was in junior high preparing to go to high school when I first saw this film. Living in Oxnard, which is near Los Angeles, I think we all knew someone that was a lot like your character Chuco. I’m sure to many he was very relatable to themselves or someone they know. What was it like for you to play this role?
DV : Yeah, actually part of it was that I grew up in East L.A.. I grew up in Boyle Heights and in a gang. When you’re in a gang, you’re in the gang for life you know. (Laughs) The homeboys still call me from time to time. They call me “Hollywood” now, and I will always be a part of that. Anyways, living around that life for years, I had that experience and knew that road. So when I had to play that part of Chuco “The Finger Man”, I tried to take it back to the Pachuco days and that long tradition of it. That old school way. So I could add some kind of integrity to the character.
TBB : Chuco tries to lure Angel, who is played by Lou Diamond Phillips, back to the streets and away from the classroom. What did you think of your character, Chuco?
DV : In the movie, Chuco realizes that his friend really is a good kid and is very smart. I don’t know if you remember in the movie when they steal Escalante’s car to fix it up …
TBB : Oh that’s right. They make it into a little lowrider car …
DV : Yeah, and Chuco tells Escalante, “Let’s go kick some ass and take care of those ETS (Education Testing Service) boys”, Andy Garcia’s character. So at the end of the day Chuco is not really bad. I don’t know if you remember the part where Angel (Phillips’ character) answers the question with “Zero” and I give him the look like saying “Wow. Who is this guy?”
TBB : Now I’m really glad I didn’t watch this movie yesterday which I was going to, to help me with some notes for this interview with you. For me it’s more fun to have someone that was in this film remind me of all the little details instead. (Laugh)
DV : Stand and Deliver was screened a few weeks ago at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I didn’t know this but Eddie Olmos stated that it is the most watched film of all time. It was an amazing experience, and I actually knew it was going to be something special from the very beginning. I knew it was going to be something like that, and now it’s a national treasure.
TBB : You know it’s funny you bring that up. The first time I actually saw that movie wasn’t at a theater or a movie we purchased. It was in a classroom at our junior high school. The crazier part is that it is recognized as an iconic “Latino” movie, but it was an African-American teacher who was playing it for us …
DV : Wow. Really?
TBB : It was for everybody regardless of color or background. What was this first experience in a film like for you to work alongside a great like Olmos and a guy that would become a red-hot actor, Lou Diamond Phillips, who would become a big name starring in La Bamba during this time?
DV : I met Edward James Olmos in 1978 when he played “El Pachuco” in the "Zoot Suit" play. I was seventeen at the time. First of all, I had never been to the theatre. It was the first play I had ever seen. Then to witness my people portrayed in such a grand and beautiful way, and with Edward James Olmos’ performance which I have rarely experienced something that good since. As a seventeen year old kid I remember I was blown away! I remember thinking, “that’s what I want to do, and this is who I want to be.” I went backstage to have Olmos sign my program. Nine years later, I would be working with him on a film, with him playing Jaime Escalante. It was incredible having him around every day.
With Lou, when he was cast in Stand and Deliver, La Bamba had not been released yet. But we got to see it and thought he had done enough, and decided that we had to get this guy in our movie. For the movie we wanted for everybody to do their best possible. So right away I offered to help Lou and make sure he had everything he needed to help his performance. You know how he had long hair in the movie? He didn’t want to cut it because of another film he was going to do and he needed to have long hair for it. Truthfully, his character Angel was a “wanna-be” cholo. It reminded me of a guy in high school that had his hair long like that. So I convinced Ramon, the director, to let him have his hair long.
TBB : So was it up to you to get him prepared to play the part of somebody from “the hood”?
DV : Yes, it was put in my lap to help him out because he didn’t know anything about gangs. I helped him study things by taking him to the hood to hang out. Eventually, I got to bring in those two guys from the gang who are always around me in the movie. They were from the Maravilla Projects. We all hung out together so that Lou could get the feel of what that world was like.
TBB : I’m kind of curious. Where in the hood would you take Lou Diamond Phillips? What did you guys do?
DV : I took him to the projects. In the movie you see us in Aliso Village near the L.A. River so we went there and hung out at night with the fellas. For Lou it was a little nerve-wracking, but he did fine.
TBB : For this being someone’s first film, did it feel like you were thrown into deep waters being around all these terrific actors?
DV : Yes. One of my jobs involved being around the casting sessions. So I pretty much got to see every Latino actor that was working at that time auditioning for this movie. Then the producers would pick and choose the auditions they liked and I edited them so the director could study them. And I got to see that process. So I saw what the actors were doing and how they presented themselves, how they auditioned. I saw their styles of acting. A lot of them had done some theatre and were really good. I noticed the difference from them and actors that had only worked for TV films. I learned a lot from them all like how to have technique and confidence.
TBB : It sounds like you got all-around schooling with everything you got to be a part of.
DV : It was like going to school. I had a chance to deal with everybody. Along with the acting I got to be behind the scenes, behind the camera, in the office, at the producer meetings, I helped with the writing, and found music for this film. I was totally involved with the whole thing and still do that with many other films I’ve worked on. I’m an actor but I have also worked in production. I’ve learned a lot being “hands on” and just trying it. Now, I’m actually doing it, you know.
TBB : What are your overall thoughts on “Stand And Deliver” today?
DV : You know it’s one of those things that you can say to yourself, “If I never do anything again, at least I did that.” It was an iconic film. It’s in the National Film Registry, and has won many awards. It was a rare movie.
TBB : If it’s shown in schools, you guys must have done something right.
DV : That’s right. You know “American Me”, which is another film I did with Edward James Olmos, it’s just as valid as Stand And Deliver. It’s just a much harder film to watch because it comes from a totally different perspective. But I think a lot of people missed the real message in that film.
TBB : Oh trust me my friend, we are going to get to that film right now! But before I ask you about that, you had a chance to work on an episode of the mega-hit show of the 80’s, “Miami Vice.” What was it like to do that?
DV : Yeah, I got to do Miami Vice a little bit after “Stand and Deliver” and that was partially because of Edward James Olmos since he was one of the lead actors in it. I got to play the son of Rita Moreno who is an iconic actress known for being in the legendary movie “West Side Story.” So it was great having her play my mom in that episode of “Miami Vice.”
TBB : That must have been a great experience working with Rita Moreno, Olmos, and the rest of the cast of that show. In 1992, “American Me” was released in theaters which starred Olmos as the prison-gang leader, Santana. You played the role of the still very popular, Lil’ Puppet. Did you seek out to get this role? Or did it come to you?
DV : When I did Miami Vice with Eddie Olmos there in Miami, we hung out and I even stayed at his place. On the way back to L.A., on the plane, Olmos told me that we were going to do “American Me.” This was like two years before we shot the movie. This was like in ’89. It all started happening again like it did with “Stand and Deliver” which I became involved with the project since the beginning of it and in getting it together. I went to some meetings, like with the people from “Corrections” to talk about filming inside Folsom prison. But to answer your question, I pretty much had the Lil’ Puppet part, but it had to be OK’d by the studio which was Universal. The part was offered to some big time actors, but I think they wanted too much money to do it. So I did end up getting the part without having to audition for it. In that part as Lil’ Puppet, I was supposed to play like the most innocent one of the whole group. Eddie wanted me to play it having that quality. I don’t know if that’s the reason why, but it has become a popular character with people.
TBB : Because of the topic and nature of the movie, was this film something you had to think about doing? Plus, all the possible dangers and risks involved with being a part of something like this.
DV : This is what Edward James Olmos is like. It’s more than just making a movie to him. It’s about community. Something that I learned from him is that we are all connected to the community, so all of our work should concern that. Doing “American Me” was very difficult, because we were going to be in Folsom, which is a horrific place, and be incarcerated in that world. So before that, I went to Baja (California) to the ocean to experience real freedom. I did it the opposite way. I wanted to feel what it was like to be completely free before getting thrown into prison. That was how I did my preparation for that role.
TBB : Years ago, I purchased the DVD of this movie and it contained a little documentary on the making of the movie called, “Lives in Hazard.” In this special, it showed you guys filming in there. How were you guys treated in there? And was it pretty scary to be working in that environment with your small group as opposed to all the inmates that were surrounding you guys?
DV : Part of all those meetings I was telling you about, Eddie met with the Mexican Mafia. He met with the main guy. His name was Joe “Peg Leg” Morgan who in the movie was the white guy, J.D. Olmos got the OK from Corrections, and an OK from the mafia so that when we would be in there we would be safe. There were no incidents except one, but it had nothing to do with our film. Some inmates got into a fight and so they went into lockdown. Other than that we walked the yard, and worked with inmates in the scenes. My favorite scene is when I have to kill that guy while they’re watching the cartoon. Well in that room, besides the actors and some extras, the rest were the actual inmates themselves. We did that scene many, many times … remember where Puppet wants to do it, and I motion that I will do it and I’m all crying?
TBB : Of course I remember that. That was good stuff.
DV : That scene was so powerful because I drew that vibe from my surroundings. I was drawing from the inmates energy. They were so into it. They were so quiet. When I was doing that scene I felt like I was controlling the room. And there were some hardcore guys in there, like killers.
TBB : I would have never thought you guys would really film that scene in the dark with real inmates all around you like that. That’s kind of shocking.
DV : Yeah, but you know, I don’t know if it’s because of how I grew up or something. They felt like my people. I’ve been around some pretty rough guys that act like teddy bears around me. They are human. You just got to not think of the bad. They’re just people although they have done some very bad things in their life. That was an amazing experience. I remember this one man that had said he had been there for twenty-two years that was walking the yard and he said something like, “remember me” as if to let us know that he’s lived through this. To this day I would like to one day play a part like that of, “the life’er”, because of that guy. I’ve looked for a role like that. There are a few that I’m attached to which will allow me to play a part of the guy that has been in prison his whole life and then finally gets out. I want to play that part. I will play that part. I was born to play that part.
TBB : I could see you playing a part like that which people would probably view it as if Lil’ Puppet didn’t die at the end of American Me. As we were discussing, in your part in Stand and Deliver you play a street gangster. In this film, Lil’ Puppet came into prison probably the same way but taking it further by joining a prison-gang. Was it the same or different playing Lil’ Puppet?
DV : It was different. Personally as an actor, in the four years between Stand and Deliver and American Me, I learned a lot. Like that intensity that you saw in Stand and Deliver, by the time I did American Me, I was able to control it. Like you had said that intensity that you saw in Stand and Deliver I don’t have in American Me because it’s more like an inside thing. I had to drag you, the viewer, into what’s happening inside me which is the hardest thing to do. Next time you see the movie, you’ll see what I mean. That camera is the direct connection between you and the part I’m playing, me, which is very intimate. The camera is there to capture that to the millisecond so you don’t have to do much. The less I do, the more I drag you in. Watch it again and you’ll notice I always try to hide from the camera so that it follows me. Which means you at home are following me. Do you understand?
TBB : Watch, now I’m going to order both these movies on Amazon tonight and follow you.
DV : (Laughs)
TBB : Easily one of the toughest scenes to watch, which left a lot of people talking when I first saw it at the theater back then, was that last scene you did. People were debating what they would do if the same situation was put on them. So it hit a spot to the viewer. Lil’ Puppet’s brother brought him into the gang, so he has to take him out as he’s told to. Just like it’s hard to think about it, it was hard to watch it too. Filming this scene, was it hard to do? Or just another day in the office for you?
DV : (While laughing) ... No, it wasn’t just another day in the office. It was really difficult to do. We shot it like over twenty times. Poor Danny De La Paz (who played big brother Puppet). That was so hard on him. He took it as if it was personal. We would be working on it and then he would go to his dressing room and start sobbing, and be in tears because he didn’t want to kill his brother. I remember going to his door and knocking on the door and saying, “Please come on. We have to do it. Come on out, and lets go do it.” He took it as if it were for real, and he was going to be killing his brother. I don’t know if you remember in that scene when my eyes roll back?
TBB : Daniel, I think everybody that has seen that film remembers that, believe it or not.
DV : Actually I was really passing out, and they were whispering to me to check up on me. My legs and feet were shaking as if I was really being strangled because I was. Months after the film, I still had bumps on the back of my neck from the rope. We took it as far as we could go so that it would work.
TBB : After the movie was released on tape I remember watching it again for the second time, with a friend while having a few beers. And we started joking around during that scene when you were at your wedding and got pulled away to the side by Santana and your cousin Julie. We joked about how you played a better drunk than we did, and we were the drunk ones. Just because that memory of mine popped into mind, what do you remember about that scene?
DV : People thought I was really drunk, but I was not drunk. It was just acting, but I’ve been around the guys that are. The one little thing that I did there was a trick that I enjoyed was that I tried to make him a little funny. Remember when we was trying to get undressed and he couldn’t find his vest and walks away with that little walk? For me it was supposed to be like a little “funny” so that he can be endearing so that you can like him. You have to like him in order for it to work, you know.
TBB : Just about a month ago or so, I was at a mall here in Northern California and two guys were joking around. One of them had the other in a chokehold and was yelling at him, “don’t look at me Lil’ Puppet.” This is over twenty-five years since the movie was released. I’m sure you must have been getting that for years, people repeating your lines from this film. Do you embrace it? Or think to yourself, “why the hell did I do this movie” because you are over it? How do you take it?
DV : I enjoy it. I think it’s funny. I was staying in West Hollywood at one time and it was about seven in the morning. I woke up because of some construction noise of a big apartment complex that was being built, and I heard that too, “don’t look at me little puppet.” The workers were saying that to each other at their worksite. I thought it was hilarious that these guys were having fun with that.
TBB : I think it’s a cool thing to have someone just remember you. Whether it be in a good, funny, or bad way because that means you touched them somehow and did your job doing your line of work. You must have done something right.
DV : That’s right. It is cool. I consider myself lucky to have delivered playing that part.
TBB : This is a movie I could watch any day of the week. But it’s not a movie I wouldn't watch with my mom or maybe even a date because of the hard nature and subject of it and it’s harder to think that this stuff really goes on, but it does go on. Like you were saying a bit ago that people didn’t really grasp the true meaning of what the movie was really about. They were probably just seeing the negativity. It’s actually about how Santana fell in love and what happened to him because of it.
DV : Right. The next time you watch it you’ll see that the full movie takes place in about five minutes time. In that short time Santana is putting away his memories in the jail cell and then he comes out and gets stabbed to death. But in those moments, he’s remembering his whole life. Having the experience with a woman changes him. In that part he says, “You are the future”, he is saying you have to help us out. The whole point of the movie is that it’s saying that the women in our community are our saviors. Julie gets through to him and then he wants to get out because he no longer wants to be part of that life. People totally missed that about the movie. They remember everything else, but that. That is the point that our community and people could go into the future with less violence thanks to the women.
TBB : That’s true. The two most important things that were on his mind when he was reflecting on his life in that jail cell, was his mom and Julie. He came out of that jail cell knowing what was going to happen but he was willing to face it and be true to those feelings.
DV : Yeah. It showed her rubbing out the tattoo and going to school.
TBB : Did you have another acting part right after this project was completed?
DV : I continued working but I knew it was going to be hard to find another part like that. I’m still looking because that is the type of acting that I like to do. So that’s part of the reason why I hardly do the acting thing anymore because I haven’t found the part that I feel I just have to play. A friend of mine has a script that has a part in it about that character I was telling you about, “the life’er.” That’s one part that I would play. I’m a writer now so whenever I write something I always think that I’m going to play a part, but then I think like a producer and then say, “Maybe this actor would play it better” and I go with that. I got a script that I’m working on where I play a drummer in a rockabilly band. That may be a character that I may play down the road.
TBB : What do you remember about your role in the blockbuster “Speed” with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock?
DV : It’s interesting because when I first read the script I thought it was just Ok. And then it ends up being such a surprise hit. A blockbuster. I was on that bus like for nine weeks shooting that. It was fun being around all the people that were on that bus and hanging out because most of the time that’s what you do, hang out. I had a great time with Keanu. He’s an amazing human being. He does a lot of big things. He’s very self-lifting and giving. I remember when we were shooting that, he was learning to play the bass because he was in a band for a while. We used to sit around and listen to music and watch movies together. I have real good memories of him.
TBB : Since, let’s say, Stand and Deliver in the late 80’s, in your opinion are Latinos on a rise in films? Or is it the same or a lesser amount in the movie industry today?
DV : There is a whole lot more actors now. There’s more opportunity too. In the late 80’s there would be like two hundred actors try to play one part. So you would have to compete with everybody. I would also say that the roles for Latinos have gotten a lot better too. Many times it doesn’t matter if the actor is Latino or not, but sometimes it does. Like if there is a Chicano part, like for me in Stand and Deliver and American Me, I know that world inside and out so I could play that part. It would be kind of hard if you don’t have that in your DNA to play that part well. For me if the attention isn’t on the detail, then the movie won’t be any good.
TBB : Earlier you brought up how Edward James Olmos had taught you that “community” should matter to you. How do you use that in the film industry?
DV : I mean like humanity in general, but more specifically I focus a lot on the Chicano community. Just like you said I learned that from Eddie Olmos that everything you do is based on the community itself. Even back then when Eddie did “Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” and movies like that, he would travel from town to town and screen them for the people so they could see them. Because a lot of the time they don’t get to see them. You go to a town in Texas or Nebraska, so they can see them. I do that with Danny De La Paz and travel to Texas, Arizona, and here in California. Because of American Me we’ve been a part of shows and things like that. Instead of staying at hotels we usually stay at people’s houses and get their input on what they would like to see on the big screen.
TBB : Are you working on anything at the moment that we can hopefully see you on or see your creative work in the near future?
DV : I’m always trying to collaborate with different people on a lot of different projects. It’s so difficult to have them made in Hollywood. I have a script I wrote about little homeboys that would require a lot of money but would have no big stars. But people always want a star in the movie. So I have to somehow find a way to make that movie. I got another script right now which has been optioned to be made. It’s being directed by Alfonso Arau who directed “Like Water for Chocolate.” That will hopefully happen this year. Then I have a series for TV that I’m trying to get made that is called “All These Little Divas.” It’s a New Mexico Sci-Fi show about teenage girls. Those are some of the projects. There are many more, but we’ll see.
TBB : You know because of you and other actors like you, you guys made these characters you play alive in our minds and our hearts for the rest of our lives. And every time we think of these characters we smile. I think that speaks volumes about you and your work. My friend, it was a privilege and an honor to have you on as a guest today, and I look forward to seeing your work in the near future.
DV : Thank you. Thank you very much! Ha ha and by the way I am working on my memoir. The title keeps changing. Right now I am calling it “I Lost My Calzones In East L.A.” (Laughs)