This Friday, May 3, is an important date in Latin-American film history.
For the first time in 22 years, an American film featuring an all-Latinx cast is heading to theaters across the U.S. El Chicano is the story of one cop who goes to extreme lengths to do the right thing, for his family and his community. In many ways, this mirrors the film itself, which Hollywood nearly turned its back on.
"It's not every day you come across a script like this," Raúl Castillo, the film's star, told ET over the phone. "This good and this proudly Latino. When I read it, you almost don't think that it's possible because there's nothing that you can point to that's like it, you know what I mean?"
The last American film to feature an all-Latinx cast that got mass distribution was Selena in 1997. And it wasn't an action film featuring a superhero, making El Chicano all-new terrain for the cast and crew. However, the film is based on a true story. The movie's co-writer and director, Ben Hernandez Brey, grew up in L.A. and lost a brother to gang violence, elements which are thoroughly explored in the film. This grounding of the narrative, as well as Brey's enthusiasm, won over creatives who ultimately worked on the project.
"As long as I've been an actor in the business it hasn't been done, so you kinda feel like it's impossible," Castillo went on. "But the minute I met Ben, the minute that he and I connected, it was just so clear to me. His heart and soul are all over this script."
El Chicano tells the story of Diego (Castillo), a Mexican-American cop in East Los Angeles whose twin brother died under mysterious circumstances. Soon he discovers that his brother died embracing the life of a vigilante. As Diego digs deeper into the life his brother chose, he too comes to embrace the spirit of El Chicano as well -- a righter of wrongs, a hero of the people.
Aimee Garcia, who plays Diego's love interest, Vanessa, had a similar reaction to Castillo upon first getting offered the project.
"I was actually shooting Lucifer at the time and he [Bray] was directing an episode and he said, 'Look, I wrote this script based on my family and my family's tragedy, losing my brother to gang violence and I just want you to read it,'" she explained to ET. "'My wife's name's Vanessa, the character is based on my wife,' which grounds the piece from the get-go. Like, how many superhero movies are grounded in somebody's personal memoir?"
"And at the end, I thought, 'Wow, I've never read any sort of screenplay where the whole cast is Latino and all the characters are fleshed out and I realized that this was a historic movie," she continued. "There's never in the history of cinema been an all-Latino action, superhero movie that's getting national distribution in the United States."
Although the project was ultimately shot down by most industry distributors, it was embraced by Briarcliff Entertainment, a production company helmed by Tom Ortenberg, the former chief executive of Open Road Films.
In crafting the film, Brey worked to do more than tell a deeply personal story. He set out to present an entertaining film that happens to be rooted in his culture. This meant utilizing his years as a stuntman and second unit director on films like The Fighter, Smokin' Aces and The Grey to create action set pieces that viewers won't soon forget. This also offered Castillo the opportunity to fully immerse himself in a whole new skill set -- fighting for his life on screen.
"People think it's all fun and games but it's high stakes," the 41-year-old actor explained. "When you're doing stunts like that, people have to be careful, people's lives are on the line. It's serious business. I was just so excited at the prospect of doing this whole new thing, for me as an actor, to try something I've never done before."
From car chases to hand-to-hand combat, the film presents enough thrills to keep its procedural elements moving at a brisk pace. But, at the end of the day, the project's true goal is to do what all good stories must do: to entertain and provide priceless insight along the way, which transcends one community, race or ideology.
"I knew it was historic but mostly it was just good," Garcia said of the project. "I left Black Panther feeling very connected, you know? And I left Crazy Rich Asians feeling in love, so I think just good stories are universal."
The film also stars George Lopez, Emilio Rivera, Jose Pablo Cantillo, David Castaneda and more.
El Chicano arrives in theaters on Friday.
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