WANDA DE JESÚS talks about Illegal Tender

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One of the most electrifying and multifaceted actresses working today, actress Wanda De Jesús galvanizes audiences with her complex and beautifully crafted performances. She brings her talent and experience in film, theatre and television to her latest project, “Illegal Tender,” a film produced by John Singleton and written and directed by Franc Reyes, opening in August, 2007. De Jesús next re-teams with writer-director Reyes to co-star opposite Harvey Keitel and John Leguizamo in the upcoming New York-based drama The Ministers.

De Jesús was last seen in “Blood Work” opposite Clint Eastwood. De Jesús turned in a strong dramatic performance in the film, also directed by Eastwood. De Jesús also starred in the Peabody Award-winning PBS Masterpiece Theatre production of “Almost a Woman,” based on the memoirs of author Esmeralda Santiago. Her performance earned her an Imagen Award.
De Jesús has graced the silver screen in such diverse fare as John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars,” Lawrence Fishburne’s “Once in the Life,” Joel Schumacher’s “Flawless,” with Robert DeNiro, Michael Mann’s “The Insider” opposite Al Pacino and Charles Burnett’s “Glass Shield,” among others.

De Jesús’s small-screen accomplishments include “CSI: Miami,” and Elmore Leonard’s “Gold Coast,” directed by Peter Weller. She also garnered attention on UPN’s “Live Shot,” as well as numerous other projects.

A native New Yorker and trained actor, she garnered a variety of stage productions, including “The Guys” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre with Jimmy Smits, “Cuba and his Teddy Bear” at the Longacre Theatre with Robert DeNiro, Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” at The Mark Taper Forum again with Smits, “Summer & Smoke” with Christopher Reeve and Christine Lahti at the Ahmanson, “Floating Islands,” directed by Oscar Eustis at the Taper and “Women Without Men” and “Ariano,” directed by George C. Wolfe.

ILLEGAL TENDER
Actress WANDA DE JESÚS and RICK GONZALEZ are an electrifying duo who will stop at nothing to protect one another and those they love from a team of relentless assassins in this heart pumping action drama—Illegal Tender.
Writer/director FRANC. REYES (Empire) teams with two-time Academy Award®-nominated director and producer JOHN SINGLETON (Hustle & Flow) to create an ultra-contemporary action drama full of suspense, intrigue and heart.
Our modern day heroine, Millie DeLeon (Wanda De Jesús), is a beautiful, highly educated and sophisticated upper-class widow, raising her two privileged sons alone—one is a college honors student and the other is in elementary school. Life appears idyllic for this American family. But things change quickly when Millie bumps into a woman from her past, bringing the reality of imminent danger to the forefront once more. Millie knows assassins will soon be coming to kill her—they’ve been tracking her with tireless precision for years. To her credit, she has managed to elude them, evading death skillfully, without alarming her children—until now. Together, they face their fears head-on – with a newfound strength and a commitment to protecting their family at all costs.

Bijan Tehrani: The part you have played in Illegal Tender is a very challenging one. You had to show different layers of the character over time. The character surprised us with her deep emotions and her power to protect her family. How did you manage to achieve that in this part?
Wanda De Jesús : The first thing I do as an actress in reading the story is looking for the essence of the story and what it is about. To me this story was more than a hip, cool action flick. To me, it rang of past generations’ mistakes affecting the present, and this woman who is trying to legitimize a dead husband’s dream in moving the family forward. The bridge had a dichotomist existence. On the surface was this normal mother, but the undertones of her was the vigilant woman who was in survival mode in order to protect her family for twenty years. The manner in which I approached the character was multi-layered as well. Underlying everything must be the love of the mother, and so I got in touch with many facets of me, and deep meaning relationships that I have in my life, and worked from there. Millie and I are not similar; I have not had her experiences. What I decided to do was ask myself profoundly if I knew myself well enough to know what I am prepared to do to protect the ones I love. In living with that question what I decided to do was live in the psychology of someone who was in survival mode, and the vigilance that it takes. So I went to someone who was a weapons master, and not to just handle firearms but to understand the psychology of the rules of engagement. I wanted to understand what your insides are like when you have to live in that mode. In doing that research it informed me more about the character. As a result, as an actress, I like to score a character and see the function of the character. Beyond being a “legitimizer” of a dead husband’s dream, she is the accelerator in being a good mother. She is also the accelerator for her son’s right of passage into manhood. She, incrementally, has to feed him the truth because she has no other recourse, but she is doing her job almost “illegally tenderly” as a mother under the circumstances in feeding him the truth of what he needs to know, but this helps him be a fully integrated man.

Bijan:
I think your work in the movie is beautifully done.
Wanda: Thank you

Bijan:
Did you have a reference in mind while playing this part? Someone that you know?
Wanda: No absolutely not. This all stemmed from just the human condition of loving someone, and then being in the ever vigilant mode. It is not posed after any one particular person or anyone that I know that has walked through dangers like this. No.

Bijan: As far as I know you are from New York
Wanda: Yes. Born and Bred.

Bijan: There is something special about characters from certain places. Watching this movie I could not believe that you were not from Puerto Rico.
Wanda: Although, as an actor, my imagination is larger than my culture, so I don’t label myself but I will say that I am a Native New Yorker with the heart of a Puerto Rican. Thanks, that’s a compliment.

Bijan: Did you study on the behavior or characteristics?
Wanda: The role itself is a character study. First of all, the mother (Millie) in this story, was born and bred in the Bronx. She is first generation Puerto Rican while her son is second generation. In terms of the sensibilities of going back to Puerto Rico and speaking the language, I think it is reflective of anyone who is fully assimilated. I know a lot of Puerto Ricans born and bred second, third generations that have cared to understand their culture and where they came from. I come from a bi-lingual home but went ahead to formally study Spanish because I am an actress, and I wanted to read “Lorca” or “Llorens Torres” in their original language. I am fully bilingual and proud of it. When I go back to the Island there is a profound connection to Puerto Rico, home of my forefathers, I know I am not alone in this intense feeling, other Puerto Ricans feel the same pride. If you don’t know Puerto Rico, you may think of it as a third world island but one of the many surprises in this film is that, there a seamless transition from Connecticut, New York to a club scene shot in Puerto Rico. Culturally, it doesn’t seem that different. The locale changed, but the pop-culture doesn’t. The first shot of Tego Calderone sitting in a club, it’s just as hip and cool. He could be any guy in any club in New York. It is a testament to Puerto Rico’s pop-culture’s existence on the island that is not unlike our own.

Bijan: You have the experience of acting with great actors such as Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino. How was your experience this time, working with younger and less experienced actors?
Wanda: Nurturing. I think in certain respects, I came in to do Millie. It was interesting in my collaboration with Franc., the director, and understanding the script on such a different level and him allowing me to explore those levels. As for working with Rick Gonzalez, the actor, he was so present in our moments together on screen. It was a refreshing experience to work with younger actors who were committed in the exploration and growth of their craft. There was a willingness to try new things outside of what was comfortable. I really had a great time.

Bijan: The young child in the film had a great performance. The mother-son relationship was very believable. Did you spend more time with him in order to create this relationship?
Wanda: the first week we were in New York we rehearsed but it was mostly improvisation. He was a little intimidated to improvise at first, but Franc. watched as I started talking and blurring the lines between improvisation and the script. In other words, I started talking to him as Wanda, and ended talking to him as Millie. He couldn’t feel the transition between acting and talking so we kept working that way so he wouldn’t feel the transition. We converse on many subjects then I would transition to dialogue and he’d follow, it was a sort of game we played. We did a lot of talking and that was one of the things that helped ease him into an effortless performance. Another thing that I really credit Franc. for was a scene that evolved organically. Before the climax of the movie, the youngest son is hurt bike riding. Originally it was one line where the mother says “I told you that you were going to get hurt.” I suggested to Franc. that the audience needs to feel this Mother and young son relationship a little bit more, so during the climax when the audience believes they are all in danger including the young one, they will care. Franc. and I worked on how to evolve that scene, and that is what appeared on screen. The little one was just so wonderful, and Franc. and I gave him lines that made it seem so real and palpable to what a young son would say to his mother.

Bijan: You’ve done it all. You’ve been on stage, starred on television, and—of course—worked on movies. Which one of these mediums do you enjoy most?
Wanda: I don’t know if it is a question of liking it more, because the approach to the characters I play remains the same. I come from theatre and that is where I started. The strengths in developing arcs in my character and scoring the role comes from my theatre days. This helped my film work. Every experience helped inform the other. I don’t find it difficult to film out of sequence because of that approach. I know how to keep track of the emotional life of the character and the states of being, and not lose the sense of the character. I really enjoy my theatre foundation. I love film, and being able to tell the beginning, middle, and end of stories. I like getting more into the psychology of characters and situations.

Bijan: Please tell us about your future projects.
Wanda: Right now, we are in post production for a second film with Franc. He’s amazing; right after “Illegal Tender” he was already finishing up another script in which Harvey Keitel and John Leguizamo are starring.The film is called “The Ministers”, and it is coming out sometime this year. Frank asked me to play a role in the film and I said “Absolutely!” because I enjoyed the experience with him the first time. It is a story with John, Harvey, and Florencia Lozano in the lead role, about vengeance, obsession, and guilt. There are two detectives; one is obsessed with finding her father’s killer, and the other cop (Harvey Keitel) is wrenched with guilt because he was the cause of the father’s death, but she doesn’t know it. The third piece of the triangle involves two brothers that are filled with vengeance—righteous vengeance—to get three people that caused deaths in their family. The film is about the misunderstanding of each other’s hearts. I play a lieutenant who is overseeing the case; I am not only trying to catch the killer, but I am policing the police because I have two cops who might jump to the other side of the law to get the killers.
Bijan: That sounds like a very intriguing story! Thank you very much for your time.

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About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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