Nothing adds to the holiday's commercial cheer like a good Christmas movie. A story about a Puerto Rican family coming together for Christmas, Nothing Like The Holidays is a warm film full of, what Freddy Rodriguez has called himself, an "all-star" cast. From Alfredo Molina to John Leguizamo, or Elisabeth Pena to Debra Messing, the family's all here in a film guaranteed to add a little spice to a holiday experience at the multiplex. Three stars from the film, Freddy Rodriguez (who also serves as an executive producer), Elisabeth Pena, and Luis Guzman came to Chicago for a red-carpet premiere at the city's treasured Music Box theatre. Joined by another reporter, I sat down at a conference table at Chicago's Four Seasons Hotel to understand why there really is Nothing Like The Holidays .
What do you think is the best physical feature of Humboldt Park?
Luis Guzman: Well, I grew up in that neighborhood. So I think definitely the people of Humboldt Park. Great people, great families. Very inviting, very supportive. They complimented a movie so well, they worked with us and invited us into their homes.
Elisabeth Pena: That Puerto Rican vibe. You know, I've never actually been anywhere in the United States where you actually had those arches with the Puerto Rican flag, and the food, the pride that is there is just awesome. And the people again are amazing. (To Freddy) Half the neighborhood was in the parranda, weren't they? It was amazing, it was really amazing.
Freddy Rodriguez: For me, it was the first time that I ever saw the park blanketed in white snow like that. Even growing up there, I would never go there in the winter time. So to see it blanketed in that white snow was just beautiful.
How would each of you describe your characters?
Rodriguez: I play Jesse, I play one of the family members who comes back from the Iraqi war and he's suffering from anxiety and stress from the war. He's trying to get re-assimilated into society. He establishes relationships with his family and his friends, and his family just happens to be this wonderful and beautiful dysfunctional family.
Pena: I play the mom. I'm very excited to have my three children with me at the same time, it had been years since that happened. Unfortunately my husband ruins the holidays.
Guzman: I am Johnny, who is more the psychotherapist of the family. Who is happy-go-lucky, the forty-something year old cousin who really in his heart and soul felt he was 22 years old.
(To Freddy Rodriguez): What was it like executive producing a movie for the first time? Did you have a lot of influence on the film?
Well, I was there from conception. Right at the beginning, when it was just an idea. It's not easy producing. I think the idea of being a producer is fascinating, and sounds cool, but it's a lot of work. And it takes years and years to put a movie together. And that's what this was, it was a long process putting this thing together. There's a certain level of responsibility that falls on your shoulders - if something goes wrong its going to fall on your shoulders. I think if you're an actor - unless you're Tom Cruise, one of those big guys - if the movie does well, then everyone shares in the success. Then if the movie bombs, it falls on my shoulders and my producer partner's shoulders. So you welcome that pressure, but you dread the results if its bad.
Did you help with the casting?
Yeah, it was part of my job to give people like Luis a call, or Elisabeth and other people to choose who the cast was gonna be. And I gotta tell ya, I feel so blessed to have the cast that came to play on the film. To me it's like...you know how they have the All-Star Game in baseball or the All-Star Game in basketball, it's like I assembled the All-Star team for this film. Every person in this film has come off of successful mainstream Hollywood movies - I was blessed to have them all in my film.
Which is interesting because Alfred Molina is not Puerto Rican
He's British. Right.
So did you guys help him out with that?
Guzman: We sent him to a Puerto Rican hypnotist.
Rodriguez: Alfred is just a wonderful actor. He just absorbed everything that was around him. We hooked him up with some Puerto Rican guys from Humboldt Park that he studied, and he studied their language and the way they dress. He's just so good that he picked it up. And when it was time for us to film, he became that person. And he didn't overdo it either, you know? It wasn't (in a crude, stereotypical Spanish accent) "try to talk like this", or anything like that. He was really subtle with it and did a fantastic job.
Which title do you prefer? "Humboldt Park" or "Nothing Like The Holidays"?
Pena: In the beginning when I first heard they had changed it from "Humboldt Park" to Nothing Like The Holidays I was kinda like "whoa!" But, Nothing Like The Holidays makes it a movie that is accessible for everyone. Because, I mean if it was called "Central Park", everybody knows where Central Park is. Not everyone knows what Humboldt Park is. And I think Nothing Like The Holidays gives it that added cheer. It's a comedy/dramedy - "Humboldt Park" sounds dangerous. I'm not saying the REAL Humboldt Park, I'm just saying the tone of it. When I hear "Humboldt Park" I think "oh...this is going to be serious." (To Freddy:) What do you prefer?
Rodriguez: I obviously prefer "Humboldt Park" because I'm from that area. So there's more relatability for me. But I think Elisabeth is right. Unless you're from Chicago, you really don't know what it is. Where Nothing Like The Holidays has a more commercial title to it, that opens it up to people in Iowa, people in Middle America.
(To Luis:) Anything to add to that?
I agree with them. Ditto.
This is kind of a devil's advocate question - but what does a Puerto Rican Christmas film say that others, like the predominantly African-American This Christmas or the Caucasian Four Christmases, don't?
Rodriguez: Our film really centers around family getting together and eating and drinking and being loud and drama happening. Where I think Four Christmases - I don't really understand that part of [that film]. They hated their families, is that the whole premise of the film? Or they didn't want to be around their families. Where Latin families are the complete opposite. You want to see your family, no matter what kind of drama. And you wanna sit down around the dinner table and do those things I just said. I guess that's what separates us from that film.
(To Elisabeth:) Do you have anything to add to that?
Pena: Well, there's also the perranda - which is Puerto Ricans...
Rodriguez: Christmas caroling.
Pena: Yeah. You're incorporating the entire neighborhood as a part of your life, so that I think definitely distinguishes it.
(To Luis:) Do you have anything to add to that?
(To Luis:) Did you improvise a lot of your parts in the movie?
Let me tell you something man, I'd like to explain: I just had fun, with the Johnny character, and whatever flavor I could add to it I would and not take anything away from the script or the other character or the moments and stuff. I just try to keep it kinda short and simple.