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Playing the Human Part 

Lupe Ontiveros on how not to be a diva

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002
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Lupe Ontiveros arranges herself in the spare plastic conference-room chair at her publicist’s office, vexing about what makes a good interview. “I was trying to think as I was driving here what I could tell you,” she says. “And I decided that you should just ask me what you want to know and let things come out naturally.” She folds her neatly manicured hands on the table and looks me square in the eye. “So,” she says determinedly, adjusting a string of pearls around her cool ochre blouse. “What do you want to know. Ask me anything. I‘m yours -- forever.”

Or at least for the next hour. But if “forever” means completely, she is not exaggerating. There are few people so stalwartly present in a conversation as Ontiveros. Each mundane question opens new floodgates of candor; every answer is delivered with a passion that makes her brown eyes grow wide and wider with wonder. There is no trivia in her world-view, and no trivial people. Which is why, perhaps, Ontiveros became a star of independent film by playing mostly maids: She did not condescend. “I have made chicken salad out of chicken shit,” she says, with a long laugh from the gut. “That,” she adds, “is my favorite saying.”

She imagines she has played a maid 300 times, if you count both theater and film. “At first my only lines were ’Si, señor, no, señor,‘ you know, that kind of shit.” Later, her domestic turns became more substantial: In Gregory Nava’s beautiful and tragic El Norte, her La Nacha mentored a young woman in the fine art of playing cheery and dumb so as not to threaten the gringa boss. At the moment, she can be seen in Todd Solondz‘s Storytelling, where, with the help of the vengeance written into Solondz’s script, she quietly becomes the axis of suffering on which the story turns. And in the new television series Leap of Faith, by the creators of Sex and the City, she‘ll play a lesbian maid. “I’m this gay Latina who walks into the lives of these three women -- they‘re cool, they’re hot, all that -- and starts bossing them around. They don‘t know what to do about her, so they end up hiring her. And she’s a terrible maid! She doesn‘t clean! But she loves roast beef!” Ontiveros’ eyes twinkle. “The role,” she says, “was originally written for a Russian.”

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Two years ago, after 25 years of acting, Ontiveros scored a breakthrough when independent filmmaker Miguel Arleta came backstage to meet her after a theatrical showcase. “He was so shy, so beautiful,” Ontiveros recalls. “And he said, ‘I have a screenplay here, for a movie called Chuck and Buck, and I’d like you to consider the role of Beverly.‘ I said ’What? What‘s her name again?’ He said ‘Beverly.’ I said, ‘Beverly? You want me to play a woman named Beverly? Well, I’ll do it!‘ I didn’t even read the script.”

“The role wasn‘t written for a Latina,” says Arleta. “It was written for a white, neurotic girl in her 30s. But Lupe turned it into a much sweeter, tougher character. It played much better with her being a little older, and not behaving in a way audiences expect Latinas to behave. One of the delights of the film is that she goes against the prejudices of the audience.”

Chuck and Buck “was the only time I didn’t have to fake an accent,” says the El Paso--born Ontiveros. Her performance as the straight-talking theater house manager netted her a Best Supporting Actress award from the National Board of Review and an Independent Spirit nomination. The film, which centers on Chuck and Buck coming to terms with their sexual identities, also secured her segment of the gay male audience. “That‘s wonderful,” Ontiveros says, “but I hear them calling me a diva, and I wish they wouldn’t. I hate that word, diva. But if there‘s anything I’ve tried to do in my life, it‘s what the human part of me, my Christian part, my Catholic part, my spiritual part tells me to do -- to give. And I will give until the day I die, and do until I can no longer do.” This is not, she contends, what makes a diva.

A social worker with an undergraduate degree in psychology from Texas Women’s University, Ontiveros was living in Los Angeles and between jobs when, in 1972, she answered a newspaper ad for movie extras. “I asked my husband, ‘Should I go in for this?’ And he said, ‘Sure, go for it!’ Oh, he‘s sorry he said that now, so sorry he said that.” Elias Ontiveros had brought his family to California for better prospects in the automotive business; his wife caught the acting bug and, while pregnant with the second of what would later be three children, enrolled in an adult acting class at Hollywood High, which led to involvement in the Latino theater movement that was emerging in Los Angeles at the time. “It’s an interesting thing that used to happen to me then,” she says. “I‘d say to people, ’Just tell me I‘m bad if I’m bad, and then I can go home.‘ I was so uncertain, so insecure, always asking, ’Am I doing this right?‘ And everyone was supportive. They’d tell me I was funny, or I was this, or that -- enough for me to stay.”

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