Tino, from the mountains of Guatemala, wakes up at 5 o’clock one recent morning, prays to God for a job, and then walks to the Westlake Home Depot on Wilshire in search of work, in particular something in construction, carpentry or gardening.
That same morning, singer/songwriter Miller Duvall, from the suburbs of San Jose, drives to the Home Depot in search of Jesus, the title role for the music video of his ballad “Jesus.” The song’s namesake is a kind and humble worker capable of construction, carpentry and garden work.
Duvall pulls into the Home Depot parking lot in a borrowed Mercedes that is, as he puts it, “bachelored out” and “slightly asshole-ish.” Bad rap blares from the speakers as he emerges from the car, tall and calmly confident, holding a camera and a sign-up sheet for interested applicants. His search for Jesus begins.
Duvall looks mainly for gold teeth, which is how Tino ends up getting the job: All four of his front teeth are gold. The other two men in Duvall’s backing band for Jesus, cast the morning of the shoot, have different looks, but all three have been asked to dress as gardeners. And so, they arrive on set in Western dress, wearing their nicest dress shirts, large belt buckles and, in Tino’s case, a cowboy hat.
Tino is nervous. He confesses that he doesn’t know how to dance or act. It is a great relief, then, when he learns that all he has to do in the opening scene is unload gardening equipment from a truck in the driveway, while the central action unfolds somewhat distantly, on the doorstep of the video’s producer in the hills of Los Feliz. The action is quick: Christian missionaries come to Duvall’s house to proselytize about Jesus, who is nowhere to be seen, but then Jesus and the other gardeners appear in the driveway, and the song begins:
I may not know Jesus
But I know a guy named Jesus
He mows my lawn on Sunday
And I know he’s got no excuse
To not take care of his family
And be the best man he can be
I may not know Jesus
But Jesus is good enough for me
In the song, Duvall and Jesus are very close. In practice, Duvall and Tino are slightly awkward together. They are at the Cha Cha Lounge in Silver Lake, their third location of the day, when Duvall calls for “a real bro-down.” There will be hugs and high fives and foosball.
“Jugando, divertido,” Duvall explains in poorly pronounced Spanish, waving his hands. “Listo?”
The song starts to play and Duvall, now in performance mode, throws his arms around a shy Tino, squeezing him in a full embrace. Tino blushes and starts laughing.
“Cut,” the director of photography yells. “That was horrible, that was crap.”
Duvall turns to the translator for help. “This is the part of the music video where they can be themselves the most,” he says. “So far, they’ve just been gardeners.”
They’ve been gardeners at the Cha Cha and at a multimillion-dollar mansion in the hills above Los Feliz; later they’ll be gardeners at a studio downtown, performing choreographed dance sequences with weed whackers, leaf blowers and maracas. In places like these, it is often almost too much to consider some of the facts of Tino’s life, but a few of the crew members cannot help themselves. They consider that Tino married his wife when she was 14 years old. (He was 21 then; now he is 37.) They consider the photograph of Tino’s four young children that he carries with him inside a little plastic key chain, a detail that Duvall finds “fuckin’ heartbreaking.” They consider that Tino does not know how to read or write, and was 26 before he learned how to sign his name. He has never attended a single day of school; once, when he was little, he says, teachers visited his house, and his parents hid him in the bathroom because they needed him on the ranch. The production manager shakes her head, shocked, and says, “This must be so surreal.”
But, in fact, it isn’t. Tino grew up in Guatemala very aware that movies are made in Los Angeles. (His favorites are Rambo, Terminator and Selena.) When he was 11, he dreamt that he would come here and make one. And, in fact, after only a week in L.A., he stumbled upon a camera crew filming a police chase in MacArthur Park. He even asked one of the crew members how he might work on a set, but decided against going to the address she gave him because he doesn’t know how to read.
Tino, however, has no trouble understanding why Duvall would want someone dressed as gardener to play Jesus in a music video: “Like campesinos,” he says, “Jesus was poor and humble.”
It is 9 o’clock and the band members are at their fourth and final location, a huge studio with a huge white backdrop to frame the dance numbers. Tino is tired. And there is trouble with the wave: One of the backing men is apparently not on cue and, on top of that, he is not raising the rake high enough so that the wave takes shape. The director stops his camera, turns to his assistant and says, exasperated, “Really?”
When the wave shot is wrapped, the director cancels the snowflake sequence. “Is it really that late?” asks a disappointed Duvall.
“It’s not a question of time,” the director says, “but of reality.” He sends the backing band home. They are each paid $100, more or less the same amount of money that they would make in a day’s work of construction, carpentry or garden work. (SAG extras get between $125 and $310 for 8 hours; non-union players get less.)
On the drive back to MacArthur Park, the men are strangely quiet. They don’t want to talk about the music video with each other and they really don’t want to talk about the music video with anyone else. “I don’t want anyone to think that I have a lot of money,” one of the men says, and both Tino and the other man nod in agreement.
The production assistant pulls into the parking lot of the Food 4 Less in her boyfriend’s bright-red Audi, and Tino gets out of the car quickly to walk home. He needs to rest so that he can again get up at 5 a.m., pray for work, and then go to the Home Depot in search of it.