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.”
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.”
By 1975, she was pursuing theater in earnest, almost always with an activist edge. She helped start the Latino Theater Company, acted in plays with the Latino theater collective Nosotros, and eventually found her way to a role at the Mark Taper Forum, as the mother in Luis Valdez‘s Zoot Suit, with which she went on to a successful run on Broadway. She had not yet left her job as a social worker in Compton at the South-Central Los Angeles Regional Center for the Developmentally Disabled.
“We created a Latino ensemble,” she says, “because we wanted to put our own messages on the stage, messages we knew were not going to be heard without us.” Writers such as Evelina Fernandez, writer of the independent film Luminarias, and Valdez himself came out of that effort. “I’ve never left those issues, those concerns, never left . . . how can I say what it is I haven‘t left? I’m not going to say my barrio, because I‘ve never lived in a barrio. I hate that word to begin with, it has such a negative connotation to it. But I’ve never left my town behind, never abandoned my community.” She still lives in the same house in which she raised her three children, in Pico Rivera — “the Beverly Hills of Chicanos,” she explains, and says that no measure of lucre or fame could lure her to Bel-Air. “That‘s not living. That’s just existing behind high walls.”
Among Latinos, Ontiveros is probably best known for playing Selena‘s killer in the movie about the murdered singer, but she will have their attention again when the bilingual HBO feature Real Women Have Curves premieres in April. In the film, based on the play by Josefina Lopez, she co-stars as the immigrant mother of an academically gifted and rebellious daughter — a role so unrelentingly bitter that only a comedian of her caliber could play it lovingly, and with humor. For the performance, she and her young co-star, America Ferrera, shared a Best Dramatic Actress award at “Gringolandia,” better known in the Anglo world as the Sundance Film Festival.
Miguel Arleta remembers sharing a table with Ontiveros and his agent, a woman from William Morris, at an awards dinner. “When I introduced them, Lupe just turned to my agent and said, ’Why the hell aren‘t you getting more work for Latina actors?’ She just tore into her. And she completely got away with it. My agent said, ‘Well, you’re right. I‘ll try to be more aware of that.’”
For a middle-aged Latina who stands a mere 4-feet-11 and started acting in her mid-30s, Ontiveros has done remarkably well, but it has entailed some compromise with an industry she considers hobbled when it comes to portraying Latinos. “Hollywood,” she told another journalist recently, “is chasing its tail.” When I ask her to elaborate, she shifts into the second person, as if studio heads have materialized in the room with us. “You just go around in circles! You‘re always saying, ’We‘re trying, we’re trying, we really are.‘ But you’re not really trying. You‘re chasing the image of the immigrant that you have in your mind. And you’re never going to catch up with it, because you don‘t have sense enough to stop and say, ’No. There‘s something here between the mouth here and the tail, in between here’” — she brings the tips of her fingers to her solar plexus — “‘that can function.’”
She has turned down roles she considers hateful and simplistic, but she has also played many — such as the happy housekeeper in the Spielberg-produced Goonies — she calls derogatory (“derogatory, because for a long time I was not seen beyond them”). And while she might disparage the writing, she does not resent the work. “I‘ve had a hell of a good time playing those maids,” she says. “Each one to me is very special. Her own heart and soul lingers with my heart and soul. No matter how much I resent the stupidity that is written into them, the audacity that the industry has when they portray us in such a nonsensical, idiotic, such — oh my God! — such a degrading manner, still, my humor survives in these maids. I’m very proud of them.
”And,“ she adds, ”blessed be God for those subservient roles, because if I would‘ve been a spoiled child, a beautiful T&A kind of woman, skinny and young and what have you, I don’t think I would have gotten the soul of this industry. I wouldn‘t have understood the basic foundation of what this business is about, which is humanity, and character. And if I would’ve put on my high airs and not taken them,“ she says, ”I wouldn‘t be where I am today. Most of all, I wouldn’t be in a postion to retire someday.“