Eight years ago, Emilio Rivera was just another actor cast in a small part in a new play called Water & Power at the Mark Taper Forum. Performed by the group Culture Clash, it was a definite hit and Rivera loved his time in the play. Flash forward to today and he’s now the headlining the film version in the role he said he’d always wanted to play.
Written and directed by Richard Montoya, Water & Power tells the story of two brothers nicknamed Water (Nicholas Gonzales) & Power (Enrique Murciano). Rivera plays the wheelchair bound Notre/Sur, friend (and also narrator of the story) of the two brothers, who have grown up to be a senator and corrupt cop. As Rivera told me, the film is dark and “heavy.”
I talked to him recently about the film, his days in LA theater, Sons of Anarchy and his advice to actors.
This was a play back at the Mark Taper back in 2006 and you were actually in it?
Emilio Rivera: Yeah, brother. I’ve been in it from the beginning. The movie means a lot to me because I’ve been in it since ground zero, you know what I mean?
Yeah, definitely. It’s from Culture Clash. Were you a part of their group initially?
Emilio Rivera: Not at all. Not at all. Culture Clash usually does their own work but once in a while they’ll do a play where they bring in other actors. I saw it on the breakdown and I wanted to audition for it and I was lucky enough to get it. It’s a different character though, a whole different character I’m playing. Culture Clash played the main three characters.
When you were on stage and performing back then, did you always have your eye on the character you’re playing now? Like, “Oh, man. I’d love to play this guy.”
Emilio Rivera: Of course, brother. We were performing like 9 times a week and every time Ric Salinas was playing a part, especially in rehearsals, I was like, “I’d love to play that role.” And then all these years later here I am playing the role. So it was… it was cool, man.
When did you find out the director [Richard Montoya] was trying to turn this into a movie?
Emilio Rivera: Well, not too much longer. People were talking about it already that it should be a movie. And then there was a screenplay and he got me, Esai Morales to go to Sundance and workshop it. And we workshopped it up there and 2 years passed by and finally it was a movie. It was a long process but in the end we got it done, you know?
Can you tell me about the film and the part you play now?
Emilio Rivera: The film to me, the best way to describe is it’s a love story. Two brothers and the sacrifices they make for each other. Making the ultimate sacrifice at the end. And I play a guy in a wheelchair, Notre/Sur. Nicholas Gonzales plays a corrupt police officer [Power]. At the end of the day, you could say that he’s not corrupt, he just did what he had to do to save his brother [Water]. But he’s the one who put me in the wheelchair. He shot me in the back and put me in the wheelchair. And now we’ve become like brothers as well. And it’s really heavy man. You’ve gotta pay attention to it. It’s great storytelling, but you’ve gotta pay attention to it.
You say the film is heavy and, I assume, kind of dark. When you’re doing scenes like this and shows like Sons of Anarchy, do you try and stay in that mindset throughout the day? Or as soon as they say cut you’re back to being regular Emilio?
Emilio Rivera: Yeah, you know, my work ethic is kind of weird. Once I get on and they say cut, I still stay in my character. I’m kind of weird that way. I mean if there’s no dialogue in a day, I can have fun and talk to the people, you know? But when there’s dialogue, you’ve gotta stay in your character, at least I do. It’s really hard to get in and out sometimes. If you get out and you have to do the work to get back in so it’s better to stay in, you know what I mean?
And even when I was not on film, I always stayed in the wheelchair as much as possible.
Looking at your bio. You’ve done a lot of theater. Was that all around LA back then?
Emilio Rivera: All LA. A lot of small theaters but that was my training grounds mainly. I’m so glad to have done it that way. I’ve done over 40 stage productions over the years. It makes TV and film acting so much easier. Theater you gotta be on point. You’re always at rehearsal, you’ve got to know your lines. You can fuck up when you’re onstage.
Any plans to go back and do another show at some point?
Emilio Rivera: If something comes up that I would dig, of course bro, yeah. I love the theater more than TV or film. It’s harder to make a living unless you’re a big star.
You started acting in your 30’s?
Emilio Rivera: I was 30 years old, yeah.
Did you always want to be an actor and just never did it? Or was it something new to you?
Emilio Rivera: Yeah. I’m from the 60s, you know, I got mixed up in gangs and drugs for a long time. And then I was 29, I said I gotta do something man. I gave it a shot. And it worked out, it really did. It saved my life basically.
Why do you think you’ve been so tremendously successful when others who have been doing it much longer, aren’t?
Emilio Rivera: I think the thing is when you do a character, you… I put a lot of meat into those characters. It comes out as real as possible.
Sometimes you don’t have that luxury do to a take over and over, especially when you’re not the star. So, what I do, I try and knock it out of the park every single take. So that whatever take, it’s gonna be good. People see that and the word of mouth goes around.
And Sons of Anarchy was a great point for me. Before Sons of Anarchy, I would only do one or two things a month.
I want to talk about Sons of Anarchy real quick. First of all, it’s a major feat that you were on the whole 7 years.
Emilio Rivera: Yeah, I do know.
Now after you were sort of kind of removed from it for the past couple of months now. When you think about on it, what’s the thing regard as the best experience of the show?
Emilio Rivera: You know, man, comradery. Of course, the work is always good but the comradery, the laughter, the jokes we played on each other. I was excited to go to work every time I went to work there. The seven years I went to work there, I knew it was gonna be a good time. It was a family, bro. It became a family real quick. That’s why the show was such a great show because we were all pulling for each other. We were out there to work as a unit and it came across that way.
I would imagine you guys, you’ve just gotta be like totally missing hanging out with those guys every day?
Emilio Rivera: It was cool. You’d finish at 3 in the morning, we’d finish up in the mountains and then you’d see like12 bikes shooting down the highway at 3 in the morning. It was pretty badass, dude. The whole thing about it, it was awesome. I don’t care what job you have, when you go home, or they say cut, everyone goes home to their separate cars. And we’d all wait for each other. It was really cool, man.
If actors ask you for advice, what do you say to them?
Emilio Rivera: This is the thing man, work, work, and do more work. Study life. Get a great class. Don’t get too stuck in a class. If you do study with one teacher, what you’ve learned what they’re going to teach you, move on. Don’t make class a big thing. Just do the work. Just study life, study characters.
With our job, you can be driving, you can do a monologue. It doesn’t have to be a monologue that’s known, make up your own story. We all have great stories of our own that can touch people.
Just like anything in your life, you can’t stop. You keep going. Hollywood is just business. You know, you’re an actor. One day they’re gonna notice you. All you do is you get older and you’re gonna get better.