On this #FlashBackFriday (#FBF) we revisit an interview I did back in September ’14 at the Snkrbst office where I presently work as editor. I interviewed budding star Johnny Rivera, whose previous work includes East WillyB, Man with the Van, with guest spots on Nickelodeon and Law & Order: SVU. He’s an accomplished actor, writer, dad, entrepreneur and teacher within his native community of Brooklyn, New York. His initial dream was to become a professional baseball player, but little did he know that acting would be his true calling. Join me as we inquire more about actor Johnny Rivera’s path and see how he was able to transition adversity into a “field of dreams.”
Synopsis: New Yorkers Alex and Jose are ambitious yet lazy brothers who, after being forced to work in their dad’s bodega, conspire to take the store’s success into their own hands. From upselling customers to creating a concert series in the bodega’s basement, these guys stop at nothing to bring home the bacon with ridiculous get-rich-quick schemes. As their “guerrilla marketing” strategies start to fumble, though, their dad’s temper rises. Papi’s old-world Dominican traditions collide with the sons’ entrepreneurial spirit, and hilarity is the usual result.
Q1: Can you give us some background on Univision’s affiliate “The Flama” and its programing?
A: “The Flama” is an affiliate of Univision featuring Latino content – currently streaming on YouTube. They’re really onto something extraordinary with the younger generation of Latinos. The demographic they’ve acquired (based on feedback I’ve seen on their IG) is all over the map – spanning from the east to west. I think “The Flama” are true innovators in the sense that they’ve focused on a number of cultures, dialects, quirks, traditions and even technology that truly makes us Latinos diverse. D-Stroy (former cast mate from “East WillyB”) is on there and offers his unique style and voice to his audience. Becky G is a pop artist and comes from the west coast offering a fresh perspective to the channel. “Abuelita’s Review” and even our show “The Bodega“ is showing the world that our Latino essence can’t be placed under one category. We are multifaceted and “The Flama” knows that. And they were smart to showcase the channel online – making it readily available in this tech savvy world.
Q2: My introduction to your work was the popular webseries “East WillyB.” Since it’s inception, your career has flourished onto other projects like “Man with the Van” and a role on the hit primetime series “Law & Order SVU.” Currently, you are one of the leads in the webseries “The Bodega” – can you shed some light as to how these shows have helped your career and the roles you’ve selected? Is there a preference between outlets (Webseries vs. Primetime TV)?
A: The “Law and Order” episode was a great experience – I loved my experience on the set. If you’re a New York actor and you do “Law & Order,” you get baptized. But aside from this extraordinary experience, there’s truly no preference. I’ve been a working actor for 7 to 8 years now and I’ve only strived to work. The mindset that’s kept me going and is important to keep in mind in this business, is to treat each project the same. If you treat projects differently or have preferences, you won’t last very long. Whether if I’m working with Martin Scorsese or Pancho from Bushwick – if the project feeds the art and feeds the soul, I’m going to do it.
Q3: Critics may compare “The Bodega” to “East WillyB,” how would you help distinguish between both series?
A: For me, the best way to help distinguish between series is through my experiences. My first official acting role was when I shot the pilot for “East WillyB” about three years ago. It was an amazing experience from start to finish. I was acting but was still having a fun. I was in awe of my co-stars Flaco and D-Stroy. I had to remind myself that even though I was super excited to be working with these folks, that I too needed to bring something to the table. And, because I had no preset notion or reservations about acting, my time spent with them was a learning experience. It helped shape me into the actor I am today. Now with “Bodega” it’s an entirely different animal. I took my experience as a supporting actor on “East WillyB” and was able to apply that same work ethic to “The Bodega.” Being one of the main leads, means more responsibility on me. Also, the stories are completely different. The commonality between both characters is that they’re both Latino and are presently living in gentrified neighborhoods. Our job as storywriters, cast and crew is to bring these organic stories to life. We are to be the voices of these stories on this global platform we’ve been provided as proof that this is the nature of the city we are currently living in.
Q4: If you didn’t see yourself as an actor then what profession were you thinking about pursuing?
A: When I was younger, I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue. I was just living for the now and wasn’t thinking of the future back then. Growing up, the norm was to have a regular 9 to 5 – and I didn’t know of the possibilities in acting because I hadn’t been exposed to it. When I was younger, I’d see TV shows and thought ‘oh, that happens to other people. Not people like me’ because I didn’t see people like me on TV. But despite not seeing characters like myself on TV, I was still very much a big fan of TV shows like “Saved by the Bell.” I can remember being 9 or 10 years old and can remember transcribing the episodes simply for my amusement. I had no idea that there was a potential in writing, and much less acting. That was until I attended my high school Bushwick Outreach (which is now known as Bushwick Community High School) and was introduced to my mentor Carmen Rivera. She taught playwriting and was the first person to see my potential. After high school is when I really started writing, and then came the acting.
Q5: “East WillyB” was shot in Bushwick, Brooklyn and now “The Bodega” is being shot in Washington Heights (aka Northern Manhattan). Do you feel there are similarities or differences amongst either neighborhood?
A: With “East WillyB” you got to see more locations of the neighborhood ’cause our shoots were a little longer. If there is a difference, I’d have to say that despite the Latino cast and crew, there were a lot more “hipsters” in the area at the time of shooting. Gentrification was and still is very much prevalent in Brooklyn. And although were seeing more hints of it in the Washington Heights area, it’s still not as dominant, yet. Although, while shooting in the Heights we’d often get ‘Yo, can I be in the show? Or, when is this coming out?’ from the daily onlookers. But on either set/borough, the locals always showed us love.
Q6: In “East WillyB” you played a Puerto Rican character and now in “The Bodega” you play a Dominican character. How does it feel to play another culture?
A: When we had our first read through, even before production began, we talked about the nationalities for these characters, – and I’ll be honest, nationalities were never set. The writing for the show is so relatable and universal, that it can be a number of nationalities. Fans of the show have even asked me if the actor playing our dad is Cuban because of certain quirks he adds to his character. Folks are truly inquisitive to find out the cultural origins of our characters, which makes playing these characters even more fun. The show is truly a melting pot, a sancocho of cultures – and it’s important to see these visuals, but it is also important not to distinguish between them.
Q7: Currently how do you feel about the Latino presence in media?
A: It’s still a struggle just because so many stories aren’t being shared. I know tons of Latino teachers that inspire students every day but their stories aren’t being told because it doesn’t fit the stereotypical norm. My mentor is a Latina and I’d love to see her story be shared on film someday. Our need to show diversity in a positive light is what drives me as an actor – to be that change.
Q8: As well as being a full time actor you also mentor teenagers in the pursuit of acting. Are you candid with your students of the successes as well as the harshness that can be expected in this industry?
A: I’ve informed them about the reality of this industry through my experiences. However, I do my best to try to approach the realities through a positive lens. I myself was once a troubled youth, but I was fortunate to have participated in the Bushwick Outreach program that helped me see my own potential. My mentors were Tababri Zaid and Lydia Bomani and teachers like Jennifer Ostrow – these individuals were the first outside of my family to show me the importance of education. I attribute a lot of my success to them because they taught me that my purpose in life mattered. And I’m a big believer of signs. Had it not been for this program, I don’t know where I’d be today. I wouldn’t have pursued this career nor would I have met my fellow cast mates from “East Willy B.” I believe everything has and serves a purpose in your life.
Q9: With YouTube webseries often leading to the big networks, is this where you see your career going?
A: For me, it’s not about having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – not that it wouldn’t be dope – but my dream is just to keep working. I didn’t grow up thinking I’d be an actor; I thought I’d go into sports, actually. Once I started acting, my love for the craft grew into a passion. Whether it’s TV, film, or working in educational theater… I’m doing what I love.
Q10: Is there a dream director you’d love to work with?
A: Again, I didn’t have those aspirations growing up because for most of my youth I thought I was going to work in sports. I didn’t grow up watching a lot of TV (other than “Sports Center”) but while attending Bushwick Outreach, one of my drama teachers showed us students John Leguizamo’s “Mambo Mouth,” and I was instantly hooked. He is the one person I’d aspire to work with just because of the way he is. I see him and I see my family members. I see my tio Papo and tio Ramon and all these different tios (uncles). Him and Luis Guzman are two actors I would love to work with because he too is a working actor. He’s from LES, (Lower East Side) and he’s someone I recognize as if he were family. I see myself in their faces and the character choices they both tackle. And in working with them, I know I’d be a fan because I highly respect what they do and the years they’ve both put into this industry.
Q11: Do you see yourself one day working behind the scenes as a future director or producer?
A: Yeah! I’ve always enjoyed working behind the scenes, equally to acting, if not a little more. Writing is how I started at Bushwick Outreach. The encouraging staff as well as my fellow peers would often tell me that I should write professionally. So I’ve written and directed a few things in the past and posted them online. But as for now, I want to focus on what the universe is giving me, which is the world of acting. I want to focus my time on all these roles and I don’t want lose track of that. But nonetheless, the future holds tons of possibilities.
Q12: Do you still keep in contact with your cast mates from “East WillyB”?
A: Flaco Navaja is definitely familia. Show’s creators Julia Grob and Yamin Segal are both very significant to me because they brought me onto the East WillyB cast – and for that I’m eternally grateful. D-Stroy also keeps in contact and is doing his thing for “The Flama” channel. He’ll often send me texts like “Love you, puta. Keep doing your thing.” Ah, I love that dude. Whenever we see each other or anyone from the cast, it’s always love.
Q13: Do you foresee an “East WillyB” reunion?
A: I’m not really sure. I commend the creators of the show for having risen 50K in 50 days to shoot the existing episodes. When there’s a demand like that, it’s pretty evident that there’s a demand for it. And I believe there were more episodes written that I’d love to be apart of one day. But yeah, I think this question is more for the show’s creators and production team.
Q14: Dong my research I also found out that you’re also an entrepreneur. “Brooklyn Coquito” is your brand of which you run alongside your wife Athena (also former “East WillyB” cast mate and fellow actor). Currently, where is your company in the market and do you plan on expanding?
A: First, the recipe for “Brooklyn Coquito” is a family recipe – comes from my wife’s grandmother. I had always wanted to learn how to make it and one day we started experimenting in the kitchen. A year later we thought it would be fun to bottle the drink and give to our friends as holiday presents. Many were surprised we weren’t selling it. We thought, ‘why not?’! let’s put our product online!’ The rest is history. We’ve been in business for four years now. Our busiest season is during the holidays, which is perfect for both of our busy schedules. As for the future of “Brooklyn Coquito,” we plan on going mainstream. We both currently have a lot of acting projects in the works, but we definitely plan on making the transition to mainstream when we’re both ready to expand. We also have new merch in the works. The logo is purposely-plain black lettering over white and not your typical seasonal colors so you can rock the merch year ‘round.
Q15: If folks wanted to inquire more about “Brooklyn Coquito” where can they go online?
A: Right now we have a Facebook page and you can visit us at: www.facebook.com/thebrooklyncoquito
Q16: Being a working actor, acting teacher, entrepreneur and family man, how do you balance it all?
A: My good friend and mentor, Dominic Colon (played Enano on “East WillyB”) is the same person with whom I started my acting career. When I first met him, he’s was the theatre director for a company called “Teatro El Puente.” El Puente a social justice organization located in Brooklyn with a focus on HIV/STD prevention. He recommended me and I was then employed as a peer educator/actor for about 3 to 4 years. And whenever I’d find myself flustered or overwhelmed, I’d ask him for advice and he’d always answer, ‘make it work. You gave your word, now you make it work.’ I’ve always incorporated his advice into my professional and family life. When you establish relationships in this industry with your professionalism, people truly want to work with you. If you really want to pursue this life, “you make it work.”
Q17: Do you implement this strong work ethic of “make it work” onto your students as well?
A: Absolutely. First thing I try to avoid is to judge my students. I go to a variety of schools in the city – some are top schools, while others are not so great. And that’s no reflection on the students, but rather how these schools are being managed. And as I walk into these schools, I always get the same reaction of disbelief. When my students first see me, they’re truly baffled because I could easily pass as a student. Once they do a quick Google search and check my work history on my IMDb page, then they see the potential. They usually come back the next day all hyped, and that’s when I enforce the “make it work” concept. If they want to see a great outcome in their lives, I tell them, “don’t make excuses. Just find a way to make it work.” And if my students walk away from the experience feeling accomplished and inspired, then I’ve done my job.
Season two of “The Bodega” just finished wrapping in its resident location of Washington Heights, so be on the lookout for new online episodes. Season one of “The Bodega” is currently streaming on YouTube and Hulu for your “funny bone” needs. Also, don’t forget to check out “The Flama” channel for tons of quality videos at your techy disposal. And until next time mi gente… artsy besos.
By Roz Baron