Written by Tara de Bach
Poet and producer, actor and comedian, award-winning TV writer, denizen of the Latin quarter, Hollywood Hills and Great White Way, Rick Najera is the embodiment of diversity. Perhaps best known as the creator and writer of Latinologues, a collection of funny and poignant monologues conceived in 1994 about the Latino experience in America and produced on Broadway in 2005, Najera is a comedy writing veteran whose credits include In Living Color and Mad TV. A chameleon of many trades, Najera has scaled another entertainment mountain with his screenplay for Nothing Like the Holidays [Screenplay by Alison Swan and Rick Najera], opening nationwide on November 14. A humorous tale about a Puerto Rican family’s eventful week of holiday chaos, the film seems much like Najera’s life story, as evidenced by the character who chases Hollywood dreams but discovers that the strength and unity embodied by family is what really matters. Roles are reversed, horizons expanded, leaps of faith are taken -- all in a day’s work for this talented funny man.
The Writers Guild of America, West Web site sat down with Najera, who will appear with Henry Poole is Here writer Albert Torres and USA Today critic, Claudia Puig on Sunday, September 14 at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (go to www.laliff.org for details or to RSVP) to discuss his varied career path, why diversity should be important to writers, and what it means to be a Latino writer in 2008.
How did Nothing Like the Holidays come about?
Years ago, I was approached by Bob Teitel about doing a Puerto Rican film, and at the time I had just finished a play about my dad, A Quiet Love. We really wanted to tell a universal story about family from the start, so while there’s a mostly Latino cast, essentially the story is a reflection of all families. What is truly amazing to me is that there are far more similarities between families than differences, people just notice the differences. But if you look closely, and write to the specifics of family, you find the truth. And the truth is: we, every family, are an awful lot alike.
How has being a Latino writer affected your writing career? Has it been a help or hindrance?
To be pegged as a Latino writer doesn’t get you a job even writing Latino shows. It doesn’t mean all your friends and family hire you. That is false. Early on, I came to the understanding I needed to multi-platform in order to survive. I wrote plays, I wrote comedy and drama, I learned to be innovative as well as to mimic. I did stand-up, and I acted on stage, television, and film. In short, I learned to diversify. Even now, in order to keep forward momentum as an artist you better learn to handle a thousand different things -- Latino or not. Some you’ll succeed at and some you may do less well with, but you will be able to survive.
Photo: © 2008 Overture Films, LLC
Elizabeth Pena, John Leguizamo, and Debra Messing in Nothing Like The Holidays.
You know I went though a spell where I had four different pilots that were about to go, and none of them went. I consistently heard, “It’s not the right time [for a Latino story],” which let’s face it, is a no. But I have to thank my dad because he said to me, “Every no you get just means you’re getting that much closer to a yes.” Having the support of your family, really allows you to persist and find the silver lining. Those words were a gift my dad gave me and continue to be a source of inspiration I’ll never forget.
Why are you a member of the Guild’s Latino Writers Committee?
I think there are two parts to that answer. First, I truly believe having a diversified [writers] room -- old, young, Asian, female, whatever -- is the way you find and create a great story. A diversified room allows for a diversified discussion and the best stories are going to be told that way.
Second, the Writers Guild fought for me at one point in my career when I really needed someone in my corner. Before that time, sure, I was a Guild member, but when they went to bat for me, I realized the union was my friend. Companies might pretend they’re looking out for you, but they’re not. They’re looking out for the bottom line. So while the union might not have all the answers, they stand up when it matters the most.
That is why I flew back from D.C. recently to go to a Latino Committee event because there is a choice you have to make. The choice is to get involved and participate and make a difference. If you want more women [writers], more people of color, the only way to make those things happen is to be active. Is Hollywood slow to evolve? Yes, but if you participate, you really start to see it happen. Sure, it’s gradual, but I also believe it’s inevitable.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming writers?
Don’t give up. Always try to make it. If you think the story is done, it isn’t. It’s never done. You might think it is but it’s not. As a writer you’re asking someone else to see what you see, and feel what you feel, and there’s an ongoing process to accomplish that feat. Sure, there’s always commerce involved, but it’s important to realize there’s no happily ever after. The story is never finished because you’re speaking to an audience that is always evolving and changing.
I was having lunch in New York and a busboy came up to me who had just seen my play, and he gave me the greatest compliment ever. He said, “Thank you. I saw your play, and you gave a voice to me who doesn’t have a voice.” What an honor it is to give voice to people who don’t have one. So the long and short of it is that to do justice to that voice, it takes sacrifice. It takes time to develop an understanding of an audience. The creative process, it’s alive. It takes hard work, and it’s never over.