eddy Rodriguez has spent his 15-year acting career dealing with copious numbers of dead people, whether battling zombies in Grindhouse (2007), helping prep corpses on Six Feet Under or holding a dying Bobby Kennedy in Bobby (2006).
But with his new movie, Nothing Like the Holidays—which depicts the misadventures of a Latino family reuniting for Christmas—he’s working with much more upbeat material and, thankfully, lots more living, breathing humans.
Holidays marks a big step up on the Hollywood ladder for Rodriguez, an Emmy nominee for his role as Federico Diaz—the restorative artist and eventual funeral home co-owner on Six Feet Under—who is making his debut as an executive producer on this project. Featuring an impressive cast, including Alfred Molina (Frida), John Leguizamo, Debra Messing and Jay Hernandez (Crazy/Beautiful, Hostel), the film was not only a chance for the Chicago native to positively portray successful Latinos and the key role Catholic faith plays in their lives, it also offered the opportunity to film primarily in his Humboldt Park stomping grounds. While cameras and movie stars no longer turn heads in Chicago’s tourist-centric Loop, a full-fledged film production crew in the working-class immigrant neighborhood of Humboldt Park (in the dead of winter, no less) is a special occasion. “People were thrilled to see us,” Rodriguez says. “People would walk up to me who I hadn’t seen since 20 years ago in grammar school.”
Chicago has changed plenty since Rodriguez, 33, first took to the stage at the age of 13. While speaking about his upbringing in a Puerto Rican Catholic family, he talks about how much some areas have changed from the rough-and-tumble minority neighborhoods of his youth into the largely Caucasian yuppie enclaves they are today.
“I love my family … but I can’t imagine bringing my kids up in the same kind of streets that I had to walk,” he says. “Those areas were rough, man!”
Nonetheless, when he was 13, a theater troupe came to his school, offering acting classes and the chance to perform in plays. Rodriguez decided to audition for the yearlong opportunity to test his wings as a performer—and to skip out on a math test.
He aced the audition and became a frequent star of school plays at Lincoln Park High School, showing enough star power to land a local agent and, just a year after graduation, a role in two major Hollywood movies—the Keanu Reeves romance A Walk in the Clouds (1995) and the heist thriller Dead Presidents (1995). It was a decidedly different path than the job/marriage/house-in-the-neighborhood life his immigrant factory-worker parents expected for him.
“They didn’t really get it at first," Rodriquez says. "I have a brother in real estate, and they understood that more. When you’re an immigrant and your kid does something creative … they don’t really relax and appreciate it until they see you on the screen, having some rewards for it. Now they can tell it’s a real career, thankfully.”
Unlike most other young actors who arrive in Hollywood, Rodriguez already had buzz attached to his name when he moved to L.A. at age 20. Still, he never embraced the city’s party scene. “I married my high-school sweetheart, and that keeps you out of trouble,” Rodriguez says. He and his wife, Elsie—an interior designer with whom he has two sons, Giancarlo, 14, and Elijah, 10—have been married for 13 years. “I didn’t go out and rage in my 20s because I had the responsibility of a home life. I’m happy it kept me grounded, but having a life in Chicago, too, is what has really helped me keep my sanity. You can have real conversations here about something other than show business, and people don’t want something out of you constantly. That, and the food is real and a lot better here.”
Rodriguez bought a condo on the city’s upscale Gold Coast two years ago. He and his family come back for most of each summer, spending their days on Oak Street and North Avenue beaches.
It’s that family spirit he feels will make Holidays resonate with viewers beyond the Latino community. Rodriguez notes that you’d have to go back to the mid-’90s Latino film explosion that spawned Selena and Desperado to find that kind of crossover appeal. “When’s the last time you saw a film with a mostly Latino cast that really carried over to everyone and became a hit all could relate to,” he says. “We wanted to show that [Latino] families are like everyone else’s. You laugh, you cry, you fight and make up. But in the end we stick together and form the rock on which a good life is built.”
Ultimately, he says it’s his down-home attitude combined with his now non-denominational Christian faith that have helped him weather the storms of his career.
“Sure, there are things I’m offered that I turn down," he says. "When something seems like a good project but has something questionable like a nude scene I had in the film Havoc, I consult with my pastor and see if it’s justified by the context of the story or if it’s part of an event that has to be seen to advance a real point in the plot. But you will never hear me say ‘G-d’ or take the Lord’s name in a movie. But I make that clear to directors at the beginning, and they all respect that.”
Nothing Like the Holidays opens in theaters December 12.