Mariem Pérez Riera, lead actor Angelita in Los Dos Mundos de Angelita on being a child actress, traveling to New York, and how things are meant to be.
G: Tell me a bit about your background. How did you grow up as a child to get into acting?
M: When I was little, my mom and my dad used to have a duet and they used to sing together. My father had his own band while my mom continued playing music. Later on, my father had a talk show on TV. My mom started painting then so my background was always in the arts, but neither of them was into filmmaking or anything like that. But I started acting because the school I was in, which was a Montessori type of school, they used to put on this big theatre production with the kids. I started acting there. I was playing one of the main characters in the play and that’s where this woman, the director of Los Dos Mundos de Angelita, she saw me there and decided she wanted me to play the role of Angelita. Before that, I was just in school basically.
G: I should ask, were your parents from the states?
M: No, we all lived in Puerto Rico and she [the director] actually went to Puerto Rico looking for an actress to play Angelita. Someone told her there was this play in the school and she decided to go. That’s how she found me. So it wasn’t planned at all for me or for my family.
G: Wow, I didn’t know this aspect of travel, sort of backwards from what happens in the movie, was involved in making the film. She must’ve flown you out then?
M: Yeah, I lived in Puerto Rico all my life and even my whole family is still there.
G: Are you familiar with the background story of the film? I know it was written by José Manuel Torres Santiago, a Puerto Rican writer, though he was not the director. Do you know how the whole thing ended up coming about?
M: You know what, not really. Because I was so young, I don’t know much. Later, I guess I didn’t bother to find out, you know, it was something I just grew up, I was never able to find out. I do know that some of the actors were from Puerto Rico and then some of them were from New York. The lady who directed it was American and had no Puerto Rican background at all. I have no idea why she decided to make the movie, but I know she was going to make part two [of Los Dos Mundos de Angelita]. Then she went to Africa, got malaria and died. I already had the script in my hand for the second part, but it was never made.
G: Since you were so young when you were acting in the film, do you remember what you were drawing from in your approach to playing Angelita? Was there any simulation of your real life? I know when I saw the movie, it felt a lot like my experience and the experience of my family so I wanted to ask if that resonated with you at all.
M: So because I was so young, I didn’t exactly know anything about what was going on with the people who were moving from Puerto Rico to New York. I started learning about it because of the script and from what my mom and my dad told me in order to understand. Also since I wasn’t a professional actor either, I just took it as if it were me, my own experience and how I would’ve acted and approached those situations had it been me.
An anecdote I always like to talk about is, on the last day of shooting we were shooting the scene where the principle of the school is telling me that I cannot move to the Spanish class after I sneaked in. In the scene, I’m crying and asking him why, begging please, and all that. So what happened was, when we were doing it I originally wasn’t crying. I was just doing it with a lot of attitude because that’s the way I thought it should be. The director didn’t want that though, she wanted me to be more submissive and to start crying. I couldn’t because I didn’t know how to cry myself, just acting. I started telling her that I didn’t believe I should cry in that situation so I don’t think I should cry so I wasn’t going to cry because I didn’t think it was necessary. I was giving her a hard time and she yelled at me in front of the whole crew, insulting me and telling me all these things. Because I was only 9, I felt so embarrassed I started crying. Right when that happened, she says, “okay, let’s roll. Action!” I basically threw my lines; I wasn’t even acting at that point and crying because of the situation behind it. That was the last scene and the very last shot, so when I finished it I told her, you know what, one day I’m going to be a director and I will never do that to an actor. And from then on, I decided to be a director and that’s what I studied in college. That’s what I do now, I’m a filmmaker, and it’s all because of that situation.
G: So, have you made anyone cry?
M: I have! But with those little tools, you know put the little menthols in the eyes...not the same way. Just talking and explaining to the actors why we think they should be crying and all that, so definitely a different approach.
G: Thank you for sharing that. This is has been one of my favorite parts of working on this project, is this aspect of getting to know the films better through the backstories and little stories. I’m truly appreciative.
M: Another anecdote I have for you, is that the kid in the move in the very beginning on top of the mango tree, he is my twin brother.
G: Oh wow! The director just pulled him from the film when she chose you, I imagine?
M: Basically yeah.
G: Maybe not so much during the time, but after you did the film and perhaps as you were growing up, do you recall seeing similar movies about Puerto Rican people or the Puerto Rican experience past the film you did? Would you say that was a type of a film that was being made?
M: No, actually not. I didn’t know of any other movie like that or even of the same theme. And I don’t even think I’ve watched any movie since that talks about that immigration. Maybe a documentary, but a fiction film, no.
G: I suppose that question comes from a place where I’m wondering whether or not that immigrant experience had a presence in the film world. Looking back, I’m compiling these Nuyorican films and trying to make the case that this is a genre, but it seems like during the time, nothing really like that was going on. For this film to be made, it’s pretty extraordinary.
M: I also think it’s because there weren’t many movies being done in Puerto Rico at that time nor by Puerto Ricans in them on the island. I guess at the same time though, I wasn’t interested in movies anyway. I started getting interested after Angelita.
G: What was the reaction to the film? Did anything come of it?
M: I know it was pretty successful in New York. The premiere was at Carnegie Hall and the mayor of the city came. It went to France and shown at the Pompidou at one of the film festivals in Paris. I don’t remember actually it being shown in Puerto Rico when it was released. I know long after, it was shown in private events and screening, but never in theatres.
G: I wanted to ask you about your opinion on the movie, of course. For me, it has become this film I strongly care for because it’s so unique in what it’s showing. Do you have a particular opinion now about what it was trying to do?
M: The last time I saw the film was a long time ago, ten years ago, maybe more. At that point, I was already studying filmmaking so I was very critical about everything. With that in mind, and because I, myself didn’t experience moving away from my country where I didn’t know the language or anything, to me I felt like I couldn’t relate much. I do remember that I really liked the ending where the father leaves and she stays with her friends just dancing to hip-hop. It was very emotional, but in general, I thought it was a little naive. That is also though because I didn’t fully understand what people were going through. But now that I have moved away from my country and that I have a 13 year old boy who had to move when he was 8, I can relate and understand more of what Puerto Ricans were going through. I can see how special that movie was when it was made. It really showed what was happening to the Puerto Ricans of that era. I can understand it more now.
G: That is a perfect ending to my questions. If there is anything else you want to share, please feel free.
M: Well, the experience for me was amazing. I got to go the New York for a whole month. I got to be away from school in order to shoot so it was pretty amazing for me not knowing anything about it. When the premiere came, there were all these people who wanted to represent me for acting and they already had all these different projects that the wanted to cast me in. My mom told them “No. She’s going back to Puerto Rico. To her regular life. Thank you.” And now my son is basically going through the same thing. He’s acting now in a show and it was not planned, having the same experience as me.
G: What show is he on?
M: It’s called “One Day a Time”. It’s a sitcom about a Cuban-American family from LA. And the ones who play the Cubans are actually: My son, who is Puerto Rican, Rita Morena, who is Puerto Rican, and Justina Machada, who is Puerto Rican. It’s funny.
G: I should ask you, you are a director now, correct?
M: Yeah, a producer and a director, no acting for me.
G: Would you say most of the work you do mostly on the topic of Puerto Ricans and that experience?
M: I would say yes. My husband and I have been moving into other stuff recently, but because we lived in Puerto Rico for so long, basically yeah. We moved to LA only five years ago, so everything is pretty much about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans.
G: I think that’s an interesting effect of the Angelita film seeing as your start in film was such an accident and now it’s your career. Working on this project, it seems that a lot of people’s lives just fall into place after their involvement with these respective films.
M: I know right. It’s meant to happen I guess. I also want to send you the phone number for Rosalba [actress who played Angelita’s mother in the film], you should get in touch with her. Her only daughter is my sister’s best friend. They were born on the same day, my sister in Puerto Rico and her in New York. It’s funny because they’re best, best friends and my mother didn’t know Rosalba nor did we keep in touch with her after the film at all. So it kind of happened that we’re connected now. Every time she sees me she says “oh my daughter”! Living in Puerto Rico all my life and her in New York, we’re still connected anyway.