It's hard to steal scenes from Bradley Cooper, but that's exactly what John Ortiz does in Silver Linings Playbook, one of the clear frontrunners this awards season, with an avalanche of nominations, including Best Picture at the 2013 Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, and the Independent Spirit Awards.
The movie, based on the novel by Matthew Quick, is not a romantic comedy or a romantic drama; it's something in between, with characters so crazy they make you feel good about yourself while you laugh so hard you almost cry. And then you actually cry.
That the film does family dysfunction so well is not surprising -- David O. Russell (Spanking The Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, The Fighter) wrote and directed it. The Hollywood Reporter recently chronicled the filmmaker's evolution from 90s indie darling to Oscar contender.
But Russell could not have created one of the year's best movies without this stellar cast, led by Cooper as Pat Solitano, a former teacher who does a brief stint at a mental institution and then tries desperately to reconcile with his ex-wife. Robert De Niro plays Pat's father, a man struggling to keep his family from financial ruin and failing miserably at relating to his son. Jennifer Lawrence further complicates things when she enters the picture as Pat's love interest with her own set of mental issues. But a lot can be forgiven when you look like that. Even Chris Tucker comes out hiding for this one.
Ortiz (Ronnie) is one of the few people in the world who doesn't judge Pat when he comes out of the loony bin. The moments in which Ronnie – whose life in suburbia is seemingly perfect with a house, car, job, wife (Julia Stiles) – and Pat bond are some of the movie's most memorable ones.
If the Puerto Rican actor, 43, looks familiar it's because he's been steadily working in Hollywood for the last 20 years, ever since he played Al Pacino's young cousin Guajiro in 1993's Carlito's Way. As artistic director and co-founder of the LAByrinth Theater Company in his hometown of New York City, Ortiz also has a long-standing love affair with the stage.
Ask Ortiz for a Pacino story and he'll happily oblige, offering the one where he kept blinking in a scene in which he was supposed to be dead and Pacino lifts his head, the camera closing in on his face. It's one of the movie's first scenes and a critical one, setting the tone for one of Pacino's best gangster flicks.
"I guess I was nervous and had had a lot of coffee, but every time we'd do the scene, [the director] Brian De Palma would yell, 'Cut!' says Ortiz.
"This happened so many times," he adds, "I felt so bad and it was starting to get kind of tense because Pacino had to get on a plane to get to L.A. for the Oscars – he was twice nominated that year – and here we were, having to do this scene over and over again because of me, the new guy. After the director yells 'Dead man blinking!' Pacino asks everyone to leave the room except me. He sits down, tells me he's going to have an espresso, and asks me if I want one. I'm so jittery at this point but how do you say no to Al Pacino? I don't even remember what was said between us, if anything, but when we're done with the espresso, he asks everyone to come back in, we do the scene, and De Palma yells, 'That's it, we got it!' People start clapping and Pacino is walking out and getting all these good wishes from everyone. On his way out, Pacino jokes, 'If I win 'em both, I ain't coming back!' It was one of the most generous, empathetic things an actor of his stature could have done," says Ortiz.
I called Ortiz up while he was in Chicago, rehearsing for the play The Motherfucker With the Hat, co-starring Jimmy Smits and opening January 6, 2013, to tell us more stories.
Did you know this movie would be as special as it is when you first read the script?
No, but I never know how a movie is going to turn out, no matter how good a script is. I knew it was going to be something I had never experienced before, mainly because of David [O. Russell, the director]. He's such a visionary, such his own person and artist, and there are few of those now. I'm so proud to be a part of this movie. I've had a lot of instances where I feel proud of my work but it doesn't really get out there, or it does get out there and nobody likes it [laughs], so it's really gratifying and humbling to hear the news that it's being received so well.
Ortiz and Cooper share a scene.
How did you make your character, Ronnie, so relatable and so memorable?
On paper, Ronnie signifies someone who has moved on with his life and has matured in relation to Bradley's character. So I asked David, 'Do you think he's happy?' And he was like, 'Yeah, kind of.' I could have talked myself out of a job by saying the next thing that I said, but I go, 'Well, what if I said the opposite: what if he's not happy? He seemingly has moved on but he's actually stuck, and he needs as much help as Pat. What if the unhappiness is stemming out of the idea that he had of marriage and all these other expectations that follow, and he's at a point right now where he's just not sure what choices he really made and for what reasons.' And David was so great – he completely went with it. A lot of directors might have said, 'We don't have the time to rewrite the script' or 'this movie is not about Ronnie,' but he really loved the idea of Pat helping Ronnie, and that proving to everyone that he's capable of giving back, and being helpful to someone else who's in pain because of what he's been through.
What was it like working with Bradley Cooper?
We kind of knew of each other in our younger years doing theater, but it was our first time working together. He wasn't just lead actor on this; he acted like he was part of the ensemble, and he was also a producer on it. From eating with the crew to going over a scene to never being late, he was always very present. He's definitely made me a better person because of the example that he set. I learned pretty early on that it's really about the people that you work with. I feel like he and Robert De Niro, who's the exact same way, are like artistic angels.
Do you think he's going to be around as long as De Niro?
No doubt. His priorities are set in such a way that there's no question that he's in it for the long-haul. He has a tremendous amount of respect for acting.
You once played Willie Colon in El Cantante. What's your favorite Fania album?
That movie was such a dream for me, it really was. I'm a huge research guy in anything that I do and so even though I was a fan of the music and I grew up with it [in Brooklyn] I didn't really know the history of it and the impact it truly had until I was able to see a lot of that footage and read stories and just listen to so many of the songs. I had albums all over my trailer and pictures. If I had to pick a favorite album, El Malo would be one of them. That music is good old-fashioned medicine. I actually need a dose of that right now – maybe the Christmas albums.