Dominican actor Manuel “Manny” Pérez Batista spoke at a Silliman College Master’s Tea on Monday. The talk, co-sponsored by the Dominican Student Association (QuisqueYalies) as part of Caribbean Week at Yale, covered his experience in Hollywood and the current state of Dominican cinema. The audience screened a 20-minute sneak preview of Pérez’s upcoming film “La Soga,” which was featured at the Toronto International Film Festival. In 2002, Pérez won the Best Actor Award at the Milan International Film Festival in Italy for his performance in “Washington Heights.” After the talk, Pérez sat down for an interview with the News.
Q: Are you really related to Junot Díaz, the Pultizer-Prize winning author of “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”?
A: (laughs) We’re second-cousins, almost third. I was actually trying to arrange coming along with him when he came to Yale [in January] but it did not work. He also co-wrote the film “Washington Heights” with me. His style of writing is all over the movie.
Q: What do you think is the main obstacle faced by Dominican society?
A: Dominican Republic is an island that’s very privona [haughty]. And the problem with this, is that you have these government figures that want to show something when there’s nothing to show. So they want to show that in the capital there are billboards, and then in the campo [countryside] there’s no light. So, explain to me where’s the justice in that? There’s a lack of education and corruption galore: The government doesn’t really care about what happening in the backyard. It only wants to show something that is not true to what’s actually going on in the country.
Q: What is the Dominican Republic’s role in reconstructing Haiti?
A: I’m afraid the Dominican government pocket whatever they can for themselves and then help Haiti. I’m afraid if you give the Dominican Republic power, the help will never get to the Haitian people. I don’t know if the Dominican Republic should be in charge of aiding Haiti, but it should be a helping hand.
Q: What do you think Dominican cinema needs to get off the ground and be recognized internationally?
A: I feel every Dominican who works in the film industry wants to do comedy [that only targets a Dominican audience.] And that does not leave the country. So they have to do work that means something to other people. That being said, maybe they need to open their horizons and say “This film is not just for the island; this film is for world.”
Q: What do you think about the present state of Dominicans in Hollywood?
A: I hope we can inspire others so we can open more doors for other generations of Latinos to go up the ladder.
Q: When did you move from the Dominican Republic to the United States? Why did you decide to become an actor?
A: When I was 11 years old, my family moved from Santiago in Dominican Republic to Providence, R.I. And then I moved to New York when I was 18, to pursue acting. I was the clown in my family, so that sums it up. I always wanted to be an actor, so I just pursued it here, especially in this country where you can make your dreams happen. So, why not?
Q: Do you think you would have become an actor had you stayed back home in the Dominican Republic?
A: You know, it’s funny. No, I would have not. Never. I feel there’s so much talent there, but there’s nothing to do, you cannot make a living out of it. So I probably would have been a carpenter like my dad.
Q: When did your “big break” happen?
A: I guess it happened when I played an attorney in “100 Centre Street,” a TV series with director Sidney Lumet, which aired on A&E.
Q: Do you ever fear you might be typecast as the “bad guy”?
A: It’s stereotyping. I feel like, in life, we are all stereotypes. But as an actor, you have to find the heart of your character, by making your character human. In life, everybody’s a bad guy. No one is refined, nobody is perfect. Everybody has their flaws. There’s no such thing as “bad guys.” That guy just happens to do what he has to do to get by.
Q: What are your upcoming projects?
A: “La Soga” comes out in August [in widespread release.] And I wrote another film, called “The Opponent,” which we start shooting in Mexico this fall. Then I’m waiting to do another film only as an actor. You don’t know with this business: One day you’re working in 10 films, then one day you’re working in none.