Juan Felipe Restrepo has been playing in theatre and movies since he was 14-years-old.
Recently, Juan won Best Actor award at several film festivals, including Top Shorts, for his lead role in Prodigal Son (which he also written).
We asked Juan to join us for an interview, and met not only a talented actor but also a fascinating person.
Juan, you have such a fascinating background. You were born in Colombia to a surgeon father and an engineer mother! Yet you ended up in a very different field... When and how did you first get involved with the arts?
I was always drawn to arts, I drew, painted, learnt how to play the guitar, wrote some fables and short stories that later on went to competitions, etc. My parents were always very supportive of me taking such an active part in the arts, besides, my mom has always been a sculptor/painter on the side (nowadays that’s more her passion), so she was always motivating me to participate in every art field. Acting came to me when I was 7. I did a few small plays back in Colombia, then my school cancelled the theatre program and replaced it with just crafty arts like drawing and painting. However, when I was 12 a director came to my school to help with presentations and events, from there he started making a little theatre workshop open to students of all ages. At first, I was very shy and decided just to watch them, but a year later I joined, and in little time a became one of the most invested ones in that group. From there the director created the theatre company “La Maleta Roja” and we started doing bigger performances for bigger audiences, which consequently allowed us to perform outside the country.
When did you fall in love with acting? What were some of the actors/movies/theatre plays that sparked this interest?
I fell in love with acting when I was around 10, I just loved watching T.V and movies. I would drive my parents crazy because every Sunday I would drag them to the movie theatre to watch anything, and also, because whenever I saw a movie for the first time I would immediately memorize most of the dialogue, so the next time we were watching it, I would be reciting the lines until someone in my family told me to let them watch the movie in peace. It was a really fun way to mess with them and at the same time exercise the memory. Also, it was 3 that passed without me acting on anything, and I really missed it. The actors that motivated me in the beginning to do acting were Johnny Depp, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Hugh Jackman, Tom Cruise and Anne Hathaway. with movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Devil Wears Prada, Goodfellas, The Godfather, Meet The Parents, MIssion Impossible, X-Men, etc. I have to say, I would watch a lot of animated movies, I would have VHS copies of all the Disney classics, and watch Hercules at least once a month, is my favorite animated Disney Film from the Golden Era.
Minor Soul Music Video - "Million Pieces"
At the age of 14, you became a member of the theatre company "La Maleta Roja", and performed in international festivals. That must have been a wonderful experience that shaped you as an actor! What are the main things you took away from working with the company?
Yeah it was a dream come true to be that young and start performing in other countries. La Maleta Roja taught me all the basics about acting for theatre, and also the style for acting in Spanish. It varies whether you are doing a Hispanic Play than a European or American one, but generally I will always take with me the fact that whenever you are doing a play, is all about teamwork. You can have your character developed and labeled down for every scene, but you are working live with at least one more person on stage or offstage and you have to really listen to what they say and how they say it to you. Actors for theatre, in my opinion, are there to work off each other during the performances, you can’t plan a performance, there’s no take two on theatre, if someone misses a line or a cue, we all have to work together to keep the play going and maintain the dynamic and the reality.
Another thing I will always remember my director “Piero” say is that you have to step into the character, there was an exercise we would do before every performance where we would visualize our character in front of us while breathing, and slowly we would take them from in front of us and “Dress ourselves with their skin” as a way of getting into character from that time on until the performance ended. I’d love this exercise because it would transport me to a different world in my head, I would completely forget about the nerves, the audience, the fact that this was a play even, and I would become the character I was playing, it was really incredible for me to go through this and take it with me to every performance I do nowadays.
In addition, I will never forget how everyone is important in a play, “There’s no small parts”. Everyone is the way they are for a reason, everyone deserves the same amount of respect and must be treated with professionalism always. When you step on the stage, you are now a family, you are there to support and motivate each other, to collaborate and create a great story to be told to the audience, there’s no me, only Us.
Attending to Outfest 2017
Is theatre one of your passions, still? Are you currently involved in stage productions, or do you mainly do visual media nowadays?
Funny you ask that, I decided a little bit more than 2 months ago I wanted to do theatre again. I’ve been only doing film and T.V for almost a year now, and I already miss the passion and the blossoming emotion that theatre provides to me as an actor. It all started with theatre for me, so I will never get tired of doing it, of being on stage, in front of an audience, telling a story, using your entire physicality, voice, mind and emotion as tools that run the machine our bodies are. It doesn’t mean I will stop doing T.V and Film, but now I feel I am in a point where I have to do both so I can get the best of both worlds.
Right now I am going to perform a play at the “Stella Adler Studio of Acting” in Hollywood called “Syria”, written and directed by Shvan Aladin, is a play based on his life growing up during 1998, when he and his family were trying to leave from Kurdistan to Sweden in order to get asylum because of the war. I am playing his oldest brother in the play and am really excited and honored to be part of this and being trusted to tell his story.
I also recently booked a play for the renown “Nirvana Theatre” group from Mexico, The play is called DesAfecto and is being produced by Jorge Duran, and includes names from all over South America like Romina Peniche, Stephanie Gerard, Carlos Arrechea, Dive Assad, Gerald Fillmore, Cesar Di’Bello, Paulina Gamiz, Rubén Guevara and Marcela Macias. I will be playing “Feliciano” one of the leads on this story. We already started rehearsals and the play starts tour from August 24th 2018. Tour January 11, 2019 to June 1st, 2019.
Ignacio Val Music Video - Solo tu
Why did you decide to write and produce the story of Hijo Prodigo (Prodigal Son)? Is it inspired by true events from your personal life?
Is a project that comes from the bottom of my heart and has a special, personal meaning to me. It was the very first project I wrote and produced. I wanted to work on this because is based on the actual life of my older brother, and how he came out to my parents (with some changes for dramatic purposes). I was in L.A at the moment of the event, so after I heard about it along with the reaction my parents had towards my brother and the situation, I just wanted to have some solidarity with my brother and do something that could help him know he had my support and at the same time show my parents that the way they came off to my brother was wrong.
For me, living in L.A for so long and being able to meet people from different cultures, religions and sexual preferences made me realize that South America is a continent that still is pretty conservative, mainly catholic and pretty close minded. Any situation where homosexuality plays a part is seen as either a sin or a curse to everyone in the family of the person who is homosexual. So at the beginning, it really pissed me off to see what my brother was going through, because he was one of the greatest prides to my family, and after he came out it seemed like every achievement he made got erased from existence, along with his relationship with my parents. But after a few days, it really made me sad and disappointed, because family is supposed to be the ones who, no matter what, will never turn their back on you, and unfortunately, that’s just what happened to my brother, who by the way just finished the first 6 years of medical school, he has always been my role model since I was little, and still is.
Going back to the story, after talking with my brother for a while, I asked permission to turn his experience into a movie, where I would play him as the main character. I thought the best way was to use what I am good at to send a message, not only to my family, but also to all the Hispanic families out there who can’t accept their sons and daughters for who they are, or for their sexual preferences. I wanted to show the world how, for us Latinos is the “family” life, it’s values and what it represents, how not agreeing to old technisisms or traditions could bring out consequences inside the family, and how a lot of people around the world have to live a secret second life, because of fear of what their families could say or do to them.
I wanted to be the voice for all these people, sure I was doing it mainly for my brother and because of what he had to go through, but you know when you are emotional you don’t think clearly or see the big picture, well that happened to me, only when I saw that this was not only his story but the one of many others before him and possibly after him is that I realized I had a real statement to make, I could be the one talking for those who fear or are ashamed, I could lend a hand to all these people who don’t find the way to tell their families, and it was something that it felt I had to do because it would be someone like me, someone in the middle who has seen more of the world, and who even though is straight, supports and encourages those who are different and sadly can’t be happy to their fullest because of shame or fear.
You won several important awards for your role in Prodigal Son, including Best Young Actor (The Actors Awards), Best Actor and Best LGBTQ film (Festigious International Film Festival) and Best Actor and Best Drama (The Los Angeles Film Awards) and Best Actor in an Indie Film at our very own Top Shorts. Clearly, you did a wonderful job conveying such a great arch of emotions. How did you prepare for this challenging role of Andres? Getting all the right nuances of the character's personality is tricky, isn't it?
Now that you mention all those recognitions I want to start just saying thank you to my brother and my family, who allowed me to make this project and get the awards my team and I have got so far because of the final outcome. Now, for the role of Andres I wanted to mix the qualities people like my parents, teachers, professionals and friends had of my brother before they all knew he was bisexual, and mix them with my personality and my drama hahaha. I also added the perspective and opinion I personally had about my brother before I heard the news about him coming out, and finally added a little twist into making “Andres” entirely gay. That was the blueprint for the character. Then it came the tricky part, just how you said, because I had to consolidate all that in one human being without really giving away that it was me “playing” my brother.
The name came first, along the decisions I made was to name the main character “Andres”, because the meaning for that name is “Manly”, in order to symbolize that being gay doesn’t being less of a man, but all the contrary, it means you don’t choose how you are, being a proud gay is being courageous and strong, and no matter what, you aren’t less than anybody just because of your sexual preference or beliefs. Now, for me to get in the mindset of the character I had to have a real deep conversation with my brother about his emotional experience, how he was feeling all that time before he came out, his struggles, his fears (if any) how having this secret affected him in his daily life and towards his group of friends. How was he doing with classes, with going out, where would he go and what would he do. After we covered the past, I tried to really get him to explain every detail of how he felt while listening to my parents disagree with who he is and the way he felt throughout the entire experience, what he felt before telling them, during telling them and after the truth came out.
I needed it to be as detailed as possible because that was the whole core of the script, so I needed to have a grasp of the emotions and feelings that went through his body while he lived this experience. Finally I asked him how was like after he came out, what he did after everything came to light and how his life changed. What was his first thought, the first thing he did as an openly bisexual man, and how he managed, after he came out, his social life, etc. That way I was able to really apply those feelings to my character development and portray them at the time it was needed on the plot. When you share a close relationship with someone as your brother, then you feel their pain, their sorrow, their anger, is easy to share feelings because when they hurt, you can see it, you do it as well, so for me to relate to his emotions and the situation, wasn’t really hard, however I did have to dial it up so I could be on the same page as my brother was at the time.
Did you previously take on playing queer characters? How do you choose the roles you normally take on? Did you ever refuse a part?
I actually did another gay character right before “Prodigal Son”, it was for a music video called “You Have More Friends Than You Know” directed by Mariana Thome and starring Todd Lien and I as the leads. It was made to honor the memory of a friend of Todd’s who went through the same reactions from his friends and family that my brother did, but in his case it went worse and he decided to end his life due to all the hate he received. At first I accepted the role because Todd personally asked me to audition and be part of it. I usually would try to stay away from gay characters because I didn’t think I could portray one without being stereotypical, and to be honest I wasn’t mentally prepared to have a love scene with another guy.
However, it all changed after I met and became friends with more LGBTQ community members in L.A, I learned from them and later on embraced some gay roles (funny enough they usually ask me to play those roles nowadays). I usually take roles that challenge me as an actor and more importantly as a human being, that make me dig deep into emotion or make me face one of my fears and/or allow me to play someone extremely different than myself. When I just started I was really scared of comedy and I thought I would be really bad at it, so I forced myself to go out and do a lot of comedy work, some improv at The Groundlings and a bunch of shorts to build that muscle for comedy. My safe zone would be drama all the time or action, so I knew I wouldn’t have a problem doing stunts, fights or emotional scenes.
I know drama is my main thing, and I love it, for me in real life is a little hard to express about emotions and all that, but when I do it on a script I feel like I am on my element to let emotions and feelings flow. I usually get the roles of the heartthrob, high school jock or bad boy, that’s like my typecast. A lot of people tell me I should be in “Riverdale”, “13 Reasons Why”, “Teen Wolf”, or anything from the CW or SYFY, and truth be told, I would love to do that. I think that’s where I should be as well.
I have never rejected a role, unless it conflicted with a previous project that I already committed myself to do. I am a sole believer that any work I get is an opportunity to give the best of me, and I haven’t made a name of myself, so any project I get to be part of is a blessing and a great way to polish my skills.
Tell us about other productions you were involved in. What are some of the most memorable characters you got to portray?
I did this music video called “The Arrow of Our Youth” for a band from Spain named The Zephyr Bones, it starred Danny Trejo and I was playing his younger self in the past. It was a great experience for me because, not only I was able to share a project with such a huge name like Danny Trejo/Machete, but also it allowed me to drown in the 1970s culture, all the bands, gadgets, environment and psychedelic vibe of the time, it was a real blast for me and a great learning experience, because I was allowed to take in Danny’s personality on his youth and apply it to myself as a character.
I am looking forward to see the outcome of a pilot I did for the network SYFY in which I played one of the youngest members of a “righteous gang” who are trying to escape from a world in the verge of extinction. The pilot is called “Those Who Wear Masks” and my role was a series regular named Nyxx. He is the comedic relief in a world were desperation and survival are the one of the top themes. I feel like that was a great opportunity for me to prove I can do comedy in a drama and vice versa. Nyxx is a sneaky but really clever character, he is loyal and a bit sarcastic, is like having a really smart and efficient younger brother in a gang, so I am really looking forward for the outcome of this.
Another role I will always remember is when I played my first villain role as Karl in the movie “Cage”. It really expanded my horizons on what the point of view of a villain is. As audience we see the villain as the bad guy, and is the truth. However, as a villain you can’t see yourself as the bad guy, if you do that then you already killed your character before it has even been born. The villain truly believes that what he is doing is right, that is the only way things can be done properly or to cause an actual impact/change, so for me to play Karl, I had to really get into that mindset and convince myself that all the violence, anger and hate I had was justified and was the only way for me to behave. During that film I also had to be under the influence of alcohol and perform stunts and stage combat, so that was a nice touch to add to the psychological and emotional state of my character. As an actor you need to see the character as a sheet of music, you as the actor represent the conductor and your body, emotions, voice, physicality, skills, etc. are the orchestra, you need to use all of them properly in order to bring a character to life and make it real not only for you but for the audience.
You recently filmed Banging Lanie, an upcoming comedy feature. What can you tell us about the character of Phillip, and what did you learn from this experience?
Where do I start… I first audition for the role of Jason, the lead on the film, but production was filming in New Mexico, so they decided to cast someone from the area because it would have been too expensive to keep me in New Mexico for a month. After they notified me of this, they told me they really wanted me on the project, so they offered me the role of Phillip, which, funny enough, was a gay role and would be filming for a week. I accepted the role and packed my bags to New Mexico.
When I got the script I was boarding the plane and as I was reading it I realized my character had not one, but two intimate scenes with another male lead. At first, I was freaking out a little, I had no idea I had to kiss another guy. I spent the rest of the flight trying to break those mental walls and laughing about the whole situation. However, when I arrived to New Mexico and I met the rest of the cast, my worries just went away. The actor who played my “Love Interest” George was such a nice guy, we are both straight and we were laughing about the whole thing until the scene actually needed to be shot. We were so close to each other and when the director yell “action” we both just went for it right away, it was incredible how committed we were to the scene, we were making out like we were used to it, I will never forget that moment, is like my body just moved by itself and got into character automatically. I learned how, when you love and work your craft, those mental walls you have or self doubts just banish, all what matters is that moment, that scene, that take.
I am glad and grateful I had the opportunity of playing a gay role that actually made me kiss another guy, it made me grow, and it proved to me that I can do it without any trouble, Phillip is now another great and meaningful character I have up my sleeve and i can put that skin again any other time I need to thanks to this experience.
Let's talk more about Prodigal Son. Is this your first collaboration with Amalia Ramirez? How did you meet, and what can you tell us about working together?
I heard about Amalia from another actors and colleagues I have, some of them were telling me that she was really good working with latino actors and creatives, not because she is latino too, but because she really understands the vision we have, our “hispanic spice”, is like she is a step ahead on your head, she knows what your vision is, adapts it and improves it with her skills and her talent. I also happened to be playing volleyball in the same league as she was, so long story short, we were teammates but not really friends at that point nor have worked together.
I got to know here better from the volleyball team, and later, when I finished the script for “Prodigal Son” and was looking for a director, I asked her for her director’s reel and some other proof of her work. after reviewing it all I had no doubt on my mind she was the perfect director for my film. During casting she provided the actors with adjustments and tools I myself couldn’t express better, she was so invested in the story we even ended up having two different endings for the film when we shot it. She was always punctual always diligent and ready to stay during night hours talking with me about the actors, the story, shooting schedule, etc. She is such a professional, I couldn’t find a better director for my film, I think she was crucial in the success of my film and how well done is been doing in festivals.
What was it like to play alongside Iliana Nunez (who plays the mom), Andres Miranda (who plays the dad) and Jonathan de la Torre (who plays Diego)?
It was the perfect cast for the film. All three of them were our very first choice when we casted the roles, I am so grateful that they all accepted to be part of my film and gave me such great performances to work off of them. Iliana brought such a deep connection and emotion to the test, she blew us away during the casting process, after we saw her audition everyone on my team were like “we have our mom, we don’t need to see anyone else” and luckily for us she was more than thrilled of playing the role. For Andres, even though tho role of the dad is not as protagonic, still is a very strong link and during his audition and filming, he always gave the perfect balance between being fatherly but strict in some way, when we paired Iliana and Andres for a chemistry read and some improv exercises for their callback. The chemistry went so well it reminded me of my actual parents.
While filming they were both on time, very open minded and committed to Amalia’s directions and speeches, is very gratifying to find latino actors who are so invested in telling a story such as mine, I was very happy of having them both on board along with Jonathan. He came in to the room as the last “Diego” we were seeing during casting, all the others were just not right for the role. I made the casting for latino actors, still there were many other actors from other ethnicities that applied, so by the end of it there were only a few latino actors who submitted for the role. I was a little worried for this one, because the actor who played this role was going to be my boyfriend. I needed someone who would be willing to work on the relationship with me, have some extra time to develop our characters together, etc.
Luckily for me, Jonathan came in to the room so ready, so confident, he dodged every bullet we threw at him and nailed every test. He became a friend of mine before the film, and from there we were able to really create something beautiful for the story, he always was on top of his game, making time for rehearsals and talks with either me or Amalia. The whole ensemble was just perfect and all the success of the film is owed to them and my team for doing such an amazing job.
How did you get the rest of the cast and crew on board? For example, Majd Mazin, the cinematographer, Jesus Murillo, the sound editor, and Dmitry Fursov, the Editor and Colorist?
Majd had a bit of a reputation already, he was brought up to me by my co producer Davin Tjen, who had worked with him before. Davin showed me Majd’s work and really sold me the idea of him to be my cinematographer. I have to say, Davin has never disappointed with industry related choices, he is a genius at his work , so I trusted Davin’s judgement and hired Majd right away. Amalia then went on and met with Majd, and together they created the whole filming plan for the film. According to Amalia, Majd was very understanding, helpful and straightforward, he knew his style for filming and was able to balance it along with Amalia’s directing.
Now for Jesus, I personally knew him because I did a few Voice Over project with him as the sound engineer. His work was just remarkable every time, he has always been very diligent, efficient and fun every time I’ve worked with him. When I was looking for a sound designer he was the one for the job. He was introduced to me the first time by my Voice over coach and she always has recommended him for any project that requires sound design or a sound engineer. He is just great, very passionate and kind human being.
Lastly for Dmitry, I heard about him from my co producer as well, so you might guess why I hired him hahaha. Of course I checked his work before like everyone else, and the way he color corrects is so unique, he has such a strong eye for symbolism, how to make a scene warmer or colder, really highlight the items and objects in the scene that need more attention from the audience, also his skills for editing are superb. He captured every emotion in each facial expression, he knows when is the right time to jump from one character to the other, when we need to relate to the family and when we as audience need to feel the loneliness of “Andres”. How to play with power is something really important in the film, and Dmitry was able to showcased it perfectly. Since that project Dmitry has been my go to editor and I recommend him to other actors as well. I am confident of his talent and his ability to really put together a film.
How was the film received, in the LGBTQ community and in other festivals? Was the audiences' reaction pretty much what you expected, or were there any surprises?
Honestly I am speechless with the success of the film and how well it has been received in general. Around 70 percent of the festivals I’ve submitted to, have selected it for multiple categories, and, apart from that the film has already won 8 awards and still counting, so to have this much amount of success is really gratifying and is living proof to me that I did something right, something meaningful and relatable for others. I am very lucky, because some festival even have reached out to me or my co producer Davin, asking for the film and encouraging us to submit it to their festivals. Is the first film I actually wrote and produced, so you can imagine how big a smile it puts on my face whenever I see my phone with an email saying that we got another award or someone wants to see the film or wants it to be submitted.
I am so grateful, so full of joy from all these great recognitions and experiences I get from the final outcome of my film. Moreover, I have no words for the amount of support I’ve received from people from back home in Colombia, the LGBTQ community and here in the U.S. Many approach me to thank me for the message of the film, for helping them deal with their coming out stories, or just fighting for a just cause. We are all human and deserve respect and love, no matter whose sex it comes from. Some people come to me asking if that is what really happened, I’ve explained them the truth and told them that of course you still have to follow dramatic structure and intensify it a little for the purpose of the plot and the message. So after that, some people give me this face like they are sorry, some hug me, or tell me that I have courage to do it, or that they can’t imagine something like this happened. In some sort of way, I understand them, because we are all from different cultures and backgrounds, that’s why the film focuses on latino culture, to show the level of conservatism that there is in most of these countries, and present the reality of many closeted people in South America.
Of course not everything is a wi