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An Interview with Jason Gonzalez ("Artificial Souldier")

Jason Gonzalez was born in Brooklyn, NY. Growing up in a Latino household, the idea of becoming an actor or director wasn’t considered a reality. Even so, he decided to live out his dreams of a career in film and tv.

At the age of 17, he worked in New York City as an actor on many films and shows alongside Denzel Washington, Tyrese, and Luis Guzman to name a few.

Gonzalez studied film and communications at Queens College and had written four feature-length screenplays by the time he was twenty-one. He also worked in New York City at WABC, WCBS, and NBC Universal as a cameraman and editor.

In 2019, he decided to return to his passion for film. He produced, directed and acted in the short film, Artificial Souldier, as a first-time filmmaker.

The film has already won multiple awards on the festival circuit, including an Honorable Mention: Fantasy Film at Top Shorts in July 2020, and Best Actress for Paola Tonini at the Actors Awards in September 2020.

We invited Jason to join us for an interview. Here's his story.

Jason, it's a pleasure to interview you today, thank you for this opportunity! You've previously mentioned that growing up in a Latino household in New York, the idea of becoming a filmmaker wasn't considered a reality. Yet, from the age of 17, you've worked in New York as an actor in many films and shows. Can you please tell us more about your background, what drew you into acting, and what were some of your first steps in the entertainment world?

I grew up in New York and had a great opportunity in high school to attend an acting program that helped me gain confidence in myself to get up in front of a group of people and perform. We learned how to implement both emotional and physical reactions while playing out scenes and exercises. From there, I started using school equipment to create short films both in high school and college.

During my first semester of college, I found an agent at Actors Reps in NYC to represent me. From there I went on a lot of auditions and failed miserably while learning how to audition. After a short period of time, I was casted on a bunch of shows and films as an extra and small roles.

Who are some Latino / Latina filmmakers you look up to?

My favorite Latino filmmaker as a teen was Robert Rodriguez and honestly he was the only one that I knew of. I bought a copy of his film El Mariachi and studied it from beginning to end. It was his prequel low budget film to Desperado. Later, I became a fan of other Latino filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu.

What was it like to play alongside big names like Denzel Washington, Tyrese, and Luis Guzman?

I have always admired Denzel Washington since I was a kid. He’s a New Yorker and is just a great actor in every role he plays from the good characters to the bad. When I worked on the set with him for The Siege, I was an extra playing an Arab protester. Although I stood right behind him, I didn’t get a chance to speak with him but I just watched him the whole time. He was just a cool and relaxed guy.

I did a shoot for MTV in Times Square and Tyrese was the talent. I just remember him being a great performer and he did a great job hyping up the crowd.

Luis Guzman was fun to work with on the set of HBO’s series Oz. I was shy and kind of kept to myself in between takes and at lunch. He came over to me and invited me to play cards with him and some of the other cast members, so I did. He was really cool and treated me like a younger brother.

What were your main takeaways from working as a cameraman and an editor for big companies like WABC, WCBS and NBC Universal?

I would say that I learned how to tell better stories and developed my craft while shooting, lighting scenes, setting up audio and editing.

Let's talk about Artificial Souldier. You wrote this script in 2018, after reading an article about a Jihadi man who was influenced to join a terrorist group. Why did you decide to make this film, and what message were you hoping to convey to the audience?

I read an article from the New York Times about a jihadi man who became Christian after his experience with an insurgent group in Syria. He talks about how these were bad guys who raped, murdered, and didn’t follow the ideals of Islam. I got the idea for Artificial Souldier from this story. I thought it would be a great idea to tell a story of the chaos and struggle within a terrorist cell and how not everyone is bad and that maybe they were influenced by friends or family members. Eventually the story morphed into a sci-fi/Fantasy where Shafia and Farhad turn on their insane brother Zayed, who’s an insurgent scientist. Zayed captures Martinez, a Latino character, who is an American soldier fighting for our country and eventually becomes an ultimate war machine.

What were some of the visual references that helped you shaped the cinematic vision for Artificial Souldier?

I wanted the film to take on a cinematic look and feel of films such as Taxi Driver and Joker.

What was the casting process like?

I knew that Paola Tonini was perfect for the role of Shafia. We just needed to work on her accent. Kareem was originally supposed to play the role of Zayed, but he just came across as such a good guy and when I met Mario Peguero, I just knew with his size and demeanor, he would be best as Zayed. So I called Kareem and asked him if he would play the role of Martinez instead and was happy that he agreed to do it. I met with Jason Ramirez and immediately saw him as the character, Farhad. We just had to work on his understanding of autistic adults, the spectrum, and behavior.

This is your debut film as a director! What was the most challenging part of the work?

I would say the most challenging part of directing was conveying my vision for shots to the DP. Although there were many times when I grabbed the camera to get shots that I wanted, it was difficult because I’m so used to shooting everything myself. Also, I had to make sure I managed time efficiently because some actors had to leave at different times. I then had to make sure everyone understood what we were shooting since we shot many scenes out of order.

Was it tricky to direct, produce and act at the same time? Lots of hats to wear!