Interview | Theo Rossi, the Art of Lowriders, the Power of Family

The 'Luke Cage' star reveals how his new film helped him explore an exciting art form and exorcise his personal demons.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Theo Rossi is a star on the rise. But of course, like many actors, he’s been a star on the rise for many years now, with notable roles in films and television series since the early 2000s. He’s been developing his craft and rising through the ranks of Hollywood along with his many peers, getting bigger and bigger roles in prominent television series like AlcatrazSons of Anarchy and most recently Luke Cage. And he’s proving he’s one of the best damned actors around with performances in films like Lowriders, a new family drama from director Ricardo de Montreuil, about the Los Angeles car culture.

As Francisco, better known as “Ghost,” Rossi plays a man ostracized by his family for mistakes he’s made in the past, whose inner pain leads to outer turmoil and, potentially, great tragedy for everyone in his local lowriding community. And if you don’t know what “lowriding” is, the film will tell you. It’s a film about art and family in equal measure.

I spoke to Theo Rossi on the phone this week to discuss his career, and his parallel success with one of his newly Oscar-winning co-stars, and to discover why Lowriders was such an important motion picture for him to be a part of. What I discovered was that this film holds great personal significance for Rossi, in ways the audience might not expect.

Lowriders premieres in theaters this Friday, May 12.

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Also: Interview | John Badham on ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Short Circuit’

Crave: I love your work. I loved you on Luke Cage.

Theo Rossi: Thanks so much man, thank you.

Recently on a podcast I do [Canceled Too Soon] we revisited your work on Alcatraz so we’re big fans.

Wow, that is… talk about a show that I was convinced was going to be like the biggest thing on the planet. It had all the makings because I was such a Lost fan, and I worked with J.J. [Abrams] and I did Cloverfield, I thought it was just going to be the biggest show ever. It’s so weird how that didn’t happen. Strange.

And it ended on such a huge cliffhanger, like no one was happy with that.

You want to check the coolest thing out, too? Look at the guest stars. Me, Rami Malek, Mahershala Ali, like everybody was on that show and we all wound up knowing each other after it, and it was so weird. We had all done it and thought, we were one of these prisoners, that we were going to be around forever, you know? Go figure, yeah? Crazy. Crazy how that show didn’t… but that’s Hollywood, man.

You got to work with Mahershala Ali again in Luke Cage. I don’t remember if you had any scenes together in Alcatraz. Was that funny? Did you talk about that?

Yeah, we did. It’s funny, there’s a couple of us actors now who were like… you know, the joke is if anybody asks “How’s it feel? You’re having your best year ever! How’s this?” and you’re like a sixteen, seventeen year overnight success? You know what I mean? [Laughs.] Sterling K. Brown and people who have just been doing this for a very long time, and then a role pops and people want to talk about it, which is amazing but [they’ve] been around for a long time.

So when Hersh and I were doing Cage, Hersh was actually leaving, flying out on the weekends to Florida to do Moonlight, to do this little independent film. He was exhausted because he was shooting that, Cage, and I think he was still finishing up House of Cards, all at the same time. So we were sitting there doing our scenes on Cage and he’s going to do this quote-unquote “little” film, and then obviously his whole world changes. So we have an incredible relationship still to this day, and it’s just funny man, how those things happen. It’s just, again, how crazy the business is.

Well, congratulations on your recent success and I’ve got to say that I really loved your character in Lowriders

Thank you so much.

This is a film that could have hit a lot of familiar clichés really hard but instead it felt so genuine.

Yeah.

Can you tell me about the project, and how that came about?

Yeah, I think right away, like you just said, especially for someone like me when I lived in L.A., fifteen years in East L.A., doing a show – Sons of Anarchy – that really ran parallel [to] and mirrored the car culture. You know what I’m saying, like everything were doing with motorcycle clubs […] We would have lowriders on our show, we were kind of, it’s the same exact way in car clubs. There’s vice-presidents, presidents, sergeant at arms, there’s a very similar thing in the car club, in the lowriding community. And then me, for someone who lived down by the avenues in Eagle Rock, we lived on the East Side my whole time I was in L.A., I was super embedded into the culture.

What I didn’t know, like you said, you see the title, you immediately go into, oh, it could be this stereotype of whatever. And then you come and say, oh, wait a second, it’s actually more like an Eight Mile or, to really even date it in your mind, it’s like a Saturday Night Fever where you’re getting yourself behind the door of a subculture that you knew nothing about and you realize there’s this family drama and this life story inside of it.

And that’s what made me chase this character and chase this project, from the beginning, because it really is a… it’s just a, I know it’s like a bad word to say in Hollywood nowadays, but it’s a family drama, wrapped in this incredible wrapping paper of lowriders and graffiti and all the bells and whistles of that. But at the end of the day it’s about a father and his two sons.

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BH Tilt

I think that’s why I connected with it. My father restored British motorcycles in his garage, and it’s a family enterprise. It’s a family bonding thing. I think that’s what so smart about this movie is that the drama comes from this family enterprise, this family activity, and the family has already been blown apart at the beginning.

Yeah, and you get somebody like Francisco. Obviously a lot of people… like for me, the reason I chased this character from the beginning and the reason I was drawn to the script like a magnet was my own relationship with my father. I had this extremely strained, very different relationship with my birth father that was trying to be repaired for a long time and just never was, and ultimately he passed and we never had that kind of resolution and there was a lot of resentment. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to explore this so much. And when I found out that Miguel was being played by, for my money, one of the best actors doing it today, Demián Bichir, it was like this is it. This is the time for me to exorcise demons, this the time for me to explore something that I’ve always wanted to. I’ve touched on it in other things I’ve done, but really go into it.

And then, during the filming of this, my wife was pregnant. We didn’t know what we were having, and with a week-and-a-half left of filming I have a son, and it’s like all these elements come back to… the same thing you just said. I have an uncle that kind of moved down in my teens to raise me and we built cars together, so we had that kind of… I had that positive side of it. But I had the negative side of it as well, and I think that, good, bad or indifferent, everybody has a story with their family. Everybody, and especially like you just said, sons and fathers and stuff like that.

So to me, I think people are going to be very surprised when they go into this. I think they’re going to go in thinking a certain way, and they’re going to come out learning something and having a totally different emotional reaction to the whole thing. That, to me, is the reason I go to the movies.

So it sounds like you went into the film in a therapeutic way. Did you reach that catharsis?

I think with having my son during it, and flying home to New York and being able to see him and have the doctor tell me that it was my son, and know that you’re having a son, and meet your son, and what I was going through… without a doubt I definitely think I did. And as I saw cuts of the film and as I saw it, I think it’s all there. It was exorcised in there. So I just think it was something that was extremely necessary for me to do, and I do think it was one of those films that, like you just said, that people will go see expecting maybe one thing, and will have a whole different attitude towards it when they come out. That’s where the word of mouth starts.

You know, we’re a little film getting into a giant, blockbuster summer schedule. So I’m excited. I’m really excited for it to finally hit the people and for people to see their reactions. The reviews have been absolutely fantastic, knock on wood, and we’ll see. I’m excited. I think we put it all in. We shot this film very fast and we put it all in.

One other thing you brought up, Saturday Night Fever, was another film I thought about while watching Lowriders

Great. Nobody gives it any credit.

In addition to the drama, the parallel dramatic stories, they’re both films that expose an art form that I think a lot of people don’t really think about as a rich and nuanced one. I’m curious, what was your experience with lowriding as a culture and what it meant?

Oh, the heritage of it all. You’ve got to understand I’m a kid who grew up of multiple ethnicities, and I grew up drawing and [there was] escapism in my art, and drawing comic books and thinking that that’s what I was going to do in my life. It was one of two ways, you were either hustling on the street or, when you weren’t doing that, you were sitting there with your art book. It was almost like this typical played out film of a blue collar life.

And then for me, what I learned [about lowriding] was how important the art was, how important was what went into it. It was so much more than just murals. There’s a reason for the mural. It’s passed down. There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars put into these cans of paint and these cars and their legacy. They’re brought down from generation to generation. So they’re almost like these Picassos on wheels, these Rembrandts. These things that we don’t even realize, if you live in L.A. they’re going by you and you’re like “Look how cool that car is,” but there’s so much more to that car. It’s just in the form of a car. But it really is just a living artwork. It’s like an installation that’s going by you.

And what I learned was the same thing I learned when I was investigating motorcycles with Sons [of Anarchy], I learned about a culture, a subculture that I never knew about. And when we really think about it – and you know this more than anything, Bibbs – it’s like if you go back 20 years, comics used to be a subculture. The comics world used to be a subculture and now it’s at the forefront of pop culture. The same thing could be said for disco in Saturday Night Fever. Outside of New York not a lot of people knew about disco and Studio 54 and what was going on there, and now everybody knows about the disco era.

So I think that that’s the beauty of what we do, and what we do in Hollywood and what we do in – as crazy as it seems, sometimes – you’re bringing something that no one, someone on the other side of the planet, might not know about. East L.A. and the Sixth Street Bridge and the cars and what goes on with this community. And it becomes almost like a documentary. They learn about it through entertainment. I love that I can be part of something like that.

Top Photo: Jesse Grant/Getty Images

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.