True Hollywood Stories
Texans who took a chance and headed west tell all
Lupe Ontiveros, actress
In El Paso "you grow up with a very different mindset because of the diversity," Lupe Ontiveros says, her Spanish accent thick and authentic. "Being able to speak both English and Spanish was a normal thing at my high school."
So was bumping into upperclassmen like F. Murray Abraham, who would grow up and go on to win an Academy Award in 1984 for Amadeus. Maybe there's something in the water. Yet Ontiveros wasn't drawn to Los Angeles by dreams of stardom, but rather dragged along by her husband, who wanted to open his own automotive garage. While she had graduated from Texas Women's University in Denton with a degree in social work, nothing she did seemed to satisfy her.
"I was briefly a bank teller," she laughs, "but I staged a revolt against the manager because he was sexually harassing me and all the other female employees."
Burnt out on odd jobs and toying with the idea of going back to school to become a nurse, Ontiveros saw an ad for extra work. She started showing up and feeling it out, as a hobby at first and then as a career. With no other means to spread her name and face, Ontiveros would walk down Sunset Boulevard from production company to production company, handing out her headshots to whomever would take them. It was painstakingly slow going and often times uncomfortable: There was more than one occasion when the young, pretty Latina had to tell off johns cruising the Strip for hookers.
"Which is funny, because my first part was as a prostitute in The World's Greatest Lover," Ontiveros says of her first credited role in Gene Wilder's 1977 comedy, assuring there was no method acting involved. In fact, despite supporting performances in critically acclaimed yet publicly ignored films like Zoot Suit and El Norte, Ontiveros soon grew accustomed to playing one of three stereotypical roles set aside for Latinas in Hollywood: prostitute, all-knowing grandmother, or maid.
"The labor force loves me because I've been every maid in the book," she says with a touch of sarcasm. At least her maids have been memorable, most notably in The Goonies, Universal Soldier, and As Good as It Gets. "But these roles forced me to become a better actor."
In 1997, Ontiveros showed what she was capable of however briefly in Selena by portraying Yolanda Saldivar, the woman who murders the infamous singer. When director Miguel Arteta cast her as a lead in Chuck & Buck a few years later, he told her he'd always wanted to work with her.
"No one had ever said that to me before," Ontiveros admits, usually unfazed by stardom. She still lives in East Los Angeles and continues to do social work for the Latino Coalition on AIDS when she is not acting. "I was usually saying that to the Spielbergs or the Nicholsons before each take."
With the festival success of Chuck & Buck, Ontiveros embraced the independent film world. In 2002, she starred in Real Women Have Curves, a role that epitomized what she had felt as a mother. Her performance won her a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
"I want more roles like that and like the mother I've played on Desperate Housewives," says Ontiveros. "Roles with three-dimensionality, where I'm not the minority woman just standing on the outside, looking in."