Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Reverend's Interview: Sailing the High Seas with Vico Ortiz

There have been many media portrayals of pirates during the last century. Some have been fearsome, some not so much. From big-screen Errol Flynn classics like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk to Broadway’s The Pirates of Penzance; TV’s Black Sails to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean attractions and films, historical swashbucklers have long captured the public’s imagination.

We can now add the new, comedic HBO Max series Our Flag Means Death to this list. Queer-friendly, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit, Thor: Ragnarok) serves as executive producer. He also directed the pilot episode and co-stars throughout the series as the real-life pirate Blackbeard. The show was inspired by the life of Stede Bonnet, an 18th-century aristocrat turned pirate enjoyably personified by Rhys Darby.

Enter actor Vico Ortiz, who plays the mysterious crew member “Jim.” Jim (more privately known as “Bonifacia”) is on a quest for revenge, even as they are questioning their gender identity and falling in love with a fellow crew member. Ortiz is a proud Latine/x non-binary/gender fluid actor/activist born and raised in Puerto Rico. From birth, Ortiz grew up in an artistic environment as both their parents, Gerardo Ortiz and Evelyn Rosario, are respected and accomplished stage actors. They have fond memories of rehearsing lines with their parents at home, accompanying them to the theater regularly, being backstage observing rehearsals while doing homework, and even sometimes helping with props and costumes.

Therefore, it was no surprise that Vico wanted to follow in their parents footsteps and be an actor. While the stage was their first love, Ortiz has also excelled in fencing since their pre-teens. Most of their teenage years were spent traveling the world representing Puerto Rico in their national fencing team as their saber fencer, including the Panamerican Games in Rio 2007. Prior to finishing high school, Ortiz spent a summer at the UCLA Theater Camp and that experience confirmed acting was their calling. They moved to Los Angeles soon after and received their education at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Ortiz got their feet wet in the professional world of acting during the three-year program, working in theatre and student films. But it was Ortiz’s gift for fencing that led to their breakthrough in the entertainment industry working as a stunt performer. Their first co-star role was in the hit Amazon series Transparent, which paved the way to well recognized television appearances in such popular shows as The Fosters, Lucifer, American Horror Story: 1984 and Criminal Minds, among many others.

2022 is expected to be Ortiz’s biggest year yet thanks to the success of Our Flag Means Death. I had the very enjoyable privilege of chatting with them recently via Zoom about their life and work, during which they were wearing a fabulous multi-colored shirt.

CC: Vico! Thanks so much for your time and congratulations! I think Our Flag Means Death is going to be major exposure and a big hit. It’s such an enjoyable show.
VO: Thank you! Yeah, it’s been bananas. I’m really excited for it to come out already and just happen!

CC: Talk to me about how you got cast in it.
VO: It happened rather quickly. I was in Puerto Rico in May of 2021 for a theatre project. I had just finished doing it on Sunday and Tuesday I get the email for a self-tape, because everything now is a self-tape. I haven’t been to an in-person casting in a couple years. I do the thing, and when I first got the email with the scenes I was like, “Oh my God, this is incredible!” It was due the next day but I was like “I will knock it out in a couple hours, I got this.” I sent it immediately and then the next day I get a call back, and then the next day I have a meeting with (series creator) David Jenkins and then the next day I get the offer. And then on Sunday I was on my way back to LA to start (costume) fittings on Monday.

CC: Were they looking specifically for a non-binary actor for a non-binary character? Did you know that going in?
VO: Correct. Yeah, when the character was described to me it was looking for a non-binary person to portray a non-binary character and Latine. So I was like “this is perfect,” and what they didn’t know when I auditioned for it is that I also have a background in fencing so I know how to swordfight. I also do drag, I’m a drag king, so I’m very familiar and comfortable with exploring what masculinity means to me and what femininity means to me on my own terms. I was like, “this is oddly specific.” I even had a couple directors during the season ask me “Was this written for you?’ and I was like, “It was not at all.” It was really awesome because once I got into the project there was some Spanish but very little, like one word every so often, so I talked to David Jenkins and asked if I could add more Spanish and he said “Yeah, make it yours.” So that was really rad.

CC: Did you do a lot of research into pirate lives or that whole history, which is fascinating. I know there were queer pirates, I don’t know how well known they are, but were there non-binary pirates? What did you find out?
VO: That’s the thing. We’ve all heard about pirates and normally we all focus on the violent or the gruesome and chaotic or intense part of it. But as I really started looking into the detailed stories I was like, “These are really very queer people.” Like, in general they were getting gay married left and right and it was totally normal, totally chill, and there were a couple of pirates who had a very similar experience to what Jim has in the show. So that’s what’s interesting when you start looking at history, right, the way it’s written you have these two women pirates who got into this boat dressed as men. But one of them, Anne Bonny – I’m going to use she/her pronouns because that’s what we had at the time – but she had always been dressing up as a boy. When you look at her story, she had always been doing this since she was a little kid and then goes into the boat and stops wearing what’s considered men’s clothes but continues in that style, so it makes me question if Anne Bonny was living in this day and age with the language we have now, would this person be a non-binary or a trans person? What I love about playing Jim is it’s a chance to be reclaiming those stories. There were stories of queer people who found themselves in these extraordinary situations that allowed them to actually access a part of themselves that otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to. Pirates are overall very queer and they were very gay for each other, and it was like really sweet. They were carving their own path and making their own rules.

CC: It’s funny, I was thinking while watching Our Flag Means Death that next time I go on Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland I will never look at those pirates the same!
VO: (Laughs) Not at all! And a lot them were not monogamous. They were also having polyamorous relationships. Literally, they were making their own utopia.

CC: I’m sure that was part of the appeal though to so many of them, being able to live life by your own rules or with no rules.
VO: Which relates a little bit to the show. With a lot of our stories the common denominator is to have a second chance, to have agency of your own life. It’s like a moment to be like, “Oh, I can be who I am and be accepted for who I am in this world” and to be loved and to love.

CC: Talk to me a bit about working with Taika Waititi, both as director and as fellow actor. How was that experience?
VO: An absolute dream. Taika, both as a director and as an actor, has such a beautiful sense of wonder and child-like curiosity. You can see how he’s envisioning the setting and telling the story. He’s fascinated by all of it. He’s super fun. I love that in the beginning he was like, “Stick to the lines, absolutely stick to the script” but then the second we were filming he was like “Try it this way, try this other thing, go crazy!” And we were like, “OK, I guess I’m not doing the lines anymore as they were written.” Everything was always something new, every take is like fresh and I love that.

CC: That’s cool! Talk to me a little bit about how is Jim, your character, like you personally and how is Jim different from you.
VO: Um, so, I love this question because there are so many similar things but at the same time not at all, which I love because people think non-binary, “oh, it’s the same thing” and I’m like no, the way that I express myself and the way I walk in this world is like this flowery, flamboyant, I love love and I’m here for it. Whereas Jim is very much walls up, I don’t want you to know anything about me, if you look at me weird I will stab you. But he does have a very soft side that’s layered in a lot of childhood trauma, which I love as well. And then again I know fencing and I trained how to swordfight to compete, whereas Jim trained to kill, so very different intentions. Jim is chaotic, and I’m chaotic but on a different level. (Laughs)

CC: Has your family always been pretty supportive of you or were there challenges?
VO: Thankfully, they have been. It has definitely been a lot of conversations and a lot of patience on both ends. Obviously I recognize that there’s been a lot of stuff that I’ve had to unpack and unlearn and deprogram, and then learn and absorb. When I started conveying that same information to my parents and my brother I was like (loudly claps their hands together) “Get it!” Right? And then I was like, “Hold up, maybe I’m going a little bit too fast and I need to slow it down a couple notches and really allow for the process to happen.” Because it is a lot and as much as it’s about me, once they began realizing that the same system that is trying to put me in a box is the same system that has put them also in boxes and has told them what can you and cannot do based literally on what you were born with is when they went, “ooohhh” and realized it’s not just about me fighting for my rights but is literally about everyone trying to live authentically no matter what. Which is something that I also love about playing Jim. I want people to question “What makes me a man? What makes me a woman? What makes me a human being outside of societal structures and expectations?” And then define them on their own terms.

CC: Wow. Well, thank you so much for your time, Vico. It’s been great meeting you and I wish you every success. And send me that shirt when you’re done with it.
VO: (Laughs) Absolutely, isn’t is fabulous? It’s a good time, it’s a good time.

Watch Chris' interview with Vico below:

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.