This month's regional legend will be Pedro Garcia, a local actor who has worked on popular television series' like "Breaking Bad", and who has helped run the Pharr Community Theater for several years now.
Eduardo Martinez: Where were you born and raised?
Pedro Garcia: I was born in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. A town called Trenton, Michigan in 1961. I was raised in Detroit until I was 10 years old and then my dad picked up the whole family and we moved to Hidalgo, Texas in 1970. I was raised there most of my life. My dad was from Hidalgo originally, but he had worked in Michigan for 18 years as a journeyman electrician for Great Lakes Steel Mill company.
EM: What experiences did you have in Hidalgo?
PG: It was wonderful. Hidalgo was right alongside the river and I had lots of friends. I also had to work a lot ‘cause my dad had a hardware store. I was taught at a very young age the responsibilities of being on time, of merchandising and everything. But I also got my days off and I got to play a lot. One thing that I liked doing was going alongside the river with my good friend Beto, even though my dad told me, “No te andes juntando con Beto, mijo! (“Don’t be hanging out with Beto, son!”) I would still hang out with Beto. You know, it’s amazing that bird watching is now real famous throughout the whole world. But when I was a kid, I didn’t know that it was called bird watching or anything. But me and Beto, we’d go to the big arboles (trees) along the river vato, and we’d chase the birds of all colors. We would look at them for hours, we even gave names to them.
Being a bird watches as a kid, without even knowing it, was one of my greatest experiences in Hidalgo. And going swimming in the canal at the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse. And fishing in the Rio Grande, getting big garfish and big catfish. It was wonderful, man.
EM: What got you interested in theater?
PG: Well see in 1979, I graduated from high school. I joined the Marine Corps. When I got out of the Marines, I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do.
I went to Houston to work as a tree trimmer, for a tree company. Then I heard that they were hiring at a car lot, and I said, “I’m going to go try car sales instead of climbing trees and trimming branches.” When I was turning on a car one day, I heard that they had a school for broadcasting and I wanted to learn how to be a radio announcer. I went to college for one semester. I was going to major in communications and they said, “You need to take an acting class.” So when I took my first acting class in ‘85, I realized that I really liked this acting business. So then I moved to Albuquerque, NM, became a public affairs director for a radio station and got involved with a local community theater. I did 60 plays there in 10 years. After that, I got an agent, I did my first movie role called “Mad Love” (1995), with Drew Barrymore. Then I came to the Valley to be with my family.
EM: How did you get involved with the Pharr Community Theater?
PG: I was working in McAllen, for a theater company that I started called Teatro Nuestro Cultura. I had been directing. I directed like 35 plays. Elva Michael started the Pharr Literacy Project and needed a director for theater. She called me over, we talked about it, and we were able to make arrangements to do it. I’ve been here since 2008.
EM: You’ve also worked with two conjunto legends. First let’s talk about Wally Gonzalez.
PG: I had known him since I was a little boy because he used to play at the political dances in Hidalgo for my father. My dad was a commissioner for Hidalgo, and he ran for mayor. He would always invite Wally, and Wally would come. Wally was popular back in those days. They were playing him on the air, all the time. He had songs like “El Pajaro Grande”, “The Big Bird”, that supposedly everyone saw flying around the Valley. That was before the Chupacabras days!
So I met him when I was a young boy. I’ve been friends with him all my life. The other one, I think you’re talking about is [conjunto musician] Cha Cha Jimenez?
PG: I met him at the Pharr Literacy Project, he was standing outside one day when I was talking to some other people about a play that I was directing about the Vietnam war. This man just popped up, which was Cha Cha. I didn’t know at the time, I didn’t even recognize him. He says to me, “You know, I heard about your play about Vietnam. I was there.” I go, “Really? Wow, thank you very much. Would you like to be in our play?”
He says, “Maybe, I don’t know.” And then he asks me, “Do you know who I am?” I go, “No sir, I’m sorry.” He says, “I’m Cha Cha Jimenez.” That’s when I became starstruck, right away. I practically wanted to hug him, I was like, “Woah Cha Cha Jimenez!” I used to love his music. I always thought he sang to La Raza. His music was real brown, real beautiful. The way he would harmonize his voice, the way he would hang a note. Not very many people can do that. So when I met him, I was totally enthused.
When he told me who he was, I got him involved in my play. He played a bartender in Vietnam, in a place called the Saigon Cafe. He had to also sing “My Country Tis To Thee”, and man, Cha Cha did wonderful in his role. You can tell that he had discipline. This was towards the last years of his life. During the time that I was directing him in the play, he kept talking about an ailment and a sickness. He just said, that the doctor said that he had cancer. He kind of cried a little bit. It was very sad. He had the support of his wife. He was a very emotional guy but he stil had a lot of pride.
I was so sad when he passed away, after he did the play. Maybe 3 to 4 months later. It was quick, he had the type of cancer that consumed him quickly. His wife was with him to the very end. To say the least, Cha Cha was an awesome guy, and I was happy to have known him. I just felt like I wanted to know him more.
EM: How did you secure the gig with “Breaking Bad”? Did you talk to Bryan Cranston, behind the scenes?
PG: Through my agent, Kandy Stewart, who runs Legacy Talent Agency in Austin. She got called by the casting director for “Breaking Bad”, that’s shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They had bit parts that they have to fill. They branched out to Texas, to look for people in Texas. They gave her the breakdown, “Hispanic guy, in his 40’s, 50’s.” So then she said, “Well I got Pedro.” She sent my picture, they said, “Yeah have him read this part.” I read the part. Then they gave me another part to read, and then later on, she called me and she says, “They want to cast you for the car wash manager, Pedro. Are you available?” I said, “Sure.”
I went to Albuquerque. I shot the scene and then I came back home. So they called me back, so I went back again. Of course, I only have that one speaking bit part, and yes I did meet Bryan Cranston on the set. The first day that I was there, he looked at me. He came up to me and he goes, “Pedro, great audition. Thank you. You know a little bit about your character? This is what I want. He likes his job, not in love with it, but he likes it, and he’s doing well. Basically that’s it.” I go, “That’s it, that’s great Bryan. That’s what I thought.” Then he says, “Okay”, and he moves aside to do some other work.
My friend, Steven Michael Quezada, who had a recurring role in “Breaking Bad”, he played “Gomie”. I called him on the phone. He wasn’t working that day, but he said, “I’m going to go over to the set, Pedro, I haven’t seen you in five or six years and I want to see you again.” Me and him did theater back in Albuquerque when I lived there. So Steven came to the set, and he brought me closer to Bryan Cranston, when Bryan was taking a break.
I was able to ask [Bryan] about taped auditions. I wanted his opinion, because that’s how I won the role. I never went to the audition live.
Nowadays, in my acting classes here in the Valley, locally, when people want to learn about acting, and they want to learn about how to tape your auditions, I can teach you how to tape your auditions. To try to win a role. To tape them properly so that the casting directors can know that you’re professional.
Bryan Cranston said, when I asked him, “That is an efficient way to cast, Pedro. I can tell if you can act or not if you send me a good tape, like you did.” That was it.
EM: Almost every year you do a run of “The Life and Times of Juanito Gonzalez”. What’s the history and story of that play?
PG: It’s my children’s play that I do every year. It was born in the town of Albuquerque, where I lived for 10 years, from ‘87 to ‘97. A literacy group asked me to do a children’s story about reading and writing, but to set it on Dia de los Muertos, because they were celebrating that over there. I said, “Why don’t I just write a play instead?” They go, “Okay, yeah.” So I wrote a 20 minute play at the time, based on reading and writing, and about loving a good life. This is how the Juanito Gonzalez character started. In the next 2 to 3 years, I added some more scenes to it, and it ended up being a 55 minute play, which it has stayed at.
I do it every year, around October, November, because it is about a guy who has been dead for 2 years. He’s 100 years old. He comes back, pulling his hack of books to his gravesite, to clean it up before his relatives come to visit on Dia de los Muertos. Then he notices that there is an audience! So he decides to tell everybody about his beautiful, wonderful life.
It’s a beautiful play, man. I love performing “The Life and Times of Juanito Gonzalez”. Schools, museums, art centers, all over the Southwest, and anywhere in the world.
EM: What have you been up to now in 2016?
PG: I've been producing plays for the Pharr Community Theater. Now we are presenting "El Color de Nuestra Piel", in Spanish. "The Color of our Skin", famous drama that was written by in the '50 in Mexico City, and won a prestigious prize for the playwright, Celestino Gorostiza. That plays deals with racism within the same family.
I also continue to teach acting classes to adults, one on one classes, for those serious wanting to learn believable acting. That's what I've been doing.
EM: When does this new play premiere?
PG: It opens July 28, this Thursday, and runs 'till August 7th. Two consecutive weekends. The times are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM.
EM: Thank you so much for your time.