HEAT VISION

'Onward' Star Mel Rodriguez Shares Health Journey and His David Fincher Story

The actor pulls back the curtain on Pixar's process and remembers his bit role in 'Panic Room' that required more takes than he's done in his life: "That four-minute scene took five days of shooting."
'Onward' star Mel Rodriguez   |   Jesse Grant/Getty Images
The actor pulls back the curtain on Pixar's process and remembers his bit role in 'Panic Room' that required more takes than he's done in his life: "That four-minute scene took five days of shooting."

Since 2013, Onward star Mel Rodriguez has been on an upward trajectory thanks to memorable roles on HBO’s Getting On, AMC’s Better Call Saul and Fox’s The Last Man on Earth. Rodriguez credits Getting On as the turning point in his career since he and his wife, Desiree Dundr Rodriguez, were nearly homeless just one or two years prior. Most important, Rodriguez also became a father to two girls (now 5 and 1), which inspired a major lifestyle change for their sake. As of this moment, Rodriguez has lost 160-plus pounds.

In his latest film, Pixar’s Onward, Rodriguez plays a centaur police officer named Officer Colt Bronco, who is overly protective of his girlfriend, Laurel Lightfoot (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and her two sons, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt). When he accepted the offer, Rodriguez was under the impression that the role would consist of just one or two lines, but it quickly turned into so much more.

“They kept calling me back in to do more lines — and then more lines,” Rodriguez tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I went off to do On Becoming a God in Central Florida in New Orleans, and then, Pixar would say, ‘Colt has got some more stuff to do so we’re gonna fly out to New Orleans and have you go in a booth in New Orleans.’ I thought, ‘That’s weird. It must be costing them a lot of money.’ And they did that three or four more times. So, I really didn’t know how large the role was going to be until I saw the film.”

In David Fincher’s Panic Room, one of Rodriguez’s first feature films, he played a police officer named Morales, who was called to check on Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart’s characters. For Rodriguez, Fincher’s reputation for meticulousness preceded him as he hasn’t performed more takes for a single scene since being on Fincher’s set in 2001.

“That four-minute scene took five days of shooting,” Rodriguez shares of working with Fincher. “At the end, he was especially obsessed with this one SWAT guy’s flashlight and how it would come in the door. We must have done 30 takes because it did not come in the right way. He really has a vision, and once he sees it in his head, he won’t accept anything less than what he sees.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Rodriguez also discusses his indelible role as Jimmy McGill’s best friend, Marco, on Better Call Saul, how Bob Odenkirk helped him perfect his Chicago accent and the generosity of Foster.

I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you’re looking great these days. What’s your regimen been?

Thank you! Basically, I started doing this intermittent fast thing. I first did keto, but it was too extreme so I switched to paleo. I’m not a runner, really, so I started walking. In L.A., it’s kind of weird to walk so I bought a dog. There’s all these shelters all over, so I just adopted a dog. I knew I’d be doing a good thing for me and for this little animal who needed a home. But, yeah, I got a dog to not look weird while walking. (Laughs.) Unfortunately, that dog has since passed, but I just started walking everywhere like I did in New York or Miami. People just walked places. I’m embarrassed to say where I’ve driven here in Los Angeles; I think a lot of us are. I’ve driven places that were a block and a half a way. So, that’s kind of how I did it, and I’ve lost a little over 160 pounds. My inspiration was my girls; I’ve got a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old. I want to be around for them.

So, did you ever think you’d wind up in a Pixar movie, let alone voice a centaur in a Pixar movie?

(Laughs.) Absolutely! No, God, no. I’ve always loved Pixar movies. I loved Cars, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and it’s always been a dream of mine to be part of one of their films. I just never thought that would ever really happen. My wife and I were close to homeless about eight or nine years ago, which I’ve said in interviews before. So, no, that just wasn’t on the horizon for us. I really didn’t see this coming.

Are voice auditions commonplace on these types of movies? Or, did Pixar contact you since your voice is well-documented by now?

They contacted me, which I was really, really honored by. They offered me the role, but I didn’t realize how big the role was going to be. I thought it was going to be a line or two, but they kept calling me back in to do more lines — and then more lines. I went off to do On Becoming a God in Central Florida, and we were shooting in New Orleans for Florida. And then, Pixar would say, “Colt has got some more stuff to do so we’re gonna fly out to New Orleans and have you go in a booth in New Orleans.” I thought, “Really, they’re going to fly out to New Orleans to have me go in the vocal booth? That’s odd.” And they did that three or four more times. I thought, “That’s weird. It must be costing them a lot of money.” Then, I came back here, and I came in maybe two or three more times in Los Angeles. I then thought, “Wow, this is turning into a larger role than I thought it was.” So, I really didn’t know how large the role was going to be until I saw the film. I was pretty surprised that Colt Bronco was a pretty big part.

If you had to guess, how many total days did you spend in the booth?

I’d say maybe 10 or 11. It wouldn’t be entire days, obviously. I’d be in for an hour one day, maybe a couple hours another day and maybe a half-hour one day. That sort of thing.

With voice performances, do you perform each line exactly as you would in live action, or do you add more emotion and inflection since it’s animated?

I think you add a little more, especially with this film. It’s so magical and fantastical. It’s just such a magical world. He’s a centaur for crying out loud, so you add a little more. (Laughs.) He’s half-man and half-horse. He’s definitely a little extra. So, his voice has gotta be a little extra, and I had to come with the extra — or a little more than average.

You can’t argue with the results that Pixar gets, but would you prefer to have your scene partners in the same vocal booth — as opposed to a script supervisor reading their lines to you?

I would, but on the first day that I did this, there was a situation where [director] Dan (Scanlon) and I talked. He told me that this was a part of his real life, and if I was ice cream, I would’ve been soft serve. (Laughs.) I literally started to get choked up, and he got choked up, too. We both hugged, and at that point, I fully trusted and surrendered to Dan. I was like, “Whatever Dan and [producer] Kori (Rae) want, I will give them.” I just completely trusted them. When they asked me to do it this way, I did it that way. When they asked me to switch the levels a bit, I switched the levels a bit. I felt completely confident that they knew what they needed and that it would fit with the other actors’ performances. I had no doubt that they were getting what they needed, and I had complete faith in them. It is hard, though, because you don’t have the other actors there.

Officer Colt Bronco is the antagonist of the piece. He’s trying to stop the brothers’ quest, not necessarily out of jealousy for their deceased father, but mainly for their mother’s sake and their own well-being. Did you treat Colt like any other character you’d play in live action and avoid judging him?

I did, but I kind of felt sorry for Colt. He’s put in a kind of a stinky situation. He’s Laurel’s boyfriend, and he knows these kids don’t like him. They’re never really going to accept him as a father figure, and he has a pretty good idea that they make fun of him behind his back. He’s probably heard them mocking him through their bedroom doors. So, I think he’s just doing his best to be the man of the house, trying not to overstep any bounds but at the same time, trying to help Laurel out. And once all this has happened, he’s just trying to make sure that the boys don’t get hurt while being there for this woman who he loves. He wants to be a role model to these boys, but in no way does he think he can fill their father’s shoes. He knows he’ll never be their father.

We’ve all seen movies with similar family dynamics, only the new father figure would antagonize out of jealousy. I presume you also appreciated that he wasn’t a jealous character?

Absolutely. Very much so. I think that would’ve made it kind of yucky, and I’m really glad they avoided that. It would’ve changed the whole dynamic of the film.

It’s often said that comedy is more difficult than drama, which is why a lot of comedic actors and comedians have had a lot of success doing drama. Since you can do both quite well, is comedy the more difficult genre for you as well?

I’ve always treated them the same. I take comedy very seriously. I’ve always looked at the circumstances and viewed them as the same; I’ve always played them the same. The Last Man on Earth, On Becoming a God in Central Florida or Better Call Saul are very real to the people in those circumstances. Although they may come across as funny, they’re not funny to the person playing them. They should never be. That’s why I love shows like Barry and Atlanta; they’re just really true to life. They’re not funny to the protagonist or the hero. They’re just happening. They’re not being slapstick-y or playing the joke. They’re just playing the circumstances as they should, and that kind of stuff is the funniest thing to me.

Your career is really firing on all cylinders right now. Was Better Call Saul a turning point since so many people — both above the line and below the line — have thrived after spending some time in that universe?

It definitely didn’t hurt; I’ll tell you that. I love Breaking Bad, and I love Better Call Saul. To be part of that legacy and for my character, Marco, to be the reason why Jimmy/Saul wears his pinkie ring is pretty darn cool. I think the turning point within the business was probably Getting On on HBO, but Better Call Saul definitely did not hurt. Bob Odenkirk, Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan are just really amazing dudes. I don’t know how they do it; I really don’t. When writing, they have this vision or aerial view of all seasons, somehow. To plant something in the first season and to have it come back in season five is so amazing. They’re just such incredible writers, and it was an honor to work with all of them. Bob is also so giving; he really is. I flew in on a Saturday, and on Sunday, he called me up at my hotel and was like, “Hey, you want to run this scene?” I was like, “Who does that? Who gives away their Sunday to work with an actor they don’t know or is not very well known?” He really helped me with my Chicago accent. I think he co-wrote most of those“Da Bears” sketches on SNL, and I was like, “I just don’t want to go too far.” But, he was like, “Mel, do it. If you go too far, I’ll tell you.”

I remember being at Joe’s Stone Crab in Chicago one night, because I was working on something else. I was alone and some guy picked up my meal. He was at the bar, and he was like, “Come here, kid. That’s for getting Chicago right.” He was like, “Every actor I’ve ever known has gotten Chicago fucking wrong. You’re the first actor to get fucking Chicago right.” (Laughs.) I think that was the best compliment I’ve ever gotten. I was like, “Dude, you really didn’t have to do that, but you really touched my heart. Thank you.”

I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to talk to the Better Call Saul creatives over the years, and I’ve learned that they title their episodes at the tail end of the postproduction process. Each choice is made in response to who or what stands out when all is said and done. Thus, naming their season one finale “Marco” is also a compliment of the highest order.

Absolutely. It goes without saying that it blew me away. I’m beyond honored. Those guys!? Those guys!? I was speechless. Those guys are the Scorseses of our generation in TV. I went into this business saying, “I just want to work with people that I love and respect and be loved and respected for what I do.” And I feel like I’m getting a little of that. What more can I ask for? To some degree, I’m living my dream.

You also have to give yourself more credit than just Jimmy/Saul’s pinkie ring because Marco posited the idea of the white Cadillac that Saul eventually drives on Breaking Bad. Jimmy doesn’t have it yet on Better Call Saul, but it’s only a matter of time.

I know! We were sitting downstairs in the basement of Marco’s apartment, and I said, “You gotta be king of the desert, driving around town in a white Caddy, making bank.” And that’s what he ends up doing. 

It’s yet another tribute to Marco.

It’s nuts, man. I love that character so much; I really do. I’m watching this stuff unfold because I love the show and him becoming Saul Goodman/Slippin Jimmy more and more is just really cool.

You also appeared in the teaser of season one’s fourth episode, “Hero.” Since that’s when the Rolex scam was introduced, did you shoot that teaser when you were in town to shoot the season one finale?

Those were different trips. I get phone calls sometimes. That’s just how it works. They are so secretive about their stuff. They really, really are. So, I get phone calls sometimes, and I just say yes.

When you first came across Marco’s cough and chest pound at the bar in Peter Gould’s “Marco” script, did you immediately know it was an ominous cough?

Yes, I did. I knew ahead of time that he was going to die at the end of our big Rolex scam. So, that I did know.

Did you learn that beer bottle quarter trick ahead of time, or did you pick it up on set?

I learned it on set, and it’s really hard to do. There was only one other dude that knew how to do it, and now, I know it. It’s really hard, but doable.

Has it become your go-to party trick since then?

(Laughs.) No, but I’ve been asked to. OK, fine, I’ve done it once or twice. The trick is it’s gotta be at least a three-quarters full bottle of beer, and you’ve gotta use four quarters with a brand-new bill. You also have to use saliva on your ring finger and middle finger with one full motion straight down. You can’t hesitate. Straight down — bam. If you can do that, you can do it.

Is laying in the street while wearing a suit as uncomfortable as it looks?

They helped me out with some pads, so it wasn’t that bad. It’s all movie magic. It was a little cold that night, actually. It gets really cold in the desert, and it was during the winter months. But, I didn’t care; I was just super thrilled to be there. I would’ve done it in Greenland, honestly. So, I was totally cool.

Was the elaborate scam montage shot in pieces like it was presented? Were you and Bob performing your parts together with one person out of frame since you seem to be finishing each other sentences?

We were both reading a book, I think, and we would come in and go out, come in and go out. Peter Gould, who directed that episode, used this crazy camera with a lot of frames per second, and he was trying to re-create the style of Slavko Vorkapich’s montages in the 1930s. Then, they went really nutty in the editing room with all the coverage that they shot. To see the final product was just so cool. What Peter did was just so cool.

Do you think you’ll suit up as Marco one last time before Better Call Saul ends next year?

If they call, I’m there. I’ll be there any time for those guys.

Well, you did return to Albuquerque for USA’s Briarpatch, as its third episode was your debut. Do you golf in your own time, or was that golfing introduction of yours another on-set learning process like the beer bottle trick?

That was actually the first time I’d ever swung a golf club, but I had a really great teacher. I think I like golf now. It’s very relaxing, and it’s not about power. It’s very meditative, and I really enjoyed it. We worked on my swing for a couple hours. I grew up in such a poor neighborhood that there was no golfing going on, but I think my wife is going to surprise me with some golf clubs in a minute. I think I’m gonna take it up. It’s fun.

I revisited David Fincher’s Panic Room not too long ago, and my jaw dropped when I recognized you toward the end as one of the two cops that checked on Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart. Since everyone who works with Fincher — or even observes him working — has a Fincher story, do you happen to have one?

I love Fincher. He really knows how to work with actors. I used to box when I was a kid, and I feel like he’s more of a cornerman than a director in a lot of ways. He really knows how to keep you in the scene while giving you direction. I’ll tell you this: he does a lot of coverage, man. That four-minute scene took five days of shooting. And I have to say something about Jodie Foster, who’s amazing. She was pregnant, and she was there for every single take, giving us 100 percent on our coverage. I’ve never had another actor be that giving before. She was really and truly just one of the most giving actors I’ve ever worked with.

Do you remember doing ADR for that scene since there was fake rain involved?

I do, yeah. Fincher was like a kid; he had a little basketball net in his office. He’d probably be really pissed that I said that, because everybody has heard about him being a tyrant. However, I never saw that side of him. I really didn’t. I’ve heard those really scary stories about him since, and I’m sure you have, too. But, he was always really nice to me. I really like him. He doesn’t suffer any fools. He runs a tight set, and I like who he is. Before we went into ADR, he was just like, “Hey, what’s going on, guys?” Then, he asked, “Do you want to shoot some balls?" So, we started shooting some balls, and we shot the breeze some more. He’s a really down-to-earth and cool dude.

Is Panic Room still the record holder for most takes you’ve ever done in a given scene?

Yes, that’s for sure. Absolutely. For anything I’ve ever done, before or since. I was cool with it, actually. You can feel the tension in the scene. It’s palpable. He really gets what he wants. Fincher is a master.

Matt Damon recently told a story about the time he visited Ben Affleck on the Gone Girl set, and instead of focusing on a scene with Affleck and Rosamund Pike, Fincher was more concerned with how an extra was walking in the background.

That happened at the end of Panic Room. We were going in to save Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart, and he was so hung up on the way the SWAT guys’ flashlights were coming in the door. He was especially obsessed with this one SWAT guy’s flashlight and how it would come in the door. We must have done 30 takes because it did not come in the right way. It was supposed to hit this staircase, turn and then hit this wall. But, it wasn’t the right way for him. So, Fincher finally came in and instructed how he wanted it to do “this, this and this.” He really has a vision, and once he sees it in his head, he won’t accept anything less than what he sees. It’s just wild. Some directors like to play as anything goes, but then there are those directors like Fincher where nothing else will do except for what’s in their head.

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Onward is now in theaters.

  • Brian Davids
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