October 8, 2008

Actor Stays True to His Values in ‘Chihuahua’


By Barry Koltnow

The Orange County Register

AMERICA'S MEXICAN," as George Lopez referred to himself in his 2007 HBO comedy special, knows he's made it big. It has nothing to do with his arena-size stand-up career or his successful TV career or even his burgeoning movie career, which includes a key role in Disney's new film "Beverly Hills Chihuahua." No, it has more to do with the where and when of this interview.

"I figure that if I'm still home and in my pajamas conducting business at 11:30 in the morning, then I must be big," he said with a laugh. "I'm happy the way my life turned out," he added on a more serious note. "I wasn't supposed to do anything in my life. When people come up to me after shows and tell me that they want my life, I tell them that I'm sorry, but I want it, too."

Lopez, 47, said he never forgets how far he's come, but there is one aspect of his life that hasn't changed at all.

After his parents split up, his mother remarried and moved away with her husband, leaving her son to be raised by his grandparents . Although the couple was well-intentioned, Lopez said they didn't know how to deal with a young boy . They left him alone a lot, and Lopez said he was so lonely that he retreated into a fantasy world. Each morning he repeated a ritual .

"I would hear an imaginary clapboard, and I would pretend my life was being filmed. If anything bad happened to me during the day, I remember telling myself that I would edit it out later. I know that sounds bizarre for a 10-year-old, but I was very lonely."

Lopez said he is no longer lonely, but he still hears the clapboard.

"Now, it's a good thing to hear because my life really is a lot like a movie. And it's a good movie, like 'It's a Wonderful Life,' only it's my life."

When Lopez graduated from high school, his future looked anything but wonderful. Inspired by Latino comic Freddie Prinze 's success on the TV sitcom "Chico and the Man," Lopez gave stand-up comedy a try. He made the rounds of open-mic nights at local comedy clubs but failed miserably. He quit his dream for the next six years, working a series of dead-end jobs. When he was 24, his boss suggested he try comedy again. This time, he clicked . Arsenio Hall caught his act at the Improv in West Hollywood. Four months later, Hall got his own late-night talk show and booked Lopez, the first of 15 guest spots over the next five years. Lopez was now a major headliner.

That status led to three comedy albums, a best-selling autobiography and a network sitcom that ran for six seasons and is now in syndication on Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite. Along the way, he got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame .

Less impressive has been his movie career, which has had a few highlights, including "Real Women Have Curves,""Bread and Roses" and the Kevin Costner film "Swing Vote."

"Beverly Hills Chihuahua" is significant for Lopez on two fronts - it is, by far, the biggest Hollywood film he's been in, and he plays a dog. He provides the voice of a feisty Chihuahua named Papi, who is owned by the landscaper at a Beverly Hills mansion. When the owner of the mansion, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, leaves on a business trip, she leaves her painfully spoiled Chihuahua (voiced by Drew Barrymore) in the hands of her irresponsible niece (Piper Perabo). The niece takes the pet with her on a trip to Mexico, where the dog is kidnapped. Papi (Lopez), who is infatuated with Curtis' pampered pet, makes his way south of the border to rescue the "damsel" in distress.

Other dogs are voiced by the likes of Andy Garcia, Placido Domingo and Edward James Olmos. Cheech Marin lends his voice to a rat, and comic Paul Rodriguez voices an iguana.

Lopez, who has been vocal in his opposition to entertainment projects that reflect badly on his ethnic community, said he was skeptical when he received the script.

"By the time I got the offer, most of the parts were taken. My part was supposed to be just eight lines. Still, I am very sensitive to movies and TV shows that might be insulting, and I wasn't sure about this one, but Andy (Garcia) is even more sensitive to these things than I am, and he had already said yes.

"I talked to Andy and the other Latino actors in the film and they convinced me that Mexico and the Mexican people were being shown in a positive light, which is a change from what most Americans see.

"The other actors also showed me that the message of the movie reflects the message I care about most. It's about finding your own identity and not judging a book by its cover. "

Lopez agreed to do the eight lines in one recording session. Apparently, that session went so well that the filmmakers made the Lopez character a major player in the script.

Lopez said he would like a bigger movie career, but not at the expense of that "wonderful" life he's leading. He said his health is excellent following a 2006 kidney transplant to combat a genetic life-threatening condition, and he's trying to stay home more.

"I'm working hard, but the only priorities in my life right now are resting and enjoying. For instance, I'm working hard right now answering your questions, but I'm in my pajamas."

Originally published by BY BARRY KOLTNOW.

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