Interview with 'Musical Chairs' actor E.J. Bonilla

E.J. Bonilla is a young actor with a true gift for giving honest and real performances. Best known for his role on CBS’s Guiding Light, Bonilla has stepped away from television to make a name for himself on the silver screen.’s Kristen Maldonado got a chance to speak with the young talent about his new film Musical Chairs, his biggest acting inspirations, and some of the other films he has in the works. Could you tell us about your new film Musical Chairs?

E.J. Bonilla: It’s a beautiful film. Really, at the heart of it, it’s about this boy getting this girl who he’s in love with to see herself the way that he sees her. To me, that’s what the film is about at its core. But the circumstances that surround them are as follows: this kid who wants to be a ballroom dancer works as a janitor or as a handyman at this dance studio so he can get free dance classes and be around it because he loves it. And he’s infatuated with one of the lead dancers of the company there. To me, what’s interesting about the film is that as far as a love story goes he’s infatuated with this girl before her accident, but he really gets to know her after. The lead dancer, she gets hit by a car and paralyzed from the waist down, and what’s beautiful about the film is that he gets to know her after she’s already in the hospital. So he falls in love with her as is. He doesn’t really see her as anything less. That’s why I say it’s about getting her to see herself to way he sees her.

In an attempt to get her out of her depression he tries to remind her of her love of dancing by dancing with her. Whether you can move your legs or not, you can still dance. One of the key lines of the film is something like: “It’s not about vanity. Dancing is about emotion. It’s about how you feel when you move and how that movement makes you feel.” So that’s part of the foundation of it as well. Did you already know how to dance coming into this film?

E.J. Bonilla: I had a dance background. I danced ballet a little in high school and hip-hop and stuff like that. So I was aware of my body, but I had never danced ballroom before and so that was a task. We had like a five-week rehearsal period before the actual shooting of the film to learn the choreography for the dances and to get in shape. I lost like maybe 15-20 pounds. What was really interesting was learning to wheelchair ballroom dance. It was interesting because when you’re dancing with someone in a chair they’re not as capable to move any which way as an able-bodied partner would be. So you have to literally re-learn where to place your weight with your partner. That must have been hard! First you had to learn how to ballroom dance and then learn how to ballroom dance in a totally different way.

E.J. Bonilla: If you can imagine it’s really not you moving the person in the chair so much, it’s more like you’ll show them what you want them to do and they’ll move themselves. So if I put my arm out because I want her to go underneath it, I have to put it out and then hold my arm steady because she uses that as an anchor to pull herself through. You have to do that and make it look fluid like you’re not really trying but you’re using all your muscles. It looks really fluid, but it isn’t as easy as it looks. Now, I know you had a close connection with this film specifically. Could you tell us about that?

E.J. Bonilla: I didn’t have to do a lot of research when came to dealing with people in wheelchairs. My uncle was a paraplegic for 31 years of his life right before he passed away. He passed as I was auditioning for this film. So, literally I had my audition and then went to the hospital to visit him because he was in the ICU and they had just put him in a chemically induced coma. I was talking to him about my audition after I had my audition and I was saying, “Tio, you have to wake up – you have to get better. I want you to stay strong because I’m auditioning for this film. I think I’m going to get it. It’s right up my ally and it’s about people in wheelchairs. How crazy is that? How often does a film like that come along?” I was telling him that and he passed away shortly after and I wasn’t able to make it to my callback. There wasn’t a second thought in my head. I didn’t care about the film at that point. I wanted to be with my family. The people from Musical Chairs were nice enough to give me another opportunity to re-audition for my callback and it ended up working out. So the film’s extremely close to my heart. He wasn’t just an uncle – we were really close. Was it hard doing the film right after having such a big loss in your life?

E.J. Bonilla: No, it wasn’t. To me, the film is to him. I’ve dedicated the film to my uncle. What’s beautiful is that it’s the first film of mine that’s getting this kind of publicity. It’s the first film of mine that’s going to theatres – to real theatres – and having nationwide distribution. That’s amazing and it makes me feel like he’s looking after me. Thank you for sharing that with us! Getting back to your acting: who would you consider one of your biggest acting inspirations?

E.J. Bonilla: I love anyone who’s just honest. I mean, I would love to work with Anthony Hopkins one day – I think that he’s amazing. Of course, I’m a big fan of Johnny Depp. I also really, really love Ryan Gosling’s career. I think he’s amazing. It’s not often you see a leading man also play character roles and I think that he’s got that in the bag. He goes from playing in The Notebook to Lars and the Real Girl which is completely different and I love that! He’s a fantastic actor – and he and I started similarly. I’m still in the independent world and that’s where he started. I think it’s a great training ground because it’s not big time budgeted, but it has the potential to be. There’s a lot of heart there and there’s a lot of truth to be found. I would definitely say Ryan Gosling is an inspiration to me. I even want to start dressing like him, because he’s a real snazzy dresser! Throughout the roles you’ve played, you have said that you are typically cast as “the Latino underdog.” Do you ever feel like you are type-casted and do you want to break out of that?

E.J. Bonilla: Ideally, as a Latino in the industry, I want to be known as an actor first. I want to be an actor who happens to be Latino, as opposed to a Latino actor. We all know those guys who are always playing “the Latin guy,” whether it’s “the wealthy Latin guy” or “the poor Latin guy.” There’s this stigma that Hollywood puts on it. I was thinking about this the other day. On 90210, for example, they have the one character who is “the Token black guy” and what’s interesting is that the character isn’t just rich. The character was adopted into money. So there’s always an excuse as to why they are the way they are. You have the Latin family that’s well off, but it’s because the family use to do drugs or sell drugs. Whatever way they are being portrayed there is a point that they are making by doing that. As opposed to the person just being a regular person that happens to be Latino, they make a point of mentioning that they are black or that they are Hispanic instead of just letting it be.

Now, I’m getting to the point in my career where I’m in the same room as white guys. I’m in the same room, going out for the same part as every other actor. That’s an exciting time for me because I want to be able to play those characters that just are characters first that happen to be Hispanic if I get cast. But if this other guy gets cast then it’s white or this other guy gets cast then it’s black. That’s when you know a character isn’t written for a specific race, when its open to all ethnicities, or when any person could play it and it would be just as good. I want to be known for being a good actor, not a good Latino actor. What else do you have going on?

E.J. Bonilla: About a year and a half ago I did a film that’s just now coming out. It hit the festival circuit and did pretty well. It’s going to get released – which is amazing! – at the end of April, beginning of May. It’s called Mamitas. It’s basically a coming-of-age story about this kid from LA. He thinks he’s this little papi chulo, he thinks he’s like the cock of the walk, until he meets this girl who sort of puts him in his place. For him, it’s the first time he’s even been friends with a girl and she doesn’t take his sh*t. She’s one of the first people to really see him as he really is and she forces him to do the same – to see himself and ask the question, “Who am I really?” Through the film he realizes, as a lot of guys do, that he put up a front because he wants to be what he thinks a guy should be and it’s sad because you’re really not being yourself. I think he learns this amazing lesson from this girl and it’s a beautiful story.

Honestly, it’s one of my favorite films. As an actor, it’s the film I’m most proud of for my performance. When I watched it in the LA Film Festival last year, it was one of those moments where I was like, “Who is that kid? That is not me. I am not that cool! Seriously, I’m really not, but that kid – I want to be friends with that guy!” I was super proud.

And then there’s a film I did with Wendell Pierce. It’s based off a play that Christopher Shin wrote called Four and the name of the film is also Four. It’s about four characters on the 4th of July – it’s hard to explain because it’s about two different story lines. The first is between this girl and this boy – my character – and then Wendell Pierce’s character and this young boy, but I don’t want to give too much away about it. It’s complicated – there’s this sex aspect and drugs and admitting who you really are. It’s some pretty deep stuff. I need some comedy in my life! Do you think you have any comedies coming up in the future?

E.J. Bonilla: There is a film that I did that was in festivals. It was a short called Crazy Beats Strong Every Time and that was a short that was based off a feature length screenplay called Meadowlands by Moon Molson. It was a fantastic script about these four friends and it takes place over the course of one night and it was in black and white. The reason why it’s a comedy is because when crazy serious stuff isn’t happening these four friends are constantly talking and cracking up with each other. My character is the comedic relief. He’s like the pothead of the group. The guy who is obviously smarter than everyone thinks he is but he likes to play the fool because it’s just easier. I’m hoping that it gets the budget that it needs to be made into a feature because it’s an amazing film.

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