‘I Want to Be the Most Honest Ally for My Community’12 min read
James Rodriguez was a freshman at New York University when the then-aspiring actor first learned that his Mexican-American heritage was going to be a problem for Hollywood.
He had just nailed an audition for a big feature film, but the casting director was put off by the fact that his Caucasian-like skin tone was out of sync with his last name. So he was offered the chance to read for the role of a gang member, only to be told that he wasn’t right for that, either.
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“I didn’t look Latino enough,” he recalls. “They basically didn’t know what to do with me.”
The movie was Primal Fear. The lead role in question launched Ed Norton’s career.
Three years later, on the eve of his college graduation, Rodriguez nailed another big audition for a series-regular role in a buzzy, DreamWorks-produced TV pilot. But the issue of his counterintuitive surname came up again.
“They said, ‘You might want to give some real consideration to changing your name,’” he says.
And with that, James Rodriguez morphed into James Roday.
Two decades later, he’s morphing back: Wednesday’s anticipated premiere of Psych 2: Lassie Come Home (on NBCU’s new streaming platform Peacock) will usher in the arrival of James Roday Rodriguez.
In an extensive interview with TVLine, Rodriguez breaks down those “two inauspicious audition experiences” that led him to drop his birth name, and opens up about how — some two decades later — the death of George Floyd and the global reckoning with racial injustice that it triggered prompted him to take it back. He also reveals the key role his current series, ABC’s A Million Little Things, played in this awakening, and discusses the significance of his new moniker debuting in the opening credits of this week’s Psych sequel.
TVLINE | How did you arrive at this decision?
We’re all on our own journeys. And everyone is, hopefully, educating themselves and self-reflecting in a way that feels most efficient and actionable to them. For me, because I’ve always had a bit of a strange relationship with my own heritage, I started talking to my dad in, like, a real way, as opposed to, “Hey, what’s up? What does Christmas look like this year? Go Spurs! Or Go Titans. Or Go Cowboys.” On one hand, it’s unfortunate that it took the world turning upside down for that to sink in. On the other hand, it was so edifying, listening to my father talk about what it was like to be a brown person growing up in this country — and in Texas, no less. Having him relay to me stories about my grandparents and their experiences in the ’30s and ’40s… These were not stories that were shared around the Christmas tree when I was a kid. I was deeply moved, but also very shaken by a lot of the stuff that I heard — stuff that I was one or two generations removed from and never needed to reconcile or even stop and think about. It basically blew up my own relationship with my race, my sense of who I am when it comes to my relationship with that half of me. And it sent me down a road of reading and wanting to learn more about Mexican-American history and its foundation in this country. And it caused me to question a lot of the decisions that I have made as a 44-year-old man who has been working in the entertainment industry for 20 years, the biggest of which was the decision to not use my birth name when I started working professionally. The fact that my birth name is Rodriguez is out there [on the Internet]. I’ve never buried it. But I’ve also never led with it.
TVLINE | Take me back 20 years ago — what prompted you to drop Rodriguez professionally and go by Roday?
The first two experiences I had auditioning for work as an actor were both highly informed by the fact that my name did not match my skin tone. The first audition I ever had was for the lead in a major movie, and the casting director said to me, “You’re so great, but I don’t think I can call you back because your last name is Rodriguez. But I can call you back for this four-line role of a gang member,” which I ended up reading for. But they said I wasn’t right for that either because I didn’t look Latino enough. They basically didn’t know what to do with me.
TVLINE | What was the project?
Primal Fear. Everybody was reading for the Ed Norton role, because [the producers] wanted to discover someone new — and, to their credit, they did. Ed had just come out of Yale grad and he was a new face, for sure.
TVLINE | What happened from there?
Three years passed, and about a month before graduation, on a fluke, I get a meeting with an agent… and she decides to represent me. And she sends me on an audition the next day. It was so crazy. It was for a DreamWorks pilot that they couldn’t find their guy for. And in a matter of about 72 hours, I ditched two days of class, I auditioned for the pilot, they [signed me to a] test deal, and next thing I know I’m on a plane to Los Angeles and told in no uncertain terms, “You are our guy.” Their only concern was that the role wasn’t written for a Hispanic or Mexican person. They were worried that casting a white guy with a Mexican name could be construed as their version of ‘diverse casting,’ and there could be a backlash. They said, “You might want to give some real consideration to changing your name.” Now imagine someone giving that advice to an actor out loud today, with the climate and cancel culture. That’s it; they’re done. But this is the late ’90s. It was a different time and, frankly, my first two experiences kind of proved the point that they were making.
TVLINE | How old were you?
I was 21. And I had this bird in hand that I never dreamt I’d have. I had this decision to make. So I called my dad. I was really nervous, because he’s a proud Air Force veteran and he’s a proud Mexican-American man. I was like, “Dad, I don’t even know how to say this… but this amazing job has come up but they think I should change my name because I don’t look Mexican enough.” The man did not miss a beat. He cut me off and said, “Son, this is your dream. You gotta do what you gotta do.” And that was it. He let me off the hook. There was no further discussion. I didn’t have to say anything to my grandparents — he took care of all of that. And sure enough, I did the pilot, I came up with this name that I pulled right out of a Chekhov play that I was doing at the time, and I’ve been Roday ever since. And 20 years later, I realize I essentially perpetuated an institutionalized element of what’s broken about this industry, which is, of course, a microcosm of the world we are living in. I can’t excuse the decision because of youth or naiveté or ambition. The bottom line is, I sold out my heritage in about 15 seconds to have a shot at being an actor. [The pilot was ultimately not ordered to series.]
TVLINE | The theory online is that you changed your name because there was already an actor with the name James Rodriguez.
Yeah, I think my agent came back the next day and was like, “By the way, there is a James Rodriguez in [the Screen Actors Guild], so you would’ve had to use a middle initial or something.” And I was like, “Ah! Then it was meant to be!” And that became the explanation. But, in reality, it was not. It was something that I used to make myself feel better and to sleep at night. But now I’m going to go back to the name I was born with. It’s long overdue. I’m a little bummed out that my grandparents are not alive to see it. But my dad is. And I think it will mean something to him. That, in and of itself, is reason enough for me.
TVLINE | So, officially, your name will now be… ?
James Roday Rodriguez, which is actually what’s on every legal document that I have, [including] my driver’s license and my passport. When I changed my name, I never got rid of Rodriguez. I just replaced my given middle name [David] with Roday. So it’s always been there. Just no one could see it. Now they will.
The last thing I would ever want in a million years is for anyone to feel like I’m co-opting a movement to point a light at myself. But the truth is, it’s a deeply personal decision that I am doing for me. And I just hope it’s something that can be amplified. I hope we are all having these conversations in our lives. I hope we are all reflecting. I hope we’re all learning s–t that we thought we knew but didn’t know. And I hope we’re all chasing the best versions of ourselves moving forward. Who cares about me? The point is: Now is the time to dig in and seize the opportunity, collectively, to just be better.
I want to be the best, most honest ally and amplifier that I can be for my own community and for my friends of color. I don’t think any of us could do that if we’re not even putting the truest versions of ourselves out there. It just seems like a hurdle right out of the gate. I just really hope that this is something that we can all sustain. I don’t want this to be the thing that I look back at and go, “Oh, remember that three-month period where we all got woke and I changed my f–king name?”
I have never felt so activated in my life. Nor have I ever been this aware of what is going on around me and inside of me. I do feel that we are living through an incredibly pivotal moment right now. I pray it can sustain itself.
TVLINE | Do you identify as Mexican-American?
For most of my life I have identified as Mexican-American once or twice a year, and that’s when I go home and see all the Mexicans. [Laughs] It is a stark reminder, because it’s not like I’m related to a bunch of Mexicans that look white. I’m related to Mexicans. And many of them married other Mexicans who had children that look very Mexican. So in those moments, 364 days of the year, I look and feel one way. And then one day feels differently.
TVLINE | Interestingly, the character you play on A Million Little Things is Latino.
[Series creator] D.J. Nash, who loves to incorporate our personal lives and personal experiences into the stories, came to me [after I was initially cast] and, unsolicited, said, “Hey man, do you want Gary to have a Mexican last name?” And I couldn’t believe that someone was acknowledging that I was 50 percent Latino and actually asking me professionally if I wanted to associate that with my work. And I was stoked. I got excited. I thought this would probably be the only time I get to have a Latino name ever. And so I give credit for him for igniting a pilot light in me that opened the blinds a little bit so I felt more present in my own skin.
TVLINE | Is there any significance to the change taking effect with Psych 2?
That job kind of changed the trajectory of my career, so in many ways it feels like the absolute right place for it to happen.
TVLINE | Segueing to the Psych of it all, how important was it for you to do this sequel?
We cared about two things. Usually we only care about one thing, and that’s delivering for the fans. But this time, on top of that, we all felt like it was imperative that we get it right for Timothy [Omundson, who plays Lassie], in terms of what he needed as a human and what he needed as an actor in getting back on the horse for the first time [since suffering a massive stroke in 2017]. And once we all got [on set], it’s like everybody flipped a switch: We are back in a safe place. We had 85 percent of our original crew from the [original] series with us. We are here to love this man and hold this man and give him anything that he needs, and welcome him back to the thing he loves more than anything. And that was the experience, through and through, for those 15 days. And even though it’s been delayed, I do feel like the Peacock folks are behind it. They’ve been very supportive. My hope is that it will have been worth the wait.
TVLINE | When I spoke to Timothy earlier this year, he noted how patient and caring you and Psych creator Steve Franks were with him throughout the process.
None of us really knew what to expect, including Tim. Each day was a lesson that we could learn for the next day. We were rewriting stuff based on the experience we were having with him on set. He was learning in real time what he felt comfortable doing, what he didn’t feel comfortable doing. He had no reference point for it. So it was basically figuring out what his sweet spot was going to be for this two-week period and then just rewriting to that as needed. He was nothing short of remarkable in terms of what he was able to handle… changes he was able to make, taking direction, putting intentions into scenes, playing jokes different ways. This is someone who, coming out of the stroke, wasn’t even sure if he was ever going to be able to walk again. Certainly no one was talking about him being on a set again. And to watch that f–king triumph of spirit, live and in person… talk about respect, man. It was powerful stuff. And it was a very emotional experience. I’ve always had untold respect for Tim, not only because of his talent but because of the job he does as a father and a husband and the way that he always balanced it all. And now I look at him and the strength and the fortitude and the infinite positivity that he has surrounding this is just humbling. It knocks you on your ass. I love that dude.
TVLINE | Were there any changes made to the sequel after it moved from USA Network to Peacock? Did you have extra time to play with? [In addition to starring, Roday co-wrote the pic and serves as an EP.]
We were so locked and loaded when [NBCUniversal] made that decision. It’s [basically] a USA movie that’s now gonna be on the Peacock. And I think it’s probably for the best because tonally, in terms of what we were trying to accomplish, we wanted to go back to what we know we do best. We didn’t have nearly as much money this time [vs. the first Psych movie], and we didn’t want to get hung up on making it feel event-worthy or cinematic or bigger than ever, which is kind of what we got caught up in the first time around. They were like, “Here’s how much money you have; do the best you can.” So we said, “Let’s just go back to the classic early Psych and give the fans a slightly bloated version of what they fell in love with the show in the first place. And, also, that’s what we can afford.” [Laughs] So that’s what we did.
TVLINE | Are you viewing this as a trilogy? Or a semi-annual event?
I would love to do another one. I know that Tim watches [the sequel] and thinks, “If only that had been the third or fourth thing I did when I came back [instead] of the first.” I would love for him to get another crack at Lassie now that he has some more [projects] under his belt. But, the truth is, the fans are always going to dictate how many of these get made. It will never be us that shut it down. I think we all kind of made that pact like, “Who are we kidding? This job changed all of our lives, and none of us would be where we are without it, so we’re never gonna bite the hand that fed us.” For us, it’s always going to be, “OK, wanna do another one? Let’s look at the calendar and figure it out.” And if we end up giving Peacock a boost, I would think the chances are pretty good.
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