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'Clifford the Big Red Dog' movie has a Latino flavor, say stars Paul Rodriguez, Horatio Sanz

“This is the story of a little neighborhood,” Rodriguez said about the upcoming family movie based on the iconic book series.
Image: Darby Camp and Jack Whitehall in "Clifford the Big Red Dog."
Darby Camp and Jack Whitehall in "Clifford the Big Red Dog."Paramount Pictures

The popular American children’s book series “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is heading to the silver screen — with a Latino accent. Comedians Paul Rodriguez and Horatio Sanz play two brothers who own a bodega, or corner store, in Harlem, New York City. Viewers will be able to hear “¡Oye!” (“Hey!”) or “¡Vaya!” (“Wow!”) as tributes to the barrios, or neighborhoods, they may affectionately remember from their own childhoods.

Scholastic published the first book in the “Clifford the Big Red Dog” series in 1963. Almost 60 years later, the movie tells the larger-than-life story of an 8-year-old girl named Emily (played by Darby Camp) and her 25-foot-tall dog and hopes to appeal to viewers of all ages.

The movie, which will be released on Sept. 17, unveiled its trailer Tuesday.

In an interview with NBC News, Rodriguez said that beyond the children’s story of an enormous red dog is another story about families and neighbors coming together to preserve and strengthen the diversity of their community.

“This is the story of a little neighborhood,” Rodriguez said. “We have Latino bodega owners, African American lawyers, an Indian magician and an elderly Jewish woman. This movie is looking at a global audience.”

While the story in the series takes place on a fictional island named Birdwell, which is reportedly based on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the characters in the live-action movie adaptation live in Harlem. Film locations include the corner of 154th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in the Sugar Hill section of the historic Black neighborhood, as well as other parts of New York City.

Rodriguez — born in Sinaloa, Mexico, and raised in Compton, California — lived in a cradle of diversity. But as his standup comedy and acting career took off, he said he feels that he moved away from his Latino roots. Now, Rodriguez looks at "Clifford" as an example of a story that can make viewers feel proud of their diversity and heritage.

“I don’t think I did a very good job with my son. He’s pretty well known, a skateboarder of some fame. And he speaks chopped up Spanish,” he said. “I took [Spanish language] classes and try to speak without an [American] accent. But it didn’t come naturally to me. And I didn’t take that care with my son. He basically grew up without me speaking Spanish to him.”

Sanz similarly struggled with his Latino identity.

“I was born in Santiago [Chile] but grew up in Chicago with Puerto Rican and Mexican kids. There weren’t that many Chilean families in Chicago, so I morphed in between,” he said.

Paul Rodriguez at the "Roosevelt Comedy Live Drive-In Show" in Los Angeles on April 9.Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images

Sanz joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1998. He was the first Latino member on the comedy sketch variety show. While he has played many diverse characters throughout his career — he even played former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — he still tries to avoid being typecast.

“My brother was a theater actor before me in Chicago. And I remember that he was upset about being typecast,” he said. “One of the first roles that I did on 'SNL' that got a lot of response was the mariachi guys. I talked with Lorne [Michaels, 'SNL' producer] and wanted to be taken out of the sketch because I didn’t want to be pegged for those Latino roles.”

Horatio Sanz.Maarten de Boer / NBCU Photo Bank

For Sanz, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” delivers a clear message of inclusivity that also reminds him of the shopkeepers that made his Chicago neighborhood feel like home.

“Growing up in Chicago, I really liked a Polish guy at the corner store named Don. Then, when I moved a few blocks away, there was Tony’s, a Puerto Rican place. And there was another guy who sold scraped ice — piragua [a Puerto Rican ice cone dessert covered in fruit syrup]. I really liked those guys. They were a fixture in the neighborhood,” he said.

Rodriguez and Sanz said they researched the diverse Spanish accents that viewers will be able to hear in the film.

"We went to a bodega and walked around the neighborhood and listened to the people on the street," Rodriguez said. "An accent coach pointed out different pronunciations. We don’t want to overdo it because we don’t want people to think that we are turning it into something funny. We just want to speak like normal people on the street."

Rodriguez said he was influenced by the Puerto Rican accent in New York. Sanz said they were also influenced by Cuban and Dominican accents, as well as other Latino accents.

Black actor Keith Ewell, who plays Mr. Jarvis in “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and grew up in Miami, said he sees the film as a positive step toward embracing diversity.

“This film talks a lot about not judging people by appearance, and I think it’s indicative in our diverse cast,” Ewell told NBC News. “I think the industry is heading in the right direction in terms of telling stories for all people, and that’s both exciting and hopeful.”

Comparatively, when Rodriguez looks back at the movie industry, he said he remembers many of his Latino colleagues who are still having a hard time getting acting work, while Sanz acknowledged that more diversity will be seen on film as more people push for it and demand it.

"'Hamilton' was really inspiring for me. But that guy [Lin-Manuel Miranda] had to get up there and write it himself," Sanz said. "No one was writing it for him."

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