Like so many aspiring actors, a normal day for Gian Franco Rodriguez consisted of making a modest living while pursuing his long-term dream. On a busy autumn day in 2019, his manager said four words that Rodriguez said took 10 years to hear: "You got the part!"
"I was delivering food around Manhattan when my manager called me to tell me the good news," Rodriguez said with a bashful chuckle. "I cried a little, out of happiness, porque tampoco uno es de hierro," which translates to, "We're not made of iron," a Venezuelan expression akin to, "We are only human."
Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Venezuela, called his mom to share the big news, and he celebrated by “blasting my music, singing in the car and delivering food for a couple more hours.”
A newcomer to the screen, Rodriguez had beaten the odds and landed his first big role alongside acclaimed actor Ewan McGregor in Netflix’s limited series "Halston."
“It’s not every day you get the chance to start your acting career like this,” Rodriguez said. “Lots of ups and downs, you hear ‘no’ here, ‘no’ there, and then, just like in the series, you eventually get one ‘yes,’ and then it changes everything.”
"Halston" is a miniseries about the intense career and tragic life of the iconic American fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick. Rodriguez found himself a novice among an accomplished cast and crew, including director Daniel Minahan and producer Ryan Murphy — both Emmy winners — as well as Broadway star Krysta Rodriguez and Golden Globe winner McGregor, who is playing the lead character.
'Never judge a character'
Rodriguez immersed himself in the role of Victor Hugo, a Venezuelan window dresser who was Halston’s longtime romantic partner.
"Daniel [Minahan] put me in contact with a friend of Victor Hugo, and that helped me understand who he really was, his personality, who were the people who surrounded him and their perspective of him," he said.
While Rodriguez learned that some blame Hugo for the designer’s downfall, he said that as an actor he's learned to “never judge a character.” Instead, the goal was “to help others understand why Victor Hugo was the way he was. Each person grows up under different circumstances, with childhood traumas that define their personalities.”
Rodriguez was grateful that the show's director gave him space that welcomed improvisation.
“Even though the character was very wild, Daniel gave me so much freedom, he trusted what I brought to the table, and that allowed me to include more Venezuelan details,” Rodriguez said. He not only added Venezuelan slang to most scenes but also gave a cameo to the traditional Venezuelan dish arepas.
"In one of my three audition scenes, I’m making dinner for Halston. The script had me cooking chicken with coconut and spices, but I thought, ‘If they’re looking for a Venezuelan, I’m going to show them a Venezuelan,’" he said. "So, I never said the words 'chicken with coconut and spices.' I always switched it to 'arepas' in each callback. After I booked it and got the final script, I was so happy to read that the writers changed the chicken to arepas."
His debut production became even more challenging when the Covid-19 pandemic forced everyone into a seven-month hiatus. When filming resumed, additional precautions were taken to ensure the safety of everyone involved, but Rodriguez said the cast and crew were especially grateful to be able to work. He only had positive things to say about his experience working with McGregor, describing the star as a “really nice guy, very humble and down to earth.”
Rodriguez also mentioned how the director would plan for everyone to get together on the weekends and spend the day together.
"Having fun made us feel like we were a family," he said. "When you see us all together in the show, having fun, looking like a family, it is because we became a family, and it still is that way for us right now."
This is the latest in a conscious effort by Netflix to ensure adequate representation in its major productions after a study at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative showed that only 4.5 percent of main cast members in Netflix’s U.S. original films and series released in 2018 and 2019 were Latino. Apart from Rodriguez’s casting, Mexican American actress and singer Krysta Rodriguez was cast as Liza Minnelli.
After setting the bar this high with a dream debut, Rodriguez said he is focused on finding another complex and challenging role with a great script and “hopefully with a team just as amazing as this one.”
“Halston” is streaming now on Netflix.