Mel Rodriguez is familiar to TV viewers for his comedic turns on everything from “Community” to “The George Lopez Show.” He is the funny guy whose face you know, but whose name you don’t. Now Rodriguez is starring in “Getting On,” an offbeat look at life (and death) in a dysfunctional hospital, which just kicked off its second season on HBO. He plays Patsy De La Cerda, an administrator of ambiguous sexual orientation, in what the Los Angeles Times calls a “dark and astonishing gem of a show.” Here Rodriguez answers five questions from NBC News on his journey from Little Havana to Hollywood.
NBC: Growing up, were you known as a funny kid?
MR: I used comedy to deflect a lot of situations; if you make someone laugh, they don’t want to punch you in the face. I wasn’t the toughest kid, and I grew up in a tough neighborhood, Little Havana (Miami) in the early 1980s. The (Mariel) boatlift had just happened, and I was hanging around with the wrong crowd. My life could have easily gone another way. But I had this one teacher who gave me direction and got me into performing. She got me into touring with an educational play called “The Inner Circle” along with Pedro Zamora from MTV’s “The Real World.” It was about AIDS awareness, and we went to schools, prisons, all over… I realized then that performing was a way to make people laugh and cry, and it was a powerful thing that changed my life.
NBC: What do you consider your big break as a professional actor?
MR: I feel like I am in it right now. Without sounding too cliché, my part on “Getting On” is the best role I’ve ever had. It is so rich, it is so well rounded, and I am happy to be right here. I feel like I lucked out and got one of the richest characters on TV because he is so complex.
NBC: Can you tell us a little about your character on “Getting On?”
MR: He is a beautiful tragedy. He is difficult to describe because he is constantly evolving and changing. One day he is gay, one day he is not. One day he wants to run the nursing program, the next day he wants to throw it all away and run away. He is very layered, just like a person in real life. He is obviously gay but also religious – so just like in life, it’s hard to sum him up. But he is funny! I like to think that he shows the comedy that exists in real life.
NBC: What does your family think about your career?
MR: My mom is very practical, and she originally wanted me to have something to fall back on. She was a little fearful of my becoming an actor, because she didn’t see it as a way to make a living. My dad, who was born and raised in Cuba, was really cool with it. He had once wanted to be a painter, but his old-school father had said No. So when my father found out I was interested in performing, he was incredibly proud and supportive of my dreams. When I go out with him in Hialeah, now he embarrasses me pretty thoroughly.
NBC: Do you have any advice for young actors starting out today?
MR: When I went back and talked to the graduating class at my college, I told them “Don’t quit, and don’t die.” (laughs) Seriously, I would say not to put anything before this (acting). Absolutely, get together with your friends and create your own work. Write, or find someone to write for you. That will keep you primed for when you get a good break. Never sit around waiting for that phone call; I’ve done that, and it can be so depressing. And don’t take things personally. There are so many variables in this business, things you have absolutely no control over, like whether you are too fat, too skinny, too tall, or don’t fit with the rest of the cast. You have to remove yourself from the outcome, and just do the best you can all the time. Sometimes auditions are the only opportunity you have, for long stretches, to perform at all – so find a way to enjoy them.