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'Miss Bala' actors Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Córdova talk about borders, identity and fitting in

The cross-border crime thriller tells a larger story about the in-between places that shape the hyphenated identity of many Americans.
Image: Gina Rodriguez and Ismael Cruz star in \"Miss Bala.\"
Gina Rodriguez and Ismael Cruz star in "Miss Bala."Gregory Smith

In the new movie "Miss Bala," Golden Globe-winning actress Gina Rodriguez plays Gloria, a young makeup artist who takes down the Mexican drug cartel after her friend Suzu gets kidnapped at a nightclub. But for Rodriguez — a Puerto Rican actress best known for her breakout TV role in “Jane the Virgin” — the cross-border crime thriller tells a larger story about the in-between places that shape the lives of many Americans.

“I really connected with Gloria in the movie because I know what it’s like to feel like you’re connected when you really aren’t, like you’re part of the fabric of this culture and this country, and yet know that others see you differently.” Rodriguez told NBC News. “I think Gloria wants to understand, identify with something, and be seen as that. And that’s why I can relate with her, because she has to balance two different lives.”

The film, which premieres on Friday, shows how borders can divide people externally and internally between shifting sides— good vs. evil, beauty vs. grit, insiders vs. outsiders.

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, of the 2008 romantic vampire movie "Twilight," "Miss Bala" is an English-language version of the 2011 Mexican film co-produced by "Narcos" star Diego Luna and "Mozart in the Jungle" star Gael Garcia Bernal.

Rodriguez said that Hollywood studio Sony invested $15 million to re-imagine the movie for the next generation of Latinx viewers who want to see themselves represented in front and behind the camera. The film's cast and crew are 95 percent Latino, Rodriguez said.

While the story of a beauty pageant contestant being abducted by the Mexican drug cartel is hard to relate to, viewers may recognize the emotional and cultural tensions the main characters navigate as they cross borders and figure out who they are. The city of Tijuana, Mexico, becomes a dramatic stage where everyday people learn how to balance multiple identities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In one of the movie's most compelling scenes, the Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Córdova (seen in the 2018 film "Mary Queen of Scots" and the television show "Berlin Station") plays the drug cartel leader Lino and shares with Rodriguez’s character Gloria an intimate moment about struggling with his identity in Mexico and the United States — he is too American to be Mexican, and too Mexican to be American. For Córdova, this tension also shapes who he is off camera.

“I can identify with that because I identify as Afro-Latino,” Córdova told NBC News, explaining how he sympathizes with his character Lino. “A lot of times what happens with me is that you are ‘too black to be Latino,’ and you get that comment often. Latinos are very mixed, but there’s not an understanding. So I have to consistently defend the intersectionality of my identity in those spaces.”

The film touches on how language marks the differences between U.S.-based Latinos and those living in their native countries.

The pejorative term “pocho” (masculine) or “pocha” (feminine) refers to Chicanos and Mexican expats who often speak English or lack Spanish language fluency. Similarly, the 2011 original movie uses the derogatory name “gabacho” (masculine) or “gabacha” (feminine) to describe Americans and other English-speaking outsiders.

Beyond the divisiveness, the new movie as well as the original makes the viewer think of how a person's aspirations can ultimately end up. While the 2011 film shows audiences how the dream of becoming a better person can end abruptly through drug cartel violence and corruption, the 2019 version aims to break social, political and cultural barriers that marginalize people.

“What would happen if the character from the first film took action, became an agent in her situation?” Rodriguez said. “The re-imagined version of 'Miss Bala' shows an empowered woman who is not waiting to be seen by others.”