Growing up in New York City, Ramón Rodríguez had no ambitions of becoming an actor. But his love for basketball proved to be his ticket to a college education and a way to break into the entertainment industry. Now after a string of roles on television and in films, he is starring in the movie Megan Leavey, which opens nationwide on Friday.
Based on a true story, Megan Leavey is about a young woman who turns her dead-end life around by joining the Marines and serving in the elite K9 bomb detection unit. She and the dog assigned to her are deployed to Iraq where they complete over 100 missions together amid harrowing conditions.
Rodríguez, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, plays Corporal Matt Morales and the title character’s love interest. His character also delivers pivotal news near the film’s end. In addition, the film stars renowned Hollywood stars Edie Falco, Bradley Whitford, and Common.
The hardest part of his role, Rodríguez laughs, “was playing a Mets fan.” In one of his character’s first scenes, he approaches Megan Leavey (Kate Mara, the actress from "House of Cards") and asks, “So where are you from? You’re not a Yankees fan, are you?”
Rodríguez told NBC Latino he was attracted to this film because he found it inspiring. “It is about a woman finding her purpose through the U.S. military,” he said. “It is also the rare movie about an inspiring story told from the female perspective.”
Like the lead character, Rodríguez’ role was based on a real person. “I thought, in this movie, there were ways that it could’ve been clichéd or obvious, but it wasn’t,” he said. “Our director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, allowed me to collaborate, and add more to the character than just what was on the page.”
In a review of Megan Leavey, the Hollywood Reporter’s Sheri Linden wrote that Rodríguez played his role “with terrific charm,” and praised the film’s “dynamic, in-the-moment vigor.” The film had a special premiere at Yankee Stadium on Monday.
Yet he grew up far from the limelight. As a kid, home for Rodríguez was a cramped apartment on the Lower East Side that he shared with his single-parent mother and three older sisters.
“Sports, especially basketball, was the one thing that really took over my life,” Rodríguez said. It was his love of basketball that enabled him to study at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia for two years, and then transfer to New York University, where he majored in sports marketing.
Rodríguez was showing off his basketball moves at a competition when he was seen by a scout for Nike, which led to appearances in Nike promotions – and in Nike television commercials.
Since then, Rodríguez has starred in the Fox series Gang Related, and had roles in The Wire (HBO), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, and Iron Fist (Netflix). He even played “Bosley” in a short-lived remake of Charlie’s Angels on ABC in 2011.
Rodríguez is succeeding in an industry that, despite recent strides towards diversity and inclusion, still offers limited opportunities for Latinos. A report last year by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that out of over 11,000 speaking roles surveyed in TV and film, only 5.8 percent were Hispanic.
When Latinos are depicted, the study found, they tend to play stereotypical roles. These figures stand in contrast to the fact that Latinos, who make up about 17 percent of the population and account for about 25 percent of the movie-going audience.
“There are not a lot of roles out there that showcase Latinos in a positive light,” Rodríguez said, acknowledging the rare opportunity to play the male romantic lead in a major film. “This is something that the industry is struggling with; I’ve been doing this long enough now to see the lack of complex, three-dimensional characters written for Latinos.”
In Rodríguez’ view, it is time for the industry to change, “to recognize that Latinos come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.” He still receives scripts that he feels offer stereotypical roles, though now he is in a position to pass on them. “There is nothing wrong with playing a character from the streets, but what is the angle for the character?” he said. “We’ve seen enough cartels and gangbangers; I am not interested in doing that anymore, unless a part offers a different take.”
In addition to performing, Rodríguez is branching out as a writer and director. One of his short films, The Language of Ball, is currently on the film festival circuit. And he is working on securing financing for a film project with Rosie Perez. “I really enjoy and have a passion for storytelling,” he noted. “There is a void of certain stories, that I would hope we can try to fill.”
Rodríguez believes that perseverance is the one key to success in the entertainment industry. “There is no one road for anyone. If you have a dream or want a certain job, you have to want it more than anyone else,” he said. “You have to be like Megan Leavey, trying to get her dog back.”
“When I was really into basketball, I slept with my basketball and woke up dribbling it,” Rodríguez said. “Same thing goes for achieving your goals, you have to want things badly. That will lead to getting knocked down, getting back up, and eventually making it.”
“This industry is just like anything else,” he adds. “It takes a lot of hard work and determination.”