September 23, 2018

STRANGER: Erick Lopez
LOCATION: Lindenwood Diner, 2870 Linden Boulevard, Brooklyn, New York
THEME: A young actor shares his experiences and advice about starting out in the industry

Erick Lopez knew he was starting to make it as an actor when he stopped getting calls from his family back in Texas telling him to come home or go back to school.

“I realized that, family-wise, I hit a certain milestone” when that happened, he tells me with a flash of a broad, infectious smile over breakfast in Brooklyn. The 27-year old, who looks younger, has seen his career grow from commercials and one-off appearances in television shows to regular stints as Tommy on the series Faking It and most recently as Hector in the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The longer his resume gets, the less his parents worry about the viability of life in Hollywood.

His career is progressing to the point where offers are now coming in without any requirement to audition. The makers of indie film Flavor of Life were familiar with his work and sent him the script, with a straight offer to take on a major role if he liked it. He did. “It was kind of shocking” to get an such a substantial, audition-free, gig, Erick says, because “I’m still kind of going through the process of becoming a known actor. I was like, ‘I don’t have to audition?’”

Turns out the filmmakers liked the fact that Erick had theater experience from his school years. “I was one of the few young Latino actors around that they really liked, and they wanted someone who could not only act but also react to a lot of stuff, because the character has a lot going on internally,” he explains. It didn’t take him long to sign on for the role of Albert, the estranged grandson of Frank, a Los Angeles chef struggling to keep his Mexican restaurant afloat. Circumstances bring Albert begrudgingly back into the family and that’s where the story begins.

Erick flew to New York this weekend to attend a screening of the movie at the Urban World Film Festival, the latest of several festivals to promote it ahead of its release on video on demand in November. Around 11am he’ll fly back to the City of Angels, but first he’s making time on a Sunday morning to meet with me for a breakfast interview in Brooklyn at the Lindenwood Diner.

I’m a few minutes early to the diner. It’s a short ride to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where Erick will catch his flight home. The restaurant is deserted at 7.30am, though it’ll be packed to capacity in a few hours. It’s the kind of place that a set designer in Hollywood would come up with if given the task “Manhattan diner” — booths with pillowy dark green leather seats and Formica red tables, a plastic menu with pictures of the food and way too many options, colorful wall signs offering unspecified “PIE,” and servers with an endless supply of pep in their step.

The coffee is strong and delicious, and I’m sipping on it when Erick enters. He’s affable from the beginning; I extend a staid British handshake, his gives me a strong American hug. It immediately diffuses any awkwardness, and helps to make the interview zip by.

Erick’s friendly, easygoing nature stays the same throughout our hour-and-a-half together, as we touch on all manner of topics, including politics in Washington, D.C. (he’s just picked up Bob Woodward’s Fear about the Trump White House to read on his flight back to LA). He asks me about my work, and our breakfast becomes more of a two-way chat than an interview. When we agree on a certain point, he’ll gesture happily in my direction with his hands and say a joyous “dude” or “man,” making you feel like a long-lost friend. He comes across as the cool, likable athlete from high school that was friends with everyone, the jock who’s just as comfortable with the theater kids.

Turns out, that’s pretty close to the truth.

His story starts with a promising focus on basketball in high school, before an injury pushed him into drama classes, and then a detour to computer engineering at college in Texas before finally moving to Los Angeles and settling on a career in acting.

Erick was born in Upland, California but raised in Dallas, where his family moved following the North Ridge earthquakes. At high school his main interests were technology and sports, particularly basketball. However, his sporting career was put on hold at 17, when one day on the basketball court he jumped up for a rebound and landed on a teammate’s foot, tearing his ligament and getting a swollen ankle. The injury kept him out the sport for two to three months, so he needed to put his attention elsewhere. A friend suggested the school’s drama classes, and he decided to give it a try.

A teacher, Mr. Crutcher, ran the drama class, and to this day Erick has praise for the man in helping him develop a love of acting. But prior to joining the class, Erick had had minimal interest in, or knowledge of, theater and movies. “The only movies I knew were blockbusters, I didn’t even really know what the Oscars were about, just like, oh cool, you won an award” he says with a laugh. “But the more I read, the more I watched, I saw that there was more to it.”

In particular, he credits a friend with introducing him to the movie Training Day and a scene in which Denzel Washington gives what Erick calls a “masterclass” in acting. “The things he was doing and saying, it was a really tense situation in the movie but he’s laughing even though he’s all bloodied up, it was the first time I watched a movie with an eye towards not the television but just what is that guy thinking. I found it fascinating and took it on as a challenge.”

He praises Mr. Crutcher for championing him and helping develop a passion for acting. “As you go along in life different people shape you; some push you, some take you to the next level. He was the one that really made me fall in love with acting by encouraging me. He showed me that it was something that’s not unachievable except for a select few,” Erick says.

Erick’s preconceptions of studying drama were quickly demolished.

“I had a certain idea of what theater actors were — super trendy hippy people wearing scarves,” he jokes. “So I made sure when I went to theater class I was still wearing my basketball shorts and my jersey — but now I’m a die hard theater kid. I love that you find your group of people. I was making jokes around my basketball friends and they were like ‘whatever,’ but the theater kids found them witty and played off it, and it was awesome. I found my home,” he says.

While still at high school, Erick secured an agent. It was during his senior year at high school that he decided to quit basketball and pursue acting full-time. He knew another student who had transitioned from football to theater, and he put Erick in touch with his agent. “They asked me to submit headshots – I didn’t have any, so I just sent in some school photos, photos people had taken of me, my mom took a photo of me with the classic hand on chin pose,” he recalls, laughing.

They were apparently good enough because he got called in to the agency. Erick’s father insisted on going with his son to the meeting. “He’s an immigrant and was very skeptical, he didn’t want me to get taken for a fool or to pay them to do anything,” he says. Erick was meant to meet with one agent named Suzy, but another called Joe Chavez saw him in the lobby. “He calls over to Suzy and says, ‘Can I take this one? I need someone like this on my roster.’ She said okay.”

Erick didn’t have much audition material so he did a piece from theater class in which he played a 50-year-old Latino man whose child has just died. “I was 17,” he says, chuckling at how awkward it must have looked for a high school kid to be doing the monologue. “Joe cut me off after three lines, he sarcastically told me to stop before I made him cry. But he said that to get me cast in TV and film for things in my age range I had to prepare auditions that were within my age.”

Working with Joe “schooled” Erick on classic actors including Marlon Brando, a name he didn’t know before he started watching old movies. He recalls Joe telling him that Brando was once told to act like a cat when an atomic bomb is about to go off, and asked Erick how he would play it. Erick responded that he wouldn’t do anything, because he’s a cat and doesn’t know what a bomb is. “He tells me that’s exactly what Brando did, and kind of looked at me and said, ‘All right, you actually have a brain.’ And I think he took me a little bit more seriously after that, because acting is a lot of critical thinking skills and he just reminded me that you have to dig deep for that.”

After high school, Erick was poised to study engineering at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, but his agent said he could do nothing for him if he moved to such a remote location. If Erick stayed in Dallas, then the agency could help get TV, film, and commercial auditions. And so he stayed in the city, studying computer engineering at the University of Texas before switching to arts and technology with a focus on graphic design.

What was the first gig he secured? He almost blushes and looks to the floor with a grin. “Oh gosh, no one really knows this, but I did a modeling gig for Boy Scouts of America. I didn’t have to audition, I just showed up, put on the uniform and smiled on a little median with some grass.”

His first real paid acting gig was a commercial for Dick’s Sporting Goods, directed by Peter Berg who also directed the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights among many other TV shows and films. The audition included playing a game of catch the football with Berg, and Erick’s quick reflexes from his sporting days helped him be more effective than the other actors. “I ended up booking it.”

Erick’s ready to tell me about his transition from Texas to California, but before he can our friendly waitress returns with our breakfast orders, and they’re big servings.

I enjoy a well-seasoned skirt steak with home fries and eggs sunny side up. It’s a simple dish and hard to screw up, and the Lindenwood Diner doesn’t make any missteps.

Erick’s eating a healthier option; a “dream omelet” made with three eggs, ham, broccoli, spinach and cheddar with a side of lettuce and tomatoes. He chose the latter instead of the standard fries, and that sparks my curiosity about whether he has to watch his figure, given his very visual profession. He ponders the question while he starts on his omelet.

“It depends, a lot of people don’t want to play the visual game, and I’ve had that battle internally, I want to rebel and say this is about my art, I’m going to have that pizza if I want it and just work hard on my craft,” he says. “But at the end of the day it is a visual art and if you want to have a sustainable career then you definitely have to work out and make sure you’re in shape.”

Then he smiles mischievously and confesses that he’s not been eating healthily on his New York trip. “I went ham and some sliders and fries yesterday, and I got pizza in Times Square.”

While he works on his less-calorific breakfast, he continues the story about how he left Texas. After working on a handful of commercials, Erick started to think about a move to Los Angeles and the potential for making a career out of acting beyond commercials to include film and television. “Being an engineer I make calculated risks. Acting got me some money, and seeing myself on TV was really cool, so I thought, all right, this is possible,” he says, sipping on a cup of coffee.

He describes the “big turn” starting when he went to Austin to audition for the Starz TV show Crash, based on the film of the same name that told several stories under one overarching plot.

“It was my first TV audition, I didn’t know how to act other than in commercials, so I was doing my research reading books, and one of them said literally sometimes just doing nothing says so much. My character was supposed to be cocky, so I went in and said my words, and kind of smirked a bit,” he says. On the drive back to Austin with his father, Erick got a call back asking him to submit an audition tape the next morning. Even though he had a day job working at a movie theater, he and a friend stayed up late into the night working on the tape and perfecting it until Erick was satisfied. The hard work paid off, because a very sleepy Erick got a call at work asking him to fly out to New Mexico that night for the role. He went to his movie theater manager and “I just spilled my guts out, I said I have to leave because I’m trying to be an actor, and she said do what you have to do.”

Things got awkward in New Mexico, when the director overseeing Erick’s in-person audition asked him whether he had done on-camera acting. Although he’d done some commercials, Erick didn’t consider them the type of work the director was talking about. “I thought it was a pride thing, ‘No, I’m a theater actor,’ but he let out a sigh and left the room visibly upset,” he says. Turns out the director was looking for someone who had a resume of on-screen acting credits that the director could use to then show studios that the actor was willing to take and change with direction. He didn’t get the part, as it went to an actor from LA whose resume had a small bit part on-screen acting credit. “I was bummed out, and people kept thinking I was going to be on the show. It was tough.”

And then there was an audition for the TV show Friday Night Lights based on the movie, and Erick was optimistic given his connection to the director. He made it all the way to final callbacks and his agent was hopeful, but the character ended up being dropped from the show.

Exasperated, Erick asked his agent “Is this how it’s always going to be?”

“My agent told me there was nothing else for me in Texas,” Erick says with a shrug. Despite the setbacks, he knew a move had to happen, and soon. “LA was the place to go to get credits.”

Erick undertook the first of two moves to LA in 2010 when he was 19 years old, and planned on being there for six months. That’s because his parents still wanted him to complete college, and he also had a girlfriend back in Dallas. “It was almost like I never started a new life in LA because I knew I was going to go back to Texas,” he tells me.

Starting out in his temporary new city, he had a few almost-successes before he eventually got a guest role on the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. But even when filming that “something didn’t feel right, I didn’t feel complete,” he says. “I wanted to take the time to go to school and learn more stuff and live life a bit before moving to LA permanently.”

And so he went back to Texas for roughly a year-and-a-half to finish his education and prepare for the second move out to his future hometown. Erick says it’s something he recommends to anyone that asks him about heading West for acting, and brings it up whenever he gives presentations to high school students about his career. “Some people think out of sheer pride they don’t want to go back home, even though they go out to LA and it’s not what they expected. It’s okay to go back and regroup — give yourself time to grow as a person and learn from it.”

Erick returned to LA in 2012, and things have been picking up steam ever since. He scored the role of Tommy in Faking It, an MTV romantic comedy about two high school girls who are mistakenly believed to be a lesbian couple, and fake that they are dating when they realize it’s making them more popular. He went into the audition to read for a nerdy character, but was then asked to do some lines of a jock character. “Playing to type,” he says, laughing. They gave him the part, bringing him back for several episodes over three seasons.

“That was the first in a string of guest star and co star roles,” he says. After Faking It, he was picked to play Hector on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a TV show that’s part-musical, part-comedy, part-drama about a woman who moves from New York City to LA to try getting back with her childhood sweetheart. It’s a hilarious show, and Hector has become more prominent in later episodes; a likable, occasionally clueless surfer dude.

The show’s co-creator and star Rachel Bloom has said the plan was always for four seasons, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has just started shooting the last one. “I think they’re up to about episode five,” says Erick, who has filmed three episodes so far. I try to get spoilers out of him, but all he’ll say is, “It’s interesting how they’re tying everything up” and to “expect more growth from Hector.”

I wonder whether it’s a bittersweet feeling being on set for a show that has a hard finish date, but he shakes his head in disagreement. “Season to season we’ve just been super thankful just to get picked up again, and for this final one we have 18 episodes so we’re going to be around each other until February or March of next year, so I don’t think it’s hit any of us yet that this is it. Towards the end it probably will more, but even then we’ll have a season finale that will probably air in April, and a wrap party. So we’re going to be in each others’ lives for the foreseeable future.”

Erick’s the third person involved in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that I’ve dined with, starting with executive writer, actor and producer Michael Hitchcock and former cast member Santino Fontano. They’ve all praised the atmosphere on set. “It’s mostly theater people and everyone is very giving. I’ve been on sets where everyone is super nice but it’s not like you’re going to get drinks with people right after work. Here any one of us, cast or crew, there’s always people hanging out.”

While the show is shooting, Erick is effectively on call and on the days he’s needed the show is his life, morning and night. He says that playing a non-lead role like Hector is “actually a pretty cushy gig, you get the benefit of being on the show and having a storyline but you don’t have the uber-commitment of having to be there non-stop, especially because I’m not needed for certain episodes. So it’s intense work, then a hiatus, and that’s when I work on other stuff.”

That “other stuff” is behind the scenes filmmaking and making use of his engineering expertise, most recently working on a tech startup creating an app called Bizzy. It’s slated for release in January and aims to be a social scheduling program. “Like Instagram, but for events,” he says, saying it addresses one of the biggest issues in his life: organizing his packed calendar.

He’s also putting the finishing touches on a documentary about uBreakiFix, a company he used to work for to supplement his income that fixes things like phones and laptops. “It just has such a cool culture, a really family environment. I could go work in every store and everyone was so nice; there’s some kind of culture there and I wanted to find out what it is.”

There are a couple more interviews he has to do before his goal of starting the editing process sometimes in November with an eye to finishing the documentary by February.

And he’s also working on more episodes of his podcast Erick Lopez Explains. “I’ve met so many people that have so much knowledge and we’ve had such good conversations,” and he wanted to put them to use in a series that could help people like his younger self with tips about the acting industry. He’ll admit he’s made many “rookie errors” in his burgeoning career, but feels like he’s had enough success that now he wants to help others interested in becoming film or television actors, giving them a resource based on his experiences to date. The semi-regular series that launched in June 2017 gives advice on issues like getting an agent or acting audition tips. “People kept coming to me and asking me questions” about the industry, he says, “And I was like, I wanna help, I want to let people know my stories so they can be influenced and inspired by it.”

For example, in one podcast he gives tips on how to find agents and prepare for meetings with them, and in another he answers a host of questions from college students aspiring to be actors.

When he goes to schools to talk about his career, Erick says the number one question he gets asked is about how to support oneself financially while trying to make it as an actor. “At one high school I thought they were going to ask me how do you audition, creative questions, but out of the 45 minutes I talked, probably half an hour was all finance-based. And they need to know this.”

His advice? “I told them the best thing you can probably do is go to university and take business classes, take finance classes because that’s going to help you out for other things in general. You can be a business major and still work in the industry, you can be a graphic design artist and still work in the industry, there are different majors you can take instead of theater specifically,” he says. But if that’s too expensive, he says there’s nothing wrong with moving to LA or New York and “starting from scratch” — although he says a supplemental income is a necessity at first.

Some of Erick’s side hustles for extra cash include renting out a high-end camera he bought, or working as a director of photography on projects. And these gigs have the added benefit of introducing him to more and more creative and technical people in the industry. It’s networking with the added bonus of a paycheck. “The number one thing I would say is become a creative asset to people. If you go to LA or New York and you’re just an actor you’re kind of limiting yourself to how you can be an asset,” he says. But having a diverse range of skills from acting to some off-camera expertise can be a great way to increase the potential job opportunities.

On that optimistic note, breakfast comes to an end and Erick gets ready to head to the airport. He gives another friendly goodbye, and then he’s off back to his busy life in LA, with the possibility of more screenings of Flavor of Life.

With his expanding filmography and the end of the worried calls from home, it’s clear Erick is enjoying growing success. One of the biggest takeaways from his early years in acting appears to be to persist despite unsuccessful auditions. The perseverance has paid off for Erick, and now he’s pitching it to aspiring actors.

I’m reminded of episode four Erick Lopez Explains, and a remark he makes about how to define success. He talks about a TV show audition that was so important to him, he left a trip to Disneyland with his family early, spent hours preparing, and went in to it refreshed and full of ideas. He didn’t end up getting the part as they went with someone else “looks-wise,” but the the creator of the show sent “a very nice” note thanking him and promising to keep an eye out for future roles he might suit.

On the podcast, Erick says, “Now I kind of faked you guys out thinking that success meant booking a job, but in all honesty that’s not how you should view it. If you felt good about your audition, you got everything you put into the character across, and got an in-room reaction that you felt comfortable with, that’s success, don’t let anyone take that from you, and keep at it. You’ll go through a lot of tough times where you audition, kill it, and then nothing. For all you know behind closed doors everyone in the room picked you but the studio chose someone with a bigger name, or younger, or older, or whatever, there’s always going to be undisclosed reasons so don’t worry about it. Just keep at it, don’t be afraid to switch things up. . . . Hopefully all this helps.”