It’s a quarter past twelve in the afternoon on a Monday, as manic as the ones which have preceded every other one in New York City. The scene inside the lounge of the Smyth Hotel is the stark opposite of frantic. Pin drops and innermost thoughts can be heard. Yet a slight change to the environment of the room is made once Costa Rican Jay Weisleder enters.
Spirited conversation is added to the ambiance.
His publicist informs Weisleder that she just met Panama’s original sports icon.
“He was here? Durán?” asks Weisleder.
“I was going to make sure I tag along with him to the premiere,” Weisleder jokes.
With his jovial nature on full display, those looking from the outside inward cannot tell that this week is a culmination of many which have been pressure-packed. Perhaps growing up in the peaceful confines of Costa Rica has its perks since it virtually has no military presence. Maybe this is why Weisleder can handle the cauldron that is Hollywood and deal with things when the stakes are high. And at the present moment —when it comes to Latino productions— none are higher when it comes to the biopic Hands of Stone, which officially hit theaters nationwide this Friday.
After all, it’s only Weisleder’s first film credit as a producer.
This is enough to make one wonder as to why someone who grew up in passive environment would pursue a project based on the life of a man who made a living in one of the most violent international pastimes. The sciences of boxing and film can be sweet to those who view them. But when dealing with them up close and personal, you can witness at times how each can be brutal and unforgiving. They can often leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Over the course of the past two decades —with the exception of La Bamba, Blood In Blood Out, American Me, I Like it Like That, Selena, Frida, Filly Brown and The Motorcycle Diaries— Latino audiences have had to cleanse their palates quite vigorously time and time again when it came to the horribly inaccurate portrayals of their own kind. The consistent view of Latino men and women as nothing more than gangsters, rapists, maids, sexpots and drug addicts was still prevalent. However, in recent years some of the aforementioned properties began to provide a source of hope for countless filmmakers, writers, actors and producers of the many shades of color housed in the Latino media community. The cracks in the hideous fraudulent veneer have certainly begun to show.
Yet it looks like one more blow is still needed to be struck when it comes to shattering the misperceptions of Latinos in the media business. What better property to do it with than a film based on one of boxing’s most misunderstood champions? With Hands of Stone, audiences may get to finally understand Roberto Durán but Latinos as a whole.
As to how the film came about, Weisleder, who has done scripted television development with both ABC studios and NBC TV Studios, shared the following with Latino Rebels:
I met Jonathon [Jakubowicz] just literally when I recently arrived in Los Angeles. He had just come out with his movie Secuestro Express. I was a big fan of his. We became friends. We were just friends. Two buddies hanging out. It’s kind of funny the story. We were going to go out for drinks and the guy who composed the music of the film was there. And we’re having drinks. And I said to him, ‘Hey man I’ve got three words’. I said to him in Spanish, ‘Tengo tres palabras para una película.’ And he said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Manos de piedra.’ And he looked at me and goes, ‘The boxer?’ I said, ‘Who else?’ I said, ‘You know what? Look at the Wikipedia page. It’s written almost in three acts.’ He looked at me and goes, ‘I’m in. Let’s do it.’
Immediately after their lightbulbs blew out, both men contacted Ben Silverman, the man behind properties such as King of the Nerds, Jane the Virgin and The Tudors about doing the film. And if anyone who knows Hollywood and how do what’s right by Latinos in the business it would be Silverman.
“What he did here [with Ugly Betty] was he took the difficulties Latinos have as a culture here in America and he substituted being ugly. But that’s the ugliness that he had. The difficulties of being Latino. It was about the difficulties of who you are. So Ben had the ability to see this film had those elements as well in Hands of Stone and he helped us significantly. He knocked doors for us and opened a lot of places we would not have been able to walk if we had no money,” Weisleder said in referencing Silverman’s work.
By all accounts, Roberto Durán was not just some polarizing figure inside the ring and out it. There are many stories about him that simply go unnoticed. His human side often gets lost in the discussion of him over his theatrics inside the ropes. Almost no one speaks of his acts of kindness and generosity towards others who have struggled like he did. It is often said that Durán would give random people money to eat a simple meal or just straight give it out. Everything done with the believe that he will get the same treatment in return.
Few pay attention to these things. What people still harp on is on his crotch-grabbing and of course, they relentlessly focus on November 25, 1980. Perhaps with this film, people will finally get to see what has been lost in the controversy for so many decades.
As Weisleder explained:
I’ve been thinking about ‘No más’ a lot. And a lot of people ask me what did I think happened. And this is my answer and I know what happened. I’m sure you watched Pacquiao-Mayweather. And I’m sure when the fight was over you were like, ‘What a crock of BS this fight is. This is not boxing. It’s guys chasing each other around.’ Well, Durán actually did the one thing we wanted to do. He said, ‘I’m not doing this anymore. This is not what I’m here for. I’m here to fight. Get in my face. Let’s fight. This is a fight.’ For me, it wasn’t about whether Durán won. He’s not afraid of anybody. And I think that’s representative of Latin Americans. We’re not. And Durán as a fighter represented that very well. He was not going to put out a joke of the sport he took seriously. He didn’t say, ‘No más.’ He really respects the art of boxing.
Hands of Stone is the first biopic to be pushed out by Fuego Films, with the second being that of Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente. The company is a joint venture between both Weisleder and Sliverman. Their mission statement? To “shift the perception of Latinos with authentic and positive character portrayals.”
For his first film, Weisleder drew heavy inspiration from another biopic, 2004’s Ray, which was written, directed and produced independently by Taylor Hackford. The deep autobiographical look into the life and times of soul music innovator Ray Charles proved to be an overwhelming success, both critically and commercially. The former looks to be a bit of the same for Hands of Stone. The latter has yet to be determined when it comes to parallels between the two films.
When it came to casting, some interesting twists of fate came into play. Originally, the role of Durán was slated for Gael García Bernal. However, scheduling conflicts nullified that possibility and fortunately the role landed in the capable hands of Edgar Ramírez. And if all goes well, this could be a breakout role for Ramírez. Portraying Durán’s archrival Sugar Ray Leonard is actor/singer Usher Raymond.
But when it came to casting one specific part, Weisleder provided the following anecdote:
The Robert De Niro move was very interesting. A stroke of luck, I think. But I also remember when we were about to send the script I remember telling Jonathan I know for a fact he’s going to read it because of the title. He knows Durán. When I first went to Panama to try to convince Durán to do the movie, he asked me who is going to play Arcel. I said, ‘In a dream world I would love De Niro to play him because they look identical.’ At that point, I didn’t even have a script. I was just thinking big and dreaming. He said, ‘Eh, he looks like him.’ So he goes, ‘You know I know De Niro?’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know De Niro. We used to play. Him, Joe Pesci and I used to play softball in Central Park.’ I said, ‘You, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro? What a sight!’ He says, ‘Ah they’re terrible at softball.’ That’s Roberto’s comments. And you can see they have a friendship. Mr. De Niro loves him.
With all the amicable feelings that are going around, one cannot help but feel there’s a certain buzz in the air when it comes to the Latino media scene. You may be able to put your finger on it and get a pulse for what’s going on, but knowing exactly what it is may still be a bit of a mystery. Whatever the sentiment, it’s most certainly unanimous that the dam is finally going to break for Latinos in this media business. The hope that Roberto Durán gave to others via his career as a boxer may in fact be exacted again via this film.
If so, that would be a big coup for Weisleder and company.
Daniel Rivera is a host and entertainment reporter from New York City. Many know Daniel as media jack of all trades who has an all-out hustle, immeasurable knowledge of pop culture and geeky charm. Follow him @DanielRiveraTV.