Victor Cruz’s first time in the spotlight was on stage at a New York City comedy club doing stand-up at the age of 16. Studying art and theatre in high school at the time, performing for an audience had always been a dream for the South Bronx native. However, stand-up was something that he kind of stumbled upon. While walking around NYC one day, some cat peddling tickets for a comedy show approached him, but instead of buying tickets, Cruz asked about performing onstage. Following in the footsteps of acts like Eddie Murphy, John Leguizamo and many others, Cruz always had his sights on acting, and so, he attended SUNY Purchase College, studying in their acting conservatory program. After four years of intensive studies, the Puerto Rican actor landed his first professional acting gig as part of HBO’s hit series “The Sopranos” with many other TV and film projects to follow.
After some time, like a lot of actors, Cruz felt the urge to throw on the producer hat, and so he started his own production company, Victor Cruz Entertainment. Under his new company, he has worked on a couple of projects of which one of his most recent was the award-winning comedic drama, The Stockroom. The film follows the life of Joseph Rodriguez (played by Cruz), a stockroom supervisor who, after a failed promotion, decides to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a stand-up comic. However, the clock is ticking for Rodriguez because his ten-year anniversary at the stockroom closely approaches, and legend has it that if you don’t get out of the stockroom in ten years, you’re stuck there for life. Co-directed by Cruz and his spiritual teacher, Guru Enlightment—who helped Cruz through the loss of his father some time ago, and has been one of his closest friends since—The Stockroom boasts an all-Latino ensemble cast, which was something that Cruz always envisioned when he began his company.
‘LLERO caught up with Cruz to talk about his early days in the entertainment biz, the pros and cons of the film industry, his inspiration for The Stockroom, as well as what the future holds for him.
‘LL: What inspired you to pursue stand-up comedy?
Victor: I think growing up in my house. I don’t know if this is true in all Latino families, but in order to survive in the neighborhood that I grew up in, comedy definitely served as a method of defense, and as a way to get by when it was too hot and there was no money. We spent the day doing snaps and jokes. I think that was my first inspiration. But, in terms of actual comedians who inspired me, I’d have to say Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, John Leguizamo, Richard Pryor, George Carlin. Those guys were big influences on me. Growing up I saw a lot of their work, and I wanted to be part of their world.
‘LL: What motivated you to transition to acting instead of just staying in the stand-up comedy circuit?
Victor: I always wanted to be an actor, but I think when I did standup comedy, and honestly, I was performing at the time alongside guys that were more established than I was, like Dave Chappelle, Jim Gaffigan and Tracy Morgan. I think a part of me just wanted to be closer to that—just feel what it was like to be on TV and film.
‘LL: How did the idea for The Stockroom come about?
Victor: In the late ‘90s, I used to work as a stockroom clerk at the Gap in Manhattan, Uptown. I loved the people that worked there. I loved the experience that I had so much that I said, “Man, one day I’m going to make a movie about this.” That idea went somewhere in the back of my mind, and it wasn’t until like 2012 that the idea of The Stockroom resurfaced. I was in L.A., and I started developing the idea again but, this time, as a TV show. Then, I shared it with a friend and they were like, “This sounds like a great project, but it feels more like a film, like an indie comedy rather than a TV show.” I said, “You know what? That’s what I always wanted it to be.” So, I honored its original mission, and I started developing it as a feature. And, in four weeks, I already had my first draft. Then, two years later, I called action on our first shot.
‘LL: What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?
Victor: There were some challenges, but it was mainly getting the money. We originally wanted to do it with a budget of $200,000, but we ended up doing it with $65,000.
‘LL: What have been some of the rewards of making a film such as The Stockroom?
Victor: I think the number one reward was the confirmation that I can do this—that I can definitely produce feature films. And, not only produce quality feature films, but to be able to produce it at such a low budget. But, more than money, that I believed in myself enough to do it. Other rewards that have come from this are that people have acknowledged this movie as a great feature, as it having a great screenplay, great acting, great directing—and because of it, we’ve walked away with about six or seven awards already. I think more importantly, people have connected with this movie. There have been a good amount of people who have watched it and have connected with the theme of fulfilling your dreams, having something that you want to do and taking a risk even if it’s scary.
‘LL: You’ve done films that have addressed things like what you’ve just explained, which all Latinos can relate to, such as working at a typical 9-to-5 while pursuing your dream, and you also did a short film about female sterilization in Puerto Rico in the 1940s (La Operación). How important is it for you to work on projects that focus on the Latino experience?
Victor: It’s really important to me because there aren’t a lot of opportunities in which our stories are told in film. I mean, you have some directors that are doing their thing but, on a commercial level, we don’t really have many films that tell some real important stories—whether they’re part of our history or stories that come from our imaginations. If we can use this opportunity to use films to tell our stories, then we should.
‘LL: What do you feel are some topics that Hollywood should be focusing on when making Latino-related films?
Victor: We have different groups of Latinos in this country. You have different groups and everybody has different stories. There are so many things that we can talk about. It’s almost like one of those things where you can make a film about a Colombian couple or a Puerto Rican family or a Mexican painter or singer—whatever you want to say or talk about—and, you don’t have to tell the audience this is Latino. It’s just this is their story. I think if you just tell the story without trying to sell it as anything more, and be as authentic as possible, it would be great.