Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In Character With Tony Insignares

Welcome back, Hip Hapa Homeez! This week’s featured guest is actor/model Tony Insignares, pictured here and below. Since Tony is so willing to share, let’s just jump right into his thoughts.

Q: What’s a nice multiracial guy like you doing in show biz?

A: It’s actually been something I’ve wanted to do since I was young, but I never really committed to it because I was participating in sports. It wasn’t until I was playing college football that I caught the “acting bug”. All I remember is something inside of me said that I’m supposed to be an actor. After I prayed about it and talked with my family, I told my coach that I was moving on from football. I’ve been acting in projects ever since and never looked back.

Q: What are your parents’ ethnicities, and how did they meet?

A: My mother is black, Cherokee, and Irish. My father is Guajira Indian, Hispanic and Italian. My parents met in Caracas Venezuela at a book fair, and I guess you can say they were both on the same page. They married in the U.S., and my brother and I were born.

Q: The word “Hispanic”, like the word “European”, can mean a lot of things. Do you know some of your Latin roots?

A: My family name is Italian. My grandfather on my father’s side came to South America from Italy when he was a little boy, and the family settled in Venezuela. My father was born in Caracas.

Q: You work in film, TV, onstage, in music videos, and commercials; and, also model. What do you enjoy about each one, and why?

A: It’s fun being in front of the camera no matter whether it’s film or television because the relationship of the story and the character are very detailed. I love the entertainment side of film and TV because viewers watch you on screen in given circumstances and it takes their minds off everyday life. It’s the same in doing music videos and commercials.

I love being on stage doing theatre because it’s where I can express myself through a character and be truthful. It can still be entertaining, but it also allows me to really use my imagination. There’s nothing better than being in the moment and the audience is on the edge of their seats sensing everything going on in front them through your eyes. That’s what I love about theatre.

I enjoy the work involved in modeling when it comes to looking good and seeing myself in photos. What I really love about modeling is how it has helped me to have more confidence in myself. Modeling forces me to be body-oriented. By that, I mean it requires a person to make health and fitness a priority as well as good grooming. In addition, it makes you aware of how you move by refining and controlling posture and walking, like the discipline of a dancer. It can really develop poise and confidence.

Q: Some might say you’re just another pretty face, but you’ve had some academic achievements, too, haven’t you?

A: Throughout my years in high school and college, I’ve won awards for being a scholar-athlete and earned scholarships for my academics from The National Society of Collegiate Scholars and The International Scholar Laureate Program where I traveled to China as a diplomat. I made the Dean’s List every semester in college and graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s Degree in Speech Communication and Theatre. But I would say that my biggest academic achievement was being in special education for eight years and graduating college with honors without any assistance.

Q: What have been your favorite or least favorite roles so far?

A: Wow! I have many favorite roles, but I don’t really have a least favorite. And that’s because every role, no matter how big or small, has its own purpose. In addition, with each role I learn something about myself either as a person or about my craft as a professional.

My favorite characters are Village from The Blacks: A Clown Show, Miss Roj from The Colored Museum, and Tybalt from Romeo and Juliet. The character Village helped me to become a better interpreter and made me better at learning lines faster because we didn’t have a lot of time. I used to be a very shy person, but this character opened me up and now I’m able to take command of any speaking situation.

The character Miss Roj is actually a drag queen. She has a 15-minute monologue by herself in the play. What I liked about playing that character was the research. It taught me not to judge or be scared to get to know a stranger that’s misunderstood. At one time, I think I may have been homophobic, but playing that character helped me to have respect for people no matter who they are. The bottom line is we are all human beings.

Lastly, playing the role of Tybalt was remarkable for me because the theme of this Romeo and Juliet production was about “gangsta life”. So, the director decided that this presentation should be a Crips and Blood version. I loved playing this character because it made Shakespeare fun. Instead of using the usual Elizabethan elements, we used our own. We wore the red and blue bandanas of the two gangs and used guns instead of swords. This interpretation helped me to view the play in a broader perspective so that there is a contemporary message and context for Tybalt with thugs and gangsters of today.

Q: What are some of the positives and negatives of having an ambiguous racial identity when it comes to your career?

A: The positives about it are that I stand out like a sore thumb on a hitchhiker. I like it because I get to play so many diverse characters that aren’t considered black or Hispanic. It gives me more flexibility as an actor and it doesn’t put me in a specific category. I don’t have to be something that I’m not so I get to be what’s true to me. I’ve been fortunate to play African, Mexican, and Japanese characters and each one has taught me to respect each culture and identity including my own.

The negative side of it is that sometimes I may not get jobs because the casting director doesn’t consider me black or Hispanic enough to play a character. It’s bittersweet because I live in Nashville and the city doesn’t cater much to those who are ethnic. As much I have respect for the city and all it does, I’ve learned from agents and casting directors that I need to be in Los Angeles or New York because I have a very distinct look that doesn’t fit in with this town’s environment.

One example is an ongoing play that I’m in right now called The Dance on Widow’s Row, which consists of an all-black cast. I was helping out with show at first because they had already cast their actors, but a couple of them dropped out because of scheduling conflicts and we had nobody else to play the characters. I was thinking that the director of the show would let me step in and perform one of the roles since we’ve worked with each other for years. But he didn’t want me in the show because I didn’t look “black”, even from the audience standpoint. He chose two new black actors, but one of them dropped out a week before the show. He finally called and asked me to perform in the show. I learned my lines and learned the blocking, and I’ve been in the show ever since. I’ve even performed as the understudy for the second lead actor in the show. I wasn’t mad about not being in the show because of my look. It taught me to appreciate who I am, be patient, and have faith because every director/producer has a vision of what he/she wants the show to be, and I wouldn’t want to be cast if I didn’t fit that vision.

I would have done the same thing if I were in that position.

Q: We first spoke last year about a role you were offered playing a mixed-race Japanese. How do you feel about actors playing characters not of their own race? Does a minority playing a different kind of minority still risk accusations of “blackface” or, in this case, “yellowface”?

A: I have mixed feelings about that because if an actor plays a character that isn’t their own race or culture, they have to be careful about the message they interpret to the audience. But I’ve also watched one-man/woman shows where the actor plays multiple characters and some of them are outside of their race, but they portray the characters respectfully and with truth so the audience can relate to the character. They make you look past the color of their skin and use your imagination.

On the contrary, there are actors who only present the stereotype of race, color, and ethnicity. Instead of showing respect for characters, they neglect them and don’t try to learn or research about their cultures, which causes this stigma of it being “blackface” or “yellowface”. In The Dance on Widow’s Row play, I play a black man, and I have to put on make-up to become the character, but I don’t try to insult the character or the audience who relate to the character. Of course, I use what I know about the locale of the play and what I’ve researched, but I do my best to play the character with authenticity and honesty. As actors, we reflect reality and teach people about a person’s circumstance when we’re in their shoes. Acting is about putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes, no matter who they are or where they come from, so we can understand human nature and the mystery of life.

For more information, Hip Hapa Homeez can contact Tony at:

Facebook: Tony Insignares

As usual, we invite you to join our Hip Hapa Homeez group page on Facebook for updated news about multiethnic and transracially-adopted people. You can also sign up as a Watermelon Sushi Fan on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and buy a t-shirt to help support our film.

In closing, Watermelon Sushi World extends our condolences and best wishes for a speedy recovery to our Haitian friends reeling from their recent catastrophe.

Bonjou Konpe-m! Since 1804, when Haiti liberated herself from French slavemasters to become the first free black republic of the Western world, she has struggled. Other countries refused to recognize her government, instituted unfair trade embargos, occupied this autonomous nation, and worse. Haitians have suffered from immense poverty, diseases like AIDS, ecological calamities, brutal governments, and more. The inequity of a racial caste system based on skin color that firmly placed mulatto elites at the top (witness dictator Papa Doc) further damaged the potential of this island state. In spite of it all, Haiti has survived and we know she will rise again. Mwen renmen ou!

Until we meet again, I am now and forever...

Your Hip Hapa,


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