Two decades after learning the film and TV industry from the bottom up, this week actor Jimmy Gonzales gets his big break. In inspirational true-story drama “Blue Miracle,” out Thursday on Netflix worldwide, he portrays protagonist Omar Venegas, the guardian of orphaned boys in coastal Mexico who ventures out on a fishing competition to save their home.
“It literally was a miracle, no pun intended, to get to the point where I was able to lead this movie,” said Gonzales in a phone interview. The son of migrant workers with Mexican ancestry, he grew up in poverty and was shuffled around to various foster homes starting at age 11. His life story echoes the experiences of kids who live at Casa Hogar, an orphan home in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico depicted in the Netflix original film.
Recently in TV’s “Mayans M.C.” and “Lodge 49,” Gonzales stars alongside award-winner Dennis Quaid (“Frequency” and “The Rookie”) who plays a hardened fisherman forced by circumstances to launch out with orphanage director Venegas and his young charges to compete in the world’s biggest offshore fishing competition.
In October 2014, the mostly amateur team won at Bisbee’s Black and Blue Fishing Tournament, with their winnings going to expand the orphanage.
Another emerging force in Latino cinema, writer-director Julio Quintana helms the faith-and-family-centered biopic. Following his acclaimed drama “The Vessel,” executive produced by his mentor, the legendary Terrence Malick, Quintana makes his directorial debut with “Blue Miracle.”
Quintana worked with screenwriter Chris Dowling, the filmmaker behind NFL star Tim Tebow’s recent faith-based drama “Run the Race,” to craft the true events into a final script. “When I first heard this story, it’s almost like it was too cinematic to be real,” Dowling told me. “We took some creative license by combining a few characters because otherwise there were too many in play.
“Really, the script stays true to the amazing storyline of what actually happened.”
A Real-Life Journey from Orphan to Movie Star
Past family movies representing the hardscrabble lives of orphans have sometimes come across as saccharin and sanitized. By contrast, “Blue Miracle” doesn’t shy from presenting street-level violence and poverty, albeit while retaining a “PG” rating. Leading man Gonzales, who knows these realities all too well, lends the story authenticity through his performance.
He first auditioned for a small role, as a gang leader from the orphanage director’s drug-running past who shows up uninvited. When Gonzales met with director Quintana, they ended up going to lunch — which lasted three hours. “When we started to get to know each other, there was this unexplainable synchronicity. We were both pretty shocked how similar the story of my life was to the circumstances in this movie.”
In a statement, director Quintana concurred with the film’s star. “Jimmy was amazing as Omar because he is Omar. His childhood is so close to some of the things that we’re touching on in this story. You can just see it in his hands and in his face — that he’s lived these things.”
Born in Texas to a mother from Mexico and a first-generation immigrant father, they moved to Oregon in his early years. “There’s a lot of agricultural work there, and as a family, we dove into that … but it didn’t work out the way we thought,” said Gonzales, his voice filled with emotion.
His mother, who spoke no English, was left legally deaf after an accident in a factory. His father became “entangled with crime and drugs” and was incarcerated. Facing the challenges of poverty, and with little supervision, the pre-teen boy got involved in street gangs as a lookout then drug courier. “I got into a lot of trouble,” Gonzales told me. “My mother saw me going down a really deep, dark path. So, she gave me up to be a ward of the state.”
Gonzales, who faced several rough years in the foster care system, notes he has struggled with that decision for decades. He dreamed of becoming an actor, from his teen years up to his early 20s while working in construction jobs. Finally, he gained acting experience at a community theater in Austin, and landed a few bit parts on TV shows including “Prison Break.”
When he was taking acting classes in 2003, a major film production — Disney’s remake of “The Alamo” — was shot in and around Austin. Gonzales got a side job as a production assistant. “It was the first time I’d ever been on anything that big or any kind of real movie,” he said. “Dennis Quaid was one of the stars, and watching his process was mind-blowing to me.
“About 20 years later, now I’m starring across from him? Life is just very interesting.”
Overcome Fear to Live Your Dreams
To recreate the renowned Cabo San Lucas fishing tournament for “Blue Miracle,” director Quintana relied on several filmmaking techniques.
Stunning drone shots captured the Mexican landscapes and open sea. Yet much of the film was shot approximately 2,500 miles away, in the Dominican Republic. The director and most of his stars — including Anthony Gonzalez (“Coco”), Fernanda Urrejola (“Narcos: Mexico”), and Raymond Cruz (“The Closer”) — felt right at home, as the production crew all spoke Spanish.
Many of their shooting days were spent at the Horizon Water Tank, a high-tech eight-acre facility equipped with wave machines and the like to simulate real-world conditions. “We had some challenges, no joke,” said Gonzales. “The tank could be difficult and slow-moving … the Caribbean heat was oppressive.”
Co-writer Dowling said he was “blown away” by how the script came to life, particularly the lead performance. “His charisma is magnetic. You see why these kids love Omar. The way he played it, he’s a father figure. But at the same time, he’s cool enough that these kids want to be around him. Sometimes that’s a hard line to walk.”
Unassuming Gonzales credits co-star Quaid, whom he called “a genius” several times. “Every day when he showed up on set, I learned an incredible amount,” said Gonzales. “For weeks, it was like getting a master class workshop on acting from him.”
Several characters’ journeys converge in “Blue Miracle,” each resonating with themes of fatherhood. Gonzales, currently single and without children, mentions the opportunities he has to speak into the lives of nieces and nephews.
His own father, when he was present, displayed “a kind of bravado” to his son, recalls the actor. “I think that’s one part of being a father,” he said. “More importantly, it is to be human and to demonstrate to our children and young people in our lives that it’s okay to be afraid. We can all move together despite fear, which is literally the definition of courage.”
As to his mother’s decision to release him into foster care, Gonzales has made peace with it. “She did the most loving thing she could do at the time. Today, I can see it literally saved my life.”