After a long, long build-up, TV”s Golden Age is having its Mel Rodriguez moment; within the past few months, the distinctively cuddly-sized actor has occupied critical roles in not one but three acclaimed series.
First, he was seen as Patsy de le Cerda, the hapless head nurse on HBO”s hospital comedy, Getting On. Then he popped up again as the short con accomplice of young Saul Goodman on AMC”s Breaking Bad prequel, “Better Call Saul.” And finally, he made a surprise entrance as Todd, the incarnation of the “Last Man on Earth”s nightmare.
We caught up with him by phone as he took a break from “doody duties,” tending to his three month old daughter, Stella.
Hitfix: Suddenly, all my favorite shows are centered around Mel Rodriguez. How did this happen?
I don”t know man, I really don”t. I”m the luckiest guy in the world.
You have great parts in great shows. And three at once!
I”ve got the trifecta going right now. I was talking to someone the other day, saying, I was pretty scared when I got out of school that these roles didn”t really exist and I was a little fearful that I was going to be relegated to very small parts – which would”ve been cool because I was eating noodles every day, so anything would”ve been fine. And the films that I really wanted to be in had kind of gone away. And now they”ve come back but they”ve back on TV and rather than just a cheeseburger, they”ve become these complete meals.
Let”s walk through the Mel Rodriguez Guide for Beginners. You”re originally from Miami.
I”m from Miami. I grew up in an area called Little Havana. It was a tough neighborhood, and there was a lot of that stuff that we”ll probably see again pretty soon with all the cocaine cowboy stuff that was going on, it was really flashy and intense.
Miami had a very scary reputation back in the 80s, the Scarface era.
It did and it was a little scary. So I think I at times I used humor at lot to bluff my way out of situations or to make people laugh so they wouldn”t punch me in the face.
Did it work?
It did sometimes, and sometimes I got punched in the face. I feel like I certainly wasn”t as tough as I sometimes pretended to be but I was a bigger kid, so I didn”t get pushed around as often. Listen, I had a lot of fights but i didn”t win them all.
Did you start acting back then?
I didn”t. Earlier on I thought I wanted to be a boxer. I had gotten in a little trouble and had to do some community service and ending up boxing at an old gym where Muhammad Ali used to box at. And I really thought I wanted to be a professional boxer until I got punched really hard in the face, and then I decided I wanted to do something different.
One punch changed your career plan?
It totally did, and then at 17 I met a high school teacher named Marty Hancock who just totally changed my life. I feel like at that point having someone tell you you”re good at something and respond to what you do, it”s the world. And I had a teacher who did and I really kind of rode that, and that's when I found acting, late in high school.
Did you immediately connect with it?
Absolutely, We did this play called The Inner Circle, which was an AIDS awareness play. Pedro Zamora from The Real World would come around with us, and we”d go to other high schools and colleges and prisons and talk to people about AIDS and AIDS awareness. I realized then how powerful an effect you could have on people and how it was kind of the language of the spirit, this acting thing and this empathy thing. I guess i caught the bug and I knew then that that”s what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up getting a scholarship and dropping out of high school, because I wasn”t doing so well except in acting, and that really upset my parents but I told them, I”m going to college, I”m going to graduate from college. I”ll be the first one in our family to graduate from college. So I drove up the I95 to SUNY Purchase and went there for four years.
How did you get started working as an actor?
After I graduated, I stayed in Purchase and managed a cigar shop and I”d go to New York to do theater. At the time there were three shows filming in New York. There was Law and Order, a show called Third Watch, and Spin City, I think. So I did an episode of Law and Order, and I did an episode of Third Watch. and the occasional film would come through, but you couldn”t do Law and Order twice, so I was doing a lot of theater. I guess my plan was I had looked at all these actors I”d admired and they started out in theater. And the whole landscape of theater had changed and all the people who were doing it had these huge film and television resumes. So I said, Oh well, I guess I”m going to have to create a film and television resume so I can do theater. And then I moved out to LA and didn”t do much theater at all.
Looking at your IMDB page, your credited roles include: Armoured Car Driver, Officer Morales, Security Officer, Inspector Ino, Captain Gomez, Officer Martinez and Lone Cop, as well as roles in Law and Order, CSI and NYPD Blue. Why do you think you were cast so often as a cop?
I don't know, I think i might have this cop quality to me. It”s funny one of my best friends, I went to school with, he”s always cast as the bad guy drug dealer and I”m always cast as the cop.
Have you ever played against each other?
We actually have. But I”d like to believe it was this kind of relatable thing, for the most part it”s been nice cops. But there”s been some bad cops, some crooked cops and then some goofy cops.
Did you give up hope of playing other sorts of parts in all those years?
No I don”t think I ever did. However there were a couple times. when the financial situation got really hard. You know, you get older, and we didn”t have kids or anything but this last time, right before i booked Getting On, we were in a tough spot financially and we were having a hard time trying to make rent here. It”s an expensive town to live in. And we were going to move to my mom”s place in North Carolina, to regroup and reassess. I don”t know if it was to give up, but LA had dealt me some pretty serious blows and it was kind of, one of those things. We were driving and we were on our way back, with our dog, and we were in arkansas and I got the call that Getting On happened.
Did you not think you”d get the part?
I didn”t because I”d heard that they were reading these huge names. I”d heard they were reading Michael Chiklis, and I didn”t think I had a chance in hell. So it went away for a moment, and I was pretty certain that it wasn”t around. It was dark times.
Do you remember a lowest moment?
I just questioned. I always believed that if you stuck at it, if you”re good. and people told me enough that I was good, that I kind of believed them, that if you plug away and do stuff, that eventually it was one of those things like physics that the cream rises to the top and I always kept that in mind. And it was rough because I came to a real questioning time in my life where I said, well maybe that”s not true Maybe that”s not the way it works. And maybe it is luck and maybe I just didn”t get that.
Give me the scene when you got the call.
So we”re driving into this hotel and there”s this guy in the little toll booth there as we”re pulling into the parking lot. And he was the sweetest man. And I can”t remember what i said but he said, well, you know you gotta take the bitter with the sweet. And I remember that being, at the moment, really really profound. And we parked the car, and behind the hotel there were these natural occurring hot springs, so we get there and we”re about to take a dip and I got a phone call. And I just remember my wife and I just – I can be a pretty emotional guy, and we just started weeping. I mean, we fell apart. I couldn”t stop crying.
Did you go out and celebrate?
We sure did, then we got back in our car and I called my mom and told her, I”m sorry but we”re not going to make it. And she said she understood and she was really excited for me and so we came back and the first season of Getting On we spent in a hotel.
How did you create the Patsy character?
I love him because he takes his job so incredibly seriously. Patsy isn”t just a moustache twirling bad guy. You get to see why he is the way he is, Even in a comedy you get to see: okay he does this nice thing. Or he means well. I think he has the best of intentions. I don”t judge him. I can”t judge him playing him but I just love him because hes so well meaning even though he can”t stop kinda stepping in s–t left and right. And I love his relationship with Alex (Bornstein). We talked about it and decided emotionally we”re both about 8 or 9 years old.
They are in a very special space together.
It”s nuts, they”ve created this reality together the two of them that is just nuts. Looking at it, I”d say, he”s obviously gay, he should just go ahead and be gay. I think theres a bunch of catholic guilt going on and his parents and all that stuff that”s keeping him from doing that. And I think he”s attracted to certain parts of her, and he”s trying to give it a go and he really does love her. Emotionally they”re just kids.
Once Getting On was on air, did people see you as an actor with broader potential?
Yeah, I could feel a change. I really could. My manager said, you”re going to realize that everything you”ve done in this town is track, whether it”s an audition, or a small role that you give your all, all of it is track thats going to lead somewhere. Getting On hasn”t been a huge success in terms of tons of people watching, but a lot of industry people watch it and it”s gotten me attention in that arena. It shows people what I can do in character work, and that I”ve got some range.
Which came next, Last Man or Saul?
Then came Last Man on Earth. Will (Forte) had called me earlier because we met on The Watch and we became really good friends, and he said, Mel, I”ve got this part that I”m thinking of you for and I”ve been writing it with you in mind. And I was so honored that he would do that. I had to audition so the guys could see me and he said, I just want you to be you. But that”s scary because I don”t think I had ever just played me in anything before.
It”s so cool. Both these shows have such great casts, and I dont want to sound too cliched but I feel like the luckiest guy on earth. I had to wait longer, but I got it all. The good jobs with the good people.
The first shot when you appear on Last Man is a brilliant moment. Just the way you say, hello, tells the whole story of your character.
Before we started, I called up one of the producers and said, I”ve got to get the first script. Because I”m such a neurotic about getting prepared. I’ve got to read them 15 times, and I”ve got to learn my lines and everyone else”s lines.. And he said, I can read your part right now. And he was like – Man driving through the desert. And he was running through all my scenes, and i said, that's hilarious. Is that really what happens? And at the end, he said: Hi, I'm Todd. And I thought , that”s genius.
So I had to give myself this backstory. I think he”s just thrilled to see people. I”m sure he”s had in life, as i have, some meltdowns where he”s felt really really alone. I mean, he”s been alone for the past two years. And i think he kind of pulled it together and said, Okay I”m going to start combing my hair every day and tucking in my shirt even though no one else is around.
I think he maybe had a Phil period in his life and then he just showed up and he”s just so thrilled to see other human beings that he”s just beside himself.
You”re playing essentially Phil”s nightmare, but he”s impossible to dislike.
Yeah, and i think it”s because he is this guy who makes this constant decision to go out every day and be as kind and good as possible. I don”t think he”s gullible. I thought that for a minute. But he”s just someone who when someone says something cruel or nasty, he just overlooks it. It”s not in his field.
That time he was going to leave you in the desert, you understood what he was doing.
Yeah, he was kind of going through a thing. He wants to leave me in the desert, kind of, But he”s not going to, he”s going to come back. He”s got to go through what he”s got to go through, so im going to let him do it.
I love that shot. (Director) Peter Attencio is great. He has that shot where I”m just in the background and the Phil is in the truck just screaming.I had seen it first where I could hear the screams. But Peter made the decision to cut that shot so I couldn”t hear the screams, and I think that shot is just genius. I love it.