EXCLUSIVE: Jorge Lendeborg Jr. Tackles Alien Robots in ‘Bumblebee’

(l-r) Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Memo and Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie in BUMBLEBEE. ©Paramount Picturres. CR: Jaimie Trueblood.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Jorge Lendeborg Jr. grew up in Miami watching Michael Bay’s action-packed “Transformers” movies at the local multiplex. When asked if he ever imagined being an actor in that franchise or other movies, Lendeborg offers a surprising response.

“Yes,” the 22-year-old says without a hint of vanity. “When I was 14, yeah. I already was thinking, ‘I want to be an actor.’ That’s when I first caught the bug and I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”

He enrolled in his school’s drama class, began auditioning for local commercials and films, and yada, yada, yada, became a Hollywood actor. Certainly, the odds are against most aspiring actors achieving such a lofty aspiration, but for Lendeborg, who was born in the Dominican Republic before emigrating with his family to the U.S. as a youngster, that dream has come true. He first shot to fame in 2014 playing the character Chihuaha on the TV action series “Graceland.” Subsequently, he co-starred with Noah Wyle and Sharon Leal in the drama “Shot.”

He now stars in “Bumblebee,” a spinoff (set in 1987) to the “Transformers” franchise in which he plays an awkward teen called Memo who is smitten with a pretty neighbor who happens to have discovered a giant robot from outer space. The alien, of course, is a giant machine whom she nicknames Bumblebee because of his yellow color. He can transform from an anthropomorphic shape to that of a motor vehicle—specifically, a Volkswagen beetle—whenever he wants. As it turns out, Bumblebee has narrowly escaped from enemy robots—the Decepticons—in his own solar system and fled to Earth, where he awaits his leader, Optimus Prime. He is a little worse for wear when Charlie (“True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld) finds him. Lucky for him, Charlie is an ace mechanic, who has her beloved late father’s tools to fix the robot. Memo stumbles upon the pair in the garage as he musters the courage to declare his feelings for Charlie. Romance will have wait as the trio is soon off on a wild adventure where they have to dodge murderous alien robots and getting caught by human law enforcement. The film also stars John Cena, Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux.

The action-adventure, directed by Travis Knight (2016’s “Kubo and the Two Strings”) and written by Christina Hodson (“Unforgettable”) is gaining a lot of critical “buzz.”  It’s scored a 98 percent Fresh score on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes.

As I enter a hotel suite to interview Lendeborg, who earlier this year starred in the critically acclaimed indie coming-of-age dramedy “Love, Simon,” I see that the rising screen star is saying his goodbyes to a young lady who turns out to be his younger sister, whom he describes as one of his toughest critics. Although still relatively new to fame and attention, the six-foot-tall Lendeborg appears well-grounded, charismatic and is thoughtful in his answers. It’s no wonder he has been tapped for a role in the upcoming James Cameron/Robert Rodriguez fantasy-adventure “Alita: Battle Angel.”

Q: Your sister must be so proud of you.

Lendeborg: She’s a tough critic. She describes my movies as videos with my friends.

Q: I suppose it’s like that while you’re making it, and then you share it with millions of audience members around the world, right?

Lendeborg: Ideally.

Q: How fun was it being part of the “Transformers” franchise?

Lendeborg: It was a dream come true. It’s a huge property so, as an actor, it’s like, “That’s crazy!” There are just so many huge movies—the “Star Wars” franchise, “Star Trek”—you can count them on two hands. So, it’s a blessing. It’s also something I was a big fan of. The movies came out when I was a kid. I feel like I was the target audience. I’m a huge Michael Bay fan. Those movies were everything—the sound design, the action. A lot of those movies were fun so to be able to take it a step further and to play this character was really great.

Q: Where did you grow up? Where did you see the movies?

Lendeborg: Miami. I wasn’t born there but I was raised there.

Q: How did acting begin for you?

Lendeborg: I took a drama class in high school. I got an agent locally and went out for whatever, commercials, anything they had available. There wasn’t too much because Miami is a pretty small (acting) market. It was fun. I remember auditioning for “Star Wars” out of Miami. I’m sure everybody auditioned for that movie. That was a part that John Boyega got. I was way too young.

Q: You’re ready now to step in, right?

Lendeborg: I’ve got my space alien robots. He’s got the Storm Troopers. What’s up, John?

Q: “Bumblebee” is getting a lot of positive critical attention because there’s a real heart to the story besides the robots.

Lendeborg: Yeah, we definitely Trojan Horse’d our way into this film. Yeah, the explosions are there but we’re telling a story (too).  I’m able to do what got me into filmmaking which is connecting to people and entertaining to tell people stories with their families—the real spectacle of it all.

To me, filmmaking and the movie theater are things that are really safe and special. That’s how I bonded with my parents.

Q: You and Hailee’s character have a sweet relationship. You’re kind of shy at first but you overcome that reach out to her. And there’s the robot getting in the way…

Lendeborg: Yeah, Bumblebee’s a bit of a third wheel.

Q: Is Memo nerdy or just shy?

Lendeborg: I don’t know. I think it takes a bit of confidence to ask a girl out three times. That’s a lot of resilience. Shy? Sure, because you can’t help but feel a little jittery. But the fact that he keeps going makes him more confident, at least subtly confident. He’s confident in a new light. We’re used to seeing male characters in these movies being extremely macho or whatever, but I feel I’m showing a leader and a confident person with more three-dimensional attributes all the way around.

Q: Did you and Hallie Steinfeld get a chance to spend some time together before filming?

Lendeborg: Not too much. I think we rehearsed once, which is where I met her. Then we went right into (filming the) movie. Usually, there’s a chemistry read but after the callback, they offered me the film. I had zero time with Hailee beforehand. It happened through the film. Luckily, she was fantastic to work with. She’s very open and a true professional. She’s been doing it forever—from “True Grit” and “Edge of Seventeen” to everything in the middle, she’s a true professional. I learned a lot from watching her and her process.

Q: Was the CGI element—dodging giant robots—something that took a while getting used to?

Lendeborg: Every movie has its own set of challenges but even in dramatic movies I’ve had scenes where I have to cry and there’s been no other actor there because they’re under 18 so they had to go home, so I’m crying to a piece of tape. I feel like that’s the real job. If everything was given, then the level of skill we’d see in actors wouldn’t be as good. It keeps the work up. That’s what comes with the territory.

Q: How did the success of “Love, Simon” affect your career?

Lendeborg: A little bit. I still have a lot of anonymity. I get recognized here and there but not too much. But “Love, Simon” definitely sparked a lot of interest on the streets here and there.

Q: “Bumblebee” is likely to elevate you into international fame. Are you prepared for fans asking you for an autograph or taking a selfie with you?

Lendeborg: I was anxious and nervous about it coming into it. I feel like I went into this as a performer and I like performing in front of crowds but I liked it on my time, like when I’m in front of my friends and family. When I’m out and about, I’m more of a quiet person. So, I was nervous about (fame). But I can’t get ahead of myself. I wouldn’t be here with fans or people who wanted me to succeed. I’m definitely thankful.

I was talking to a guy in Miami who told me he was a transpo(rtation) driver for Will Smith on “Bad Boys,” and he said that after a long shooting day, Will Smith would stay an extra hour to give autographs and talk to the kids. I was like, “That’s really special.” That kind of changed my perspective a little bit because it’s clear he realizes that he wouldn’t be (famous) without the fans.

Q: To a certain extent, you’re at the mercy of roles that come your way but is there something of a game plan of what roles you want to play or filmmakers you want to work with?

Lendeborg: Absolutely. You look at my filmography, and I hope you see that its filled with a lot of purpose, that I’m getting a lot of bang for my buck, for lack of a better term. I’ve (done) indie films/dramatic films, and studio films/sci-fi films. Each movie in its own right is a very special film to me. Movies that play at festivals, movies that have great filmmakers attached, movies that have big robots attached, and things that have all of the above combined. I always say your choices are a big part of being a good actor.

Q: You’re in James Cameron/Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel.” Have you finished production on it?

Lendeborg: Yeah. I filmed that movie two years ago. The technology they developed specifically for “Avatar” was actually a testing-ground for this movie. The boundaries we push as far as CGI and having it feel genuine is really special. It’s groundbreaking from what James Cameron brings to the care of the story but also the dynamic shooting style that Robert Rodriguez brings to a movie, so I’m really excited about that. It has great themes and I was able to meet and work alongside great actors very early on—Ed Skrein, Jennifer Connelly, Christoph Waltz. After seeing (the Oscar winning drama) “Moonlight,” I met Mahershala (Ali) on the set the next day. And Lana Condor—who’s destroying it right now—she’s in the film. It’s going to be a special movie.

Q: What other hobbies or causes are you passionate about? Music?

Lendeborg: I want to do everything. I always wanted to have a band. I doubt that’s going to happen.

Q: Has your family seen “Bumblebee?”

Lendeborg: Not yet. They’re seeing it tonight (at the Hollywood premiere).