By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—At 9, Luke Ganalon was a straight-A student and aspiring actor in Los Angeles. He hadn’t heard of “Bless Me, Ultima,” the much acclaimed yet controversial novel by noted Mexican-American author Rudolfo Anaya. Delving into the delicate subject matter of the supernatural and the Catholic faith, the 40-year-old novel wasn’t exactly on Ganalon’s reading list.
But the boy’s parents read the book themselves and decided the material was appropriate for their son to be part of a film adaptation of the novel. Ganalon also read the book and found it compelling.
So the youngster, who previously appeared in several TV commercials and made guest appearances on TV shows, including Nickelodeon’s “Bucket and Skinner’s Epic Adventures” (he played the young Bucket) as well as co-starred with Ernest Borgnine in heartwarming independent drama “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vincente Fernandez,” tried out for his first leading role in a movie, and bested hundreds of other boys for the part.
The drama, directed by Carl Franklin (“Devil in a Blue Dress,” “High Crimes”), is set in the mid-1940s, and was shot on location in New Mexico (where the story in the novel is set). He plays Antonio, who lives with his parents and sisters in a small border town, awaiting the return of his three older brothers from war. The family raises eyebrows in the small God-fearing community when Ultima (famed stage actress Miriam Colon), comes to live with them. While Antonio’s mother considers the elderly woman a healer, others in town consider her a witch, and begin to shun the family.
In a series of events, Antonio witnesses the evil that men do and other life lessons.
Now 12, the angelic-face boy was born to be a performer. Of Latin and Ilocano descent (his paternal great-grandparents emigrated from the Philippines in the early 20th century), he started singing and dancing as a toddler, rocking out to Filipino American rocker Bruno Mars. He also is a fan of Legaci, the Filipino-American R&B band and boxer Manny Pacquiao.
Eloquent and polite, Ganalon spoke about taking on his first leading role, and bringing the character in the popular Chicano book to life.
Q: You’re off from school today?
Ganalon: Yes. I’m on independent study.
Q: Have you been interviewed before?
Ganalon: I have been interviewed previously for this, but not for anything else. This is my first major role.
Q: Do you like looking back on it and recalling what happened making the movie?
Ganalon: Yeah. I love telling stories about what happened because a lot of crazy things happened, like the rain scenes and just meeting the whole cast and crew and working with them. It’s crazy, though, how I see myself onscreen. I just want to pinch myself.
Q: What did you have to do for your audition?
Ganalon: I auditioned for (the role of) Antonio twice. Then, I auditioned for the role of Cico (a smaller, supporting character) afterwards. The third time, I auditioned for (director) Carl (Franklin) and the producers. Later, I heard that I had the role of Antonio and I just ran around the house, yelling. (He chuckles.)
Q: How did you like making this movie?
Ganalon: They made me really comfortable, the cast and crew. I would just memorize what they gave me so it was easy. They gave me the (script) two days before and I’d just practice. It was actually pretty easy and it was fun, so that helped even more.
Q: How did you like the book?
Ganalon: The book is amazing. Carl did a great job to match the book, and kept the important things in the movie, because you can’t fit everything from the book in. I could picture the book as a movie when I read it.
Q: What was the challenge of doing the scenes in the rain?
Ganalon: I knew it was going to be for the movie and it was going to be good. I didn’t want to complain or anything. But it was tough being in 50-degree water just pouring on you. It didn’t help when I was standing under a tree. There were even more drops coming down. I was in a wool coat, which was just absorbing all the water. Afterwards, the hair and makeup people would be ready with towels, and my mom would be there. So I just took it all in and had to deal with it.
Q: How was it working with the owl, which is Ultima’s familiar?
Ganalon: It hit me. I looked over to see the owl and just then the wing smashed into me. I was shocked but I didn’t start laughing or run off. So Lois, the set teacher, said, “That’s it. We’re not filming that scene again.” And Carl said, “That’s OK. I can probably use that.” (He chuckles.)
Q: Is this something you or friends your age would watch?
Ganalon: Yeah. Anyone can connect with it. It has to do with family, friends, religion and life. People have questions so how people can relate, so anyone can watch it.
Q: How did you like working with Miriam Colon? Was she like a grandmother to you?
Ganalon: She’s very wise and she taught me a lot. I remember going to her hotel room and just practicing lines over and over and over again. She’d tell me how I should say this, and she’d ask for my feedback. It was just a great experience. We would have our fun moments too. The whole cast and crew were just like family. It was just so easy to relate with everyone.
Q: How long a shoot was it?
Ganalon: Three months.
Q: How was it shooting the scene where Ultima blesses your uncle who is under a spell? It seemed pretty intense.
Ganalon: I remember Miriam and I were disgusted when he pukes the curse out. We knew what it was but it was still very disgusting. It was surreal and we were shocked, but it helped with the feeling of the scene. Miriam did very well doing the curandera. She packed that in her bags and brought it with her from New York.
Q: What was it like working with Carl?
Ganalon: He made the experience better and fun and easy.
Q: Were there any particular scenes that were difficult to shoot?
Ganalon: One particular scene that was difficult was the one where Narciso (Joaquin Cosio, who plays kindhearted alcoholic) dies. He did so well that it just sort of hit me. As he is dying, he says, “I need confession.” It made me emotional and it felt like I was really witnessing it. That’s how good he was. The (death) scenes were tough because while I’ve experienced deaths, I’ve never experienced a murder or drowning or anything like that. So it did really affect me.
Q: When you finished the film, did you still have questions about life and good vs. evil?
Ganalon: In the scene with Benito (Martinez, who plays his father, Gabriel), when we’re in the truck, and I ask him, “Why is there evil in the world?” and he says, “Maybe we call it evil because we don’t understand it.” That stuck with me and I’ve kept that answer in mind, because there are a lot of things that happen in the world. My dad (in the film) says there would be no Jesus or God if there were no evil. There would be no heaven if there were no evil or bad things. That’s something that’s stuck with me from this film.
Q: What’s next for you?
Ganalon: I recently did a short film with Project Imagination with (“Desperate Housewives’”) Eva Longoria. I play her son, and I get abducted by my father. It’s called “Out of the Blue.” The executive producer is Ron Howard. I just hope to keep on acting. I’m going for a couple auditions since it’s (TV) pilot season.