In director Timothy Linh Bui's Powder Blue, several lost souls teeter on the edge of hopelessness in gritty Los Angeles. The La Ronde -like film, out on DVD May 26, is peppered with boldface names -- Ray Liotta, Forest Whitaker, Jessica Biel, Lisa Kudrow -- but it's newcomer Alejandro Romero who has one of the most provocative roles, as a transsexual hooker Whitaker hires to help him commit suicide.
"It's about lonely people looking for love," says Romero, who is gay. "It's got a Crash vibe, but it's a little less complicated." As a jaded streetwalker, his character, Lexus, is used to life's disappointments. But she's genuinely shocked when Whitaker's Charlie offers her a suitcase full of money to take his life. It seems Charlie is a Catholic and believes committing suicide will keep him from reuniting with his late wife in heaven. Such gut-wrenching scenarios are the cornerstone of the movie.
Romero won the part in an open casting call but had originally planned to submit a video audition. "I filmed myself in drag walking around Santa Monica Boulevard with someone filling in for Forest," he explains. Romero was called in for several rounds of auditions, but with no experience "hiding his candy," he had to call on his women friends for help. "I had this little case with all of the Lexus stuff -- I call it my tranny box. My friends helped me put my costume and makeup on every time. I had no familiarity with drag."
Romero researched the role by speaking with trans sex workers on L.A.'s Santa Monica Boulevard, but it was a particular accessory that helped Romero truly get into character. "I didn't feel like Lexus until I put the shoes on." he reveals. "They were just from a thrift store, but they changed how I talked and walked. They helped me feel the vibe."
The son of Spanish and Colombian immigrants, Romero grew up in Chicago, where he studied both dance and filmmaking. Physically he resembles Mexican actor Gael García Bernal. Once he dons Lexus's blond wig, the similarity to Zahara, the trans hooker Bernal played in Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education, is downright uncanny.
Making Powder Blue was a rewarding but draining experience for Romero. "The first scene we shot was the last scene I was in, so I didn't have time to build up to it. It's really hard to keep that level of energy when thing stop and the lights are being fixed." Fortunately, Romero had Whitaker, the film's executive producer, to offer support. "I was intimidated -- I mean, he's got an Oscar," Romero says. "But we had some rehearsal time before we started shooting and I could tell right away I was in good hands. Despite the roles he plays, Forest isn't intimidating at all. He teaches by example and by how open he was."
Taking such a daring role was a risk for the young actor -- as was choosing to be open about his sexuality so early in his career. But like Whitaker, Romero believes in being open. "Four years ago I would've thought about it to death," he says. "But these days I want to keep things simple. I want to change the world as an artist, and I'd be a hypocrite if I was closeted."