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Jesse gets big

Jesse gets big

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Playing a gay cholo in Quinceanera, the summer's hottest gay movie, Jesse Garcia is on the path to stardom.

Although many sexy straight actors have played gay on-screen over the years--Jake, Heath, Colin, Jude--it's hard to imagine any of them being man enough to do what newcomer Jesse Garcia did to boost morale on a particularly tense day on the set of the acclaimed new film Quinceanera. "I went to wardrobe and said 'It's crazy out there, give me some clothes!' " recalls the Rawlins, Wyo.-born actor who, in his 2 1/2 years in Hollywood, has turned up in a slew of commercials as well as on The Shield, Unfabulous, and in the HBO movie Walkout. "Then I walked, like, a block and a half down the street and onto the set in high heels, a miniskirt, and this black top that was 10 sizes too small for me." So what got into him exactly? "During my sketch comedy days, there was this character I used to play named Meringue who was really over-the-top," he explains, "so I brought Meringue back to life on set, and everyone just died laughing."

"It was like somehow Carmen Miranda had taken over Jesse's soul," recalls Wash Westmoreland, who cowrote and codirected Quinceanera with his real-life partner of 11 years, Grief director Richard Glatzer. (Their previous film collaboration was the gay cult fave The Fluffer.) "Jesse knows how to work it," confirms Glatzer. "I've worked with people who are straight but playing gay, and in subtle ways they always want to let you know they're straight. Jesse never had to say anything about his sexuality. I don't think the crew knew what he was, and he didn't care. Then he threw Meringue in there, and it was, like, 'Wow, this is a very liberated, fun guy.' "

And if Quinceanera's any indication, this liberated, fun guy can also break your heart. In the film, a contemporary kitchen-sink drama set in Los Angeles's rapidly gentrifying Echo Park neighborhood, Garcia plays a streetwise car-wash attendant named Carlos. When we meet him, Carlos has already been kicked out of his house for being gay and is living in a small guesthouse with his warm and wise great-granduncle Tomas (The Wild Bunch's Chalo Gonzalez). Complications ensue when Carlos's female cousin Magdalena (newcomer Emily Rios) moves in with the pair after becoming pregnant while planning her 15th birthday celebration, or quinceanera. And then there are the trio's new landlords, an upwardly mobile gay white couple (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood) who get Carlos liquored up at a house party and then put the moves on him.

"Carlos's story line is the nexus of looking at homophobia in the Latino community and racism in the white gay community," explains Westmoreland, who moved with Glatzer into the same Echo Park neighborhood five years ago. "When we first auditioned Jesse, we immediately saw this incredible vulnerability that was perfect for the part." They just had to rough him up a little. "We kind of created a veneer over the sensitive Jesse," says Westmoreland, "and made Carlos from that, with the gang clothes and tattoos and the shaved head."

The end result is a tender and indelible portrait of a young man trying to find himself in a rapidly changing world--and a career-launching performance for Garcia. "Jesse, as an actor, has so many emotional layers, and he's so ready to go to places and try things," says Glatzer. "He's almost a return to that kind of '50s innocence, like Brando and Dean, where you don't need to think of what you are sexually, you just go with it."

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