John Diaz (21) walks into the café with his usual swagger. The 6-foot-2, 150 pounds actor looks like Ichabod Crane – a lanky beanstalk but way better-looking. In Five Star, Diaz plays a young man who struggles with his identity – should he, like his deceased father, go down the path of gang life? The movie, which will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, blends fiction and reality. It is a coming-of-age story where Diaz discovers the meaning of manhood.
Born and raised in New York, Diaz lives with his mother and older sister in Lower East Side. He had not always wanted to be an actor. In middle school, his dream was to play for the Yankees. But after listening to Diana Ross’ daughter speaking about how fun it was to act, Diaz decided that he would become an actor. Because an actor gets to live a different life every time he walks on set. He took theater classes in high school and studied performance art at Nazareth College. He dropped out after eight credits. Six months after his return home, he was casted for Five Star.
Part Puerto Rican, part white and black, Diaz raps and models on the side. The young star shares what it was like working with Keith Miller for the past two years.
Q. How did you land the role? Did you know Keith before?
No, at that time I just quit college, came back and was working at a dog spa. Jeremy Engle called me. He is also a director. I was in his movie when I was 16. Jeremy called me and said, “I have a movie audition for you. It’s called Five Star, my buddy Keith Miller is doing it.”
Q. What was the audition like?
There were me and this other guy. They called us in together. Keith told me, “He slept with your girl.” He turned and said to the other guy, “You didn’t sleep with his girl.” And Keith said, “Scene.”
Q. That was it? What did you do?
I said to the guy, “You slept with my girl man?” He started like, “No, no.” I said, “Rico told me you slept with my girl.” He said, “Who’s Rico?” I said, “Man, don’t act like you don’t know who Rico is. Get outta here. You slept with my girl!” And he just kept on saying the whole thing over and over, like “I didn’t.” And I don’t want to sound cocky, but the other guy didn’t have it.
Q. Interesting audition. Is Keith the norm? I mean, in terms of director.
This is my third film. And no, Keith is not the norm. Most directors would be like, you got a line, you got a part, you got a facial expression. And you have to get it done within this time. Keith is more like this is the scenario but I am not going to tell you the exact lines. I want you to feel your lines. It’s cool and different. But for a trained actor, it’s like, You are giving me freedom? I never have freedom.
Q. Did you like the “freedom”?
It was very different. But it’s like, I am my own acting coach now? Let’s do this! But the one thing about Keith that I love is that he brings reality into the movie. My father died from a stray bullet in the movie. So Keith sat down and was like, “What’s the situation with your father.” I said, “I don’t really talk to my father at all.” My father and mother separated when I was two. So in the movie, my dad and I didn’t really talk at all before he was killed. Keith tries to make it as much your life that is happening onscreen like your life offscreen.
Q. Tell me about Primo. What was it like for you to work with a non-actor?
Primo, he’s good, he’s talented. He can hold a conversation, he can hold the room. He is the real stuff.
Q. You are not exactly from the “hood,” so how did you make sense of your character?
When I got the part, got the script, I was trying to figure out who this kid was. He is a Brooklyn kid, a kid who didn’t know what he wants. When I came to any part where I was like I don’t know how he feels, Keith would come to me and be like, “How would you feel? What would you do? Would John want to get up and fight him? Or would John want to get a gun and kill him?”
Q. Keith? He speaks ‘hood’?
Keith tries to speak the language. But sometimes he doesn’t know what he’s saying but he’ll try to step into your world. Keith gets a hood pass.