When Eva Longoria read the script for Flamin’ Hot, she knew she had to direct the movie — even though she'd never directed a narrative feature before. (At the time, she had already directed numerous episodes of television, and would later direct a documentary feature about the rivalry between Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez). "I think that you only learn by doing," Longoria says. "If you want to be a director, shoot something."
Flamin' Hot tells Richard Montañez's version of the origin story of the titular spicy snack, tracking his journey from Frito-Lay janitor to inventor of the Flamin' Hot Cheeto. Whether you believe every detail of his account or not, the movie really isn't about that. "I always set out to do the true story of Richard Montañez, not the history of the Flamin' Hot Cheeto," explains Longoria. "That's why the movie is about his life — about obstacles he's overcome, about his childhood, about his relationship with his dad, about this love story between Richard and Judy."
In the film, Montañez dreams beyond his status while always championing his community, achieving his dreams through embracing his Chicano roots. The heart of Flamin' Hot is the romance between Richard (played by Jesse Garcia) and his wife, Judy (Annie Gonzalez), a Mexican-American love story that Gonzalez hopes will resonate with audiences. "I hope that they see themselves," the actress says. "I hope that they're reminded that they are the heroes that they've been searching for — whether you're wearing a cape or an apron."
A.frame: Congratulations on the film. It was so inspiring. I cried. I thought I was a G, but I was like a puddle by the end.
ANNIE GONZALEZ: Even Gs cry!
Eva, what drew you to this underdog story?
EVA LONGORIA: I was sent the script, and I read it, and I didn't know the story of Richard Montañez. I was blown away, and also sad. I was like, 'Why don't I know this story? He's Mexican-American, I'm Mexican-American, everybody needs to know this story!' And I immediately became obsessed with, 'We need to tell this story. We need this to reach all people because it's so inspirational, and there's a lot of lessons to learn from his life.'
Did his story speak to you as an actress who is now getting the chance to direct a feature film at this level?
LONGORIA: Yeah, it definitely spoke to me, because I feel like I am Richard Montañez. We've all been Richard at some point in our life, where somebody said, 'No, no, no. That opportunity is not for you,' And, 'No, no, no. Ideas don't come from people who look like you.' Where we've had to say, 'But why not me? Why not me for an actor? Why not me as a director?' So, we had the audacity to ask and question the system. And when you do that, that's when innovation happens. And because of this man's genius, this is now the number one snack in the world, and it's a multi-billion dollar product.
You've been on lots of sets as an actress. What did you take from those experiences that you're now implementing as a director leading the production? And what is something that's very specific to an Eva Longoria set?
LONGORIA: Well, they should answer that.
JESSE GARCIA: Snacks.
LONGORIA: Yes, eating. [Laughs]
GONZALEZ: I would say joy! I have never worked with a director who has not a single complaint whatsoever. Not a single frown. I had the most fun I've ever had. And I'm sure there were moments where she wanted to sweat, but you never saw it.
LONGORIA: Aww. Jesse, say something profound! He's a very profound person and then he gets silly.
GARCIA: We really had our own universe. We were able to have this language that we created between the three of us and everyone on set, really. Everyone was shooting the same movie. We were all shooting the same movie. Everyone's ideas were considered. They all ended up being her idea.
LONGORIA: [Laughs] I'll listen to your idea, but then I'll do mine.
GARCIA: Then, your idea's my idea. That's my idea.
LONGORIA: But that's my genius, is I make you think it is your idea. 'You know what's a good idea? Yours. When you decided to do that.' And you're like, 'I did?'
GONZALEZ: Wait, you're great at that.
LONGORIA: Yes, that's a Jedi mind trick. Women have been doing that trick for centuries. In this world, you have to figure out how to do that. But I will say the model on set was the best idea wins. When we were prepping the movie, it was better to have 10 brains on an issue than one. I was like, 'How are we going to shoot this? What do you think? What do you think?' All of our department heads were just amazing and incredibly talented.
Jesse and Annie, what drew you to the characters of Richard and Judy?
GONZALEZ: Someone like Judy, she reminds me of my mom and all my tias, and I feel like we never get to see women like that portrayed on-screen — such power, such grace, and the way that she really believes in Richard, and therefore, believes in her community, and thinks that they're worth investing in. I was so grateful.
GARCIA: Well, I think her first choice wasn't available.
LONGORIA: Yeah, and we were like, 'Eh, Jesse will do it, maybe...'
GARCIA: 'But we're not going to pay him very much.' [Laughs]
LONGORIA: Are you kidding? He was the only person that could play Richard. The only person. The real Richard Montañez is very funny and witty, but also, underneath that, he's serious and dangerous. And then, also very vulnerable with the Judy stuff. I was like, 'Who can do all of that?' And Jesse Garcia was literally the only person that came to mind.
GARCIA: It's funny, because — when I first read the script — in the core of my soul, I knew for some reason, 'They wrote it for me.' And it was like, 'Okay, I'll do it! I'm going to audition, like, 15 times, but I'll do it. So you guys can feel good about your decision.'
It was so beautiful to watch you two bring that love story to life. What are your hopes for audiences seeing this Mexican-American love story on-screen?
GONZALEZ: I hope that they see themselves. I hope that they're reminded that they are the heroes that they've been searching for — whether you're wearing a cape or an apron. You are worth all the love and power that you give everywhere else.
How did Richard and Judy react when they got to see your portrayal of them?
GARCIA: We did a scene where we're both in the car, in the ‘70s, and we're fighting. I'm about to get arrested because I'm in a stolen car, and she knows we're in a stolen car. We're improvising, and she's hitting me, and I'm joking around, but it's a very serious moment. Richard and Judy and the family were on set that day. Everyone had earphones on and were watching the scenes. And Eva called cut and we walked around to the video village, and Richard and Judy are like, 'That's what you would say!' and 'I actually hit him in that car!' Everyone's crying. We're crying. Eva's crying. Eva's always crying.
LONGORIA: I am. It's true.
GARCIA: And Richard came to me, gave me a big hug with tears in his eyes, and he goes, 'You know, it's a very vulnerable place for us to be in, but I get it. I get what you guys are doing.' It's difficult for people to see sometimes when you're doing scene by scene. You're doing the micro that's building to the macro. But, when you start to see the micros build up into something that's tangible, they got it.
That's empowering. This whole film is. Even amidst the questions of how all these events may or may not have gone down, why do y'all feel that it's crucial to tell our stories even when people try to dismiss them?
LONGORIA: For that reason exactly. People will always try to dismiss your story, especially if you're a person of color. For us, I always set out to do the true story of Richard Montañez, not the history of the Flamin' Hot Cheeto. That's why the movie is about his life — about obstacles he's overcome, about his childhood, about his relationship with his dad, about this love story between Richard and Judy. Oh, and he happened to have a hand in creating the number one snack in the world that's a multi-billion dollar product. Like, oh, and that happened! That's why the bookend of the movie is Richard narrating, and he's like, 'There's no such thing as just a janitor, just a waiter, just a busboy. We all have a story to tell.' So, he wasn't going to let anybody steal his story. And now we're here, and his story is out in the world for everybody to enjoy.
By Doriean Stevenson