Actress Elizabeth Peña discusses the role of sexuality in her new film.
Sex and the City may be the splashiest example of a movie about the love and sex lives of women over 40, but it's not the only one. A little indie drama called How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer explores that theme as it tells the story of three generations of women in a Mexican-American family and the sexual awakening they experience during one hot summer in a dusty Arizona border town.
The movie, directed and written by Georgina Garcia Riedel, stars a pre-Ugly Betty America Ferrera as a teenager about to lose her virginity to the new boy in town, Lucy Gallardo as the 70-year-old widowed matriarch who becomes attracted to the gardener teaching her how to drive, and Elizabeth Peña as the woman in the middle, a lonely, divorced butcher shop owner whose passions are stoked by the local lothario. The heat—literal and figurative— is palpable, even in an air-conditioned theater.
Peña was drawn to the script immediately because, with a few exceptions on screen, "Women's sexuality no longer exists after 38, 39, 40. The only thing that might come close is Desperate Housewives, and that's a comedy. This movie allows a middle-aged woman, and a woman in her seventies to be sexual. We're allowed our sexuality back."
The 46-year-old star of such films as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, La Bamba, Jacob's Ladder, Lonestar, and Tortilla Soup didn't hesitate to expose that vulnerable side on screen, but it helped that she already knew Steven Bauer, the actor playing opposite her in intimate scenes, having worked with him in the Emmy-winning miniseries Drug Wars: The Camarena Story.
"When it's a friend, it is kind of weird, frankly," she admits. "But being that it was Steven and I know him and know what a crazy psychopath he is, it was awesome because I could trust him. Had it been some actor who wasn't a friend of mine and taken off his pants, I probably would have yelled 'Cut!' and said, 'I hope you got that because I'm not doing another take!"
Peña confides that spending a month shooting Garcia Girls on location in Arizona during a heat wave may not have been exactly pleasant, but it did help her get into character.
"It was very helpful that it was oppressively hot. I'm normally a fast person and it slowed me down," she explains. "They put us in this crappy little motel and I decided, 'I'm gonna use it.' There's nothing to do. I'm not gonna put the TV on. I'm not going to entertain my head. I'm going to use the tedium of every day. But after seven days of doing that I looked at myself and said, 'Enough with the friggin' Method! Use it when they say 'Action!'"
The movie was shot in 2005 and made the festival circuit, but couldn't secure distribution until Maya Releasing picked it up this year. America Ferrera's breakout success in Ugly Betty may have had something to do with that, but Peña saw her as a star long before.
She already had Real Women Have Curves and won Best Actress at Sundance. She's very talented, and also a very grounded young woman. She knows what she wants." In the three years since she shot Garcia Girls, Peña has worked on such projects as Andy Garcia's The Lost City, the TV movie Racing For Time, and two independent films just now getting release, Love Come Lately and Adrift in Manhattan.
"In Adrift I play a woman who has a full life and then she falls in love with an elderly man. In Love Come Lately, which is with Barbara Hershey and Rhea Perlman, I'm a woman with some serious psychological issues," she describes.
Come November, Peña will be seen in the ensemble cast of Humboldt Park opposite Alfred Molina, Debra Messing, Freddy Rodriguez, and John Leguizamo, who plays her son despite the fact that he's just three years her junior.
"We thought about putting latex on my face to age me, but it was too obvious and I'm allergic to latex. So we figured, 'she could have had him when she was 16.' He's playing younger and I'm playing older. Women age differently now anyway," she notes, though she admits her reps questioned her taking the role.
As Peña reminds, "In Hollywood, you're not supposed to age." Nevertheless, she's gratified that there's more work for women of all ages these days— Latin women in particular.
"The talent pool has always existed," she notes. "The difference is, we are generating income for studios. What is really different for me is now I get these really wonderful scripts. Before they wrote for Latin people like we were two-by-fours, cardboard figures, not human. Now the projects have a chance to get greenlit."
She hopes there will be more female-centric movies like Garcia Girls that explore real human issues people care about.
"One of the most important things it says to me is not to be afraid of change," she reflects about the film and its message. "It's never too late to change your mind about a way of life and to begin anew. Your sexuality doesn't end," she reminds. "It just morphs."