Ramon Rodriguez has been involved with television shows like “The Wire” and blockbuster films such as “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, so he knows his way around the drama and epic CGI territory. With his newest project, “The One and Only Ivan”, he goes into the worlds of children’s novels adaptations.
From acclaimed author Katherine Applegate, “The One and Only Ivan” is an award-winning book about a silverback gorilla named Ivan who is part of a circus inside a mall, unsure about his hazy history.
A baby elephant named Ruby arrives to the circus, and from there it sparks something inside Ivan, pushing him to find out his own past and help the baby elephant as well.
Rodriguez plays George, an employee at the mall who helps the owner Mack (played by Bryan Cranston) with the circus and is caught in the middle of this big change within the animals.
His physical costars are Bryan Cranston and Ariana Greenblatt, who plays his daughter Julia. Along with the physical actors, “The One and Only Ivan” has the voice talents of Sam Rockwell as the lead gorilla Ivan, and Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito and Helen Mirren.
The following is a conversation with Rodriguez on the ins and outs of working on a film that involved shooting everyday inside a mall with performers acting in place of CGI animals, as well as what the film means in the time of COVID.
To start off, could you give me a brief idea of the story in “The One and Only Ivan”?
The story is based on a book by Katherine Applegate with the same title, which is based on real events.
And, you know, it follows a gorilla that’s named Ivan that lives in a mall in the circus and is part of the circus. And it basically follows sort of his story as he’s the star of the show of the main event at the circus, and how throughout the journey of the film, he ends up basically sort of questioning his story and where he’s from and discovering.
He has a journey of self-discovery and to keep a promise to an elephant in the show, he sort of promises that he’s going to help protect a baby elephant.
And in this whole journey, he learns who he really is and where he’s from. He learns his history. And so, the beautiful message is a story about self-discovery and art and friendship and hope. But it’s something I think that all of us can relate to right now in terms of feeling like we’re captive and taking the time to sort of look within.
Can you tell me a bit about your character of George?
George is an everyday, hardworking guy, who works at the circus along with Mack. [George] is incredibly loyal to [him], he runs everything from taking care of the animals to cleaning, to helping run the show. All the meanwhile, he has a daughter that he brings to work with him, and he has a sick wife at home.
You know, he’s someone that I feel like is very much just a humble kind of guy that’s holding things together, that’s doing the best he can to provide for his family to support Mack. And he’s been with Mack for a long time, and, you know, he’s not someone that’s sort of calling for attention, but I feel like he’s somebody that a lot relies on, the job needs him and his family needs him.
And he’s, I think, like a moral sort of compass where at the end of the film he’s kind of forced to make a tough decision and what I loved about him particularly is that he’s a positive role model for his daughter, and I think in that moment when she asks him to make the tough choice, he does the right thing.
You have been part of many iconic drama shows and exciting films in your career. How was it different working on a film like this children’s adaptation, and with such diverse cast?
I mean, you know, what was really special about it was obviously just the overall message. And, you know, this movie has that Disney magic where it just makes you feel good inside. It’s heartwarming. And I have to say the process of making it was incredible.
We had a wonderful cast and we all kind of lived in this circus during the whole filming. We shot this whole thing in a mall and we lived in this mall. [It’s] kind of one of the most interesting [things] because I went to the same place every day for work. So, I kind of developed a routine, like George, of going to the circus and going to work and showing up there. So that aspect was really interesting.
But the overall vibe is so positive and playful and creative. Part of that I think is, (Director) Thea Sharrock has a wonderful sensibility and wanted to really make sure that the tones and themes and messages of this movie were executed.
But, you know, Bryan would come in with his creative energy and enthusiasm and ideas and we would talk about scenes. Arianna would come in with just that childlike magic and wonder and hope and optimism of her own energy. And it was just a wonderful vibe. It was, you know, really creative. And we all just hung out, you know, like they would yell, cut, and then we would just hang around and start talking. We played a lot of games with Arianna, like I Spy and all kinds of fun stuff. Arianna and I developed our own little fun handshake. And it was like a family, you know, really was like a special little family that was shooting in this mall that was in London in Pinewood Studios. It was bizarre, but really, really special.
So, in terms of the filming with the CGI, how was that like compared to the work you did in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, what was the difference there for you?
Yeah, what was really great was, you know, like you said, I’ve done it where we have nothing there. You know, it’s just a green screen. I’ve also done it where there is like a pole and a tennis ball and you have to act against the pole, which is weird.
And in this case, what was great is we actually had people, they were incredibly talented performers. The person that played Ivan was Ben Bishop. And Ben is an amazing actor. It helped so much to have someone that was actually playing the gorilla that you could interact with that made you feel like, yeah, there’s a gorilla there. You know, at all times you were aware that there was a living, breathing thing in its domain right there.
Also, with Ruby, the baby elephant, there’s another wonderful stunt performer would climb into the small baby green elephant suit and he would start behaving and walking around like a baby elephant. After a while, you just sort of were like, “yeah, that’s the baby elephant.”
You didn’t even question it and it became so real that when they would yell “cut” and the person playing Ruby would stand up, it would freak us out, like “wait a minute, why is this elephant getting up on its hind legs?” You know, it was a really great to have people playing those characters that we could act off of and react to.
Thanks Ramon, for your time. Now my final question. I was wondering why you would recommend “The One and Only Ivan”?
I would recommend this, especially right now. I think when we first made this film, we were not going to know the situation that we’re all living in today, which is [being] in quarantine for the most part, and we have to stay in our homes. And ironically, I think that really resonates and parallels a lot of what this story is about which is Ivan, who is in the circus and slowly discovers his history and where he’s supposed to be.
I think part of that this is what this country and what a lot of people who are home are going through, sort of being introspective and reflecting and spending time with family, maybe even growing and evolving. So, I think the message of this film [is] a beautiful, positive one, and I think we can all use some of that right now. But it also has some really deep messages that I think resonate more so now just because of what we’re all dealing with.
“The One and Only Ivan” debuts exclusively on Disney+ on August 21, 2020.