By David A. Keeps, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 25, 2008
MELONIE DIAZ is excited, anxious, overwhelmed, joyous, overstimulated and super-happy. "It's bananas," the 23-year-old actress proclaims, seeing the hundreds-strong mob lined up in the snow for the Sundance premiere of her first studio film, Michel Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind," which opens nationwide next month.
She needs to breathe. She needs chewing gum. She needs to find the ladies' room.
Such is life for a freshly minted star at the most prestigious independent film festival in the world. It is a scene that will be replayed the next day at the first screening of Andrew Fleming's twisted high school musical comedy, "Hamlet 2," which later was sold to Focus Features for a hefty $10 million. There, the director will publicly announce what has been on the tip of everyone's tongues: "Melonie Diaz is the queen of Sundance," he said, setting up a punch line. "She's in 27 films this year."
Melonie who? Queen of what?
In a ritual almost as old as the festival itself, the media single out one prolific actress each year for what is widely seen as a career-boosting coronation. Being anointed is a confirmation of status in the independent film world and a step toward studio movie stardom. Diaz, who this year is actually in four festival entries -- "American Son," "Assassination of a High School President," "Be Kind Rewind" and "Hamlet 2" -- is the latest to be handed the crown. She joins such esteemed predecessors as Parker Posey, Lili Taylor, Christina Ricci, Kirsten Dunst, Chloë Sevigny, Catherine Keener and Patricia Clarkson.
"It's an honor," Diaz says, "but it's intimidating, and a little embarrassing. In industry terms, I'm still a newbie."
The first in a lineage of Latina actresses that includes Rosie Perez, Rosario Dawson and America Ferrera to ascend the throne, Diaz is already a Sundance veteran. At 15, she made her film debut in Tom DiCillo's "Double Whammy," which screened at the 2001 festival. The following year she appeared in "Raising Victor Vargas" and returned in 2006's "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints."
This year, in a sort of heat-seeking perfect storm, Diaz's Sundance films illustrate both her vivacity and versatility. In leading roles, she plays the comic foil to Jack Black and Mos Def in "Be Kind Rewind" and Nick Cannon's romantic interest in Neil Abramson's Iraq-themed drama "American Son."
"Melonie is such an open soul and so passionate about life," says Cannon, who shares some tastefully intimate scenes with the actress. "When you do independent film it takes a certain level of skill to jump into doing so much in such a short amount of time, and she just blew me away."
A vintage fashion plate
Diaz, a film student at New York University, is also serving on the Sundance jury for this year's short film competition and will present the awards Saturday. By the time the festival wraps on Sunday, she will have spent two weeks in Park City, much of it with a full contingent: two friends, two managers, two reps from United Talent Agency, a publicist from the high-powered firm PMK-HBH, and hair and makeup artists.
There is no wardrobe stylist on the payroll and, with four films to promote, no time to visit celebrity gift suites for "clothes I'm not sure I'd wear." Not that the practical Diaz, a vintage fashion aficionado, is bothered. At a midnight party for "Hamlet 2," she arrived from another cast party in the same ocher sweater, black jeans and boots she'd had on at noon.
"I bring my own style," Diaz declares. She has been getting compliments for a 1960s double-breasted black wool swing jacket that, she says, "I got at Burlington Coat Factory for a hundred bucks."
Starting her days at 8 a.m., Diaz must be indefatigable. There are scores of interviews, photo sessions and TV appearances, red-carpet walks at premieres, question-and-answer sessions after screenings and parties to attend. It is a more arduous schedule than most 16-hour-plus workdays on a tightly budgeted film. And for Diaz, it replays itself daily, like something out of "Groundhog Day."
"People are going to get sick of seeing her face everywhere," jokes manager Stephanie Nese. "Melonie is a trouper. She's always in a good mood because she's worked for about two years straight and this is a celebration."
After all the daily meet-and-greets, the refreshingly low-maintenance, somewhat salty-tongued starlet still finds time to party, catching a late-night concert by punk priestess Patti Smith, whom she describes, reverently, as "such a badass." Getting to bed by 2 a.m. is an early night.
"Melonie has a battery inside her that could drive a locomotive," says Black, her "Be Kind" costar.
Fleming, "Hamlet 2's" director, enlarged the part when Diaz signed on. "I didn't want somebody doing a caricature of a Latina. I felt she deserved more. Some people have the ability to be interesting on camera. Every time you look at Melonie, you see something else. The shape of her face and the way she holds her head is very photogenic. She's dazzlingly pretty but not in an unapproachable model way."
Proud to be 'Nuyorican'
Gondry, who cast her in his New Jersey-based film because he needed "a strong actress, not a typical star," sees Diaz as an original. "She has a great look, but it is very real. You can believe that she's coming from that place."
The second daughter of first-generation Puerto Ricans raised on the Lower East Side of New York City, Diaz proudly calls herself a "Nuyorican." Her father, Carlos, worked for an advertising agency and is now retired and living in Puerto Rico. Her mother, Beatriz, is a clerk at an AIDS hospital.
"They are polar opposites," she says of her parents, who split when she was 7.
She took after her outgoing, "people magnet" father, entertaining neighbors by reenacting Janet Jackson and TLC music videos with her older sister, Mercedes. At 12, Diaz began to explore the sensitive side she sees in her mother, appearing in student plays in a city arts center. She became an old movie fan, soaking up the great performances of actresses such as Bette Davis.
"I love her in 'All About Eve,' " Diaz says. "She's a total bitch."
NYU film student
Upon graduation from the Professional Performing Arts high school, Diaz enrolled in a filmmaking program at New York University. "I don't know how I got in with 860 on my SATs," she admits, adding sassily: "Affirmative action, baby."
She has a year and a half left to complete her degree. "I also failed some classes, like the history of Western art, because I couldn't remember dates," she admits.
Her approach to her craft is more organic than scholarly. "I am not a Method actor. I don't know how to build a character," Diaz says at a late-night "Hamlet 2" party, a glass of white wine in one hand, a tumbler of ice water sensibly parked nearby on the bar.
"It's a little conceited to say you are natural, but that's what people have said about my performances," she notes, watching her cast mates dance to the thump of Timbaland and Rihanna. "I can only justify it by saying I am playing a part of myself."
And with that, this year's Queen of Sundance hits the dance floor, just another New York City girl hanging out with her friends.
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