Director Patricia Riggen and Cierra Ramirez talk “Girl in Progress”

Eva Mendes and Cierra Ramirez in Girl in Progress, in theaters May 11, 2012

Girl in Progress is the story of a young, single mother struggling to raise her rebellious teenage daughter. As Grace, played by Eva Mendes (Hitch, Last Night), juggles work, bills and an affair with a married man, Ansiedad, played by native Houstonian Cierra Ramirez (The Suite Life of Zack and Cody), plots a shortcut to adulthood inspired by the coming-of-age stories she’s reading for high school.

Director Patricia Riggen (La Misma Luna, Lemonade Mouth) and Cierra Ramirez were kind enough to grant La Prensa de Houston an interview about their new film.

AG: Cierra, how does it feel to be back in Houston?
CR: It’s great. I actually got to, you know, squeeze in some time to see some family and some friends, which is nice, because I’m relocating over to Los Angeles, so I’m not going to be able to see them as much. I keep in touch through texting, but it was nice to see them.

AG: Can you all tell me a little bit about how this project came together and how you all got involved?
PR: Girl in Progress is a movie about moms and daughters. I made a previous movie that was called “Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna),” that was about a mother and son that were separated, and I saw something in this movie that was a little bit of a follow-up to that, which is a mother and a daughter that, even if they’re living in the same house, they’re still separated. It’s a very common theme with teenagers and their mothers, their parents, competing relationships, but I think under everything there’s love. I was very interested in that. That’s why I decided to direct the movie. I was very lucky to find Cierra Ramirez. I think she’s an absolute star. She’s an amazing actress; it’s a very complex character. Not very many people could do it. She’s beautiful, she’s charismatic, and she’s an amazing performer, you’ll see. There’s no question about, you know, her star power in this movie. So I’m very excited to let the world see her. She plays the daughter of a single mom, a young single mom, Eva Mendes. Eva is…I think she did a very brave and amazing performance, something that she hasn’t done before, a very real, realistic character. She’s funny, she’s moving, and it’s just a side of Eva Mendes that we haven’t seen. Then, this movie, I think, has a characteristic that we haven’t really seen in movies before, which is that we combine a Hollywood cast with a Hispanic cast, all in one movie. Normally there’s like the American movie with the American cast and the Hispanic movie with the Hispanic cast. Here we have Matthew Modine, who is starring in the new Batman movie and has done amazing movies with the top directors of the world, and Patricia Arquette. Together with Eugenio Derbez and Espinoza Paz, it’s a very organic movie. It’s not two movies. It’s really just what our society is, just represents it. And then Eva, who as a single mom is struggling to put food [on the table], pay rent, pay for the school of her daughter, and in a way, the fact that she’s so young, she’s still looking for herself and who she is and doesn’t know how to be a mom. It’s a very common theme in single moms in our country and in our community. Then there is the young, smart, precocious daughter who is really seeking attention from her mom. She’s trying different ways and decides that the only way is to grow and leave. Therefore, she stages her own coming of age story, which is what the movie is about.

Ramirez and Eugenio Derbez sharing a scene in Girl in Progress

AG: Cierra, how did you get involved, and do you have any sort of personal connection to your character and/or this story?
CR: I do, and I feel like anyone can really relate to Ansiedad as a person. Everyone wants to kind of know that they’re loved, you know? That’s what I really love about this character, how far she went to know that her mom loved her and to get her mom to love her. I can relate to Ansiedad in the sense that I, too, am a girl in progress. I’m a teenager, I’m growing, and I’m actually going through my own coming-of-age story. Not as extreme as hers, exactly, but I’m growing and I’m learning. Any human wants to know that they’re loved, so anyone can really relate to her.

AG: Going back to the cast – you said that it’s a Hollywood cast as well as a Hispanic cast. How did you go about bringing them all together?
PR: Well, I think, you know, the script was fabulous. It’s very interesting, very original, and I think they all just wanted to be part of it. I’m Mexican, I live here, so I’m really part of both cultures. I know who Espinoza Paz is and who Matthew Modine is. I’m able to bring those two realities together.

AG: So you said it’s a story about a mother and a daughter and it is a very common theme in young, single mothers to struggle to find themselves, struggle to pay the rent, etc. What do you think it is that makes this story different with her being a Hispanic single mother? What kind of shifts there?
PR: Well the movie is very original, because it plays on the theme of the coming-of-age story. The character of Cierra learns about coming-of-age stories in school, you know, in English class, and decides that she’s going to stage her own coming-of-age [story]. So we’re playing with the genre. At the same time, I think every one of the characters in this movie goes through their own coming-of-age story. At the end of the day, we’re all changing. Everyone is always changing, and if the change is for good, it’s a good thing. That’s a little bit of what the movie is about also. In regards to the Cierra character, it touches on a special theme in our community, which is teen pregnancy. At the same time of having made a very entertaining and fun movie, underneath that, we’re really exploring an important subject and matter that deserves our attention.

AG: You’re going through your own coming-of-age story, like you said, and having started out so young in this business, you’ve worked with so many big names at the age of 17, I believe? What has it been like to work alongside these big names, and what have you learned from them?
CR: Going into the movie, I was intimidated – like anyone would be – but right away, they made me feel right as their equal. It was a great learning process, and I came out knowing so much more than I ever had about acting in general. They helped me, every single one of them, cast and crew. They all kind of helped me grow with this character and become what she is today.

AG: Both of you having taken part in this movie together, now that Hispanics are becoming the majority minority in the U.S., how important do you think it is that a film like this is out there?
PR: I mean, what’s more important is that we as an audience respond to these films, because as Hispanics, we are the number one and we have the power of the number and of the ticket. If we go out and support this movie – especially because it’s a good movie, I would never ask someone to support a bad movie, I’m against bad movies – but if it’s a good movie, we need to go out and watch it. If we do, we can make the next one and the next one and the next one. We can make movies with the characters we love with the stars we love with the themes we love. There can be more movies for our community. Otherwise, we make them every four years. I think it’s really important that Mother’s Day Weekend, the Latino community, the females in general, come out and support a movie that’s about them and for them. It’s fun, it’s a Hollywood movie, but it has a little extra that the other movies don’t have. By the way, I think it’s the perfect gift for Mother’s Day. It’s so much about moms and daughters. There’s nothing else that’s coming out on that weekend that has anything to do with that subject matter.

Ramirez and Mendes share a mother-daughter moment in the film

AG: Another…well, not minority, but another group that is really being focused on in film is women.  There are so many movies now – ever since Bridesmaids, I feel like – that are really centered on these strong, female characters. What was it like being one of these characters and working with Eva Mendes who is one of these characters also?
CR: It was a great experience, especially because it was my first film. It was great to be working with such a great cast and crew and Patricia. I love the fact that, you know, Eva and I, we can hold a movie. You know, it just has a great outcome, and I hope people think the same.

AG: Both of you being Hispanics, what advice can you give our readers for anyone that wants to go into acting or wants to go into film-making?
PR: The doors are open, and they should never not try if they want to do it. It’s getting better and better, particularly if we go see the movie! But it’s true, we are in progress, too, film in progress, Latin cinema in progress, female cinema in progress. They should never stop, they should try it. It’s possible. Like Cierra, she’s from Houston, she’s right here. She made a little clip, sent it out, and she got cast with Eva Mendes, Matthew Modine, and Patricia Arquette is her teacher. She has her scene with Eugenio also, so it’s possible if you work hard and believe in yourself. Don’t take no for an answer.
CR: I agree with everything she said. I truly believe that, you know, society is taking this in more. I don’t know how to word that, but I love that Latin people can hold a film now. It’s being accepted more in society. So I believe, like she said, that you should never stop. It’s always going to be there, and if it’s really what people want, they should never stop trying.

AG: Do you all have any last words for the readers about the film or about yourselves?
PR: I think that it’s really a family movie, you can go with the whole family. It’s a movie that provokes communication and has a good message. At the same time, it’s fun and entertaining, so it’s a good combination. I think there’s a huge discovery to make in Cierra Ramirez in it, and also that other side of Eva Mendes which we haven’t seen. There’s a little bit for everyone. If you guys know Espinoza Paz, you’ll also find him in there singing three very great songs.
CR: I think it’s just a great bonding experience all together, because I’ve spoken to people about this movie and about the topics and everything, and I’ve met so many people. Any race, anyone, can really relate to this character, and it’s a topic that anyone can go through. I feel that mothers and daughters, it’s a great experience to have together watching this movie.

You can catch Girl in Progress in theaters on May 11, 2012.

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