Israel Lugo’s PICANDO ALANTE was released last year to huge success, earning the Best National Film Award at the Puerto Rico Film Festival. Billed as a black comedy, PICANDO ALANTE (Spanish for AHEAD OF THE COMPETITION) tackles the complications of opening a family-owned business in the marijuana industry (currently, only medical marijuana is legalized in Puerto Rico). Marysol (Marisé Álvarez), a college student who grows her own weed, proposes to her family an opportunity to get out of their financial rut and start their own cannabis enterprise. Of course, opening a business doesn’t come easy and family affairs don’t quite alleviate the tension.
Personally, I’m a sucker for family-concerted efforts and it’s not an exaggeration for me to say that I was grinning from ear to ear by the first scene. One of PICANDO ALANTE‘s strongest attributes is the consistent talent spread across the cast. Whether they are folded into the plan with good or bad intentions, each character earns their screen time with a perfect pitch. You can place this same cast in The Office, Succession, or even a Planet Earth episode and I truly believe they would know how to bring the best comedic grammar out of each situation. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise to share that this film and most of the cast are part of a San Juan-based comedy troupe, Teatro Breve, which has been performing for over a decade. (Their skits are available on YouTube; I recommend this banger for starters.)
It also shouldn’t be a surprise that PICANDO ALANTE will premiere in Boston on Thursday, 4/20. Ahead of the beloved holiday, we spoke with actresses Lucienne Hernandez (who plays Vivian, a dangerous drug dealer/racehorse breeder that gets involved with the family business) and Lourdes Quiñones (who plays Wanda, the sister of Marysol who carries a hustle mentality but is prone to emotional outbursts) about marijuana in Puerto Rico and their characters. We also discuss the movie’s biggest spoiler, which is where all the characters die in a shootout. (All spoilers will be presented in white text – highlight with your cursor to reveal). The conversation has been edited for clarity and flow.
BOSTON HASSLE: How did you both become involved with the film?
LUCIENNE HERNANDEZ: It’s part of a comedy troupe that we’ve been working for — it’s going to be 17 years in May. It was a play first and then the opportunity came to the producers and director, who were interested in doing the film. They then adapted it with another script writer.
BH: The actor who played Roli co-write the script, right?
LH: Yes, Mikephillips Oliveros. He wrote the play.
BH: Were both of you part of the play?
LOURDES QUIÑONES: I was involved in the play. Lucienne, you were on maternity leave.
LH: I just had my daughter so I wasn’t in the play. Then, when they started writing the story, they came up with my character. The story with the horses and all of that, that wasn’t in the play.
BH: Both of you play characters with very strong personalities. How did it feel to bring those characters to life?
LQ: In my case, I was really pleased to have the opportunity to interpret Wanda because sometimes I get the stereotypical mommy characters and this was out of my typical acting range. The character is stereotypical here in Puerto Rico. There’s a term called yal, which is a girl from the hood who is very determined and has a very driven attitude. For me, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to explore that different kind of energy. It’s very different from who I am and where I come from. And she’s a troublemaker in the movie, so I was pleased to have that character since there are comedic opportunities.
LH: I’m mostly a comedian, so that’s my go-to all the time for characters. I was kinda heading that way, but Israel Lugo, the director, he wanted me to go in another direction. He sat down with me and he wanted me to not make the stereotype of a butch lesbian. Even though she’s a badass, he wanted me to go deep even though it’s a small part. He worked with me to go in another way and said, “Let’s do this super serious. This is not comedy. Let’s forget the comedy.” I enjoyed it very much and it was out of my comfort zone, which was great. When I saw the ending, I was like, “What are we doing? You know, we’re doing this super seriously but we’re also doing comedy?” But I wanted to have fun with it and I was very proud of the work.
BH: I liked the subtle flirting that Vivian has with Marysol. She comes off tough but you can see that she has a soft spot for something, which makes her not seem so scary. Did you see Vivian as a villain in the story?
LH: Not really. She was part of this subculture in Puerto Rico that I’m not a part of, but I saw her as someone that’s just in her world. She was a villain to (the father Ele) since he was scared of her. She doesn’t see herself as the villain. It’s just another day of the job.
BH: Lourdes, your character is involved with Tebo (played by fellow troupe actor Luis Gonzaga), a police officer. Having his character be part of this business makes it complicated. Can you explain the choice in his involvement?
LQ: I feel that it’s a commentary about how things work in Puerto Rico. I think we still live in a kind of pirate culture sometimes where you ask, “Why do we have stuff that’s not equal?” It’s part of the struggle. He was complicated, but (Wanda and Tebo) grew up together. They were like family and then he decided to take a career as a policeman. At the end, she was just trying to get to her purpose in life, so it almost doesn’t matter if he was going to help them. His character has this divided loyalty, where he kinda felt part of the family but also to his career. Over here, when things are done under the table, we justify it a little bit as a way of surviving. It doesn’t harm anyone. I feel that the character was multidimensional of a police officer in Puerto Rico that turns a blind eye because of loyalty.
BH: We’re introduced to some of the characters by how they make money: Marysol with selling marijuana, Wanda with her breast milk, the father on betting racehorses. The father is initially against opening the business when Marysol proposes the idea. How does the older generation see the marijuana business?
LQ: It depends on the older generation. Over here in Puerto Rico, religion can determine moral standards and what’s good and bad. But people who don’t have that background can accept it. Many people over here don’t consider marijuana as a drug, and with that mindset, it can be acceptable either way. I feel that that’s in the movie, like you can bend your boundaries that marijuana is not a drug.
LH: The play was written in 2014, when it wasn’t even legally medicalized. As time went on, it became legal, and the team felt a kind of rush. A question we had was, “Is there still something that we want to talk about? Now it’s legal, does the movie feel dated in that way?”
BH: I think that question is interesting, because though it’s legal in Massachusetts and we have a lot of dispensaries, there are questions on who benefits from it. I was wondering what the conversation in Puerto Rico is like in terms of where it’s heading towards legalization of recreational use and how people feel about it?
LQ: For the people who had the illegal business before it became medical, it’s an issue. I feel that the real potheads (laughs) that use it recreationally have a resistance to medical use. The law is kinda weird, like you can medically use the flower but you cannot smoke it. You have to bake it and all this legal stuff. I feel like the real ones that consume marijuana for years and have been growing when it was illegal don’t have the opportunity to cross over to the legal part. It’s offensive (that) it’s regulated, especially if you have (criminal) records. People feel like the system’s hopeless.
LH: Then of course, there’s the corruption of who gets the permits and who doesn’t, which is what happens to Marysol. That was an issue that we also wanted to talk about because it’s true. Even if you have the money, who gets the permits? Is it families of the senators who are getting the departments approved? Probably not something very far from what’s going in the States. There were all these dispensaries and then now they’re a bunch of them closing because there was one in each corner.
BH: There’s so much comedic relief between the characters, but when you get to the end, it gets really dark. Lucienne, I know you mentioned that you kinda felt like “What’s happening?” about the ending. Did you feel like this reflects reality in terms of people who wanted to start these businesses?
LH: No, I feel that marijuana was an excuse to talk about family. They could be opening any kind of business and it’s how families in small places like Puerto Rico kinda go their own way. But if there’s any issue where someone needs help or something, even though we’re bickering, we’re coming out as strong people.
BH: Are there any stories you’d like to share about working on set?
LQ: Well, that last scene for me, we became that family struggling with heat, no sleep, sleeping together in a small bed, waiting for our turn. It was a low budget film, so the last scene was just one shot that we had to make it good. For me, that was a very special moment that we all felt we are in this. We felt like the family trying to fight against something bigger. In the movie, we all die, but during the movie, we had all the manifestations that we could do it together, which is the part that (my character) didn’t want to do because she could have ran away. I remember when we were doing promo for the movie, someone from social media asked if we had bloopers from the movies.
BH: I could imagine that ending having a lot of bloopers. You came out with that shotgun.
LQ: I remember I felt empowered.
LH: We didn’t have money for bloopers. It was overnight, and the sun was starting to come out. All the technicians and gaffers started to put sound blankets on the window. It was stressful. We’re a comedy troupe, so we’re always goofing around. But strangely, when we started filming, we were all serious and the director was like, “We’re friends and if you’re not shooting, you can hang around.” But when he was trying to shoot, you had to do what you had to do.
LQ: I remember we were ready. Our call was really early, but I remember my turn was at 3am. I was sleepy, I felt like I had bad breath, and they were like, “It’s your turn!” I was like, “Come on.” (laughs)
dir. Israel Lugo
Screening at the Arlington Street Church at 7pm, 4/20!
Presented by Ágora Cultural Architects