With his latest film, Alita: Battle Angel out today, we look back at our Jorge Lendeborg Jr. feature from the 2018 HERO Winter Annual, in which the Dominican-born actor tells us about his all-or-nothing move to LA, his love of basketball and working with James Cameron’s CGI toys for Robert Rodriguez’ latest big-studio epic.
Usually, it would be hyperbole to say that an actor is about to explode onto screens, but by taking the male lead in this December’s Bumblebee – the latest instalment in Hollywood’s massively profitable Transformers franchise – Jorge Lendeborg Jr. will become a household name by default.
Talent got him the role in the first place, his first film after moving from the Dominican Republic to Los Angeles (with a list of things to do to become a successful actor) was in The Land, a gritty indie that premiered at Sundance in 2016. Earlier this year came Love, Simon, and then, next February, James Cameron will fire up the same technology that produced Avatar (plus ten years of upgrades) for the Robert Rodriguez-directed Alita: Battle Angel, a post-apocalyptic journey of self-discovery. The film is set to thrust the actor further under the watchful eyes of Hollywood’s casting elite, who are busy shaping the next generation of leading men. It will be a big year for the 22-year-old, who sets his goals high and is on track to achieving them all.
James West: So what are you doing today?
Jorge Lendeborg Jr.: Hanging out bro, you know, it’s Tuesday. Doing Tuesday things [laughs]. Watching the rest of the basketball games I didn’t watch yesterday,
James: So how did you come so far so fast? How did it start?
Jorge: I always loved movies. My Dad was a really big film advocate and he would show me great films. He’d say, “You’ve got to watch movies that are on top of film history, like Citizen Kane or Casablanca or The Godfather. I started with that when I was eight-years-old. I remember Goodfellas broke me into loving movies, because I was born in the Dominican Republic, and in that film I saw wise guys who were shunned in America, but were still making their dreams happen, I really related to that. One day I picked up acting, I just always liked trying things, you know? I played saxophone and guitar for a month and stuff like that. But then I fell on acting and I really, really enjoyed it. And then obviously since I already loved movies, I said “Aite, I’ll just be a film actor!” [laughs]
James: [Laughs] Why not? Was your Dad just a film fan or was he involved in the industry?
Jorge: He worked on some of the cable channels in the Dominican Republic, he was one of the producers, so he definitely had a feel for the industry. He made movies back in the 90s, one of the first movies in the Dominican market. He never really pushed me to be an actor though.
James: Were there any other movies that you watched that made a big impression?
Jorge: Drive, by Nicolas Winding Refn, that’s definitely a big one. I was a little older I think, fourteen, maybe fifteen. It was just awesome, that introduced me to noir. It was so powerful, I was really blown away. I love going into movies and not seeing a trailer all the way, and when I saw Drive I hadn’t seen [the whole trailer], so the film itself was my first impression – that was really special. Taxi Driver was a really big one for me too – I was a big Scorsese buff.
James: So where do you live now?
Jorge: In Los Angeles. I moved right after high school, I packed up my bag and I told my parents, “Imma go and try to be an actor,” and they were like, “Cool.”
“I packed up my bag and I told my parents, “Imma go and try to be an actor,” and they were like, “Cool.””
James: [Laughs] Bye-ee! Did you have any connections in LA or you literally just left and tried to get lucky?
Jorge: I came and I just said to myself, “I’m gonna try and get an agent.” I had a list of things to do. Getting an agent is impossible when you’ve never worked and you’re just there going, “Hey, do you want to represent me?” I just came out here and hustled. I decided I needed to meet people, so I got into the stand-up comedy scene, doing open-mic, just to be performing. That kept me in practice for the first year ‘til I booked my first job.
James: There must be millions of kids moving to LA with that dream, how did you convince an agent to take you on in the first place?
Jorge: I don’t know, my boyish good looks! They definitely took a chance on me.
James: I was talking to Jermaine Fowler recently, who’s in Sorry To Bother You and he did stand-up for years before acting.
Jorge: I love Jermaine Fowler, I met him – he’s really great, he did a show and then I talked to him after. I don’t know if he remembers, this was years and years ago, but he’s always been a good guy, for sure. Shout out Jermaine Fowler!
James: He said that stand-up really helped with the confidence to deliver lines and wait for the natural pauses, wait for reactions…
Jorge: Absolutely, it definitely helped develop my voice and my performance ability, more so than, let’s say a shitty acting class, you know? Because sometimes you move out here, you want to get into an acting class but you don’t know who’s good and who’s bad, and then you could be learning bad habits. One thing I miss with acting [compared with stand-up], or at least, maybe, because I’m relatively new, I haven’t tried so much yet… is pushing that boundary. I’m still learning what I can get away with. In my first film The Land there was probably more freedom than I thought, but since it was my first one I had no idea so I just stuck to the script, I was very minimal, I was like, “I’m not going to fuck this up.” That was directed by Steven Caple Jr., who’s doing Creed II now so, you know, he’s making it. It’s really intense your first time on set, and you just want to do a good job. But now that I’ve manoeuvred through big studio films and small indies I feel comfortable heading into this next chapter of my acting with added confidence. I got very lucky when they cast me as the male lead in Bumblebee [part of the Transformers franchise] I feel like I’ve worked with great people, and now I feel like my opinion means something. I’m very much in the mood for collaborating instead of being an actor for hire. Although everything is a collaboration, I definitely want to stretch more – I want to be closer to those actors that I look up to, like Robert Downey Jr., or Tom Cruise. Sometimes it feels like some actors are just playing for an audience, but I think more important than that is making sure they leave with a great story. And that’s definitely something I’ve been trying to hammer into myself this year. I worked recently, but before that, I didn’t work from November 2017 to October 2018, almost a full year. That was the biggest break I ever had, so I took some time to reflect.
James: Does that feel healthy, to reflect and plan the next move, or does it feel a little bit like, I should be doing something right now?
Jorge: It’s definitely both, but a lot more of the second one!
James: The panic!
Jorge: I’ve never been more anxious in my life, and it’s crazy because now’s the time when I’m getting interviews for magazines and toying with Bumblebee, but this was definitely the scariest year in acting. It’s like, “I did some big movies but now what? How can I top this?”
James: It’s a standard rite of passage I think, especially if you’ve not been doing it since you were three-years-old or whatever. You have a couple of good projects but then people need to see them, and that period between filming and release is a killer. It must be daunting.
Jorge: Yeah, it’s fucking tough, it’s awful [laughs]. I definitely feel like that. Hopefully people like my next couple of movies. People tell you that you’ll be fine, like, “Let the movies come out and you’ll be good,” but you know, I don’t know if it’s how I was raised or just my perspective, but it’s always hard to believe. I don’t like believing things until they’re right in front of me.
James: From the outside it looks like you’ve been in two movies this year, but for you that might only be two weeks somewhere and then three months somewhere else and that’s it. You feel like you should be on set every day but that’s not the reality of it, I suppose.
Jorge: Uh-huh, dude, you got it. Right on the fucking nail, that’s what it’s like.
James: So The Land was your first film, did you audition for it?
Jorge: When you have no work, it’s not like you’re getting an audition every two or three days. I’d get maybe two auditions a month, and when I got maybe eight or nine months in with my first agency, this project came in. What I really liked about the character was that it was a guy whose only dream was to move to Los Angeles, and obviously a lot of people can relate to that but I knew exactly where he was coming from, it was a script that I was like, “OK”. Also the main guy was a skateboarder and I skateboarded for four years. So I was like, “I’m built for this, I know how to skateboard, I know what it’s like to want to move to Los Angeles, check, let’s go.” So I went into the audition, I read my two scenes and when I was done, I noticed I’d been in the room twice as long as everybody else. He was like, “Hey, read these two more scenes and then come back in.” So I was like, “What, tomorrow?” and he said, “No, today. Just go out, I’ll have more people come in and then when you’re ready, come back.” I was like, “Oh wow, this is really good.” Then they called me two weeks later for a callback. I really took it like it was absolutely for me. In fact, after that first audition I bought myself a pair of shoes.
James: You were that confident.
Jorge: Yeah, I knew I got it. I went out across the street and bought a pair of Nike Cortez.
James: [laughs] How did the reality of filming turn out compared to your expectations?
Jorge: Looking back, it’s probably still right at the top of my film experiences. I don’t think I had any expectations, I don’t know. When I went in I was so anxious I feel like it kind of passed me by a little bit. I just said, “I need to do my very best.” So I’d be like, let me sleep on the couch and be uncomfortable, my version of method acting, like oh, this guy sleeps in a hard space… I was just so focused on doing a good job. As soon as I was done with that I booked another small movie called Shot, which I don’t think aired anywhere, but I was just happy to be acting and picking up some more reps in order to strengthen my acting ability. After that I met Mosaic Management, which are the people who represent me now. They saw what I did in The Land, which also got into Sundance.
“Basically all the technology that was used for Avatar, James Cameron brought in for this. In fact, Alita: Battle Angel is the movie he wanted to do before Avatar, but the technology wasn’t there yet.”
James: Did your new management change things up a gear?
Jorge: Absolutely. Stage one was me just trying to book work and be good, then stage two was like, alright, now I’m in the game, I want to do big movies. I like big movies. So I booked this movie called Brigsby Bear, it was a small one but it had a cast from Saturday Night Live, like Andy Samberg, Kyle Mooney and those guys. That was a lot of fun… The director Dave [McCary] told us to make it our own and not worry too much about the words, unless it was plot-specific. It was the first time I’d done comedy, and I really enjoyed it. So after that I got into SpiderMan: Homecoming, a little bit-part, that was fun, it was the first time I was able to see a big studio set. They used cranes and like 1,000 extras, that was cool. Actually I did Spider-Man and then I did Brigsby Bear. The great thing about Spider-Man was, at the first dinner with the director, he was like, “Hey, when I asked around everyone said that you were really good to work with. The reason we stopped pursuing other actors was because people said they didn’t like them.” So he was like, “Just remember, people like working with good people.” That was a big lesson, for sure. The crazy thing is that the people who wanted those parts were definitely, even now, much more famous than me. So that was a nice thing to hear. From there, I did Alita: Battle Angel. Now that was fun.
James: When is that coming out? It keeps getting moved back.
Jorge: It was meant to be this summer, then it was meant to be this Christmas, and now it’s going to be in March 2019. I’ve been dying to see this shit, because, first of all, Robert Rodriguez is my hero.
James: That must have been really great to work on.
Jorge: The best. Look, he plays guitar and shit, he’s like, “Hey mannn.” He’s special. And to have a script written by fucking James Cameron. That was one of the funnest filming experiences I’ve ever had.
James: Is it a mix of CGI and real life? How was it even shot, was there a lot of green screen?
Jorge: Not really green screen except for when it was absolutely needed. We got these IMAX 3D cameras that were the size of an old film camera, and then we had like 70 cameras setting up the whole atmosphere, so then it could mapped out in CGI and made to look bigger. Basically all the technology that was used for Avatar, James Cameron brought in for this. In fact, Alita: Battle Angel is the movie he wanted to do before Avatar, but the technology wasn’t there yet.
James: Did all that technology slow everything down?
Jorge: Honestly, Alita: Battle Angel was pretty fast. Robert Rodriguez is notorious for knowing exactly what he wants and going right after it. With big studio movies, usually it feels like the pace definitely slows down a bit. But with Alita: Battle Angel, Robert – he was definitely the most seasoned director out of all the big studio sets that I’ve been on – he just knew exactly what to get into. I’m dying to see it, I feel like I gave a great performance but I could just be talking outta my ass!
James: Love, Simon was an interesting moment that got a great response.
Jorge: That was a great film. It was the cast I bonded with the most. With The Land everyone was really nice, but I was the one being weird since it was my first movie. By the time I did Love, Simon I’d been on a couple of sets, and working with Nick Robinson, who is someone who I was like, “Wow, look at where he’s at in his career,” – being his peer and his best friend in the movie was dope. Katherine [Langford], who was right in the middle of all that 13 Reasons Why success, and Alexandra Shipp. Being in that movie was special for me, because it showed me that I’d been working hard, and now I’m here with some of the people who are at the top of their game for my age.
James: What did you learn from those guys?
Jorge: Just watching the way everyone tackles their lines. You know, you read the script and you always think, “OK, so this is how this character is going to be.” But obviously these guys are very special talents and seeing how they take their own characters… it showed why they were where they were, if that makes sense.
James: So what do you want to communicate to people with your work?
Jorge: I want to tell stories about people with dreams, for sure. I want to make stories that don’t pander but they make people feel, you know? Watching movies like A Star is Born and Mid90s, they show how special film is. I remember how amazing it was to go to the theatre with my family and I want to make stories that are worth the ticket. Movies bring people together, they let people take away their biases.