Algenis Pérez Soto never anticipated a career in acting.
As recently as two years ago, the Dominican native still harbored dreams of training at one of his country’s numerous baseball academies and earning a lucrative ticket to the big leagues, where so many of his countrymen had become high-priced stars. Realizing the odds were stacked against him, Soto had given up the game as a full-time pursuit at 20, but it didn’t take him too long to find a new avenue to fame – as the star of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s absorbing new drama, Sugar.
Boden and Fleck, who previously co-wrote Half Nelson, their harrowing account of a crack-addicted schoolteacher’s unlikely friendship with a 13-year-old student, auditioned more than 600 actors in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic to find an actor with the physical presence and on-screen charisma to play Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a Dominican pitcher struggling to adjust to the life of a minor leaguer in rural Iowa.
“If we found someone interesting, we’d bring him in for a callback to read from the script,” says Boden, whose latest drew raves at last year’s Sundance. “A lot of them had no idea what they were doing, but their coach or manager had told them to come. Some of them thought they were going to be on PBS.
“We got really lucky and we found some amazing young people who were just so natural and fun to work with.”
Boden and Fleck were convinced that Soto, now 25 and living near family in Boston, could best use his own experiences in baseball to capture the essence of a character hungry for big-league success and the opportunity to rescue his family from poverty. For his part, Soto, who picked up much of his English during filming, calls his unexpected break “a godsend,” and hopes his performance in Sugar will lead to future successes on screen.
On traveling extensively in the U.S. to promote Sugar:
“It’s really nice to be flying around all over the country, and it’s a very new experience for me. I’ve never traveled very much before. In Boston I was able to visit Fenway Park, and when I went to Oakland a man from the A’s invited me to a game and allowed me to go down to the field to speak with the players. That was a first for me.
“Since Sundance, I’ve had do to hundreds of interviews and even during filming my knowledge of English was very basic, so I’ve been practicing that a lot. That is a challenge for me, but I’ve been happy to do it.”
On baseball, and the athletes who inspired him during his playing days:
“Baseball is the most important sport in [my] country. Everyone wants to play baseball. Every father wants his children to have a chance to be the next Sammy Sosa or Pedro Martínez. It’s a sport that can change your life in one day.
“The players I watched most were Alex Rodríguez and Alfonso Soriano, who is from my hometown. But unlike Alfonso Soriano, I was never in an academy when I was a baseball player. Being in the movie, I’ve met a lot of important people, like [former major leaguers] José Rijo and José Cano. When I was in Santo Domingo, I met David Ortiz from the Red Sox, and he was very nice to me. That kind of thing didn’t happen when I was a baseball player, but it’s happening now.”
On Boden and Fleck’s decision to cast him as Miguel Santos:
“When I was talking to Anna and Ryan the first time, I told them that I’m not an actor, so if something goes wrong it’s not my fault. They said that was OK, that they weren’t looking for someone experienced to play the part. They said they could see in me the character they had written, and that I was their first pick for the role. But other than that, I really don’t know what it was they saw.”
On his ability to identify with Santos’ aspirations to baseball greatness:
“I identified with him, not because I was necessarily like him, but because when you’re from the Dominican Republic, even if you don’t play baseball yourself, you know someone who does, who plays in the junior leagues and wants to go pro.
“I wanted to myself. My character goes to the U.S. and plays in the minor leagues, and I never did that, but I played baseball constantly from the time I was 9 until I was 19, 20. Now I just play during the summer. I’m not trying to be a player anymore. But I want to take acting lessons, work on my English and see what I can do with this new career. I’d love to make more movies. I never expected any of this, but it’s really cool, and I would like to keep doing it.”
Sugar is now playing at the Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco and the Elmwood Rialto Cinemas in Berkeley.