American Dreaming

American Dreaming

by Matt Caputo/

On a hot summer day in Manhattan, a 14-year-old Victor Rasuk literally stumbled upon an acting career on the streets of New York City’s Lower East Side. He approached a group of NYU students, including Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist director Peter Sollet, and asked if he could be in the film they were shooting in Thompson Square Park. Floored by his personality and already rugged style, the young filmmakers tapped the wide-eyed teen to appear in several of their short films. Leaning over a quiet table at The Bowery Hotel’s Gemma restaurant for lunch –during this afternoon in March, in the NOHO section of Manhattan– Rasuk, who stars as Cam Calderon on the HBO hit series How to Make It In America, recalls an early life more destine for infamy than acclaim.

“I got kicked out of one high school for bringing a blade, I was still going through a phase where I thought I was a little gang banger,” the 26-year-old admits. “I was doing shit with gangs and stuff in New York. I don’t want to get into detail…but I saw that, I was starting to fuck up and let my Mom down.”

Rasuk hustled his way on stage and screen via infinite charisma and willingness to develop the actor inside of him, rather than the criminal. Born to Dominican parents –Victor’s mother is a retired seamstress and father’s an auto-body technician– the young thespian was cast as the lead in Sollet’s Five Feet High and Rising, a short film about a 12-year-old boy from the L.E.S, that won the grand prize for shorts at the Sundance Film Festival. Two years later, Sollett, expanded the film to feature-length, Raising Victor Vargas, and Rasuk earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his efforts. Rasuk says even after the success of the film, he wasn’t really considering a future in the trade.

“When we went to Sundance and Cannes, I didn’t even know what the fuck Sundance and Cannes was. I figured acting was just another phase I was going through,” Rasuk says, in between forkfuls of arugula. “But when I was 16, I finally ended up at Professional Performing Arts High School and that kind of saved my life. I decided to take acting serious and the first step was to go to a high school that specialized in that.”

In one of the few public schools in the city hamstrung with space issues, Rasuk found his way among other talented kids (alma mater of Alicia Keys) and polished his act. Since high school, he’s appeared on Law & Order and E.R., and landed a lead roles in films like 2005’s The Lords of Dogtown, as legendary skateboarder Tony Avala, and starred opposite Benecio Del Torro in the 2008 Steven Soderbergh-directed Che: Part One.

Although Rasuk has lived in Los Angeles for the last five years, he hasn’t been able to shake his distinctive New York style. In early 2010, Rasuk starred as the street-wise Calderon on HBO’s How to Make it in America, a story of three Manhattan friends and their quest to form a trendy t-shirt company. The role shined a light on Rasuk’s strength’s as an actor and introduced him to one of television’s most attentive audiences. Now, here’s how he was able to make it in America.

Urban Latino: What was growing up like for you in the Big Apple?

Victor Rasuk: I was born in Harlem and spent three years in Washington Heights. I mostly grew up in the Lower East Side. I went to P.S. 34 then and it was considered the best public school, but now it’s the worst. When I got older I got kicked out of a few high schools because I thought I was tough.

Urban Latino: So, how did you get into acting?

Victor Rasuk: My story is not like a lot of other people’s. I was 14 and there was nothing to do in the neighborhood and I saw a bunch of NYU students shooting their thesis or whatever in Thompson Square Park. I was like “Yo, can I be in your movie?” They used a lot of their classmates, so I looked different from them. I gave them my number and they called me and I was in all of their short films. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, but I was intrigued enough to be in them. One of the students happened to be Peter Sollett, who directed Raising Victor Vargas and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. We did a short film together called Five Feet High and Rising and it won Sundance and Cannes in the same year. It gave Peter the opportunity to write Raising Victor Vargas.

Urban Latino: What was that period like for a kid raised in LES?

Victor Rasuk: Peter Sollett is like a second Dad to me. I only knew Sundance and Cannes were an amazing thing based on his reactions to them. He was happy to the point of where he was in tears and I thought, “Ok, this was a good thing.” When the film came out, I was still going through a phase where I was still trying to be Mr. Gang Banger. I was actually slowly getting away from acting. When we won those awards, I was really trying to find myself. 

Urban Latino: What made you audition for the Performing Arts High School in Manhattan like?

Victor Rasuk: My mom is a retired seamstress and she spent a lot of time at home. My Dad is an auto body guy; he fixes up the exteriors of cars. He lives in the Dominican Republic. I have a brother –he also played my little brother in Raising Victor Vargas– and I have two younger sisters. My mother’s the closest person to me, so I decided to really take acting seriously. The first step was to go to the right school. In an era in New York where kids had class in the bathrooms, this was one of the few schools that wasn’t overcrowded.

Urban Latino: What kind of actors inspired you growing up?

Victor Rasuk: I was into the usual suspects, like Pacino and De Niro. What caught my attention was how New York characters were shot and portrayed in the 1970’s. That was what really got me. I loved the work that those guys did. I love Dustin Hoffman. I love Mean Streets, and I think my character on How to Make It In America is a little like Johnny Boy.

Urban Latino: How special was Raising Victor Vargas to you?

Victor Rasuk: That whole phase with Raising Victor Vargas, I felt like I was on a cloud. Funny story, when the movie was at Cannes, I almost didn’t go to the screening because I was crying my eyes out in the bathroom. Peter talked to me and told me to breathe. I was very nervous.

Urban Latino: Do you consider yourself a method actor?

Victor Rasuk: In How to Make it in America, I didn’t have to do much of that. In, Lords of Dogtown, where I played Tony Alva, he’s a huge character and ego to be around. To sort of embody that was overwhelming; to shake that character off was tough. I do it, but you learn as you get older, how to conserve your energy. You have to know how much energy you want to devote to the character after they scream, “cut!”

Urban Latino: On HBO’s How to Make it in America, you work with some great talent. In particular, how was it working with Kid Cudi, being that he’s a rapper-turned-actor?

Victor Rasuk: He’s one of the funniest people I have ever met. He’s also an artist and I mean that in every sense of the word. When we were shooting the show, he was dropping an album with so much hype and his hunger to learn was very impressive. Just because he was becoming successful at the time of the show, you’d think he’d sit back, but he cut off everything when he was shooting the show. Cudi really watched and asked questions. By the time we finished shooting he’d be reminding us of our lines. It was funny.

Urban Latino: What's your relationship with Luis Guzman like?

Victor Rasuk: I’ve been really fortunate to have work with a lot of awesome actors, but Luis Guzman is one of the few actors that I can’t stay serious with. I literally bust out laughing in the middle of scenes. I want people to know that since I got into the business, he’s been like a big brother to me. Working with him was long overdue. We’re both from the L.E.S. We’ve been close friends for the last seven years.

Urban Latino: Do you think Latinos like the show?

Victor Rasuk: I think my cousin and my character on the show is so relatable for a lot of Latino people. Grandmothers and family are so important to the Latino way of life. You don’t see a lot of Latinos in roles on TV and to be a part of that on HBO is a special thing.

Urban Latino: Are you excited for a second season?

Victor Rasuk: I am more than excited to do it! I think that there needed to be another season. The story would have been too short. Other than that, I am really picky with what I do and right now there aren’t a lot of films being made. I’d love to do a play. I did one last year up in Poughkeepsie at Vassar College. It was called Shoe Story, directed by Thomas Kail, who did In The Heights.

Urban Latino: What would you say is your most meaningful work to date?

Victor Rasuk: I think How to Make it in America, for sure. People are fucking struggling for sure. People are losing their jobs and asking themselves what they’re going to do next. The show is about a lot of people in their twenties who are still trying to find themselves and trying to make a buck at the same time. Even those people, who are not my age, can relate to it in one way or another. I also really like what I did in Stop-Loss. The actors in it are going to be huge, Ryan Philippe, Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Urban Latino: Are you often approached with roles that portray Latinos in a very stereotypical way?

Victor Rasuk: Yes. Do I remember them? No, because, I just think positive and seek the roles that I have done already. Sometimes you’re offered those roles, but I’m sure people from other races are offered them.

Urban Latino: Are you content with the roles you’ve played thus far?

Victor Rasuk: For the most part, yes. I’ve had good experiences. There has been a couple that I won’t name, but I wanted to go with one approach, but I felt like the directors wanted something else. Sometimes, I’d be bummed out by how it turned out, but again, it was only a couple of instances. Most times, I’ve been really happy. I’m sure I’ll have some fucked-up experiences.

Urban Latino: What is your best advice on how to make it in America?

Victor Rasuk: I’ll tell you…I grew up in the projects on Avenue D on the Lower East Side. I have friends my age who still haven’t graduated from high school and who aren’t motivated. The answer to that question is to be motivated and to have a goal to be working towards. Motivation is the whole thing.

Article courtesy of Urban Latino Magazine.

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