Allen Maldonado On American Carnage, His Former Co-Stars, And More - Exclusive Interview

In a world dominated by hot-button issues, it can be easy to lose sight of the human beings who are enduring the hardships that make it to the headlines. Times are so polarizing that we forget: Behind every voting rights advocate is a person who stood in line for hours to cast their ballot, a right their grandparents may not have had. For every person holding up a pro-choice sign on the street is a parent who grieved a third-trimester loss. And though immigrants are lumped together in stats served up by politicians, there are families seeking better lives for their children — often facing immense hardship to do so. Director Diego Hallivis is keenly aware of issues like immigration getting lost among the political ether, prompting him to co-write and direct the upcoming film "American Carnage," starring Allen Maldonado, Eric Dane, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., and a phenomenal ensemble cast.

"American Carnage" tells a story with the children of undocumented immigrants at the center — forced into a life of tending to the elderly to avoid imprisonment. While the horror (and comedic) film cascades into the realm of the supernatural, its central tenets speak to a very real issue that many people face on a daily basis. Ahead of the film, we sat down with Maldonado to get his take on "American Carnage," and we also asked him about his past career experiences on the sets of "Black-ish," "The Last O.G.," and more.

The central theme of immigration in American Carnage

In preparation for sitting down with you, I got to look a little bit more into your story, and I was really taken by the resilience that is very clearly a part of your journey.

Thank you. Thank you, I appreciate it.

[Raised by] a single mom, a career interrupted by a car crash — those are not for the faint of heart at all.

Listen, as you mention those things, it seems just a part of the journey now. [It] no longer feels like an obstacle. The beautiful part of everything that you're saying ... Yeah, it was tough; [that's] not to take away how tough it was. But the idea of the way I look at it now, it's beautiful. I definitely appreciate those words.

Speaking about the film — with diversity at the forefront of it, it's such an important story given the political and social time that we're finding ourselves in. From the director's note, he mentioned that horror in this category has been used as a metaphor to reflect the reality that so many people in the Latinx community are facing. With that in mind, in what ways did you source inspiration from your own experiences when you were embodying your character of Big Mac?

Well, it's one of those things you don't have to look far to find. Emotional reference is needed to give a character such as Big Mac or the characters involved in [the film] a particular story, as people live it every day. Friends, family, people that you even work with are dealing with these immigration issues. 

I love being an actor and [having] the opportunity to take this tough subject like immigrants [and] put a face to it. A lot of times, we speak of immigrants in that way where it sounds more like a thing than a person or a human being that you're talking about. With these stories, we're able to put human faces and stories along with the word "immigration" that I feel will begin to weigh on people's hearts in dealing with a lot of immigration issues. My personal belief [is] that it's viewed more as a thing, [but] you're actually dealing with human beings.

Definitely. In the headlines, in the political conversations, issues like immigration get so big. There's an umbrella that covers such a human issue that we forget that every person has a story that has motivated them to do something like that — to pick up their lives and seek something new and hopefully better. We forget that story.

Human rights get blurred. That's the problem. It's something that we definitely speak about in an entertaining way, though. That's the thing. This movie is one of those, [not] a documentary, no.

Imagination is a crucial part of American Carnage

I want to get into the elements of the horror-thriller genre. Obviously, you're also bringing attention to a very real issue. But tell me a little bit about walking that line between fact and horror fiction. What was that like?

It [happens through] imagination. That's what this story gives you — [it asks] "Is it too far-fetched?" It is [about] being able to take on a topic and have an imagination, where we are able to speak of these serious situations and issues that we have in this country, but also do it in an entertaining way. That's where the imagination comes in. In dealing with this particular topic, we take it [into] spaces and turns that you may not have imagined. That's where the horror aspect of it comes in, where we can put an entertaining spin on a serious topic.

Allen dishes about Eric Dane and the ensemble cast of American Carnage

You've got some big names as co-stars, [like] Eric Dane, a "Grey's Anatomy" alum and also on "Euphoria." These are serious actors. What was the production experience like, and what it was like working with him and this ensemble cast?

It was cool, man. We got to shoot in Spain for three and a half months. Need I say more? It was an opportunity to experience Europe — not just visit — while filming with an incredible group of young Latino actors and actresses, and discover this new country along with building a bond and friendship while making this movie. Now, I don't speak Spanish, and ... the entire crew, everyone spoke Spanish. What was so satisfying to me as an actor [was] the moment I had the entire crew laughing at my jokes and different things like that.

They didn't speak a lick [of] English, but for them to be able to translate funny in a universal way is what I learned the most while doing this film, [as well as] the incredible friendships that I made on the way, being that we all were in a different country. We all are just living [and] learning life at the same time, which was really dope. It was such an incredible time from the cast to production to the crew. I'll be going to visit Spain next month and I definitely have friends and family there now — from the crew, mainly. They were amazing.

That must have been an interesting experience for you to have such a youthful energy on set with your co-stars. Then you bring in someone like Eric Dane, who we've all seen on television for years now. What was that dynamic like?

It was cool. I've worked with everybody from Denzel [Washington] to Sir Ben Kingsley. I really look at this thing as a sport, so it's another elite athlete coming to play. That makes it always fun. That makes the job easier, when you have another professional that has a résumé that speaks for itself, [who] comes in and brings his professionalism and his talent on-screen. You get to bounce off of that. 

I get excited. Those are the days you circle on the calendar. Those are the ones I get to go perform, or I get to go share the screen with this individual. Let me make sure I bring it. That's the energy that I like to have when I'm starring opposite anybody.

Allen has had an 'educational' career amid some of the greats

As you mentioned, you've worked with some of the greats. Tracy Morgan, Denzel Washington, Tiffany Haddish, Anthony Anderson — these are huge people. What's it been like to work with them? Did they give you any advice in your earlier years that has helped you get to this point?

It's educational being able to watch them on-camera [and] off-camera, to become friends, [and] to learn and witness how they do business, how they handle obstacles, how they handle opposition, how they handle the good times [and] the bad. As an actor, as an entertainer, you're a part of a culture — not just a profession — where there's certain things that we have to deal with that others don't. 

That's the education that you'll find, especially coming from someone ... I came from a single mother, rough neighborhood, not having a lot, and [now I'm] in positions where you do have a lot. Now, how do you manage all of that? Working with all these people and legends and icons, I've taken more than just the craft of acting — [it's] also being able to maneuver and be a part of this culture of entertainers that we have that are very successful. That's what I've learned the most.

Have you had any fun interactions or behind-the-scenes stories that have stood out to you?

Oh, man. Listen, I've been a fly on the wall for so many incredible moments and some of your most talked about and famous entertainers and actors ... Somehow I was there when this happened. You could name any random moment in Hollywood, and I was like, "Oh, I was in the back for that." I'm like, "Oh my God, I was there." I got a bunch of those.

Allen recalls an on-set story Tracee Ellis Ross shared with him

People know you a lot from "Black-ish," so what was it like working on that show? That's a huge, amazing cast.

The best story I can give you from "Black-ish" is a moment we were all sitting around between takes. I don't know how we got on [the topic] — maybe it was a Christmas episode or holiday episode — we began to talk about our Christmases. I finished telling my Charlie Brown Christmas, and then Tracee [Ellis Ross] begins to talk about her Christmas and how Michael Jackson woke her up out of bed, and then she goes downstairs and Stevie Wonder's singing, playing the piano. We were all [mind-blown] because this is regular life to her. 

We all sat in awe like, "Wow." Like, "What? For real, that was your Christmas? Damn." My Christmas tree was sad. "You had carolers in the living room? What?" I didn't have a living room — no, I'm kidding. But it was fascinating how true to life [it was] and how that wasn't her trying to flex. That was just her telling her story as we were. That was beautiful, and also hilarious and profound to me, and one of my most memorable moments.

American Carnage challenged Allen's comedic skills

We've known you from "Black-ish" and "The Last O.G." and largely comedic projects ... Circling back to "American Carnage," what was it about this particular project that challenged you and has expanded your acting repertoire?

As I mentioned earlier, the role itself wasn't the challenge, but the execution of it, being that the crew spoke only Spanish. I'm a performer, and I'll be the first one to tell you I attack every take like it's my last. It's a live performance for me.

I'm performing for the crew that is there. That is my first immediate sign if it's funny or not. That's the best tell, especially when you have people that have been staring at you all day. If I could still get these people to laugh ... Now the challenge is that instant gratification, [and] they don't even speak English. They don't even know what I'm talking about, so I got to be funny on a whole new level, on a whole new frequency that surpassed language and has to have the energy of funny. That is what I learned and mastered in this particular character. To have an entire crew that doesn't speak [the same language] laughing at a joke, it's incredible.

How will Allen celebrate the release of American Carnage?

The film drops on Friday — how are you going to celebrate?

I'm going to have a little private screening at the house. I'll have friends and family over to watch it. I've just finished shooting Season 2 of "Heels," so it feels good to get a little break and relax a little bit. That'd definitely be the agenda for Friday, and I hope everybody else goes out and enjoys it. [As] a matter of fact, it's in theaters as well, so I'm probably going to buy a bunch of tickets for that weekend and get it popping.

It's so nice to be able to go to the movie theaters. It's such a great experience.

I sort of forget that — I'm saying it now, like, "Oh, yeah, we can go to the theaters."

Yes. Knock on wood, right?

Yeah. I'll be at the theaters this weekend.

"American Carnage" is in now playing in select theaters and available for rental and purchase digitally and on demand.

This interview was edited for clarity.