‘One Day at a Time’ Actor Marcel Ruiz on Starring as a Real-life Teen Who Came Back From the Dead
In 2015, a teenage boy fell through the ice of a frozen Missouri lake. After being submerged for 15 minutes, rescue workers pulled him out. He had no pulse and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. But when his mother said a prayer over her son's body, his heart started beating again. Doctors said it was a real-life miracle.
In the film Breakthrough, now in theaters, Marcel Ruiz plays John Smith, alongside This is Us actress Chrissy Metz, who plays his mother Joyce. Ruiz says of spending time with the real John Smith: “It was really amazing and powerful to play this character, because he exists in real life. After seeing so many videos and studying him for so long, when I finally met him in real life, it felt like meeting a celebrity.” Like Ruiz, Smith loves to play basketball and is very close to his parents. “We were so starstruck when we met each other.”
The Puerto Rican actor, 15, says Smith told him he was happy he was playing his character, and it was like “looking in the mirror.” Smith, who is now 18, also shared that watching the film was like reliving his story. “They said it's so real that they feel they are going through it again, they are seeing their lives happen again. It's amazing to have that impact on them and the audiences that watch the film.”
Ruiz is grateful for his first role on the big screen and says the story is extra special because it shows “the power of a mother's love.” “That power of not giving up was really inspiring to me,” he adds about his character's miraculous recovery. “Being able to work with such a talented cast was really fun,” he says. “We had such an amazing chemistry and connection.”
The actor, who played the charismatic Alex Alvarez on the Netflix series One Day at a Time, says he learned a lot from costar Rita Moreno, his glamorous grandmother on the show: like never forget where you came from. “She is like my grandma, she is like family. I don't see her as ‘Rita Moreno the icon' that she really is, just because we are so close to each other and our relationship is just like you see it on the show.” What inspires Ruiz the most about Rita? “How much she has accomplished, from being a little girl in Puerto Rico to moving to New York. It's like my experience moving from Puerto Rico to Los Angeles, where we both didn't know any English as children. She has always represented Puerto Rico even though she has lived most of her life in the U.S., and it's something I want to be able to do.”
The cancellation of One Day at a Time was rough for Ruiz, but it was an unforgettable experience. “The cast is family to me. It was never like work, it was learning from each other and having fun on the set,” he says about the series. “The show was so important for the Latino community. I feel like I was part of history because it was one of the first shows that actually portrayed a Latino family in the realest way possible. It's really important to have shows like that now more than ever. Now that it's gone, our fans are so sad because of that. Now that it's coming to an end it feels like losing a family.”
Even though One Day at a Time was his first high-profile role on the small screen, being in front of the cameras was nothing new to the young actor, whose parents are filmmakers. “I was raised on a set, since I was little I would see them working, and whenever they needed a kid to be in a commercial, I would be there. When we moved to L.A., it all came naturally and I never had to take acting classes,” he says.