For actor E.J. Bonilla, acting and performing were not things that he initially saw himself doing professionally. He discovered his love for them in the ninth grade, after he was cast as Danny Zuko in the theme portion of the school dance show that year. The experience of performing in front of an audience and telling stories for people’s enjoyment made him fall in love with the craft. As a result, he dedicated himself to pursuing it as a career. He graduated from high school in 2006 and attended Bard College, all the while endeavoring to become a serious actor.
Eventually, his efforts paid off. After graduating from high school, he joined the cast of Guiding Light as Rafe, Natalia’s son. In 2012, he starred in the independent film Musical Chairs alongside Leah Pipes, and in 2013, he received an Imagen Award for his performance as Dexter in the film Four. He also played the character Jack in the film The House That Jack Built which was released this November.
In addition to movies, Bonilla has also been involved in a multitude of television projects. His television credits include the shows Bored to Death, Cold Case, The Big C, Revenge and Shameless. In 2015, he landed the role of Denny Padilla in the cop drama Unforgettable, which was resurrected by A&E after CBS dropped the show from its lineup. Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with Bonilla about his role on Unforgettable, how his experience as a dancer prepared him for acting and which shows and movies bring out the nerd in him. Check it out below!
What inspired you to go into acting?
I was in the 9th grade, and like right before 9th grade, I was extremely introverted. I was a loner, I was really quiet and I didn’t really know what I loved to do. All of my friends already knew what they really enjoyed and I had nothing like that. Randomly, the gym teacher of that school was also the head of the dance show every year, and he recruited me almost as a joke to play Danny Zuko in the theme portion of the dance show that year, and I said “Yeah” kind of jokingly, but then it came out that he was serious. (laughs).
I felt like I needed to go with what my word was, so I did it. That dance show was actually the first time that I was ever on stage as a performer in that way. As soon as I was on stage in front of an audience, and I think even during rehearsals, I fell in love with it. I knew that I wanted to continue to perform and tell stories and entertain people. So, it was a weird beginning because it was really an accident that started it all.
How did training as a dancer prepare you for acting?
Honestly, part of it is just the discipline. Especially with American actors, there’s this stigma of laziness. I know that I’ve been one of those people myself at times. When you’re an actor, you see a lot of actors faking it, and sometimes really charismatic people get hired even if they’re not the most talented person in the room. You can’t fake it as a dancer and you can’t fake it as a musician. You need to really know your stuff and put in those hours, or someone is going to see it quickly. So, there’s a discipline that I learned relatively early on.
I remember, in high school, I was training for a new dance production while also playing the lead in a musical at school that year, and I missed one tech rehearsal and my instructor cut me. I needed to learn really early on to deal with situations like that as professionally as possible, and we were always taught that, even if you get cut, that doesn’t mean that you stop coming to rehearsals–you rehearse from the back, and support your fellow castmates.
I remember having to still show up and be a cheerleader even though I fought for months for the position. I think it just taught me a real respect for professionalism. I mean, the classes were the kind that if you were five minutes late, they locked the doors and you couldn’t get in. So, you learn to take your lashes with pride–that sounds really dramatic, but it is what it is!
It seems like a really important lesson to learn, though, if you’re going into that profession.
Yeah, I feel like what happens a lot of the time with actors–and I do have to say, specifically American actors–is that they jump into this world with a smile and this air that they deserve certain things. I’ve had that experience with people who weren’t even working professionally and yet they had this attitude, and in the world where I’m from, you can’t have that; you suck it up and you fight.
I mean, I’m a big lover of the arts, I believe in the power of stories, and I believe in respecting that as much as possible, even when you’re in the theater in acting class. Like, when we were in class, we didn’t even sit on the stage when we weren’t acting, because that stage was a sacred space. I think that sometimes, people get caught up in the fame that comes with acting or the fortune, and that’s not what it’s about. I think that sometimes we neglect to respect our craft, so I try to respect it as much as possible.
So, what has been your favorite role to play so far, and why?
With a lot of the things that I’ve done, I’m really proud that most of my characters have been relatively part of who I am. I’ve been really lucky to be able to add significant character–mannerisms and such–to my characters so that I can shy away from just being me. I did a film called “The House That Jack Built” in which the character was very, very different from who I am. Even when the project was just getting started, I remember being told by someone, in a nice way, that “I wouldn’t have cast you in that role because you’re just not like that. You don’t have that in you.” And, I think that was another important lesson to learn, too, that you learn to take criticism as humbly as possible and not let it get to you and sort of prove yourself. It’s exciting when you prove people wrong sometimes!
So, you’ve guest-starred on quite a few shows over the years. If you could guest star on any show, what would it be and why?
(laughs). Oh man! I’d love to be on “The Get Down,” that new Netflix show that’s like a musical drama set in the 1970s. It sounds amazing. Is it out yet?
I don’t think it’s out yet!
Oh man, it sounds so cool. They were filming super close to us when I was filming “Unforgettable” one day and started wondering if I could just wonder over and sneak on to set for a little while (laughs). It sounds like a really fun experience. That, and “Gotham” would be really, really cool! I have a couple of friends who are on it, such as Raul Castillo who’s playing Pink Flamingo and my homegirl, who gets to kick butt and be a badass. I’d love to be on that show if I had the chance!
Alright, I want to talk about “Unforgettable” for a little bit. What appealed to you about the character Denny?
I liked Denny because people think that he’s an idiot. (laughs) That’s happened to me in the past, all throughout my life, and I think a lot of people experience that too when they’re in high school and junior high school and people sort of underestimate their intelligence. So, with Denny, I get to play the fool. They don’t expect a lot from him, and it works as a detective to be that way–at least, that’s the way that I play him. He’s like this happy-go-lucky, highly energetic, semi-abrasive person, and people probably think he’s dumb because he talks with an accent, but he’s smart as a fox!
What was the audition process like?
I got really lucky. I auditioned once over in Brooklyn, right where their office is, and it was weird because they waited so long to tell me if I even did well or if I was in the running. It was a four-month long process, or at least it felt like it was, before I knew that I got it. So, it was one audition, no callbacks, no meeting with producers, no nothing, and then finally they eventually said that I was in the running, that I was one of the people that they liked. They said that I was going to get a test, but then the test was taking a long time to come about.
Then, I booked two other things that same shooting week, one of which was an indie film and one of which was a recurring character, which was a huge blessing because I hadn’t booked anything in about two and a half years. Then, all of a sudden, there were three things that I was up for in the same week, and I think that put pressure on them, so they turned the potential test that they kept saying was coming into a direct offer, which felt really good.
So, how would you say that the show is different now than it was before?
I have no idea, I didn’t watch it. (laughs). I don’t like to watch the show before I audition for it because I want to play my character as honestly as possible without being too affected by the show itself. Sometimes, it can be a good thing to know, and sometimes, it can be a bad thing. I don’t research a show–for example, when I auditioned for “The Originals,” I knew that it was about vampires but is it set in the 1800s or is it current? Sometimes, a little research can help, but you can become too involved in the style of the show to the point where you take away from what you want to create for your character. So, I never watched it, but from what I’ve heard from the other cast members, they like the changes. There’s a little bit more variety, there’s more color, they’re having more fun, and I like being a part of that.
Who were you most excited to work with on the show?
Well, Dylan Walsh has had an amazing career. God bless him, I think he’s a beautiful actor. Poppy is awesome; she’s a sweetheart. We have a lot of fun together, one-on-one. And they partnered me a lot with James Liao, and it’s so friggin’ cool! I mean, I’m a cop, I’m a partner, and we fight crime. It’s just really exciting. I get excited about going on to set in general.
Honestly, it’s one of the best crews that I’ve ever been a part of, and I think–and I don’t want to harp on it too much–but I think that it’s the first Asian-American and Hispanic-American cop duo ever, which is pretty funny. We noticed it but we didn’t want to say it out loud on set and think about that, but it kind of ended up happening and I think it’s a testament that lines are starting to become blurred more. That feels really good. It’s the most diverse cast that I’ve ever been part of in my life, and I think that’s beautiful.
Over the remainder of this season’s episodes, what can viewers expect?
Well, there’s a lot more action coming, so I’m really excited about that. I shoot my gun a couple more times, so I’m really excited about that too. And….a lot of fun! A lot of fun! A lot of acting! A lot of Denny! (laughs)
Did you have to do any training with guns before the show?
I wanted to! God, I wanted to! (laughs). They kept telling me that they would but they never brought me. Actually, they gave me a handgun with blanks in it, and I’d never shot a gun before, and I was like, “Oh, ok, I guess I hold it like I’ve seen in the movies?” And then I shot it and it was frickin’ scary. I was like, “This goes off!” (laughs). It was scary; even though the gun only shot blanks, it still kicked back. But, I was promised a gun range and never went, and I was promised to get the chance to climb one of the bridges, which is something that new recruits in the police department do for training, and it never happened! We do get to do some stunts though, which is pretty cool. We had to drive once and James asked if he could do the stunt driving, and I was like “What?!” And he scared the crap outta me! (laughs)
What shows or movies bring out the nerd in you?
Oh man, I think that I’m just–I’m a huge dork! I’m not very cool. I’ve learned to pretend to be cool and fake it, but in the long run, being yourself is cool. But what movies….you know when you leave a movie theater and you realize that now I have secret powers? It’s like, “Now I understand where my strength is!” I’ve honestly exited theaters and like punched posts (laughs) So, anything with a lot of action, anything at all about superhumans; I believe in magic and love stories on magic. The fact that we could leave these sorts of movies believing in ourselves and our own power is amazing; I get that from stories in general. But, I definitely leave the theater knowing karate after movies like “The Matrix.” I remember watching this movie with Jet Li a number of years ago and being like “I can switch dimensions! I just figured it out! I got it now!” Any superhero film brings out the nerd in me, and I could probably replay “Hook” scene by scene because I’ve watched it so much (laughs).
Have you seen the new “Star Wars” yet?
Not yet! You know what, I’m boycotting that franchise (laughs). I actually went in to audition for one of the parts, and the character needed a British accent, and I was like “I can do a British accent!” And I was standing there, laughing with Disney and having a good time, and then I bombed my audition and someone else got it. So, I’m boycotting it because I could’ve been a part of “Star Wars” (laughs). I’m kidding. No, I’m going to go see it. I’m waiting until that mad rush is over, you know?
Oh, I know! It’s crazy right now.
It is! Are you a big “Star Wars” buff?
I am! And, you know, I didn’t get into “Star Wars” until I was older. When I was a kid, I wasn’t that interested, but as I got older, I started to appreciate those movies more.
Same here! I didn’t have the dad that was like “You have to watch this!” My friends got into it eventually, and then I was like “Oh, this is interesting!” But I was of age enough that I was like “That looks fake! Why isn’t Luke stronger? He looks kind of scrawny. Like, he doesn’t have abs. He should have abs.” (laughs)
Unforgettable returns January 1 at 10/9c.