Fame of a very peculiar sort has come to Louis Ortiz, former phone technician for Verizon and proud Puerto Rican-American from the Bronx.
It has been a long time coming. Interviewed the other day in Toronto, Ortiz, 43, confessed to being “a spotlight freak” from an early age – a passion that moved to a whole other level of freakishness at 14 when he saw his cousin, Ray Reyes, join … Menudo. Si! Si! Menudo! Recuerde? Back in their mid-1980s heyday, these five lovable mullet heads were touted as the Latino Beatles. Or at least the Latino Bay City Rollers. We’re talking hits. We’re talking girls. Money. TV shows. Dudes even had their own Lockheed JetStar!
“When I seen all that, it was just amazing,” Ortiz enthused, relishing the memory between semi-furtive puffs on an e-cigarette. “Everybody was going crazy! And in the back of my head, I said: ‘I want that!’ So, over the years, I lusted for attention in all kinds of ways without knowing it … Then the universe finally smacked me in the face. It was: ‘You like attention? Here you have it. It’s all yours. Take the spotlight.’”
Today you probably know Louis Ortiz by his stage name – Obama, Barack Obama, as in “44th president of the United States of America.”
The transformation goes back to the summer of 2008 when Ortiz, living on welfare, the single father of a young girl, was cadging the occasional extra dollar pool sharking at a bar in his Bronx neighbourhood.
One night, the bar owner told him: “Y’know, Louis, if you shaved off that mustache and goatee and trimmed your hair, you’d look just like this Obama guy who’s running to be the Democratic presidential candidate. Certainly, your ears are big enough. I bet you could make good money impersonating him. Especially if he wins.”
Ortiz eventually took the advice and darned if that bar-keep wasn’t right.
Since then, Ortiz has been earning his living chasing the hopey-changey stuff of the American Dream, being Barack Hussein Obama II. Initially, he did it mainly by just looking like No. 44 (uncannily so) but in recent years he worked up a full-on impersonation – gestures, voice, cadence, body mass, the works.
It’s a journey captured in poignant, sometimes amusing, occasionally wincing detail in Bronx Obama, the first feature-length documentary for 33-year-old Chicago-based producer/director/cinematographer Ryan Murdock.
Both Ortiz, in full Obama regalia, and Murdock were in Toronto for Hot Docs 2014, which hosted Bronx Obama’s international premiere. Murdock’s connection to the international documentary festival goes back to 2012 when, after scoring close to $30,000 via Kickstarter for what was then titled The Audacity of Louis Ortiz, he travelled to Toronto looking for $368,000 from professional investors at the fest’s famous industry forum.
Murdock, formerly with PBS’s Nova, had been introduced to Ortiz by a friend in the spring of 2011. By that time, Ortiz had been in the Obama game for 21/2 years. But as with the first flush of real Obamamania, media and showbiz interest was waning, leaving Ortiz in what he calls “a twilight zone.” Then, on May 2, both Obamas caught a break: Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.
Wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a cool-looking Obama stepping out of a limousine below the words “Mission Accomplished,” Ortiz took to the streets, Murdock in tow, to receive the congratulations of a grateful country.
Whereas Murdock once thought Ortiz’s story might work best as a short film, his ecstatic public reception convinced him that it should be a feature. “I couldn’t sleep for a few days,” Murdock recalled. “My head was exploding with ideas and possibilities.”
Some might predict that Ortiz is destined for a fast fade à la George W. Bush or Mitt Romney once the real Obama leaves the White House. However, the impersonator doesn’t see it that way. Certainly, for the next couple of years he intends to ride that milk train for all its worth – he recently assembled a team to prepare a 25-minute, multimedia comedy routine – but it’s with “the hope of springing off into acting altogether – comedy films, serious films. Grow me a moustache, put me in gold chains and I’m a gangsta, y’know. With big ears.”
Even if this does not immediately come to pass, Ortiz remains convinced Obama “is going to be in the spotlight for a while” after 2016. “And me, I’m not going to stop looking like him, unless somebody ties me down and does facial reconstruction. This is the first African-American president of the most powerful country in the world … Truthfully, I think I got work for a very long time.”
“As you know, Louis,” chimed Murdock, “I used to disagree with you. But now I kind of agree … If you look at Elvis impersonators, Marilyn Monroe impersonators, Bill Clinton, they’ve persisted. As a historical figure, the image, Obama is going to be something we’re going to be talking about, sorting out, thinking about for a long time and I think, in fact, Louis could be busier.”
Ortiz’s showbiz career was briefly overseen by talent manager/reality TV producer Dustin Gold. Their fractious relationship is a key element in Bronx Obama, in counterpoint to the warm bond Murdock shows between Ortiz and his daughter Raina, now 18. But since parting ways several months ago, Ortiz has been managing himself. Or as he likes to put it: “Ryan’s movie is my manager right now, promoting me, getting me out there.”
If this is some hint to Murdock that he should add the management of Ortiz to his career quiver, the filmmaker isn’t receiving. “It’s not my thing. But I think we’ll definitely stay tight. This is my first film. I’ve put Louis on this stage. And we’ve put in a lot of hours together.” He laughed. “You could say we’re locked in.”
Bronx Obama’s final Hot Docs screening is on Saturday
at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
More details at hotdocs.ca.