Game Changers: Lou Diamond Phillips on how 'La Bamba' 'proved that a Latinx-centric story could be a box-office success'

·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·4-min read

Game Changers is a Yahoo Entertainment video interview series highlighting the diverse creators disrupting Hollywood — and the pioneers who paved the way.

According to Lou Diamond Phillips, no one foresaw “industry-shifting box-office hit” while making La Bamba, the 1987 favorite about the tragically short life of 1950s Chicano rocker Ritchie Valens.

“The expectation was, ‘OK, here’s an unknown kid from Dallas, Texas, playing an obscure Mexican American rock ‘n’ roll star [in] basically an independent film made for $6 million,’” Phillips told Yahoo Entertainment in a recent interview (watch above) about the film, which he had auditioned for while teaching acting far from from Hollywood in Arlington, Texas.

“It was not destined for greatness. People didn’t go, ‘Well that’s gonna be a hit!’ They didn’t know. But we saw the movie and were like, ‘Whoa, we might be onto something here. This could go through the roof.’ And it did.”

Indeed, La Bamba grossed over $52 million and helped turn both the late Valens (who had a sting of three hits — “Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna” and “La Bamba” — over an eight-month span between 1958 and 1959 before he was killed at the age of 17 in a plane crash) and Phillips into household names.

Lou Diamond Phillips performs in a scene from the film 'La Bamba', 1987. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)
Lou Diamond Phillips performs in a scene from the film 'La Bamba.' (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

Aside from the story, the ethnic makeup of the La Bamba cast and crew was unusual for Hollywood in the ’80s. There were not many films by Latinx directors (Mexican-American filmmaker Luis Valdez), starring multicultural leads (Phillips is of Filipino, Southeast Asian and European descent) or featuring predominantly Latinx casts being financed and released.

“It was mind-blowing,” Phillips says. “It was also one of the reasons we were managing our expectations. It was a primarily ethnic cast. This sort of thing hadn’t really been done at this point of time to this extent. It was a pioneer, it broke down barriers. It opened up doors.

“I can look back at that now and with all humility say, ‘Yeah, the amount of inclusion and diversity that we’re seeing today began with movies like La Bamba. It’s taken me a while to embrace that, and own it, and go … ‘We changed some minds.’ Because Hollywood sees green. It’s still a very tough proposition to mount all-ethnic casts. We proved that a Latinx-centric story could be a box-office success.”

Actors Esai Morales and Lou Diamond Phillips attending the preview party for
Esai Morales and Lou Diamond Phillips attending the preview party for "La Bamba" on July 23, 1987 at Lucy's Surfeteria in New York City. (Photo: Ron Galella Archive/Getty Images)

La Bamba was the first of three consecutive hits for the fledgling performer: Phillips followed up with the urban high school drama Stand and Deliver (1988) and the buddy Western Young Guns (1988). The actor says he was careful not to repeat himself early in his career so that he could avoid pigeonholing.

“You cannot compare any of those characters to each other,” he says.

Still, there were roles Phillips wouldn’t even be considered for, while he also battled pay inequity. “The pay scale was a lot different [for actors of color],” he says. “I’ve had that argument for years. I literally had a producer say to me once, ‘You want parity with so-and-so?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, our résumés are pretty equal, and if you really want to compare box office, mine’s better.’ But no, the Caucasian actor’s going to get paid more.”

Phillips, who currently stars on the Fox drama Prodigal Son, notes that there’s still work to be done in the entertainment industry to finally reach equality.

“It’s not as if this is a phenomenon that was left in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s still happening today,” he says of casting and pay bias. “There’s more opportunity. There’s more accessibility. There is broader thinking in the ivory towers so they’re creating more content that is specifically for actors of color, directors of color, writers of color. So we’ve come a long way in that respect. There’s still a long way to go.”

Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jimmie Rhee

Watch Lou Diamond Phillips talk about the emotional aspects of playing Ritchie Valens:

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