"Bullying is not just kids": Orange is the New Black’s Selenis Leyva on her new film, showing Saturday at Sunscreen

"I Can I Will I Did" features Leyva as a foster mom.

click to enlarge MOTHER FIGURE: As in OITNB, Leyva’s character in I Can I Will I Did is a nurturing caretaker.
MOTHER FIGURE: As in OITNB, Leyva’s character in I Can I Will I Did is a nurturing caretaker.

There's a lot going on in director Nadine Truong's film, I Can I Will I Did.

As its title suggests, the primary theme is overcoming adversity through discipline and self-determination — the primary vehicle for which is study of Taekwondo as taught by Greenwich, Connecticut-based grandmaster Ik Jo Kang, who stars as himself in the film.

The impact of bullying — a major topic of interest in our current political climate —serves as a major plot driver. So, too, is the current state of the foster care system, in which young people face an uncertain future as they near the point where they age out of the system.

It all centers on a young protagonist who can't seem to, as Truong put it during a phone interview, “get out of his own way” as he tries to recover physically and emotionally from injuries related to a bullying incident.

The theme of this was not how do I conquer the bullying?” Truong said. “It was more how do I get out of that hole or that void that such an experience can leave with me.

It was the film's positive message — and its portrayal of the main character Ben's caring foster mother, Maria — that attracted actress Selenis Leyva to the the film, in which she portrays Maria. Leyva is perhaps best known for playing Gloria Mendoza in the acclaimed Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Much like her role on the show, Leyva's character in the film is that of a nurturing caretaker.

Leyva said her mother was a foster parent, so she knows the system — both the negative, generally inaccurate stereotypes of foster parents and what can happen when a young person turns 18 and has nowhere to go. She was glad she was able to take on such a role, she said, and being on a popular show like Orange has given her the ability to take part in projects with socially conscious messages and more realistic depictions of the human condition.

“I have been very fortunate,” she told CL in a phone interview. “Being part of Orange has opened so many doors. I love the fact that Orange is the New Black is a show that is so well received critically and by fans, because I think we're just dealing with honesty, like this beautiful film. It's about honesty. It's about characters that are not stereotyped; giving them real dimension and going in and peeling off the layers. I'm drawn to stories that are human and that don't get tied up perfectly at the end. I don't need to read a story or see a film that in the end gets wrapped up perfectly. I like a little messy. I think life is messy. I like a message — projects that make you think.”

click to enlarge Director Nadine Truong.
Director Nadine Truong.

I Can I Will I Did — with a couple of somewhat hard-to-watch scenes in which the protagonist Ben is tormented by his peers — helps shed light on the fact that bullying is everywhere these days — the internet, the White House.

“We're seeing it more and more. Bullying is not just kids...Adults are bullying,” Leyva said. “We have someone in office bullying. That's a big, big part of what's happening now. So I'm very grateful that we're able to touch on really important subjects and at the same time leave people thinking and questioning instead of just going about life like nothing else is happening.”

While the project in part aimed to help show how harmful it is, Truong made room in the film to show the bullies' ringleader in his own struggle and evolution.

“Bullying is a symptom of pain as well,” Truong said. “It comes from somewhere. Especially in teenagers, but in people of all ages. It is a symptom of thinking that's imprinted somewhere that's something that's either been done to you or is something that you've experienced. So I didn't want a bully to be a one-dimensional villain. That's something I wanted to draw out as well.”

I Can I Will I Did will screen Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at AMC Sundial (Theater 4) as part of the Sunscreen Film Festival. (Check out the rest of the schedule here. For more Sunscreen goodness, take a look at our festival round-up and interview with Executive Director Ryan Tarrant.)