Actress Lupe Ontiveros died Thursday of cancer at the age of 69. She was most famous for her role in the 1997 film Selena, but Ontiveros also acted with Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, played a strict mother in the independent film Real Women Have Curves and had a recurring role in the television series Desperate Housewives.
Ontiveros was born in El Paso, Texas, and worked as a social worker for many years until, one day, she responded to a newspaper ad looking for movie extras. She went on to work in Hollywood for more than 30 years, playing maids in many of the films she was cast in.
In a 2002 interview, Ontiveros told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that she always played the role of the maid with pride: "Those people that come to bring you the service to your table ... that watch your kids, I think I owe them to give their characters life and love and soul and humor."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Actress Lupe Ontiveros died last Thursday from liver cancer. She was 69. You may know her from her role on "Desperate Housewives" as Eva Longoria's mother-in-law, or in the Indie film "Real Women Have Curves" as the strict, traditional-minded mother. She co-starred in the Jack Nicholson film, "As Good As It Gets," and she played the murderer in the biopic about the pop star "Selena."
Ontiveros was Mexican-American born in El Paso, Texas. Before becoming an actress she was a social worker. On a personal dare, she responded to a newspaper ad looking for movie extras. She went on to work in Hollywood for more than 35 years and in many of her films she played a maid.
Now, you estimate that you've played maids in about 150 movies and TV shows. I want you to run through just a list of some of the maids you've played.
LUPE ONTIVEROS: Maids, oh my goodness. Maids for everything. Look at what's his name - Nicholson, Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets."
ONTIVEROS: That kind of a maid, where she's a religious kind of very warm human being. And then there's the maid in what do you call it - what did I do recently with Todd Solondz? "Storytelling."
ONTIVEROS: Now, that was a creature to be reckoned with, one of these wretched human beings, you know.
GROSS: You set the house on fire at the end, you're so resentful.
ONTIVEROS: Oh, that was the best part.
ONTIVEROS: I didn't know that I was going to do that until we were on the set. He says, you know you're going to blow up the house and I said oh, boy. Boy, have I wanted to do this for a long time. And let's see, maids. Beverly Hills maids, office maids. What can I tell you? It's always somebody else's maid, you know. I'm always doing a service for someone else.
But I'll tell you this much; that I've done it very proudly because as I said before to folks, I said, those folks, those hands, those people that come to bring you the service to your table, to bring - that pick your grapes and bring you the grapes to your table through a glass of wine, the people that wash your latrine, that watch your kids, you know, that bring them peace, bring children peace at night when their parents aren't there, I think that I owe them to give their characters life and love and soul and humor.
So it's really been a pleasure to do them.
GROSS: You were telling us you grew up in El Paso. Your parents owned a tortilla factory and they owned restaurants as well. Do I have that right?
ONTIVEROS: Yes. They had two restaurants. And properties and such. And they were non-educated people. I was born and raised in Texas in El Paso, Texas. It's a border town and my parents had businesses. They had factories and restaurants and the folks that would cross the border from Mexico, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to El Paso, Texas, were the people that worked at my mother's factories.
And that was my greatest resource. That's where my hard drive went into action, storing all of those adventures and all those conversations I used to hear, all the dirty jokes I used to hear that I learned, and, you know, behaviors and what have you.
GROSS: You were a social worker for years. I mean, even when you started acting you had a day job...
ONTIVEROS: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: ...as a social worker. What kind of social work did you do?
ONTIVEROS: Well, I worked in various facets of it. I was working with the developmentally disabled. I worked for Immigration. I worked for Head Start. I worked with the seniors program evaluating their services, what have you.
GROSS: How did you start acting?
ONTIVEROS: It was really a joke. It was on a dare to myself. I was, you know, in transition from one job to the other and I came across an article in the paper that was looking for extras. And I kind of was talking out loud and I said to my husband, what do you think? You think I should - I was trying to decide should I go back and get a nursing degree? Should I do this? Should I do that?
And there was that job opening there and he said do whatever the heck you want. I mean, now he says he's sorry he said that. 'Cause I took - I do have a tendency to run with the ball, take the bull by the horns, and go with it.
GROSS: So when you're walking through the streets and people recognize you, who do they often most recognize you as? What are the roles you're best known for?
ONTIVEROS: Oh, I'm the killer of Selena.
GROSS: The killer of Selena.
ONTIVEROS: I'm the killer of Selena. And so far, so good. I haven't had anybody chase me down the street.
ONTIVEROS: Oh, there was a very interesting - what happened one day, I was going into the ladies restroom and I was going into the stall and this lady just stood in front of me and grabbed me and pulled me out again. And she said you are her, aren't you? I have a bet with my friend that you are she. And I said excuse me? I knew where she was going. She said you killed Selena, didn't you?
And I said let me go do my business. I'll come up, and then I'll tell you. So she let go of me.
GROSS: Yeah. So "Selena" is the movie...
ONTIVEROS: And it's the working class that recognizes me and I'm very happy. You know what the greatest, graceful thing that happens to me, you know, by my people? Is that they give me their blessing. Nobody has to give anybody else a blessing. You know what I'm saying?
ONTIVEROS: And they come up and they say you make me so proud. Your work makes me feel so proud to be a Latina.
GROSS: Lupe Ontiveros recorded in 2002. She died Thursday of liver cancer at the age of 69. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.