The creation of the spicy version of Cheetos is the subject of the new dramedy from Searchlight Pictures, Flamin’ Hot. Yes, you read that correctly. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos has a movie, but it’s the people behind its creation where the story lies. At the center of Flamin’ Hot is Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), a Mexican-American man who claims to have invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Originally hired as a janitor, Richard’s ambitious ideas helped inspire the Flamin’ Hot product line, and his drive led him to become a marketing executive at Frito-Lay. The film is inspired by Montañez’s memoir A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive.
Directed by Eva Longoria, Flamin’ Hot is a rags-to-riches tale about a Latino man who turned his life around and never stopped dreaming, no matter what life threw his way. Co-starring alongside Garcia is Annie Gonzalez as Judy, Richard’s wife; Dennis Haysbert as Clarence C. Baker, a Frito-Lay employee and Richard’s mentor; and Matt Walsh as Lonny, Richard’s pessimistic boss. Though Montañez probably didn’t invent the spicy snack, Flamin’ Hot still provides a feel-good story with humor, family, and love.
In an interview with Digital Trends, the cast of Flamin’ Hot discuss Longoria’s direction, the challenges of playing real people, and their favorite childhood collaborations.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re playing Richard and Judy, who are real people. Does that change your approach as an actor, knowing these people can watch the movie and see your performances?
Jesse Garcia: Yes and no. I mean, I couldn’t go out and create a completely different character because I would have been dishonest. But I still went into it with the intention of doing my version of his story. It’s not about me imitating him. It’s about telling his story. That’s the approach that I went in with, and when I told him that’s what I was going to do, he was like, “Dope. I trust you.”
Annie Gonzalez: Oh my gosh, 1,000%. As a performer and as an artist, when you get to create a world and a person with actors … there’s a little bit more freedom of play. You get to decide it can go that way, but wouldn’t it be more fun if it went this way? And with someone who has lived this life, there is so much more of a delicate balance of putting the ego at rest of what I want and serving the work and honoring this person who is still alive today. That’s even more like, “Ahh. You’re about to watch this.”
What was the pitch for your character?
Matt Walsh: My friend, Eva Longoria, texted me and said, “You want to come to Albuquerque and play the jerky white guy in my movie?”
No questions asked? You were in?
Walsh: Kind of, yeah. We had done a movie together called Unplugging, and she’s amazing. And she had been telling me about the project while we were filming, so I was excited to step in. I knew the story, and I think I’d even seen some of the material. She was showing me sets and some of the actors who had auditioned. I felt like I was tracking the project, too, with her.
Dennis Haysbert: I jumped at it [laughs]. I had no hesitation at all. I loved the story, which I did not know much about [before the movie]. When I found out that Clarence was an integral part of the story, I said, “Oh, absolutely.” I saw the people that were involved, and I adore Eva. I think she’s a fantastic director as well as a fantastic actor.
What is it like working with a director like Eva, who has been in front of the camera and knows what being an actor is all about? Is it a more collaborative process?
Gonzalez: Definitely. She’s such an actor’s director, and she’s so brilliant at what she does. When there were things that I had questions about, she made me feel safe enough that I could challenge or bring something up that that I didn’t feel comfortable with. She was so precise in what she wanted and so kind and generous that it always felt collaborative. She knew exactly what she wanted, so it was easy. It was easy to execute her vision because she was so specific.
Walsh: Yeah, she’s great. She’s super energetic, great morale, [and] maximizes everything you could get out of the little movie that it is. It’s not a huge movie, let’s say. She got it done. She even recruited the DP from our movie Unplugging, so she put together a really cool team on it. Obviously, I love the way she cast it beyond myself. I think she has a good sense of realism and who these people are. She stuck to our guns about every single choice, and I think that’s what you want in a director.
Haysbert: Well, it’s always a collaborative process, but it’s even more so when you have a person that’s an actor because you know they have a love for actors. They know what we go through. All she [Eva] wanted to do was bring out the authenticity and to help me discover and explore the character to its fullest.
Was the character of Lonny different when you first got the role?
Walsh: Yeah, I think it was different in subtle ways. I think it was on the page, and the structure was there, but I think the collaboration starts with everything, like the choices for wardrobe. If you meet with wardrobe, you tell them, “Can I wear this or that?” And Eva has an idea, and then you show hair, makeup, [and] even scene work.
Once you get things down, and you get to meet the actors, you can [be] like, “What if we did a little bit of this?” Things like that are really great. Loosening dialog, as long as you shot what you need, I think, helped. Eva was collaborative in that way. She was up for having fun so that always helps.
On the first day that Richard and Judy came to set, what did they say to you after watching your performance?
Jesse Garcia: Well, it’s funny. I’ll backtrack a little bit. Doing this movie, they [Richard and Judy] have to be very vulnerable because they’re obviously still alive. Their kids are adults, but we’re talking about their legacy. To tell the story, we’re digging up their past, and to dig up their past, they went through and did a lot of things that they’re probably not very proud of. But it was important to do that, so we can see the arc of where they are now. They allowed us to do it.
One day on set, there was a scene where Annie and I are in a car, and we were talking about stuff, where I got the car from. It’s a stolen car, a cop pulls in behind me, and I get arrested. Annie and I are doing the scene and improvising a little bit. She hits me on the shoulder, and the scene is a very cute, funny, dramatic scene. They call cut, and Richard and Judy were on set with a couple of their kids. We go back to visit them, and they’re both going, “Oh my God. That’s what I would say, and I actually hit him when that happened in real life.”
They’re crying, and we’re crying, and we’re hugging each other. Richard comes up to me, and he goes, “This is tough for me. I wasn’t sure, but I get it now.” They get what we’re going for. They see what we’re doing, that we do have the best intentions. We weren’t going to make them look bad and embarrass them. It was a good validation point for them and for us.
Was it surreal?
Gonzalez: At first, it was a little nerve-wracking. But shortly after we did the scene, Eva yells, “Cut,” and we walk over to video village, and Judy’s like, “Oh my God. That’s exactly what I would have done. I can’t believe it. You remind me exactly of me and Rich.” Rich is like, “That’s exactly it. I would have done that, too That’s wild.” It was after that I was like we got this. We can do it. Let’s play. Let’s have fun.
At least it went that way because it would’ve been awkward if they were like, “I probably wouldn’t have done that.”
Gonzalez: Nope. Wrong. We hate it. We hate it. It’s stupid [laughs]. No. They’re so great. They’re amazing.
You’ve both made so many memorable appearances, especially in supporting roles. What do you think the key is to give good supporting performances?
Walsh: Good writing [laughs], especially in comedy. Working in projects or inside a process where you were allowed to contribute, I think, is important. I tend to choose projects where I can pitch ideas or loosen the dialogue. I think that helps me succeed. What else? I think your gut. When you read something, you know this is a cool, interesting thing. I haven’t seen it before. Those lead you into projects that are, you know, challenging, and sometimes doing something scary is a good instinct, too. Like “Oh my God, I’m terrified of this. Maybe I should try it.”
Haysbert: I’ll tell you something, and it’s very interesting you should ask that question. Whenever I’m in a movie or television show, I see myself as a lead because you are the lead in your own story. Like today, you’re interviewing me, but you are the star of your part of the story. I have to answer your questions. You have these questions for me, and if you didn’t believe that you were at the top of your game or integral to the process, it wouldn’t work. I always project that part of it. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m the star, and I’m trying to outdo everybody.” I’m just trying to be the best possible me I can be within the context of the character.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Richard, Judy, and the kids are making the Flamin’ Hot recipe. It’s a fun scene to show the collaborative process between the whole family. I was wondering if there was a moment with your family when you came together to collaborate on something.
Haysbert: Oh, absolutely [pauses]. I was not expecting that question because that is something very dear to my heart. When I was in elementary school, instead of having lunch at the school — I only lived maybe two blocks away from my home — I used to come home and make lunch with my mother and just chat with her. Then go back to school. Sometimes, she would be preparing the evening meal, so I would watch her cook. That’s how I learned how to cook [laughs]. I watched my mom at lunchtime when I was in elementary school, so I know that really, really well.
Garcia: I think my dad’s story was probably more that. It’s going to be interesting getting my dad’s input on this. He put himself through auto body mechanics and auto body work to fix cars to make them go from wrecked pieces of junk to newish cars. He put himself through that. He put himself through school. He would sell empanadas and burritos at the school to make some ends meet. Make a little bit of extra cash while he’s going to school and working at the same time. Yeah, we were little kids, so we weren’t really doing a whole lot of work, but we were pitching in.
Gonzalez: I’m going to get emotional. Every Christmas, me, my mom, my tiá Cynthia, my cousins Alexis and Sammy, and my Nana made tamales a day or two before Christmas. That’s been a tradition for a long time now, so it’s very important for me. Food brings people together.
I’m hungry right now thinking about it.
Gonzalez: Don’t worry. Next time, you’re invited to the cookout. You seem cool.
Thank you. I will hold you to that. I also like how this movie portrays Judy. The headline is about Flamin’ Hot and the guy who created it, but it was a collaborative effort. How did you see Judy’s role in this process?
Gonzalez: I feel like I understood early on that it was a love story and that she was the heartbeat of the film. A lot of what I found from their dynamic is there was a seesaw going on constantly. A balance of the masculine and feminine, his vivacious spirit [with] her grounding, still energy. It was really awesome to get to play a real part because you meet them together.
And they’re very like that. He’s a ham, the life of the party, talks to everyone. He’s so vivacious and bright and charismatic. She is still water. She’s his goalpost when he needs a grounding moment. When I saw them in person, and I read the script, I was like, what a powerful role. I’m so excited to dig into this and breathe life into it.
If you could create the next Flamin’ Hot food, what would it be?
Haysbert: Flamin’ Hot food? Wow. Is there a Flamin’ Hot Chicken?
There’s hot chicken, like Nashville Hot Chicken. But you could put the Cheetos flavor on it.
Haysbert: You could. I’m no stranger to spice, so anything spicy or hot, I’m all for it.
Flamin’ Hot is now streaming on Hulu and Disney+.