This isn’t Melonie Diaz’s first time at the Next Big Thing rodeo. She was the Sundance It-Girl of 2008 with four films screening simultaneously at the film festival. Now the veteran of indie gems such as Be Kind Rewind and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is set to make her first trip to Cannes—and take the French Riviera by storm—with her critically acclaimed new movie, Fruitvale Station. The award show season buzz begins in three…two….
You grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and attended NYU. What’s the most New York thing about you?
I don’t take shit from anybody.
You can always count on Cannes for some controversial films thanks to the likes of Lars von Trier. But your new movie, Fruitvale Station, is shocking because it’s based on a true story about racist police brutality in America. After debuting in Park City, it picked up both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, not to mention distribution from The Weinstein Company.
I remember the first time I heard about the story: You could go on YouTube and watch clips of Oscar Grant getting murdered [at the age of 22 by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale station in Oakland, California, on New Year’s Day in 2009]. People on the train were able to take videos with their phones and show the world. That blew my mind. What’s more crazy is that this stuff happens all of the time in urban environments—that’s what is truly shocking to me. But I think people are ready to have a conversation about this subject. Anyone who comes to see this movie is doing their part because they are choosing to be socially aware and responsible. We wanted to show a glimpse into this guy’s life because Oscar was a person; he wasn’t just a blip on the nightly news.
This will be your first trip to Cannes, which is like the polar opposite of Sundance. What are you packing?
I have no idea. Lots of white? Boat apparel? I have to get a gown, for one thing. But I’m excited. Cannes is on my bucket list. I’ve been seen as a Sundance girl for awhile, so this is totally bonkers.
You upcoming movie XY is set in Manhattan. Does it remotely reflect your own New York City lifestyle?
No, I play a rich girl who dates everybody. She’s a privileged, self-obsessed brat who can’t get a job—a total hot mess. I’m much more focused…but a little self-obsessed, I guess. America Ferrara is also in it and I love her—we were in Lords of Dogtown together when I was 19.
Speaking of your past films: Itty Bitty Titty Committee’s trailer turns up on the first page of a Google search for you, not surprisingly.
Oh my God, that’s so funny. We won an award at South by Southwest for that one. It’s a smart film about a young girl who stirs up society with her feminist guerrilla group. I get so much love from lesbians now. Every movie I make, we seem to make for a penny, so it’s great that they end up going as far as they do.
Do you remember your first big break?
My first movie was Double Whammy directed by Tom DiCillo, another New York indie director. That was my first audition ever—and I got the part. I was 15 at the time. I had braces and everything.
I have to ask you about the video for Mary J. Blige’s “We Got Hood Love.” How can I forget the scenes of you and Mary sitting on the edge of the tub yelling at your men through the bathroom door?
My friend is the director and he asked me if I wanted to be in it. I was like, Mary J. Blige? That’s a pivotal moment in my life. I almost threw up when I saw it on MTV.
Aside from Ms. Blige, what actresses inspire you?
Marion Cotillard because she’s emotionally fearless. She’s all about the work; she shows up and digs deep. And Anna Magnani, an old-school Italian actress. Also, Jessica Chastain works really hard and finally got the accolades she deserves. That’s inspiring to me.
Before you became an indie movie queen, did you ever have a normal job?
Are you kidding me? I babysat, was a telemarketer at one point and later a waitress, which in a weird way was my favorite job of all.