EXCLUSIVE: 'On Becoming a God in Central Florida' actor Mel Rodriguez says his character Ernie is a true empath: 'He is a papa bear'
In an exclusive interview with MEAWW Mel Rodriguez says he modeled Ernie on his Aunt Mercedes who 'would take on other people's sadness and their happiness' because that was her way of loving other people.
A character-defining scene in 'On Becoming a God in Central Florida' comes towards the end of 'The Gloomy-Zoomies', the show's second episode. Ernie (Mel Rodriguez), the always-smiling water park manager and Krystal Stubbs' (Kirsten Dunst) co-worker, neighbor and friend, drives to the empty water park after hours. There, as the words from 'Everything's Alright' plays on his car's tape deck - "People who are hungry, people who are starving, matter more than your feet and hair" - he goes down the water park slide, sobbing profusely. When he plunges into the pool, you don't know where his tears end and the water he is drowning in, begins. It is a snapshot of a man in crisis, who is clinically depressed.
In an exclusive interview with MEA WorldWide (MEAWW), Mel Rodriguez talks about why Ernie is sad. "I think he is an empath. He takes on other people's feelings a lot. Ernie puts God first, his family second and everyone else before himself. When Krystal's husband dies and he sees that she [Krystal] is going to be on her own and raise this child on her own, it affects him, deeply. So when he goes off with his son to make that time capsule for [Krystal's] baby, he is truly affected by it. I think it affects him more than it would the average person. He is affected more deeply by such things. He is truly an empath."
Commenting on whether Ernie finds his happiness in other people's happiness, he says, "Absolutely, and he is affected by other people's sadness as well. I think he struggles more with the sadness of her husband's death than Krystal herself. I had an aunt, Aunt Mercedes, who was very much like Ernie. She would take on other people's sadness and their happiness and she thought that was the way to love [other people]. I kind of modeled Ernie after my aunt in a lot of ways, who I loved very much, but she was very overwhelming - it was this overwhelming love."
It is this urge to protect wounded souls that also defines Ernie's feelings towards Krystal. "I don't think any of it is sexual. I really don't. He is a papa bear. He really cares for her and wants to take care of her. Ernie takes in people who are hurt, who are wounded. He is a protector - he tries to bandage them up. That is what he is trying to do with her." Describing their relationship as "playful", Rodriguez says they share a child-like friendship. "I think there is a loneliness to Ernie; there is [a touch of] melancholy." Krystal, with her upbeat persona, fills that role of adventure in his life, where he "takes risks and does child-like things that he wouldn't typically do with Bets (Beth Ditto) or anyone else really".
He reflects on the last episode 'Manifest Destinee' that aired on September 8, where Krystal screams at him, "You're the pickle" and she slaps his hand for not being able to recruit. "It really hurts his feelings. He is like a little boy. And then when he is able to bring back this group of people from the Latino community, I think he is very proud. He is like 'hey Krystal, look what I've got.' For him, it is a very playful relationship."
His overdeveloped potential to feel, and his need to distract himself from his sadness, is also why FAM's communal draw is so appealing. "When he has that moment in the pool, he feels that sense of family, of love. He feels that connection with his son and this bond with all these other people and he is hooked. He wants to be a part of it. He is a feeler. So that is his connection to FAM. It's not about selling anything, it is not about downlines or uplines or anything like that. It is about being a part of something. It is about being a [part of a] community for him."
Ernie's need to be "child-like" is significant since both Ernie and Bets have an innocence to them that sets them in jarring contrast to Krystal's practical and ruthless edge. Reflecting on the naivete of Ernie and Bets, Rodriguez attributes it to the '90s time period. "It's [set] in the 90s. We didn't have the internet in full swing back then. We didn't have pop-ups selling us things. We weren't as jaded. I mean the worst thing we had back then was a telemarketer calling you when you having dinner. We were all a little more innocent. The worst thing you did have was [FAM-like] stuff like Herbalife and Amway." He laughs remembering the scene where Ernie and Bets find the VHS tape that Harold has been watching and wonder if he has started thinking about sex. "They are freaking out about this music video on VHS. To think that is something parents would freak out [back then] compared to now with all the stuff that is on the Internet and the things kids watch."
The '90s setting and shooting in New Orleans, which Rodriguez calls "a pretty magical place", also brought out the kids in the lead actors. "It was like being on the playground together. It really was, especially with Beth [Ditto], who is so brand new [to acting]. And then there was Kirsten, who is such an amazing actress. She gives you everything, all the time. She'll give you exactly what she gave you in her coverage on your coverage. They were both really wonderful to work with." He revealed that there were lots of laughs on set because they all got along. "We didn't hold anything back and we all have a very similar sense of humor, which is great. I don't think the show would work if we didn't."
'On Becoming a God in Central Florida' airs Sundays on Showtime at 10 pm ET.