What happens when an aging mob enforcer sides with his code of ethics over the interests of his employer? That is the premise of White Elephant, and the result involves bullets…lots and lots of bullets. Michael Rooker stars as the Gabriel Tancredi, the aforementioned enforcer who saves a police officer (Olga Kurylenko) after a failed assassination attempt. By saving the cop, Tancredi disobeys his boss, mobster Arnold Solomon (Bruce Willis), and must face the entire wrath of Solomon’s criminal enterprise.
Standing in Tancredi’s way is his former partner Carlos Garcia, the young, cocky assassin played by Vadhir Derbez. The son of Eugenio Derbez, the Mexican actor is now looking to cross over into more English-speaking projects after roles in Sense8 and The Seventh Day. Derbez sat down with Digital Trends to discuss White Elephant, growing up in an acting family, working alongside Bruce Willis, and his emerging music career.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: Looking at all your filmography and social media, do you ever take a break?
Vadhir Derbez: Not really. Most of the things that I do in my free time and that I enjoy doing as a hobby kind of add to my work. So I guess it all kind of interconnects to the point that even when I’m doing nothing, I’m playing music or songwriting so it all kind of works with each other. So no, I do not stop working, but I also enjoy it. It’s good. [laughter]
What attracted you to your role in White Elephant?
I’ve always wanted to do a good action film. Like something full of action, shooting, fights, all that kind of stuff. On top of that, [with] the story, I think it was it was really nice how the characters just play with each other. And well, the cast, of course, is amazing. I could not be with better people. So I think just everything about it was so appealing to me.
For your role as Carlos Garcia, you’re the new hotshot partner to Gabriel Tancredi, played by Michael Rooker. Tancredi is the grizzled veteran and no-nonsense enforcer who follows a strict code. What was it like working alongside Rooker? Were you able to pick up anything on set?
Oh, yes. He’s such a mess, like a good mess. He’s crazy. We all enjoyed working with him. He was always joking around, just bringing his sense of humor to things even outside of the set. We would finish work and all still take the time to go eat somewhere. He [Rooker] even took us and part of the crew shooting out in the woods. So it was fun. Stuff like that just happened and it was just great to live through. And I think learning from him in every scene, we were able to bring that friendship into it, and just start improvising and being silly and stupid about things we would say.
Did you have to go through any special training for these shootouts and fights in the film?
Yeah. Prior to shooting the movie, I had to constantly go with this stunt guy that would teach me everything about the guns, from the different kinds of rifles and handguns to how to knife fight and punch in the parts where I would have fist fights. So we went through every single little thing and how to do it properly and make it look good on camera also because it’s different. [I] definitely did a lot of training on that.
And actually, one of the fights that I have in the movie, it’s this knife fight with this six-foot dude that’s giant. They brought in a stunt guy. They always have someone like that on set. I remember he had this long, long hair, and he had to cut it short to look like me, right? He would be my double. I started doing the fight and all the first parts and everyone was loving it so much. They’re like, “Dude! You did it.” And they still used him for like one last scene just to use him, but I could tell that he was like, “Shit, I cut my hair for nothing.” [laughter]
You’re like Tom Cruise now, doing all your own stunts.
That’s right! Dude, I’m ready. I’m ready.
You spoke about the cast, and I want to specifically mention Bruce Willis. It’s definitely a little bittersweet, knowing he had to retire from acting after being diagnosed with aphasia. Were you able to spend some time with Bruce? What was it like sharing scenes with him?
He’s such a great guy. He’s older so he kept to himself in general, but he was always so nice to everyone. It was such an honor to be part of one of his last films and just share that time with him and that scene with him. He’s a legend. I’ve been such a fan of his work since I was so young. So just having him in front of me, sometimes, and even being there, I was like, “Oh, that really is him.”
It was nice. I just have to take that away with me. Good memories. And as you said, it’s bittersweet. So in a way, I’m really happy, and I know that all of his fans are going to love this movie just to see him again. It’s such a good action film. But at the same time, it’s kind of sad that he’s not going to be doing any more films.
In your career, you started out with more comedic roles and now, you’re acting in other genres. You recently did a horror with The Seventh Day. White Elephant is an action thriller. Did you make a deliberate decision in your career to try and seek out more dramatic roles throughout different genres?
I have always been a big believer in being diverse. I’m doing music […] and then this [White Elephant]. And then I’ve done comedy, I’ve done drama. I’ve done different little things here and there. So I want to do exactly the same here in the U.S. I want to focus on expanding and challenging myself and finding roles that are really pushing those limits into something different. I would love to do something that’s a period piece and something more that has an Avengers feel.
There are so many things I would love to explore. I definitely enjoy doing drama and some more serious things. But, I also enjoy comedy so much. For example, I just finished a film with Rob Schneider that he was directing, and it’s this crazy comedy that has his [Rob’s] touch to it. You’ll see me with this long blonde wig, and it’s just ridiculous. It was very fun to do. I’m not closed off from doing comedy. I’m totally open to it, but I also want to keep exploring other stuff.
You’re also in the process of transitioning into more English-speaking films and television shows. Is it important for you to cross over into English-speaking roles?
One hundred percent I want to keep doing that. There are so many more things to do in Spanish, of course. And I mean I would never say that I’ve done it all, cause that would be a big lie. I have done a bunch of stuff in Spanish, and I want to explore the English market, which it’s easier said than done. It’s been a whole process for years now, and I’m happy that it’s starting to happen. So I just want to keep going at it, you know, and just keep exploring both worlds without forgetting or stopping doing anything in Spanish. I want to do both. But, I think my main focus right now, just because it has to be, is on English-speaking stuff. And then if there’s something that’s really, really attractive in Spanish, I’ll do it. But, I want to try to keep focusing on this.
You’re from a family of entertainers, from your dad and mom to your siblings. What was it like growing up surrounded by all of this talent?
They are very, very fun. I love that my sister is doing well in movies and shows and in everything she does. My dad’s wife is a singer, and she’s also touring around and doing music. She’s been doing so good. My brother also just started doing more TV shows and doing very well. He was doing more soap operas and theater. I’ve been doing the same thing, movies, and shows. And my father, well, he’s crazy. He’s doing amazing things. He’s definitely crossed over in such a wonderful way.
It’s been challenging because I think everyone is trying to do their own little path. It’s not that we’re not embracing each other. We love embracing as a family, but sometimes people are like, “Well, of course, he got this because of this and because of that.” They like to take the credit off. That’s the only downside of it. I feel that people just kind of don’t see all the work behind something that you do because they find it easier to just credit something else for it. So that’s the only downside to it.
It’s probably nice to see your dad in a Best Picture picture winner with CODA.
We were just so proud of him. I keep saying that since he was in Mexico, he was like one of the biggest comedians over there and people just adore him because he’s honestly so talented. He is great at what he does. We would think that he reached the roof and can retire, and then he decides to go for more and does great things with that. Then we figure that he’s up there [the roof] already, but he keeps going for more so the fact that now he was in this movie and you see him there at the Oscars. He’s doing it. We’re so proud of him. We’re also like, “Okay, dad, what’s next? Come on, leave some for the rest of us.” [laughter]
I don’t want to start any wars, but if I were to ask who the most talented person in your family is, you would say…?
I’m going to go with my little sister, Aitana, because that’s the safeguard.
Yeah, you can’t go wrong with that.
You got to go with the kids.
In addition to acting, you also have a career in music. Has singing always been a part of your life? When did you decide to try and make it a career?
It’s been a whole process. When I was ten years old, I got my first big role in a soap opera in Mexico, and that had music involved with it. My mother is a singer. I grew up surrounded by music and seeing her on stage. But in that soap opera, I remember having to sing. I was one of the kids who was good with following the tones and all that stuff. Then after that, I think when I was 13, I started teaching myself to play the piano. I started writing my own stuff, but I honestly did it for me. I never did it like, “Oh, I’m going to show this.” Social media wasn’t really a thing. So it was just kind of just something that I enjoyed. At the same time, I kept acting so I never really saw it as a career. It was just something I was really passionate about.
Every time I did something that had acting and music, people would be like, “Why don’t you sing? Why don’t you do something with singing?” I would just never listen to them. I was honestly very shy with it. So after years and years of people just telling me to do it, I decided, “Okay. Let’s get together with a producer. Let’s keep writing my stuff and releasing it.” The combination of the acting, the photography, because I also do photography, and all the visuals, it kind of came together. I was able to do my own music videos, write my own songs, and do everything and release it. And I’ve been doing it independently. So it’s a slower process, but it’s been doing good. More and more people that are in the industry have been believing in the project. They’re joining in and doing features with me so that is super nice to see. So yeah, it’s slowly growing.
What is next for you? Is it a mix of acting and singing? Maybe some more directing or writing?
Definitely create my own content like the shows and movies and develop that side of it. I would love to direct. My father always tells me that I have the skills to direct since he’s seen me shoot. It’s the same thing with music. It’s something that I’ve done for myself. So everyone is pushing me to do that and I really want to. So I think I’m going to pursue that. On top of that, I want to appear in more shows and movies. I have a couple of features with some good artists in Mexico. So yeah, just keep hustling.
White Elephant is in theaters and streaming on AMC+.