Until you get what you want, take whatever you can get.
Twin Cities actor James Rodríguez has embodied that maxim for a decade now, playing small roles at bigger theaters — he was a pirate in “Peter Pan” at Children’s Theatre — while getting meatier work from smaller companies, like the now-defunct Workhaus Collective.
That’s where his current co-star (and boss) Sara Marsh first encountered him, in 2012’s “The Mill,” an original play inspired by labor strife at a Minnesota factory. Rodríguez played a nonunion worker caught up in the conflict.
“James came onstage with a six-pack, and you didn’t know if he was going to offer the other guy a beer or kill him,” Marsh said. “That kind of ambiguity — that playing of the knife’s edge — was totally gripping. And I said, ‘I want to work with him.’ ”
This week Rodríguez undertakes the biggest role in his career: toxic boyfriend Eddie in Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” staged by Marsh’s company Dark & Stormy Productions, with Marsh playing his troubled ex, May.
“Two people who can’t quit each other,” is how Rodríguez describes the characters.
It’s their third play together for Dark & Stormy, but his first romantic lead. He played a kidnapper/rapist opposite Marsh in “Extremities” two summers ago and a winsome gangster in “The Norwegians” last December.
“James can play these thuggishly scary and insidious characters, but he is among the kindest, most thoughtful and generous actors I know,” said Marsh.
The cast was in the first week of rehearsals when they got news of the death of Shepard, the Pulitzer-winning playwright who once called Minnesota home.
They have vowed to make the show a fitting tribute to Shepard’s memory.
Making the audience ‘lean forward’
Rodríguez, who recently turned 35, never foresaw the career he’s had.
When he moved to the Twin Cities 14 years ago, he went to work for a nonprofit trying to safeguard civil liberties and human rights.
And when he first imagined life as an actor, it was mostly doing work by Latin playwrights.
“I guess that’s closer to who I am,” he said. “But playing all these different, tough roles is a good stretch for me. I have to advocate for the humanity of my characters so that they’re seen as human beings, not just cutouts that you can easily dismiss.”
Rodríguez has impressed other directors and theater leaders, as well. Theatre Latté Da artistic director Peter Rothstein has cast him in several shows, most recently as a shady pirate in “Peter and the Starcatcher” last winter.
“James is one of those actors that makes an audience lean forward,” said Rothstein. “There is a subtlety and honesty to his work that is truly captivating.”
Ask theater professionals about him, and they speak of his range, his acting chops and his work ethic.
Annie Enneking has choreographed Rodríguez’s violent scenes in five projects.
“I do fight choreography all over town and what I love about James is that he’s focused, dedicated, easy to work with, game for anything and direct in his communication,” said Enneking. “He’s very thoughtful, working slowly and methodically to make sure that everyone feels safe. Plus, he’s got this beautiful flow to his body.”
That flow comes from his training. Rodríguez studied musical theater and dance at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico.
He grew up in a family of five children in El Paso, Texas. His mother, educator Ileana Ayala, lives there still with Rodriguez’s siblings and stepfather. His father, Jaime Rodriguez, is a produce sourcing manager at Twin Cities retail giant Supervalu.
Drawn to art and science
While most of his characters could be easily pegged as carnivores, Rodríguez himself is a vegan, with a passion for environmental causes.
“What drives me is the fate of the planet,” he said. “I put my money where my mouth is.”
At one point, he wanted to become a scientist. “It was a coin toss between acting and metallurgic engineering,” he said. “The college in my hometown has one of the best metallurgic engineering programs in the country, so I thought, if I didn’t try to be an artist, I could go to school for cheap and become a scientist.”
For the past seven years, he has supplemented his nighttime pursuits with a part-time day job at the Science Museum of Minnesota. There, he gets to burn a $20 bill onstage to demonstrate scientific principles (the money doesn’t really burn). He also gets to talk about cryogenics and to wow schoolchildren with the properties of liquid nitrogen.
At night, though, he does more internal work. In “Fool for Love,” he plays Eddie, a damaged man with hunger and demons roiling in his soul. The character resonates with him.
“Eddie’s carrying a lot of trauma, a lot of stuff that he’s never dealt with, and all of that plays out in his relationship with May.”
“Fool for Love” has had two memorable productions at the Jungle Theater in 1996 and 2013. Rodríguez and Marsh hope to make this third production indelible.
“So many people have been in situations or relationships where they need to escape but, for whatever reason, feel really trapped,” he said. “That’s a very uncomfortable space to be in, but it’s one where you have a chance to make some great theater.”