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Arts & Entertainment

How Actor Julio Cedillo Thrives in Small Roles by Humanizing Stereotypes

The Fort Worth character actor reunites with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga for the acclaimed indie crime drama Upon Open Sky.
By Todd Jorgenson |
Julio Cesar Cedillo, right, with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga on the set of Upon Open Sky Julio Cesar Cedillo

It’s been almost two decades since Julio Cesar Cedillo and Guillermo Arriaga collaborated on The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. But it seems their careers have been in sync ever since.

The Fort Worth actor, who played the title role in the 2005 drama directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Babel have specialized in thoughtful, nuanced explorations of life along the border.

They never formally crossed paths again, however, until Upon Open Sky, a Spanish-language drama debuting with acclaim this month at prestigious film festivals in Venice and Toronto. The low-budget saga about grief and guilt charts a road trip among siblings seeking closure for a past tragedy.

Arriaga wrote the project for his two children, Santiago and Mariana, to make their directorial debut. And for the pivotal role of a truck driver responsible for an accident that killed the father of the teenage protagonists — and thus becomes their target for revenge — the elder Arriaga immediately suggested Cedillo.

“We’ve come full circle,” said Cedillo, who recalls first meeting the film’s directors when they were children. “It’s ultimately a film about redemption and forgiveness.”

The film begins in Mexico City, although Cedillo’s sequences were shot in the Chihuahuan Desert near the New Mexico border.

“It’s kind of a revenge story, but it’s also coming-of-age. Along the way, they learn a lot about each other,” Cedillo said. “They kidnap me, take me to the desert, and tie me to a tree. It was hot. These desert trees are spiny and there are bugs. There’s no faking that.”

Cedillo said he tried to be supportive and nurturing toward his three young co-stars — newcomers Theo Goldin, Maximo Hollander, and Federica Garcia — which was counter to the adversarial relationship between their characters.

“These young kids are some of the most naturalistic actors I’ve ever seen,” Cedillo said. “It blew my mind how good they are.”

Cedillo was born in Mexico but grew up in Fort Worth, graduating from Dunbar High School. He moved to New York for two years to enroll in acting school, but returned to Fort Worth in his mid-20s. He hasn’t left since.

Prior to his breakthrough in Three Burials, he worked in commercials and industrial films, was a regular on locally filmed children’s series Wishbone, and even showcased cars at the State Fair of Texas.

During a career now spanning more than 30 years, he’s worked for directors such as Wes Anderson and Taylor Sheridan. He’s perhaps best known for a pivotal recurring role on the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico.

As a character actor, Cedillo, 53, credits his longevity in part to finding something special in roles that other performers might overlook or dismiss.

“Part of the job of an actor is not to be comfortable,” he said. “You will always be stereotyped. It’s your job to humanize those stereotypes. We can’t be lazy. If we see the stereotype, that’s where the work begins.”

Upon Open Sky hopes to secure a distribution deal during its festival run. He also plays a sheriff in Chocolate Lizards, a Texas-set drama that premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival last year.

In the meantime, Cedillo has a supporting role in A Million Miles Away, a crowd-pleasing biopic about American astronaut Jose Hernandez (Michael Pena) that begins streaming this week on Amazon. He plays Hernandez’s father, a migrant farm worker whose son dreams of something bigger.

“I just want to challenge myself. It’s about authenticity,” Cedillo said. “Play to your strengths and the right work will always find you.”


Todd Jorgenson

Todd Jorgenson

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