A sweet curveball

Two years ago, Algenis Perez Soto was just another wannabe Dominican baseball star who'd dreamed of leaving the impoverished island republic with a major-league contract. When his abilities didn't match up with his desires, he ended up working a dead-end job in a local hotel instead.

But that was before Hollywood intervened.

It's been a strange trip for Soto, who recently found himself in a posh Beverly Hills hotel restaurant. He reluctantly removed his sunglasses at the breakfast table, refused coffee and juice, smiled sheepishly when asked about the previous night's activities, and with the easy grace of someone accustomed to close attention, he leaned back in his chair and considered the remarkable detour his life has taken.

On the surface, Soto appeared perfectly at ease in the luxurious surroundings, another self-possessed young actor, albeit one with an athlete's bearing, a bit weary from the publicity machine but otherwise ready with the charm offensive. But talking with him, it becomes clear that Soto is all too aware that he's one quick step from returning to the obscurity of his previous life. Thanks to "Half Nelson" filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who cast this non-actor as the lead in their immigrant baseball drama, "Sugar," Soto has been granted an unlikely shot at the American dream via indie Hollywood.

"Sugar," opening in theaters Friday, is the moving portrait of Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a 19-year-old baseball prodigy struggling with the isolation and culture shock that come after he's drafted into the minor leagues, placed in a small Iowa town without knowing English yet desperate to succeed. He ultimately lands in New York, where life takes him on another path entirely.

The striking parallels between the script and his own experience weren't lost on Soto.

"I never thought I was going to be here as an actor," he said, his hands crossed elegantly on the linen tablecloth.

Like his character, pro baseball was Soto's dream. He grew up in a San Pedro suburb called Quisqueya as the middle son of three children in a family that, by Dominican standards, was affluent. His mother is a high-school secretary, and his father owns a small paycheck-cashing business. Soto had finished high school and even had some computer classes under his belt.

But he spent three years playing baseball on the island, waiting to get discovered. When that didn't happen, Soto left the game to find a regular job. He was working at a hotel in San Pedro de Macoris, hometown of baseball greats such as Pedro Guerrero and Sammy Sosa. Without a baseball contract, Soto had little hope of ever reaching the States. He spoke virtually no English, and his most marketable skill was playing second base or shortstop.

So when Boden and Fleck, who were scouting the island for actors, pulled him off a softball field to interview him, interrupting his casual game with friends, Soto was intrigued. "It was strange to me," he said. Later, when the filmmakers asked him to audition, Soto couldn't think of a reason why not. He never dreamed it would lead to anything. But Boden and Fleck videotaped him several times, talking about his life. Then they asked him to come back and read some scenes. It came easier to him than he expected. Suddenly, Soto was starring in a film. It hardly seemed real. Though the script, the story he was helping tell, certainly resonated with him.

"When I was reading the script, I was like, 'I know this guy. I know this history,' " said Soto, now 25. "I have a lot of friends who come to the United States to play baseball and now they are in New York doing different things."

By the time Boden and Fleck discovered Soto, they'd already spent months traveling back and forth from their home in New York, auditioning baseball players with no luck. They'd resorted to cruising the baseball academies of the region with a video camera, pulling boys off the fields to interview them, in search of their star.

They wanted someone who had "the ability to express themselves without even talking," said Boden. In Soto, they saw the same unaffected authenticity they'd recognized in young Shareeka Epps, whom they'd chosen from a New York City public high school to star opposite Ryan Gosling in the critically acclaimed "Half Nelson." (Epps has since gone on to smaller roles in several other films.) "When we look to cast somebody who hasn't had any acting experience before, it's really essential we find somebody who at some level can just be themselves and who shares a lot in common with the character," said Boden, calling from San Francisco. "Most of what we talked to [Soto] about doing was using his own experience as an actor in the movie and trying to interpret it in his character."

The film was shot during a few weeks midsummer 2007 for about $4 million. The Dominican scenes took place in a small town outside San Pedro called Consuelo, where cows, chickens and goats often wandered into the outfield. Soon the production moved to Davenport, Iowa, then Arizona and on to the Bronx in New York.

Soto, like Sugar, had never been apart from his family for any length of time. He'd never flown in a plane. Everything he knew about America he had learned from television.

As a result, Soto's on-screen emotions -- bewilderment over American Midwesterners, the frustration of learning English, the determination to make the most of his lucky break -- were true for him off screen as well. While Sugar grappled with making it to the major leagues, Soto aimed for something equally exotic and unlikely: an acting career.

Making the movie was hard work for Soto. Ironically, it was the baseball scenes he found most difficult. He had to learn to pitch and trained rigorously with a major-league coach. He pieced together direction from Boden's uncertain grasp of Dominican Spanish and his own small knowledge of English. Along the way, the filmmakers made script changes to better reflect Soto's personality or colloquialisms.

"They were trying to explain to me every single line of the script, making sure I was understanding what the dialogue really meant," he said.

He acquired a lot of English during filming and has an incredible vocabulary considering his limited experience speaking the language. But he still has a long road to fluency.

Soto admits now that he's a different person than he was even 14 months ago, when "Sugar" premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. And that's especially evident in his appearance. Back then, he wore a modest, closely shaved haircut, nondescript clothing and spoke little. Today, he sports cornrow braids, a flashy Ed Hardy T-shirt and touches of bling. Clearly, the months spent touring film festivals and rubbing shoulders with celebrities have had an effect.

For now, Soto is living with friends in Boston, flying around the U.S. to promote "Sugar," hoping to parlay this starring role into more acting gigs. The film's distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, has hired him to help publicize the film in Dominican communities in the U.S. His work visa has been extended several times. But Soto's future, like that of Sugar's, is uncertain.

"I think I have more opportunity here," he said, his eyes eager and earnest. "I've been like a different person now. Hopefully, this opens more doors."

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