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Q&A: Shea Serrano ponders life and more in ‘Movies (and Other Things)’

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Author and entertainment journalist Shea Serrano, photographed in front of Bob’s Market in Angelino Heights, during a recent trip to Los Angeles.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Among the many topics covered in his new book “Movies (and Other Things),” bestselling author Shea Serrano writes about high-octane hero Dominic Toretto with such infectious appreciation, I had to invite the visiting San Antonian to the Angelino Heights intersection where it all began.

“The mecca!” he grins as we park it on a bench across from the site known to fans of 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious” as Toretto’s Market. It is played onscreen by neighborhood bodega Bob’s Market. Outside on the street, many a tire has since burned circular tokens of tribute into the asphalt, and as we chat a steady stream of fans stops by for selfies.

Serrano has already scanned the market for tuna sandwiches. After all, it is a cinematic food covered quite seriously in his book’s chapter “What was Dominic Toretto’s win-loss record?” for which he exhaustively tallied and analyzed dozens of pivotal moments centered around Vin Diesel’s character in the “Fast” films.

“I saw the first [‘Fast & Furious’] when it came out in theaters,” says Serrano, a former teacher turned journalist and author, flashing back instantly to life at that precise moment in time. “I was brand-new into college, I finally had my own car… a little Ford Escort. I saw the movie and it was like you were doing burnouts in the parking lot afterward.”

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When talking movies, Serrano inevitably waxes personal and philosophical, whether mulling sagas of street racers or, as in his book, films about homesick fish, dog-owning assassins, cinematic gangsters, who got the worst fate in “Kill Bill,” what should have won the Oscar every year since 1995, and Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give.”

In total there are 30 chapters on wide-ranging subjects in “Movies (and Other Things),” a follow-up to NYT bestsellers “The Rap Yearbook” and “Basketball (and Other Things),” also created with illustrator Arturo Torres. Each essay turns the pop culture whiz’s voracious appetite for movies of the last several decades into jumping-off points for wider cultural conversations and curiosities.

“Everybody who cares about movies in a certain way, you eventually end up back at the same five or six feelings that a movie gave you,” Serrano says. “And I have to write about the movies that I like in a way that allows me to get back to those feelings.”

We are here today because you share my love for the “Fast & Furious” franchise, which you write about in your book. Why did you connect with those films?

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Dominic Toretto was a very interesting movie creation. He has so much gravity to him. I loved that [San Antonio native] Michelle Rodriguez was in it; in San Antonio, she was like an icon. She was our acting version of Tim Duncan — beloved on every street corner! It helped that the movie was fun to watch. You got a peek into a world that I didn’t know anything about. And that was just the first one.

It became this global phenomenon but always at its center was Dominic Toretto, Mia, Brian and Letty, just talking about family. This is a thing you understand implicitly, either because you come from a strong family unit or you’ve got a [terrible] family unit but you’ve got a group of friends who feel like, if I got to pick my family that’s what this would be. And everybody wants to feel like that.

The movies we love stay alive in our hearts and minds, which is the emotional space your book plays within. Was that always typical of your own relationship with movies?

When I came to L.A. for the first time, the first place I asked to go was the basketball court where they filmed “White Men Can’t Jump.” It was like an hour-and-a-half drive to get out there, but this guy that I was working with at the time said, “I’ll take you.” It was like the best date I’ve ever been on. Then, I wanted to go see the tree from “Blood In, Blood Out.” When you watch a movie and it grabs ahold of you, it feels like it becomes a part of you. That feels silly to say, but you see it in real life. “Friday” (1995) is the first example I remember of this happening. ... It seemed like overnight at school everybody started talking in the same six or seven sentences. Nothing was the same after “Friday” came out for a certain group of inner-city kids.

“What if the Rock starred in ‘Double Impact’?” hadn’t occurred to me before reading your chapter imagining the Rock in iconic films he never starred in, but now it’s a thought exercise I can’t forget.

It’s a funny idea, to think about putting the Rock in “My Girl” or “Double Impact” or “Titanic.” The reason we did this particular chapter this particular way is because it’s glancing at how the Rock became the biggest movie star on the planet, in an era where that doesn’t happen anymore. His game plan here was, “I’m just going to be in everything.” From 2016 to 2018 he was in seven movies. Seven! That didn’t happen in the ’90s. I wanted to talk about him and I wanted to talk about that, but I didn’t want to say that exact thing. So I go, “What we should do is put him in even more movies.”

You’ve got this silly idea that secretly has a bigger idea behind it, and eventually the reader will get there. If they won’t or don’t, it doesn’t matter, but if they do it’s a cool bonus.

You write about what the biopic “Selena” meant to you — and by extension, what J. Lo represented to the Mexican American community, even though she is of Puerto Rican descent. Was that something you realized at the time?

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Why she’s important to me came later, but at the time it was like, “I’m in on Jennifer Lopez.” When you’re 13 or 17 you’re not like, “Representation is important to me.” John Leguizamo, I saw him in a comedy special in 1998 called “Freak” — I was like, “This guy is just a cool guy.” I liked him immediately. That’s what you understand when you’re a kid, just implicitly. You realize later on, “Oh, this is probably part of the reason why I cared so much about her.”

You also talk to your three young children about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which they’ve now grown up with. One of your sons says, “Aren’t we all in one big universe?” Which actually is quite profound.

[Laughs] And he’s 12 years old!

And you raise a great point regarding “Avengers: Endgame” when you say, “I wish there was a Mexican Avenger.”

There were a hundred superheroes in that movie — you can’t throw us one? We can’t get one? “Endgame” came out and we had a really good conversation about it by accident, the boys and I. It stuck with me, thinking about how we let movies into our lives. The older ones are 12 now and we started going to the movies when they were 5 or 6. They’ve seen so many of these superhero movies. I thought, “We should talk about how this became a part of our lives.”

This book feels like talking movies over beers with a really inquisitive friend. What’s it like to actually go to the movies with you?

I’m great at the movies. I have the same movie theater philosophy as I do for airplanes. I’m not going to talk to you during the movie. I’m not going to talk to you on an airplane. I’m not going to get up to go to the restroom. I’m not going to take my shoes off. You don’t have to take your shoes off. Why are you taking your shoes off?

In honor of a classic you cite in one chapter, here’s a hypothetical: Do you think Bodhi survived the Wave at the end of “Point Break”?

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It’s the perfect ending for Bodhi and the perfect character for Patrick Swayze. I am choosing to believe that he did survive. He paddled his way out of it. If anybody could have done it, Bodhi could have done it. Bodhi was one with the ocean.

Yamato is a film reporter for The Times.


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