Melissa McCarthy delivers a punch as deftly as she does a punchline in her new action comedy “Spy,” and co-star Carlos Ponce says he learned plenty from watching the actress and comedian work on set.
The Puerto Rican actor is known for his role as the reluctantly friendly brother-in-law and floor installation guru Felix on ABC’s recently nixed “Cristela.” But in "Spy," Ponce trades his tools for a suit to become CIA agent Matthew Wright, who briefly appears on-screen to ruffle the feathers of his ultra-macho, comically impassioned fellow agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham). The testosterone levels of their interaction are as high as it gets for a film driven by its expertly cast female stars.
“Spy” is directed by Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids" and “Heat”) and marks his third collaboration with McCarthy. The film portrays Susan Cooper (McCarthy), a desk-bound CIA analyst who volunteers to go undercover when the identities of the agency’s best spies are compromised. Rose Byrne stars as a villainous and spoiled Bulgarian arms dealer, and Miranda Hart as fellow analyst Nancy.
Melissa McCarthy faces off against a knife-wielding adversary (Nargis Fakhri) in 'Spy.'
Ponce, 42, spoke to The Huffington Post recently and gave some unexpected responses to questions about working in a film packed with females and the type of female characters he’d like his daughters to see in Hollywood. The actor also discussed why he feels “Cristela” was a “great accomplishment,” despite its recent cancellation.
How did you get involved with "Spy"?
Well, it’s a little different from most of my other projects -- it was more of an approach then an audition. Something that I was very proud of. Just being surrounded by these wonderful comedians where you can not only go work but have fun. It really, really was a great gig.
The film is actually very female-centric, with Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne and Miranda Hart bringing different comedy to the table -- what was it like to work with a set filled with funny women?
There was a hell of a lot of estrogen on that on that set, definitely. But it’s all the good kind, because at least it’s the ones that are always in a good mood. It was a lot of fun.
What kind of things did you learn about comedy from watching them and the rest of cast on set?
A lot of times it’s just different styles -- a lot of comedians have different styles, and [I learned] how different they are from their personalities. Just watching Jason, for example, who is not necessarily a comedian, just pull those power punches with great timing, and then watching people who are very sensible to comedy but not necessarily branded comedians, like Jude Law [who plays the spy Bradley Fine in the film].
Melissa McCarthy was just impeccable with everything. She has a sense of delivery that is very uncommon, very her own and something relatable that people love from her. She’s approachable and she’s lovable no matter what roles she’s doing. And those are things you can only learn when you watch, when you watch other people. You read a line, you know how it’s supposed to come, and then you hear it coming out of an artist and you’re like, ‘Wow, look at how much you can do with this.’
Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham in "Spy."
And you play CIA agent Matthew Wright. I have to say I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of you in the film.
Yeah [laughs], well, we’ll see. Hopefully it’s such a good movie that it’ll have a sequel and then we’ll all be hanging around.
Has there actually been talk about the possibility of “Spy 2”?
Well, talking over dinner with Paul Feig, he seemed very open to the option. We’ve even gotten into conversation of maybe where it would go. But you never know, I mean, Hollywood is a giant mystery, so you never know what ends up happening.
You’re the father of two daughters. There’s been so much debate in Hollywood about placing more women in lead roles, and “Spy” is definitely one that showcases female talent. What kind of women do you hope for your daughters to see in film and television?
Well, the best you can do is outside of what they’re going to watch -- which is inevitable, and you can’t control their surroundings -- is teach them by example at home and not let a character in a movie make them want something or react a certain way.
I feel in general, men -- when you watch TV and when you watch commercials -- are usually not portrayed as very smart. Guys with great drive are usually controlled by the woman. In fact, that’s what makes them funny or comedic, and people want that. You know what I’m talking about? When you watch commercials, you see the guy sitting down playing the PlayStation, drinking the beer, and the woman is actually the one doing all the smart things.
OK ... so you’re saying the representation of men on television is also off?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I just think -- then again, we’re all just portraying characters and real life should be guided by examples of what you learn at home.
And speaking of men on television, you portrayed Felix on “Cristela.” Many in the Latino community were very sad to hear that "Cristela" was canceled last month. What is your biggest takeaway from being a part of the show?
I think it was a great accomplishment no matter what. I think so many things were done with that show and through that show: breaking stereotypes and boxed-in rules. The fact that a Latino woman [Cristela Alonzo] could be a creator, writer, executive producer of the whole show -- it skipped a lot of steps, a lot of logistical steps. I think it’s amazing, the fact that you can have a Latino family on television, it’s certainly a move into the future.
I do think that we’re still a little bit under-represented, considering how much TV we watch and that we’re 20-something percent of the moviegoing business in America, yet we’re represented something like 4 percent. I think it’s still a work in progress. We need to do more. But I did take a lot from it. It was just a great show -- we were number one in our time slot. It’s just a matter of negotiations, the reason why it didn’t end up working out.
From left, Kevin Hench, Cristela Alonzo and Carlos Ponce speak onstage during a "Cristela" panel at the Disney/ABC Television Group 2014 Summer TCA. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
“Jane The Virgin” is another example of a show giving an authentic portrayal of Latinos in the U.S. But there are other Latino stories that need to be told.
Yeah, well, I love the particular feel of “Jane The Virgin.” I think it’s an amazing show. Also she is fantastic, Gina [Rodriguez of "Jane The Virgin"], and she’s a hope-maker for a lot of Latinoamericanas who are here and are looking to perhaps pursue a career in this. And I think it’s a fantastic show. I really hope that [“Cristela”] and “Jane The Virgin” and some other shows that have included some great non-stereotypical Latino actors are opening doors and we’ll get to see a lot out of that pretty soon.
And you’ve spent your entire career between English-language projects and Spanish-language projects. But after “Cristela” and “Spy,” do you think you’d like to focus more on your English-language career?
You know, I think I’m going to keep doing whatever I have been doing, which, basically, I let God take the lead. The projects that come my way -- I put them on a balance and look at how they affect my day-to-day. How will they affect my time with my kids who are still young and still want to hang out? Those are my priorities right now. I’m not seeking to establish a particular market, to me it’s more a per-project and whatever works out better for my personal life, and that’s how I choose projects. At least for now. Until my kids are old enough to do their own thing.
"Spy" opens nationwide on June 5.