T.I has an album called “T.I vs T.I.P” which takes you on a journey of exploration into the two personalities that make up the man known as Clifford Harris. The story of Michael Diaz is no different. While Diaz’s claim to fame may be similar to T.I’s – he created a rap video spoof of Wiz Khalifa’s Black and Yellow song called Pan con Queso – there is more to the man many know as Michael Diaz. Actually, there’s a personality called “Juan Bago.”
This is the story of Michael Diaz, a.k.a. Juan Bago: the actor, the community activist, the producer, the writer, and the son.
When you look at your profile, you see actor, producer, writer, activist, and community board member? Do you ever feel like you’re over-extending yourself?
I used to over-extend myself when I was younger. Everyone does so when they first come in as you want to gravitate to everything. You can do all the stuff and dedicate the right amount of time. But you don’t want to over-commit, and I found myself doing that at times. One of the most important skills to have in entertainment is the ability to manage your time well.
There was a point in time where I thought I could do everything. It then gets to a point where you can thin yourself and can’t do every little thing yourself. You learn that being a volume actor isn’t as important as being a quality actor.
If you could rank all the things that you’re doing right now in terms of importance, what would be their order?
Well producing and acting are my two passions. After that, I must say that writing comes next as I’ve always had that skill. Last, but not least is activism and my new responsibility as a Community Board 12 member in my Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods.
Many actors choose to help their community through charitable donations. But you’re getting down and dirty in the mix of local politics. How did that come about?
We all do what we love, get paid for it, and collect the fruits of all our labor. But there also comes a point where you have to give back. I’m not at the point where I can create a charity, but I can give back in a different way; in an ideal way. If you look at the true reflection of what’s going on in the neighborhood, I know the youth also needs a voice. Artists need a voice. And that’s what I’m bringing to Community Board 12.
Are you bringing hope and change like Obama said he would in ’08 to Community Board 12?
[Laughs.] I’m not promising any changes but if I could go ahead and spark some change for some other youth members and artists to join, then I’ve done my job.
Tell me a bit about your upbringing because people today identify you with Washington Heights and Inwood, but you actually aren’t from here.
I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut. I was the only Latino in my town of 6,000 called Redding. Being that I was always different and stood out, I had an identity crisis. I was around blue eyes and blonde hair through my teenage years and never fit the mold. I had that – as we Latinos like to call it – “pelo malo.” Man, I looked a mess because my father would wait 3 months to take me to get a haircut as my barber was in the Heights.
So your dad was that dedicated to having you get a haircut from a Dominican barber in a Dominican neighborhood, huh?
Yes he was. My grandmother lived out there so I would kill 2 birds in one shot.
So how did you fit in with your hair being rough as you like to call it, and being the only Latino in town?
Well, it just wasn’t my hair. I would always have the same sneakers for a long time. My classmates had all these materialistic things, but I didn’t. the biggest gift for me was my personality and that was accepted. I was the school clown.
Why doesn’t that shock me?
[Laughs.] I was more than that though. I was a hardcore, underground rap fan and the janitor and myself would literally supply everyone with the new Hip-Hop. I would have all the new music for them as they didn’t really know what sources to go to for them.
So let’s fast forward a bit to where you now reside, Washington Heights. When did you decide to come here?
I moved to the Heights at the age of 21. I was in school for business at Central Connecticut state University and decided it wasn’t for me.
So is this the point where you dropped all your stuff and said I’m moving to New York for acting?
Yes! My best friend and some other friends had a camera and we were always doing things in front of the camera. We had characters we would create and we would just get up and film. My best friend’s cousin was a photographer, filmmaker and actor and we all just started to shoot stuff. I didn’t know anyone when I came here and it was a struggle. It was scary, difficult, and frustrating. I went for roles as a Latino all the time, and I was background acting and would end up on a set for 12-14 hours. With background acting, it was crazy when everyone is at the back of the film trying to be in the front; It’s almost survival of the fittest.
What else did you do besides background acting to get your name out there?
After a few years of background acting, MiGente.com became a great promotional place for me. I would write a lot of comedy sketches on the site and they would receive great responses.
I remember doing one story about being a Dominican in the suburbs which got a really great response.I wrote about a moment when you remember that you are the only Latino in a mostly white town. I remember Halloween at my house one year and how we didn’t have candy. My dad went ahead and started giving out those green mints our parents always bring us back from DR. I hated them and was embarrassed that he was going to give them out. The next day on the school bus there were hundreds of kids saying how nasty they were. It was embarrassing, yet funny at the same time.
I remember you made “The Story of Juan Bago” and that didn’t strike me as the stereotypical film you see many Latinos and African Americans make. Was that a concerted effort?
I made that movie in 2006. But when I went to the Latino Film Festival in 2004, I said to myself that I wanted to make good movies that represented our communities in different, positive ways. The same way that many of the Black movies in the 90’s like “The Wood,” “Waiting To Exhale,” “Boyz N The Hood” and others had positive spins.
I know every actor goes through this — was there ever a point where you felt you weren’t going to make it?
I think every actor goes through that. There is a point where all of us just don’t believe. But that is also the moment when you begin to fight yourself. I have a lot of talented friends who aren’t doing anything, and in some way, they inspire me to do my best.
Let’s talk a bit about this matchup: Juan Bago vs Michael Diaz.
Michael is that behind closed doors serious producer and activist who studies the game incessantly. Juan Bago is the brand. He’s the guy in front of the camera. If I’m going to talk business, it’s Michael Diaz. Everything else is pretty much Juan Bago.
When you think of Dominicans, you immediately think baseball. The other day we uploaded a video of you and Lin Manuel Miranda playing handball. Were you a handball player growing up?
[Laughs.] That was Juan Bago for sure. Michael Diaz was the competitor in all that. Lin Manuel is really good at it. I grew up on baseball and football. That came out of a Twitter conversation in which I challenged him. But I cant lie, he waxed me. I got really good in the end, but to no avail.
Would you win if there was a rematch?
I would definitely win if there was a rematch.
How much of an inspiration has someone like Lin Manuel been with all that he’s accomplished?
I actually have a pretty funny story about him. Back in 2005, I did an interview with the Manhattan Times about my production company and his cousin, Landa Townes, told me her cousin was doing a play based on the Heights. And then the next year, it was off-Broadway and I went to cover it for SiTv and I left with my jaw dropped from how great it was.
Lin Manuel, John Leguizamo and Lemon Anderson have been inspirations to me in different ways. They definitely help to remind me that there’s more work to done, and greatness can be achieved.
Recently, you relaunched your Bochinche Bueno Radio Show? Tell me a bit about that.
It’s a moment for us to really talk and let it all out. Even with producing and acting being our main focal points, radio is therapeutic for us as a team. The team consists of myself, Jay Fernz, and Loca La Boca. We broadcast our show live from the Manhattan Times offices. Our show focuses on both mainstream topics and topics that are important to Washington Heights and Inwood. We’ve partnered with the Washington Heights and Inwood Radio Show and have struck a great balance.
You also have one of the premier networking groups for Latinos (open to all) in the Bago Bunch. How did that start?
The Bago Bunch started when I met one of the co-founders Paola through this Lemon Anderson show. We started building a relationship and spoke with the other co-founder, Frank Nibbs about possibly starting a networking event up here. So we started doing the brunches at Calle Ocho and Altus and they just continued growing and growing. The original vision wasn’t what it s now. It just manifested from the networking of people we brought together. Moving forward, we want to continue doing this. We also want to bring some events from downtown, uptown.
Has the Pan Con Queso video increased your media presence?
Before Pan Con Queso, I could run for mayor in the Bronx and win with my “Fernando The Party Planner” commercial which came on seven times a day in the Bronx.
It’s funny you mention that because I saw that in the Bronx one day earlier this summer and was like: “Hold up, that’s Bago,” and started laughing.
People always use to stop me in the street and ask me if I was him. With Pan con Queso, they were definitely paying me more attention. There were more phone calls returned and more respect was given. But, I also want people to know that there’s more to Juan Bago than the spoof videos. It’s a great thing, and it’s a funny video that sticks in people’s heads.
What has that video opened for you?
The Pan con Queso video helped out a lot with the brunch and industry events. It helped to validate me a bit more.
How did this “Juan Bago” name come about?
We initially had a different name for the feature character in “The Story Of Juan Bago.” The story wasn’t intended to become a comedy. The title went from just Juan to Juan Bago because some cast members saw how lazy the character was and decided it would be funny to add the Bago even if it isn’t spelled correctly.
What do you have in the works?
I’m doing a fake reality show based on me and a couple of friends where we start a production show. A webisode series where The Office meets Curb Your Enthusiasm where one guy wants to be an actor and the other a singer. I also want to film my next feature next year, and do a comedy one in the neighborhood which would be about Juan Bago fighting crime in the neighborhood as a vigilante. I also want to develop more scripts and go on more auditions. I’m looking at a few scripts as we speak.
Last, but not least, what would you say to an up-and-coming actor?
That the game isn’t the same as when I started. The game is no longer about being strong and diesel and good looking. You can be anything and have your story told. You can credit the Seth Rogen’s and Steve Carell’s for that.
Nowadays, you also have to understand show business. There was a point where I would get frustrated going to casting calls when I would smash a role, but the casting director would say I’m great, but not what he’s looking for. People have to understand that it’s a business and the best actor won’t always get the role. But what’s different from before is that you can also take more into things into your control with a camera and the digital space; and more people are doing so nowadays.
I follow the 10,000 hours rule. Just practice, practice, practice and you’ll get there.