By: Gordon K Smith
If you were a loyal watcher of the last season of the Dallas-filmed series “Prison Break”, you no doubt remember a recurring character who was a sultry-but-fake Panamanian nun. She was played by Dallas actress/singer Crystal Mantecon, and you’ll be seeing a lot more of her in the years to come. Maybe you already did, in the Dallas indie feature “Fissure” or the Hollywood sequel “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”. In the last year she played an Arabic-speaking femme fatale in the Texas-made political thriller “The Waiter” and became the star (in illustrated form) of her own comic book series, She-Buccaneer.
Crystal’s multicultural background (she was raised in Cuba, one of eight siblings of Mexican-Cuban parents) has put her in demand for a variety of ethnic roles. She is an accomplished coloratura soprano vocalist, dancer, National Merit Scholar and has a degree in International Business and Marketing. Oh, and she’s a filmmaker herself now, with a producing credit on “The Waiter”. When does she ever sleep? We decided to find out in a recent e-mail interview.
Knowshi: How did you wind up co-producing as well as acting in “The Waiter?”
CM: After I read the script I wanted to be a part of helping it come together in any way I could because I believed wholeheartedly that the story should be told, especially with the political and corporate climate changing as fast as it has since 9/11. Its message is that the powers that be see us as cogs in a system, and once we’re expendable, it’s pretty much “bye bye”.
Knowshi: What exactly does a co-producer do on a low-budget film such as this?
CM: In an independent project…a co-producer can be someone who contributes in a wide variety of ways, from pre-production to post-production…I did anything from running errands to helping coordinate sets. Finally, I was able to really help the production when I connected the producers with a few of the star actors featured in the film.
Knowshi: How did you get Oscar-nominated character actor Charles Durning to appear in the film?
CM: If it’s meant to be, it’ll work out…one of my dear friends who also happens to be a longtime working actor AND has lived in Dallas during the latter part of his career, John William Galt, blessed us with setting up meetings and contacting many of his friends. One of his friends happened to also know Charlie, so the director gave him a call and sent him the script. He really liked the script, and it was a go…We worked around his schedule because he IS Charles Durning…We did not know him before the project, and now and forever we will consider him a friend. Many of us from the film still get together with Charlie for a big reunion dinner once a month or so. You gotta love the guy!
Knowshi: You had to learn Arabic in one month for your role of the Saree, an Iraqi refugee, in “The Waiter”. How did you do this?
CM: I studied what I could about Arabic and Semitic languages, the structure, the history, the accents, but fluency was not something I had time to accomplish…yet. I met with two fluent Arabic speakers, Lutfi and Yousef, translating Saree’s words. It is a poem so we had to keep it in that form. Written classical Arabic really is poetic as it is, but the challenge was in making it as elevated as the poetry, but still be appropriate for spoken rhetoric…thank goodness I had them to help me train my voice in the pronunciation, rhythm, and tone on the second time we met which was closer to the shoot date. On set, I was on my own. I couldn’t be at the (Houston) premiere a few months later because I was working on something else, but I was so nervous. When I heard that the fluent Arabic speakers (in the audience) had no idea I was not a native Arabic speaker…I was so relieved! It felt like, suddenly, I was weightless.
Knowshi: What in your life prepared you to conquer such a challenge?
CM: I have a knack for picking up languages. It’s been a blessing to do that in life as well as in my acting career. Aside from singing and voice training, my parents deserve some credit for that tuned ear I have. My first language was Spanish. My parents eased me into speaking English, then began speaking to me in English only. I watched English cartoons (on TV), and they encouraged me to begin speaking English in various ways. By the time I was in school I was all set. I wish the bi-lingual programs in public schools were more like that. Yesterday I saw someone reading “It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools” by Karin Chenoweth. I hope that school administrators are reading that book. Change to the system is necessary.
Knowshi: What were your days at Booker T. Washington Performing Arts School in Dallas like?
CM: Sometimes I wish I could go back to those days. When I was there, it was a Blue Ribbon School, which means it’s in the top 100 high schools in the country, based on the academic education provided. We had a rigorous core class study, and we were part of a school filled with passionate artists of all kinds, including the staff.
I was music major for voice, and I loved it… when we didn’t have concerts or rehearsals after school for choir or the jazz ensemble or the musicals, there was time for other things as long as you would stay up a few hours late working on your academic homework…I starred in senior thesis plays, I took theatre dance classes…I asked the pottery teacher if I could learn a few things while students were finishing their class projects. I was so excited she said I could! I also took jewelry-making as one of my senior electives. It was cool to participate in the art show with the visual artists, so I was cool (laugh!). I highly recommend it for any incoming high school artists who want a well-rounded education in academics and the arts.
Knowshi: Terence Malick is an Oscar-nominated director with a distinct style and vision. What can you tell us about working with him?
From working with him I feel that the brilliance of his films spawn from his artistic connection to the world he creates. It’s all so organic. He loves and respects all who work with him on his endeavors, and he adores the special nuances that others bring to his vision. He is truly inspiring, and he made me feel that that I was inspiring to his creation. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I hope very much to work with him again in my career.
Knowshi: What do you think of the current state of filmmaking in Texas, with so much work going to Louisiana?
CM: There are so many advantages to shooting in Texas that many indie films going to Louisiana don’t realize. I know of a few independent filmmakers who decided to shoot in Louisiana, only to find that there were many more outrageous costs they did not anticipate outweighing the state’s incentives. That includes having to travel and house so many crew members, because there are so few that actually live there that the big budget projects already scooped them up. Besides the infrastructure, Texas’ landscape is more diverse, and it’s easier to find varied locations.
UTM: Tell us about “She-Buccaneer”. Not everyone gets to see themselves as a comic book action hero(ine).
CM: SheBuccaneer is constantly in peril dealing with brutal man-eating, mutant giants, dragons, ghosts, evil pegan gods and the general pirate scum. It’s fun, imaginative and super-saturated with pirate gusto. She must go to every ocean to free the imprisoned soul of her greatest love. It has amazing twists that intertwine history, religion, mythology and swashbuckling fantasy.
I may not have been a pirate, but almost every night a kid and teen I dreamt I was a hero. It was cool. I would wake up almost every day either feeling like I saved the world or still trying to foil the plot of the evil enemies who sought to inflict harm. Anything was possible, yet sometimes it didn’t seem so. I battled my inner demons even in those dreams as heroes must constantly do to remain strong. It seemed so real. I remember many of them vividly. Maybe I can recapture that childhood feeling as SheBuccaneer.