Jesse Garcia Explains Why Everyone Can Relate to ‘Flamin’ Hot’

Jesse Garcia stars as Richard Montañez in Flamin’ Hot, which is currently available on Hulu and Disney+. The simultaneous premiere is a historic first for an original film and it has also become Searchlight’s most-watched streaming motion picture of all time.

FLAMIN’ HOT is the inspiring true story of Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) who as a Frito Lay janitor disrupted the food industry by channeling his Mexican American heritage to turn Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from a snack into an iconic global pop culture phenomenon. 

We spoke about why this was the hardest job he’s ever done, making the film a love letter to the Latinx community, his approach to telling the true story, and more! Keep reading for our discussion.

Photo by Emily Aragones. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

To start off, how did the story personally speak to or inspire you?
Jesse Garcia: I mean, Richard’s story is inspiring. He came from really not much, which is the story of a lot of people, including myself, to doing what he had to do for him and his family to get by, getting a low-level job at Frito Lay and working with his family and with his wife, Judy, to impress Roger and Rico, to eventually get his promotion. I can relate to him that way, I’ve been in this entertainment business for twenty-three years. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs, had a couple of shots here and there and it’s taken me twenty-three years to get where I am right now.

I love that comparison you just made and want to ask, did you notice any parallels between you and Richard while you were in character and filming?
I don’t really work like that. I kind of had an idea of how I wanted to do it, and Eva and I had worked on it before and we rehearsed — I don’t really do my own life comparisons to what his life was. I just kind of came in, made some choices, played around, and took some risks. Some things worked, some things didn’t. I can see in retrospect how our lives can be similar, but I just didn’t. That’s not the way I was working when I was doing it.

Is there a snack that you would like to see the backstory of that is a personal favorite of yours?
Man, I don’t really eat snacks. I mean, I’m sure a bunch of the Mexican candies and Mexican snacks would make cool stories. I’ve actually never even thought about it and I’m sure there’s a really amazing stories behind all these things, they probably started in small kitchens or something. But there are other stories that would rather do, I’d rather do the story of Roy Benavidez, a Vietnam vet who was severely injured and paralyzed during war and kind of healed himself, and then went back in and saved a bunch of people.

Photo by Emily Aragones. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Were there any specific challenges for this project that you hadn’t experienced previously or that taught you something for future work?
This was the hardest job I’ve done. It was just a lot of — I was in 95% of the scenes, so I rarely had a day off. I think I had one and a half days off altogether through the seven-week shoot and even then, I came to work just to kind of check in or bring people coffees. I was on set every day but the hardest things really were the wigs and making sure we got the costumes right. I probably did twenty costume fittings before we even started shooting the movie and the wigs — we would do wig changes and facial hair changes at least once a day most days. So there was the wear and tear on my hairline, and just sitting in a chair having to get it done in thirty minutes because the shooting schedule is very quick.

What do you hope the movie gives to the Latinx community?
It’s just nice to see our own faces, you know? I’ve been doing this for, like I said, twenty-three years and I’ve had chances to do bits and pieces of what you see in this movie, and I’ve never had the chance to do everything in one movie. I think now that the movie has been fairly successful, the number one streaming Fox Searchlight movie of all time, there’s a demand for these kinds of stories, and a story like this, it’s also, I think, inspiring for filmmakers, that we can, ourselves, go beyond what stereotypical filmmaking and characters can be and make them authentic. There are Cholos in this and I play a janitor, you know what I mean? Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, but there’s ways of doing these stories with honor, dignity, and an authentic flavor.

So, I think there’s many ways to come out of watching this movie to be inspired to tell stories. This story is a universal story, I think it transcends cultural lines that everyone can relate to. When you talk to people all around the world, everyone gets it. No one is left out not knowing what we’re talking about because, at the end of the day, it’s about family, it’s about love. It’s a love letter to our community, but everyone else can read the letter and relate to it.

I think it’s so important when talking about representation to discuss how it can be universal and that everyone can enjoy it. Obviously, it’s so important for our community, but it’s really nice for everyone to be able to watch it together and find something they love about it or relate to, so I completely agree with you. I think that needs to be continued when it comes to representation.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, even if you watch any kind of bigger commercial movies, whether you like the Fast & Furious franchise or not, there’s wide representation on it, and people kind of gravitate toward it. Everyone kind of feels seen and if [it is] entertaining, there’s many different genres of entertainment, so there’s always something for everybody.

Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

As you said, Flamin’ Hot has been a great success, congratulations. What is it like to see everyone’s reaction to the film? Have you gotten to hear or read any reactions?
No, I don’t read reviews. I don’t even read the articles for interviews that I do and I try to stay out of the comments because you know, some people are gonna like it, some people aren’t and that’s just the way it goes, not all art is for everybody. But for the majority of it, I’ve gotten a lot of DMs where people will say, this story reminds me of my dad, my mom and my dad, or my tío and my tía, or reminds me of me, you know? People kind of overall, overwhelmingly support it and they feel seen, and even the people who come to this country as immigrants and find that they can have some sort of inspiration and the ability to dream and get somewhere has been overwhelmingly positive.

Lastly, how did this being a true story affect your approach to the character or the project overall?
I had a chance to meet with Richard before I went to Albuquerque to shoot the movie and sat down with him, Judy, Steven, and the rest of the family who showed up and we talked about their lives, talked about what it was like working at Frito Lay and nicknames that have for each other, and slang that they used and kind of like if Richard carried anything in his pocket at work and what it was like for Judy, just kind of the basics of what their relationship and their lives were throughout this journey. I also had that conversation with Richard like, “I’m not gonna be doing an imitation of you, I’m going to mimic everything that you do. I’m going to be doing my version of your story with honor and dignity because that’s how I can do it.”

When he and the family came to set, they would see a few scenes here and there and it was a very vulnerable position for this family to be in because we’re digging up part of their past that they’ve done a lot of work to kind of put behind them — gangbanging, drugs, and whatever they else they had to do to get by to the family that you see now. My purpose of meeting them other than getting information from them was to kind of put them at ease that we were going to tell their story with honor and dignity, and that at the end of the day, their story was going to inspire everybody, you know, [and] tell Richard’s version of the story. So, for me, it was an honor and a pleasure to tell his story, and Judy’s and the kids.