By Frank Portillo
Alumnus Peter Mendoza journeyed from student actor to playing the lead in “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” at the Kirk Douglas theater in Los Angeles.
In a Los Angeles Times review of the play from theater critic Charles McNulty, Mendoza was said to “raise the emotional stakes for the audience as the young Marine descends into hell.”
The actor, however, didn’t end up in his position easily.
He grew up in an adopted family due to his mother being homeless while pregnant with him and his father being in jail.
He grew close to his adopted family and now considers himself to have two families, both of whom he has close relationships with.
He grew up in East Los Angeles on La Verne Ave in between Whittier Blvd and Olympic Blvd. Despite being in gang territory, Mendoza said that he was unaware of the trappings of that sort of lifestyle.
Mendoza said his love for action movies was his inspiration for wanting to become an action star. He said that watching Jean Claude Van Damme jump over a flaming trash can in the movie “Hard Target” was the moment that it clicked for him.
Other inspirations in his life were Benjamin Bratt and Edward James Olmos, who were known for portraying such diverse Mexican-American characters.
The people that he credits for helping him get where he is today include his second grade teacher Mr. Galindo from Winter Gardens Elementary.
Galindo assisted Mendoza by taking extra time to teach the young would-be-actor the English language, which was a struggle, since Mendoza was primarily a Spanish speaker.
During his time at Montebello High School, Mendoza only participated in sports and choir. He didn’t think that the school had a good theater program.
When he started to take classes at East Los Angeles College, he wanted to become an English teacher and assist students the way Galindo had done for him.
At ELAC, his first acting professor was Tom Atha.
“He has been there since the beginning. He’s helped me with most of my roles. I go to him to work on auditions and for advice. He’s a good friend and a good person to lean on. He was always willing to offer his place to stay if I didn’t have (one). He helped financially and was more than willing to give me help because he saw in me, what I hadn’t seen in myself: potential and star quality,” Mendoza said.
Other professors who influenced him during his time at ELAC were Vanessa Mizzone, who gave him his first lead, and Rodney Scott, who instilled the importance of figuring out the characters that he was playing before performing.
Mizzone cast Mendoza as the lead in her directorial debut at ELAC.
She knew him from classes and when the time came to cast for the production, she felt that he would be perfect for the lead role.
“He was just awesome in it … I continued to be a big fan of Peter’s,” Mizzone said.
She assisted Mendoza in preparing for the role by helping him with his Philadelphia accent.
“It was fun to work with him again. I thought he did a fabulous job and I think he represented himself and ELAC very well,” Mizzone said.
After receiving his first lead role at ELAC, Mendoza auditioned for a role in the pilot for the series “East Los High.”
He was competing with the actor who would get the role and even made it to the final two choices.
Due to his lack of experience in television, the casting director decided to go in a different direction.
Despite being turned down for a role early on, he persisted in auditioning for roles everytime a new season began casting.
He said that the relationship between directors and actors is completely different in the professional and educational fields.
He said that at ELAC, he had become comfortable with the relationship dynamic between the directors and students, whereas in the professional environment, things tend to be harsh.
After his time at ELAC, having not graduated, he moved straight into the professional field.
Without a second plan, Mendoza was fully committed to acting and making it as a pro.
His commitment to the performance art kept him from working regular jobs because of the fear that it would affect his acting time.
His first professional gig after leaving ELAC, was for a play titled “Geeks vs Zombies,” which he describes as a goofy zombie horror/comedy project.
He played a lead in a production that alternated performances between two different casts.
When Mendoza became aware of the auditions for “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue,” he auditioned and was called back for an audition with the director and playwright.
At the audition, he received praise from the playwright and secured the role.
He was excited to get started on the production and to work with actors whose work he admired.
Since the production has ended, Mendoza is focused on getting back to his basic training as an actor, taking classes, but also living his life. Mendoza isn’t just an actor, but also spends his time working as a fight choreographer.
“It’s weird because you spend so much time, especially rehearsing and working on a character, and then you get up and perform it. When you’re done, it’s like ‘What am I going to do next?’ In order to be a good actor, you need to live life. It’s not just about the career because you draw from your experiences as an actor and if you don’t live, then what can you draw from?” Mendoza said.