‘How the Gringo Stole Christmas’ interview with director Angel Gracia

How the Gringo Stole Christmas is a new Christmas comedy starring George Lopez and directed by Angel Gracia. It’s heartwarming, hilarious, and seriously a joy to watch. The movie is about a young woman, Claudia (Emily Tosta), who brings her very American boyfriend, Leif (Jack Kilmer), home for her Mexican father’s (George Lopez) traditional Christmas. It’s got The George Lopez Show mixed Christmas with the Kranks and a dash of Nora Ephron vibes. It’s festive and frenzied in the absolute best way, and, at the core, has a great theme about family. How the Gringo Stole Christmas is in theaters and streaming on Friday. We sat down over Zoom with director Angel Gracia to talk about the movie. 

The interview with director Angel Gracia

[Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Ayla Ruby: Well it’s really lovely to meet you. I watched the movie for a second time. It was just really delightful, so I just wanted to say that off the bat.

Angel Gracia: Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Tried to make a different Christmas movie.

Ayla Ruby: It was awesome, and I have a lot of questions about that. So I wanted to talk about you coming on board with the project and some of the journey to getting it made, from the script to once you’re on board, just all of that.

Angel Gracia: Getting a movie made is an impossible task. Kids listening out there, you want to be a filmmaker, quit right now, get a proper job. I wish someone had told me this when I was younger. It is impossible. Now, once you get through that, can convince a bunch of people. And it’s taken me 10 years to set this one up because it came to me 10 years ago when I finished Prada to Nada and it was brought to me by a friend, an executive from the studio, Lisa Ellzey, who said, “You have to read this thing. It’s crazy.”

Ayla Ruby: Oh wow.

Angel Gracia: “And you should do this next.” So I read it and I met the writer, Ezequiel Martinez, who is a born and raised Chicano from East LA and “This is crazy stuff. What is this?” He said, “Well, it’s my friends and family, this is the hood. This is my people, this is my grandma. Those guys talk like my cousin.”

 Emily Tosta as Claudia, Mariana Treviño as Gabbi and Alma Martinez as Tita in the family comedy, HOW THE GRINGO STOLE CHRISTMAS, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Angel Gracia.
 Emily Tosta as Claudia, Mariana Treviño as Gabbi and Alma Martinez as Tita in the family comedy, HOW THE GRINGO STOLE CHRISTMAS, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Angel Gracia.


Angel Gracia: And so when you have a comedy like that and it’s based on authentic stuff, you try to make it. Obviously, Latin theme stuff, it’s not easy to get financed and it was more difficult a decade ago, so it’s a little easier now. And so I try to make a few attempts throughout a decade, let’s try this, let’s try that. Different configurations of actors and all that. And finally now when we had George Lopez attached to it, who is the right guy for that role, everything starts to come together.

Angel Gracia: And back to Lionsgate, where I did that movie and through Grindstone, great guys. Stan Wertlieb helped a lot to put it together, he’s the president there. I think everybody kind of needed, okay, let’s do a different kind of Christmas comedy, and if it can be a Latin theme with George Lopez, perfect. So it’s just a long way to get to that, to get to make something I’ve been wanting to make for 10 years.

On how George Lopez joined How the Gringo Stole Christmas

Ayla Ruby: I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. He’s just so perfect for that, and I just can’t imagine anyone else. Can you talk about how he came on board? Because you said it was a 10-year journey, it took a bit of time before he was attached. How did that work?

Angel Gracia: So you have your goals or who you want to do things, and so you send it out and see how they react and a month later or two months later when they finally say, “Yeah, I’d like to talk about this.” And so it’s really difficult to get to that place and then have a quick conversation, and someone like him needs to approve of me, right? It’s like, who is this guy?

Angel Gracia: But when you have something good, and it’s authentic, that conversation can be very quick. In five minutes, someone like George Lopez scans someone like me, like the Terminator, and knows if what I want to do is legit or not or a waste of time. And so, at that point, he jumps on board. Then I had Emily [Tosta] wanted to do it, I think even prior to him or about the same time. Then we got hit with COVID so that slowed it down again. So it was like we had different false jump-starts until finally we were able to put it together.

How A Man Called Otto’s Mariana Treviño joined the project

Ayla Ruby: So Mariana Treviño, she is amazing and was just in A Man Called Otto, which I love. [Check out our review of A Man Called Otto here.] And how about her? How did she come on? Was it a similar…

Angel Gracia: Actually, Stan Wertlieb from Grindstone, the president of Grindstone says, “You need to get her to play that role.” So we hadn’t cast the role, and he said to go and get her. So we sent the offer to the agents, and she signed on right away. I think that once you say you’re going to play opposite to George Lopez, that helps a lot. It’s not because of me; it’s because of George. And so she signed on very quickly, so there’s not even other thoughts or considerations. It was her.

Garcia’s journey From Prada to Nada to this film

Ayla Ruby: Okay. So you mentioned From Prada to Nada, that was I think, your first comedy, right?

Angel Gracia: Yeah.

Ayla Ruby: And now-

Angel Gracia: It’s 10 years ago. Yes.

Ayla Ruby: Yeah. So we talked about that time period. Can you talk about, was your approach to this different than your approach to that? Because obviously, you grow as a director. Maybe not at all?

Angel Gracia: So on Prada, I came on board also quite late, one week before shooting the film. And on this one I had about a week and a half of prep. So it seems like I specialize on having no time to prepare things. Now when I jumped aboard, having that situation and it’s like take it or leave it, or go back to doing commercials, Angel, you go, okay, how do I do this? And so my first thought in Prada [to Nada], which I used on this one was, you actors are closer to the experience of those characters yourselves. In both cases, Latinos living in this country experience.

George Lopez and Jack Kilmer in How the Gringo Stole Christmas. Photo courtesy of Angel Gracia.
 George Lopez as Bennie and Jack Kilmer as Leif in the family comedy, HOW THE GRINGO STOLE CHRISTMAS, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Angel Gracia.


Angel Gracia: What I want to do is I want to adapt it day by day to how you would say or do those things that are in the script. So you start with a good foundation of a script and then you try to work your way through it with the actors bringing on their approach, their take, their words, their feelings. How about if I say it this way? I don’t think I would say that. I would say like this.

Angel Gracia: And so if you’re really in tune with that, open-minded, and very quick to add those bits and pieces throughout the script, you will get one hundred percent of those actors. So that’s what I did in both. So I learned that in Prada and I amplified it and used it even more so on this one because Prada is a more defined romantic comedy structure, so you could only stretch it so far. And on this one, it was a bit more wild and free to go a little crazier on top of what was on the page. So, I was able to go a little further into the improvisational aspect of it.

On what was in the script and what was improvised

Ayla Ruby: It seemed like there was a lot of freedom in this. There were a lot of cool stylistic things, like the title cards. So how much of that was in the script versus what was coming out of the performances of the actors? Where does that end and begin?

Angel Gracia: It’s funny you mentioned the title cards ’cause they were afterthoughts.

Ayla Ruby: Really?

Angel Gracia: While editing the film. Yeah. So it’s like because we have so little time to think and plan, so I’m thinking and planning still now. So I’m shooting from the hip; I’m adapting to what’s coming. Then I’m going, oh, what if… And then jot it down, further, further. So it was that on set. Then when you’re editing, and you go, okay, we didn’t have enough time to do the establishing shot and transition from here to here to here. So while editing, it’s like, I’ve got to go and grab some shots of driving from here to here. And in the middle of trying to find the bits and pieces, because I shot the film in Jackson, Mississippi, in 14 days.

Ayla Ruby: Oh, really?

Angel Gracia: 14 days.

Ayla Ruby: I was just in Jackson, so that’s funny for me to hear. I was just there two weeks ago. This is awesome.

Angel Gracia: Two weeks ago would’ve been the right time. We were there in the summer.

Ayla Ruby: Oh, man.

Angel Gracia: 105 to 110 degree temperatures on set-

Ayla Ruby: And the roads. Oh, no.

On the title cards with philosophical sayings 

Angel Gracia: Melting, melt, anything but funny, right? That’s just not how you should make a comedy. Do not recommend to do that ever to anybody. So we have that, but we only have 14 days. What you do is you shoot the core of the performances, but now you got to open it up and transition from one place to the other and make a pause between each scene. You do that while editing in Los Angeles. And while doing that, I feel that I’m missing something. So my wife, who’s my co-producer and plays Carmen [Romy Peniche], the crazy Aunt, and I start brainstorming, what if we say this? And I don’t know what that came about, where it’s like, oh, well, let’s use all classical Mexican sayings that parents would say about philosophical bits and pieces and see what translates to English and how.

Angel Gracia:  So we tried a few title cards and then I’ll have American friends who don’t speak Spanish. “I don’t get that.” Oh, so that didn’t translate properly. And the same with the subtitles. So we had to go back through the editing and rewrite, rethink them so that they went on until delivery, like one hour before exporting the movie to this distributor.

Angel Gracia on choosing to film in Jackson, Mississippi

Ayla Ruby: Oh, well, it worked really well. And I think especially those little cards were just such a great way to frame the story. I really liked those. I did not have questions about Jackson, but now I do have questions about filming in Jackson. What was that like? How did you guys decide on Jackson? What was that whole… Tell me more.

Angel Gracia: So you know when you’re trying to make a film, you’re trying to get a state that gives you some love, right?

Ayla Ruby: Yeah.

Angel Gracia: Tax rebates namely and to the tune of 25 to 30% if you can. So there’s certain places you can try to do this, about five or six different states and it’s growing in this country where it’s easier or cheaper or whatever than Los Angeles, which is saturated and expensive and complicated to get tax rebates. 

On finding the lowrider that the vatos characters use in How the Gringo Stole Christmas

Angel Gracia: So you try different places. In this case, we landed in Jackson. And so the challenges are that not being a film community per se, it’s harder to find cast and crew. It’s harder to find a lowrider. It’s like, I don’t know how to spell the word low rider. We had to bring that thing from New Orleans, where there was a lowrider’s club of sorts, and have that thing on the flatbed delivered to us. And so it’s just that there’s pluses or minuses when you go to places that are not Los Angeles where you have everything costs triple-

Emily Tosta as Claudia and Anthony Zuñiga as Javier in the family comedy, HOW THE GRINGO STOLE CHRISTMAS, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Angel Gracia.


Ayla Ruby: Was the paint on that car standard, or did you guys paint it and do movie magic with it?

Angel Gracia: That car was like that as you see it.

Ayla Ruby: It was exactly like it; that’s awesome.

Angel Gracia: Yeah. So we had a scout go out and find the club and find places and then send me pictures. And when I saw that one, I’m going, oh, that’s it. Because we didn’t want that sort of the high-end. If you go to East LA, you got some really sophisticated, airbrushed, crazy chrome, shiny, really expensive lowriders.

Angel Gracia: And I kind of wanted to make a little bit of fun of everything in the movie, including that. And so when I saw this, it made me laugh immediately. I go, what is this? This is a funny lowrider. Then the actors playing the vatos, they are content creators, comedians, and influencers themselves. They’re not standard actors. So we sort of adapted their look and personality to a funny version of the tough guys. And somehow when I saw the picture of the car, I said, “Oh, that fits that. Makes sense.” So that came together almost by luck, organically.

Ayla Ruby: I love that. So I’m getting my end of time warnings, but I have kind of a double question. So did you have a favorite-

Angel Gracia: Let’s stretch it a couple of minutes. 

Angel Gracia on family, growing up, and accepting one another

Ayla Ruby: So what was your favorite part of the film? What really was the coolest thing to bring to life for you or anything that really spoke to you and is there a message or something that you want people to take away from the film besides, it’s really funny and awesome?

Angel Gracia: The coolest thing is if you can have fun with your family, with a comedy, with one of the greatest comedians of all time, George Lopez, and then while watching it, you actually also realize whether conscious or subconscious, how silly it is that we find ways to reject each other, the sort of underlying prejudice that we have against other cultures, other peoples. And also growing up as a parent of a 25-year-old, accepting, accepting that we do get old and kids become adults and you got to let go of it, and that’s part of it. So I think it has a bit of a social commentary behind the laugh out loud moments and the fun stuff that it is to watch a George Lopez movie.

Ayla Ruby: Awesome. Well thank you so much. This has been a really great talk. I appreciate it.

Angel Gracia: Thank you very much. I’m glad you liked the movie and enjoyed the title cards.

Ayla Ruby: Yes, I did.

Angel Gracia: I’m going to tell my wife who made them.

Ayla Ruby: Yes, she should get all the credit because that was fantastic.

Angel Gracia: Great. Thank you.

How the Gringo Stole Christmas is now streaming.

How the Gringo Stole Christmas is now streaming. It stars George Lopez, Mariana Treviño, Emily Tosta, and Jack Kilmer. Check it out from Prime Video, or however you like to access your streaming media. If the interview has piqued your interest, you can learn more about director Angel Gracia by visiting his website.

Your thoughts on How the Gringo Stole Christmas

If you’re in the mood for even more movies like How the Gringo Stole Christmas, check out all of our all of our Christmas and holiday movie reviews. ‘Tis the season for Genie, EXmas, Dashing Through the Snow, Best Christmas Ever, and so much more.