Mario Lopez is here to provide all the holiday cheer
If ever there was a reporter best equipped to interview celebrity Mario Lopez, I’d be at the top of that list.
Lopez and I are both from Chula Vista. We went to rival high schools and graduated the same year. We had several mutual friends. A quick IMDB search even reveals that our birthdays are just five days apart.
It’s more surprising, really, that we haven’t met.
But, finally, after more than 20 years as an arts writer, the opportunity to interview Lopez presents itself. He’s promoting not one, but two projects: a highly-anticipated “Saved by the Bell” reboot, and “Feliz NaviDAD,” a Christmas movie that highlights Lopez’s (and mine!) Mexican holiday traditions. Both projects will be released just in time for the holidays; “Feliz NaviDAD” premieres Nov. 21 on Lifetime, and “Saved by the Bell” premieres Nov. 25 on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock.
“You’re from Chula Vista, that’s great,” says Lopez when I begin to list all the ways we’re connected.
“I love Chula Vista, it’s still home, my parents are still in Chula Vista and I go back often — though not as often as I’d like — just to eat all the mariscos (seafood) and visit the family,” says Lopez. “Chula Vista’s great, it’s such a diverse place to grow up ... a couple hours away from L.A. but a world of difference, it really helped keep me grounded.”
Because of his South Bay upbringing, Lopez says he was able to participate in regular high school activities, you know, the kinds of things his character A.C. Slater experienced on “Saved by the Bell”: wrestling team, prom, trips to the mall.
As he talks about his years at Chula Vista Junior and Chula Vista High, I prepare for us to have a memory lane type of conversation — tangents about our mutual friends, laughing about all the time we spent (separately) at Plaza Bonita mall. But that doesn’t happen. I can’t seem to crack his trademark, polished persona. (Remember, he’s currently an anchor on “Access Hollywood” and spent over a decade hosting “Extra.”)
Because if there was ever a celebrity best equipped to breeze through phone interviews with newspaper reporters, it’s Lopez. He’s been in the public eye and talking to the press since 1984, when he appeared as a young dancer on NBC’s “Kids Incorporated.” He is so thoroughly media savvy that he knows how to answer questions in a way that’s never too personal, but always very warm and polite.
What he does bring up is how our neighborhood didn’t have a lot of Hollywood role models. Going into acting wasn’t really a thing our peers knew about or aspired to do. But at a dance competition, Lopez was recruited to join a local talent agency and things changed quickly after that.
“The part of Chula Vista where I was originally raised was a bit of a tough neighborhood,” he says. “My mom’s theory was to keep me as busy as possible so that I didn’t have time to get in trouble. I was the only dancing, wrestling, theater kid I knew.”
Eventually, Lopez appeared on single episodes of high-profile shows like “The Golden Girls,” “Simon & Simon” and “The Magical World of Disney.” He even had a small part in the acclaimed movie “Colors” that also starred Don Cheadle, Sean Penn and Robert Duvall.
“Saved by the Bell”
Then, in 1989, he joined the cast of “Saved by the Bell” and everything changed.
Lopez was cast as A.C. Slater on the NBC Saturday morning show that also starred Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zack Morris, Tiffani Amber Thiessen as Kelly Kapowski, Dustin Diamond as Screech, Lark Voorhies as Lisa Turtle and Elizabeth Berkley as Jessie Spano. The series ran until 1993 and propelled Lopez to a level of stardom that was much too bright to stay in Chula Vista.
“It’s crazy, it was a Saturday morning show, it wasn’t even prime time like ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘Friends,’ it was on Saturday mornings,” he says. “But I think it was just very innocent, very vanilla. It also had a pretty diverse cast. And maybe there’s just something about that cheesy, wholesome vibe that was like a comfort for people.”
Thirty years later people still love the show — even more so in a tumultuous, uncertain year like 2020. “Saved by the Bell” was set in a high school and tackled light topics like love triangles and mean teachers, but also heavier issues like drug use. Whatever the problem, though, it was always solved in 22 minutes.
The new “Saved by the Bell” still has the wholesome vibe of the original, but it also has a 2020 approach — problems aren’t quite as easy to fix, and it focuses on race and class.
In the reboot, California governor Zack Morris closes underfunded high schools causing the displaced students to enroll in well-funded schools, which includes Bayside High. The new students are mostly Black and Latinx and they cause the kids from Bayside to understand and reevaluate their privilege.
The show is definitely made for a Gen Z audience, but has plenty of nods to the original — including bringing back Lopez as Bayside’s gym teacher and Berkley as the guidance counselor.
“Hopefully it will strike chords of nostalgia,” says Lopez. “Maybe it’ll take you a time when things were a little happier ... a little better.”
But if “Saved by the Bell” alone isn’t enough to bring out the warm fuzzies, Lopez’s other project, “Feliz NaviDAD,” should do the trick.
“Feliz NaviDAD” ticks all the boxes of a cozy, feel-good Lifetime holiday movie. Single parent who lost the holiday spirit? Check. An unlikely romance? Check. Cute Christmas sweaters? Check.
But it’s also stands apart because it focuses on a Mexican family and showcases Latin holiday traditions like making tamales.
“It was important to me once I started getting into producing to tell stories with some flavor, representing my culture with a bit of a Latin twist,” says Lopez, whose family is from Culiacán, Mexico. “I’ve always said ‘I don’t want to hit you over the head with a tortilla, but I do want to have a sprinkling of flavor.’”
Even though the traditions are different, and the setting is in toasty Arizona versus chilly New England, the TV movie still follows that feel-good Lifetime formula.
Lopez plays Daniel Diaz, a widower who avoids the holidays because it brings back painful memories of his wife. Daniel’s 14-year-old daughter helps him reconnect to the Christmas spirit and also encourages him to find new love.
“I think it’s important to tell universal stories with faces that are under represented,” Lopez says. “I’m really happy with Feliz NaviDAD, it’s a great, fun holiday film that I think people are going to really enjoy.”
And what does Lopez do for Christmas? He says it’s not too different from what’s in the movie.
“We have my family over, we have tamales, there’s music, it’s a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s a very traditional Mexican celebration. You know, we’re just a big, loud Mexican Catholic family.”
Yes, I do know. Even though this interview didn’t turn Lopez and I into friends, we still share a community, a culture and a love for holiday tamales.
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