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On My Block’s Jason Genao Talks Life and Death in Freeridge

Jason Genao. Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

On My Block actor Jason Genao gets stopped on the street all the time by fans of the Netflix dramedy, but don’t bother asking him to say a word about who snatched the best high-school crew on television in the stunning second-season finale. “I’m very good at keeping secrets,” he says with a sly smile, knowing full well fans of the show, who were having meltdowns last year over his character Ruby’s possible death, are freaking out all over again. As we now know, Ruby survived — gracias a Dios, or at least gracias to the creators of the show — but Freeridge’s star party planner is struggling. “People are just going through it with Ruby,” Genao says. “Now they come up to me and tell me, ‘Oh my God, every time Ruby cried, I cried.’ Or ‘I’m having a mental breakdown ’cause Ruby’s crying.’ It’s bueno.

Ruby and his squad — Jamal (Brett Gray), Monse (Sierra Capri), and Cesar (Diego Tinoco) — captured the hearts of viewers in the first season with their adolescent shenanigans, crushes, and arguments. Growing up in the fictional Los Angeles inner city neighborhood of Freeridge, On My Block follows them as they manage freshman year of high school while juggling life and death issues in their community.

Genao, 22, grew up in Jersey City in a Dominican family. Before he landed On My Block, he had roles in The Get Down and Logan. Last week, he met Vulture for empanadas (he can make better ones, he says) in Sherman Oaks to talk about playing the heart and soul of the show, how very extra Ruby is, and why he wants to be the next Tilda Swinton.

On My Block fans were freaking out for a year about whether Ruby died. What was that like for you?
It was insane. I would walk down the street and people would be like, “Are you alive?” Or they’d see me in physical form and they’d be like, ”Oh my God, you’re alive.” And I’m like, ”Yeah, Jason’s alive.” [Laughs.] It was insane every day.

How does that feel, though? Isn’t it rewarding to have your work resonate in that way?
I can’t physically feel what these people are feeling, but I know the way I felt watching the movies and the shows that made me wanna do this. The reaction is the same and it makes me really happy.

What shows or movies meant a lot to you growing up?
It was movies like Into the Wild, La Vie en Rose, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I remember watching these movies and completely forgetting I was even in my house. I was so engaged with these things that were completely taking me out of where I live and the things that were happening to me and around me. It was my escape.

When did you realize you wanted to act?
I was 9. I remember it so clearly. I thought I wanted to direct. My mom was cleaning the house and she finished one of the rolls of tissues and so I picked it up and I’m watching a movie on the TV, looking through the empty Bounty roll. I had a better view of it that way because I was like, Wow, this movie sucks. I put it down and I’m saying the lines they’re saying and I’m like, Forget director, I wanna be a actor. Ever since then, I had this thing where I can’t watch a movie without saying the lines. If I feel I could say it better, I’ll try to say it better. If I feel like they’re doing amazing, then I’ll try to say it just like they did.

So, basically, I should never watch a movie with you.
[Laughs.] I go to the theater all the time and and the people are like, ¿Qué le pasa? [what’s wrong with him?] and I’m like, Perdón [sorry].

What were your first impressions of Ruby?
“Oh my God, this boy don’t shut up.” [Laughs.] I thought he was so opposite of myself. He’s one of those very persistent I gotta do what I gotta do to get what I want kind of guys. Initially, my agent sent me out for the role of Cesar.

Did you have a preference for which character you wanted to play?
I thought Ruby was more interesting and I thought it’d be so much more different to have this amount of dialogue. It felt like I’d be getting down in the nitty-gritty of this whole acting stuff.

He’s got mad party-planning skills.
I like his parties. I’m not gonna lie, I have a cousin who got pregnant and I was like, I think you should do this for your baby shower.

And he does taxes.
That, I cannot do.

Can you relate to the world of Freeridge? Where did you grow up?
That’s the thing I connect with the most ’cause I grew up in Jersey City, which has changed very much through the years. But when I was younger, it was completely Freeridge. It was not the best place to live. I had cousins and friends in gangs and that was so normal to me. Just being around these people who, at any moment’s notice, I’d have to leave ’cause they were about to start fighting. That was and still is the norm. I feel more at ease and natural in places in L.A. that resemble Jersey City than in Beverly Hills.

The show does a great job of painting a picture of a neighborhood that has its problems, but the kids are also doing the things that all teenagers do — falling in love, fighting with each other, figuring it out.
I think I’m a great example of that. I am much greater than what that type of environment tells you what you can be. You grow up in those places and the education is lacking and our books are falling apart and our buildings are kind of dirty. You just see the things that are so stereotypical with where we live. But that’s just where you are, as opposed to who you are to become. I grew up around my girl cousins and none of us fell into that. We just wanted to have our own little community.

What’s been the most challenging part of playing Ruby? Was there a part of him that was hard to land?
Learning my lines is definitely the hardest. But it’s funny, those big monologues are the easiest ’cause I’ll always create a rhythm for them. When Ruby speaks just a little bit, I’m like, That’s all?

Did you know how the first season was going to end ahead of time?
We got the first nine scripts before we even flew out to California to start filming. But episode ten we didn’t get until a week prior. [Co-creator] Lauren [Iungerich] would come up to me and be like, “Hey, we don’t have episode ten for you yet, but something really dramatic happens.” I heard someone say something about abuelita winning the lottery and that’s what I thought was gonna happen. I thought they were gonna move somewhere. And then we got the script. We were all taking turns reading, taking five pages at a time and, through luck, I had the last five pages. So I’m reading the last page and I was getting teary-eyed and emotional. Oh my God, Ruby!

You don’t see it coming. Everything’s going great at the quinceañera.
Nothing in the show led us to believe that Ruby was ever in danger. This was Cesar’s thing. This was Spooky’s thing. This was a Latrelle thing. For this to happen to Ruby, it was just heartbreaking.

Did you know when you filmed it that Olivia would die?
No, I always thought that they would bring her back for season two. That was something that they talked about a lot. Like, bringing her back in some other form. A memory? Or a ghost? But it just didn’t work.

What kind of conversations did you have with Lauren about Ruby in the season-two premiere and how to portray it?
I did a bunch of research on people who are victims of shootings, delving into how PTSD works — the trauma, the anxiety, all the things involved. But also, I have a cousin who was shot twice on two separate occasions. The first time around he was like, I’m so sorry, guys. I’m never gonna let this happen to y’all again. He felt bad for the family, and it left him with a permanent pain. And then it happens again, but now he has a son. Not through any of his fault of his own, it’s just where he lives, but he’s saying the same things again. So even though he has a son and a future to look forward to, he still isn’t removing himself. I was intrigued by the fact that something so dramatic happening twice to him doesn’t change the way he lives. But I had to play it how Ruby would play it. He’s this 14-year-old, really innocent, really high-energy, high-strung child. He’s still a child.

The episode opens with the powerful montage of all the memorials and that song “Glitter” nails that feeling of desperation in the community. Later, your scene with Diego is so moving. Tell me about filming that.
It wasn’t that many takes. I’m just one of those actors that when I’m there, I’m there. I’m like, Film it while you can because then it just leaves. And so I rev myself up, watch some videos and maybe listen to some music. For people in the ’30s and ’40s making films who didn’t have their phones, how did y’all do this? Y’all are really good!

We all have these thoughts about life that can just push you into where you need to be for these moments. So I just take those, hold onto it, and then afterwards, I’m pretty easygoing. Diego can stay in it longer. Because Cesar is so dramatic, he doesn’t have to leave that. There’s a lot of comedy and attitude to Ruby, so it’s a bigger hill to jump.

That’s probably a good thing in the long run. Some actors talk about how draining scenes stay with them, even as they’re trying to go about their days.
I can see how that can be a thing. The scene with Jasmine [played by Jessica Marie Garcia] in the backyard in episode three pulled the most emotions out of me. [Editor’s note: In the scene, Ruby breaks down and blames himself for what happened to Olivia.] That was one of those very few times where I couldn’t pull myself out as easily. I had to be the most raw.

I love the developing relationship between Ruby and Jasmine.
Yeah, isn’t it so great? It’s so funny because in real life, I have been friends with a bunch of Jasmines back in Jersey City. It’s funny to me that Ruby hates her so much.

Not anymore! They won a dance-off together.
That was the funnest scene to film. We got a choreographer. She was the director’s friend and she came up from Hawaii. She was a fan of the show and she did it for free. When I did The Get Down, there were days we had to go to choreography. But when this came around, I was like, Oh, they really want us to get it right. We practiced for like eight hours.

Ruby also hosted a great baby shower and wore an amazing uniform.
Oh my God, Ruby is a lot. He had a headset. I’m like, Where are you getting these things from? I feel like, growing up, we all take ourselves a little too seriously.

What does it mean to you to work on a show where people of color are front and center behind the camera and in front of it?
What I needed when I was growing up, wanting to be an actor, was to see someone who looked like me. Jason, Sierra, Brett, and Diego are the leads of this show. So now, if you look at any of us, you know can be the lead of a show. We’re not a bunch of kids who had it handed easy. Some people are lucky enough to be blessed with parents who are in this industry, or maybe have a couple extra dollars to go to the best acting school, go to Juilliard or Yale. My brother and my father worked hard just to make $2,000 for me to go to acting school. And that’s the story I come from.

If you backtrack on our stories, you see that what you look like and where you come from does not have to determine what you do or who you are. I had absolutely no idea, no clue, that this is where I’d be. I thought maybe I’d be an understudy or book a commercial or an indie movie, and that was fine enough. This is a different form of success that I never saw coming. I still have no idea how to process it. My parents don’t get it either. They watch the show and they’re so supportive, but they’re also like, What’s happening?

I know you’re just starting out, but have you experienced any discrimination or stereotyping while auditioning for any other roles?
I wanna say yes? One time, there was a role and the casting director loved me. Director, too. It was between me and some other person. And they were like, “You might just be a little too short.” It’s never been something with my ethnicity, but I do get the discrimination for being shorter. I need people to stop casting against what they think the story should look like. Who is gonna tell this story so well that it resonates with someone so much that they walk out of that theater and they can’t stop talking about it? If you’d worry more about that, you’d have much better movies. 

What would be a dream role for you?
I look a lot at Tilda Swinton for my career.

I didn’t expect that answer.
You see her in a movie and half the time you’re like, “Is that Tilda?” because she has a mustache and she’s a guy. I just think no one on this Earth has more fun than Tilda on a set. She’s a guy sometimes, she’s a girl sometimes, she has an accent or she doesn’t. I want people to look at me when they’re casting something and just say, “I think he can do it.”

On My Block’s Jason Genao Talks Life and Death in Freeridge