The actor said his recent self-reflection amid the global reckoning with racial injustice "basically blew up my own relationship with my race"

By Aurelie Corinthios
July 14, 2020 03:50 PM
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Known throughout his professional acting career as James Roday, James Rodriguez has been doing some serious self-reflection on his Mexican-American heritage.

In an interview with TVLine, the Psych star, 44, opened up about his recent decision to reclaim his birth name, Rodriguez. His full name, James Roday Rodriguez, will debut in the opening credits of Wednesday's Psych 2: Lassie Come Home on NBCUniversal's new streaming platform, Peacock.

Rodriguez, whose father is Mexican-American, said the May 25 death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody and the racial reckoning that has followed suit prompted him to dig deeper into his heritage. Subsequent conversations with his father about his grandparents and their experiences in the 1930s and 1940s, he said, "basically blew up my own relationship with my race, my sense of who I am when it comes to my relationship with that half of me."

Leon Bennett/Getty

"It sent me down a road of reading and wanting to learn more about Mexican-American history and its foundation in this country," he continued. "And it caused me to question a lot of the decisions that I have made as a 44-year-old man who has been working in the entertainment industry for 20 years, the biggest of which was the decision to not use my birth name when I started working professionally."

Rodriguez opted to drop his birth name and go by James Roday after graduating from New York University. The decision, he explained, was closely tied to "two inauspicious audition experiences." The first, when he was freshman, was for the movie Primal Fear. (The lead role ended up going to Ed Norton.)

"The first two experiences I had auditioning for work as an actor were both highly informed by the fact that my name did not match my skin tone," said the actor. "The first audition I ever had was for the lead in a major movie, and the casting director said to me, 'You're so great, but I don't think I can call you back because your last name is Rodriguez. But I can call you back for this four-line role of a gang member,' which I ended up reading for. But they said I wasn't right for that either because I didn't look Latino enough. They basically didn't know what to do with me."

The second audition, for a series-regular role in a DreamWorks-produced TV pilot, came about a month before he graduated. (The pilot was ultimately not ordered to series.)

"Their only concern was that the role wasn't written for a Hispanic or Mexican person," Rodriguez recalled. "They were worried that casting a white guy with a Mexican name could be construed as their version of 'diverse casting,' and there could be a backlash. They said, 'You might want to give some real consideration to changing your name.'"

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With his father's blessing, Rodriguez went ahead and changed his given middle name, David, to Roday. Twenty years later, he said he realizes he "essentially perpetuated an institutionalized element of what's broken about this industry, which is, of course, a microcosm of the world we are living in."

"I can't excuse the decision because of youth or naiveté or ambition," he said. "The bottom line is, I sold out my heritage in about 15 seconds to have a shot at being an actor."

Rodriguez said that his decision to reclaim his birth name is "long overdue," adding that he wants to be be "the best, most honest ally and amplifier that I can be for my own community and for my friends of color."

"I'm a little bummed out that my grandparents are not alive to see it," he said. "But my dad is. And I think it will mean something to him. That, in and of itself, is reason enough for me."

Psych 2: Lassie Come Home debuts Wednesday on Peacock.

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
  • ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
  • National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.