‘RoboCop’ actress and Oak Park native Aimee Garcia talks small-screen success and Chicago sensibility.
With all the flack thrown at Hollywood for its lack of originality — please see last year’s revivals and reimaginings of “Hansel and Gretel,” “Superman” and “The Great Gatsby” — it seems inevitable that “RoboCop,” the ‘80s-born franchise that spurred two sequels, two TV shows and heaps of merchandise, would be given the reboot.
But maybe that’s not a bad idea.
In contrast to some of its peers that rely on far-fetched reinterpretations, the robo-redux required little updating to stay relevant. The original 1987 movie was set in the “not-too-distant future,” with wild science-fiction creations like an orbiting space station, artificial hearts and drones. But that future has finally arrived. “It’s not sci-fi anymore. It’s not this distant thing,” says Aimee Garcia, the Chicago born-and-raised star of this year’s rebooted blockbuster. So to keep in line with its theme, the new “RoboCop,” set in 2028, gives us a whole new array of ideas to imagine: flying patrol cars, fully functional humanoid robots and mind control.
In the film, out Feb. 12, Garcia plays Kim, a brilliant scientist responsible for resurrecting a police officer killed in the line of duty and transforming him into the human-robot hybrid that gives the film its name. While Kim approaches the project with pure intentions (to give a second life to a fallen cop), the movie begins to spiral when it’s revealed that the company she works for, OmniCorp, has more nefarious plans.
To prep for the role, Garcia went back to her roots as a Northwestern student and hit the books. Though the 35-year-old actress is most recognizable from her roles as Veronica Palmero, the ditzy, spoiled niece on George Lopez’s eponymous sitcom, and as Jamie Batista, the sassy nanny in “Dexter,” she’s something of a scholar in real life: She graduated with three majors (journalism, economics and French) and has compared herself to Tracy Flick, Reese Witherspoon’s Type-A super-student in “Election.” Aside from her three majors, she also choreographed for the dance team, produced collegiate news segments and planned the campus’s biggest annual philanthropic event, the Dance Marathon.
Still, playing a scientist came with some challenges for Garcia. “[Kim] is a total brainiac: She’s got a Ph.D. from MIT, she’s well-versed in engineering, robotics, computer programming, biology, physics and chemistry,” she explains. “She’s much smarter than I am, but I welcomed it because she has a mystery to her.”
For “RoboCop,” Garcia read up on modern robotics in health care, the military and the economy. “I have a somewhat polarized view about it,” she admits. “Technology and robotics can help paraplegics have a fuller life, and having robots and drones do the work of human soldiers is appealing. I think there’s a benefit to trusting technology and having metal take the bullets instead of flesh and blood.” That’s the point where “RoboCop” poses a moral question: Where do you draw the line? “ ‘RoboCop’ is very relevant in asking, ‘Do we trust robots to pull the trigger?’ ” Garcia says. “I think there are a lot of moral issues.”
Garcia herself isn’t particularly gung-ho on the high-tech lifestyle: She still calls her friends rather than texts, gets nervous when planes are on autopilot (“When you see the pilot taking a bathroom break, you’ve gotta wonder …”) and sends snail-mail to her dad here in Chicago. “I’m a sucker for the human connection,” she laughs.
But it’s her grounded mentality and the fact that she’s not tweeting 24/7 that sets Garcia apart from the Hollywood crowd. “When you meet me, I’m such a Chicago girl,” says the Oak Park native and Fenwick High School alum. “People are always like, ‘You’re so earthy!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s because I’ve shoveled snow. I know what it’s like to have a job.’ I’m very, very Chicago that way.” That’s not to say that Garcia doesn’t have a little West Coast edge to her. She credits her current success to her ability to turn down roles. “When I tell my parents that I’m passing on jobs to hold out for the big one, they’re confused. They’re like, ‘You walked away from what?!’ I’m always about high-risk, high-reward,” she explains.
Garcia also owes her wins to her Chicago theater upbringing. “[It] was the best training ever,” she remembers. After getting her start at Piven Theatre in Evanston when she was 12 (“Byrne and Joyce [Piven] were my very first acting teachers and I adore them to this day”), the actress fell into ballet, starring as Clara in “The Nutcracker” at the Arie Crown Theater, and paid her way through Northwestern by acting in McDonald’s commercials alongside Michael Jordan, Sammy Sosa and Charles Barkley. “Basically acting was just a way to pay for college tuition. I was never going to act for a living,” Garcia says.
It wasn’t until later, when Garcia was working as a mutual funds analyst for an investment survey firm in New York, that she realized it was her passion. “After a year in New York, living in a closet in Brooklyn, I thought, ‘You know what? I’m out of here. I’m going to go do what I love.’ ”
That pick-up-and-go spirit led Garcia to LA, where it wasn’t long before she landed roles on “Trauma,” “George Lopez” and, most memorably, “Dexter.” The show, which ended last September, had one of the most controversial finales in recent television history (websites like Vulture and Buzzfeed immediately lambasted the episode, memes exploded across the Internet and Showtime executives had to come to its defense). Without spoiling anything for latecomers, Garcia is quick to support the series’s contentious swan song. “It’s funny because people still talk about ‘The Sopranos’ ending because it was very unsettling. And despite the fact that ‘Breaking Bad’ was such an amazing show, no one is talking about the ending,” she says. “They’re talking about the ending of ‘Dexter,’ which I feel is a testament to how a show should end. It should be unsettling and it should open questions and it should leave you hungry and not be wrapped up in a box. I love the ending because it was so painful.”
Whichever side fans take in the great “Dexter” debate, the conclusion was a lesson in originality — a rare find on today’s screens. But it’s that freshness and individualism that sets TV shows, movies and actors apart, and it’s something Garcia has in spades. “I feel locked and loaded. I feel like I know who I am, and I know where I come from and I think that’s a very powerful thing out here [in LA] where people are constantly trying to become what’s popular or change who they are,” says the rising star. “I credit it to the city I grew up in.”
When Garcia comes back to town — something she tries to do at least three times each year — there are some places she just can’t miss.
Bub City (435 N. Clark): “They just launched a country brunch: great biscuit sandwiches, chicken and waffles, a big Bloody Mary bar and live music.”
Au Cheval (800 W. Randolph): “Fantastic music selection and the best burger I’ve ever had.”
The Green Mill (4802 N. Broadway): “I love jazz at the Green Mill. It feels like reliving the history of Chicago.”
Merz Apothecary (4716 N. Lincoln): “Thousands of bodycare and health/wellness products from around the world and dozens of types of toothpastes.”
Flywheel (710 N. State): “[I take] spinning class at Flywheel. Some of the best instructors in town!”