The first time Jesse Garcia (“Quinceañera,” “Narcos: Mexico”) learned about Richard Montañez — the former Frito-Lay executive who’s said that he invented the wildly successful Flamin’ Hot Cheetos brand when he was working as a janitor for the company — the actor immediately thought, “That would be an awesome movie.” Years later, Eva Longoria cast Garcia to play Montañez for her feature directing debut, “Flamin’ Hot,” which premieres June 9 on Hulu and Disney+.
The film, produced by DeVon Franklin (“Breakthrough,” “Miracles From Heaven”), covers Richard’s life from his difficult childhood to his marriage to his high school sweetheart Judy (Annie Gonzalez) to his rise at Frito-Lay. For Garcia, it was an all-too-rare opportunity to depict the real-life story of a Latino family in a mainstream feature film.
“Non-Latino projects, they have the luxury of failing,” Garcia says. “But if our work doesn’t work — or if for some reason is not successful — it’s a struggle to get the next project. That’s why ‘Flamin’ Hot’ was so super, super important to Eva, to me, to DeVon, to the rest of the creative team. If we make this movie as a success, [the studio execs] go, ‘OK, let’s see more. Let’s see more of Jesse. Let’s see more of Annie. Let’s see more of what Eva can do. It works. It makes money. People want to see it.’”
Right before production on “Flamin’ Hot” began in 2021, however, the Los Angeles Times published a story that alleged that Montañez did not invent the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, after an internal investigation at Frito-Lay reportedly revealed that not only had another unit of the company developed the product instead, but the company had no documentary proof that Montañez had been involved in its creation and test marketing.
After Montañez disputed the L.A. Times story — telling Variety in 2021 that he did meet with then-PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico to pitch a version of the product he developed in his home — Frito-Lay subsequently expressed support for Montañez, saying the company “had no reason to doubt” Montañez’s account.
The filmmakers of “Flamin’ Hot” did amend the script to acknowledge the work of the separate division of Frito-Lay. But, in his conversation with Variety, Garcia says that while he had some immediate concerns about the future of the movie when the L.A. Times story first broke, Montañez assured the actor that he had a “paper trail” that supported his account.
In a statement to Variety for this story, Montañez also says he has “letters, notes and presentations” that back him up.
“PepsiCo, my home for over 40 years, wasn’t just a job; it was a place where leaders like Roger Enrico, Steve Reinemund, Al Carey, and Indra Nooyi believed in a janitor with ideas,” Montañez says. “They saw what I could be, and I’ll forever be grateful. I’ve got letters, notes, and presentations, proving their faith in me and my creation. ‘Flamin’ Hot’ is based on what I know and that’s my story; my personal journey and what the power of determination and hard work can do. I believe it’s a story worth sharing.”
As a film, “Flamin’ Hot” does not dwell on this controversy, focusing instead on depicting how Montañez fought to build a life for himself and his family. Garcia spoke with Variety about what it was like to have Montañez on set while filming, why he loves working with Longoria as a director and as an actor, and why he was so confident that he would be cast in the role.
Were you a fan of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto before this movie?
When I was younger. I’m having to be careful about this: I eat very, very, very clean. Very rarely do I eat, uh, accessory foods, I’ll call it. But there was a point in time where I liked Cheetos.
How did you hear about this role?
All my friends who auditioned for the role, so many of them called me or texted me: “Hey, I don’t know if you’ve read for this movie yet, I just read for it, but this is your movie. You should be auditioning.” And I go, “Yeah, I just sent my tape and we’ll see what happens.”
Why do you think your friends were telling you that?
Probably the same reason I thought: The second I read it, I go, “This is my movie.” All my friends, they know my work. We’re all supportive of each other. But I told Richard and Eva and DeVon, “This part was always mine. I just needed you guys to catch up and figure it out.”
How many opportunities are there for movies with Latino leads that are about Latino families?
Not very many. The opportunities that do happen would only go to a handful of actors, male or female. The studio — I think I’m okay with saying it — was like, “Well, there are no Latino stars.” And Eva’s response was, “Well, let’s make some.”
So they put this movie in her hands and go, “Alright, we’re gonna let you use the DP that you want. We’re gonna give you the cast that you want. But if it fails, it’s on your hands.” So there was a lot for all of us to prove. The cast and the crew, we felt like this is a movie of underdogs where we don’t really have the luxury to fail. Also, Richard and his family, they’re still alive, and we have to honor them.
Did you spend time with Richard to prepare?
I did. I really only had time to spend a couple hours with him before I came out to Albuquerque to start prepping, doing 80 costume changes. We would do a wig change and a look change with the mustache and the goatee, sometimes in the middle of the day. We were shooting incredibly fast, so I only had a little bit of time to sit with him. We talked about some stuff and exchanged numbers. I would ask him about what he would say to people when he was handing out Cheetos, slang that he would use, if he carried things with him in his pocket — just the cool details that I could put in throughout the performance. He came to set and his family was in the movie. So they were very much a part of the movie; all along the process, they were there hanging out and cheering us on.
Because Richard is somewhat of a public person, was there any part of his voice or physicality that you wanted to draw from?
I’ve watched some videos of his speeches. Part of the conversation that I had with him, I said, “I just need you to know that I’m not going to be doing an imitation of you. I’m going to be doing my version of your life, with as close as what I can get to you as possible.” His voice and his mannerisms are unique, and we just didn’t have time — I got the movie very quickly, and we were into production fast. The important thing for me and for Eva was to tell his story. So I didn’t really study his mannerisms, necessarily.
What was it like to have Richard and Judy on set?
I’ll tell you a quick story. In the movie, when Annie, who plays Judy, and I are in the car and then get pulled over, we’re kind of bickering back and forth and she hits me on the shoulder because she’s pissed that we’re in a stolen car. Richard and Judy and the whole family were at video village watching the scene. Annie and I are having a ton of fun with it, improvising. They call cut. And Judy and Richard are going like, “Oh my God, that’s what you would say!” And: “I hit him just like that, the same time it happened!” Then Richard gave me a big hug, and he looks at me and he goes, “You know, I wasn’t sure before. But I get it now. I see what you’re doing.” It was important for me to get his approval.
Right before you started shooting, the Los Angeles Times published a story that alleged that Richard wasn’t the creator of the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos as he had claimed, and that another unit of Frito Lay had been developing the product before Richard ever got involved. What was your reaction to that story?
Well, my first reaction was, “Oh shit, is this movie going to happen?” This movie was important to me — not just career-wise. This is a big opportunity for Annie, for Eva, for DeVon, for Richard. We called Eva: “What’s going on?” Her and DeVon were putting out fires and getting apologies. Because Richard has a paper trail of all the things that happened. When I talked to Richard, he goes, “I have a paper trail of me being in the room, of me exchanging emails with Enrico, with me doing this and that.”
In the movie, we even touched on it, where they were developing a hot chip, but it wasn’t quite working. They couldn’t get the flavor right and they didn’t know how to market it. And Richard didn’t know that. So he and his family, they came up with their own recipe and a slurry. What was really appealing to Frito Lay was, he was able to market toward the Hispanic community. Because of that, it’s become one of the best-selling snacks of all time.
So did the filmmakers change the script after the L.A. Times story to reflect the other division’s work on the chip?
Honestly, I don’t remember. It had been so long since I read the very first version of it to what we were shooting. I know that there was more of an effort to make sure that that was in the movie, that there was something going on. But, you know, he didn’t know about it. They couldn’t get the recipe right and they were going to market it toward a whole different demographic. I’d have to go back and look at my scripts and see if that was a big change. But I feel like it was always there. I don’t remember.
What was Eva like as a director? What is her approach?
I had no idea that she had been directing for 10 or 12 years, doing TV. I knew she had a vision. There was a lot of pressure on her to get it right. She was like, “I need someone that can move as fast as I want to move, and can pull the performance out.” If she said ride an alligator across the factory, I would have done it. So smart. So fast. The creative things that she was doing — she had a vision and she got it.
How much time did she have to work with you on your performance, given how fast she was working?
We shot like a TV show. We had seven weeks to shoot this movie, but that was a very, very ambitious schedule for the amount of stuff that we got done. We were in Albuquerque for about a month before we started shooting. I probably had 80 costume changes, so I was preparing a ton that way. But then we would have a couple different weekends of rehearsals. Eva and I and other actors, we made tweaks as we went.
I love working with Eva. We can almost look at each other and know, Yeah, that doesn’t work, or this works, or let’s change this to that. We have so much fun. There was a lot of collaborating, a lot of talking to each other and a lot of making sure that we all cared so much about telling the right story in the right way.
And now the two of you are playing husband and wife in the new film based on “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” What’s it like acting with Eva versus being directed by her?
So much fun. We collaborate so well together. I’m working on my directing stuff as well, and we both see the big picture and how it works with the story. As far as her and I as partners, we’re just a couple of kids trying to have fun.
You mentioned earlier that one of Eva’s goals with “Flamin’ Hot” is to create more Latino movie stars. Is that also part of what’s motivating you to start moving into directing?
Absolutely. When I very first started acting in the summer of 2000, before I knew the politics of Hollywood, I had the thought, “I want to be successful enough where I can open doors and create opportunities for anybody who wants it — specifically Latinos, because we don’t often get the opportunities.” I hope this can be an opportunity to create something bigger. Bigger than I can even handle. Just put a whole hand down, bring somebody else up.
This interview has been edited and condensed.