Louis Ortiz with a cutout of his inspiration
The upcoming documentary, Bronx Obama — which is due to hit iTunes and other digital platforms on Oct. 7 — tells a quintessentially American success story. Through a little luck and a lot of hard work, an ordinary, working-class guy becomes a powerful, profitable figure in his field. The twist to this particular tale, however, is that his field happens to be “presidential impersonator.”
Since 2008, Bronx-born Louis Ortiz has toured the country — and the world — as the White House’s current occupant, President Barack Obama, adopting the Commander in Chief’s mannerisms, vocal stylings, and wardrobe to entertain audiences on both sides of the political aisle. It wasn’t a career path that the military veteran and former phone company employee planned to take, but you might say that he was born for the job considering his uncanny resemblance to the 44th President. “I didn’t choose to look like this, but I did choose to make a living out of it,” Ortiz tells Yahoo Movies. “I could have chosen to walk away from it, but why would I? I’d be a fool not to capitalize on it.” During the first three years of his term as the Bronx Obama, Ortiz went from shaking hands and posing for pictures with Times Square tourists to nabbing regular TV appearances (his list of credits ranges from The Situation Room to Flight of the Conchords), meeting celebrities like the Dalai Lama, and making his feature film debut…in Japan.
In 2011, Ortiz hooked up with documentary filmmaker Ryan Murdock, whose background included stints at NPR and PBS. (The director made a short film about Bronx Obama for the New York Times in 2012, which you can see here.) Murdock eventually filmed Ortiz for some 180 hours, documenting such personal material as his relationship with his teenage daughter, who grew up with her grandparents in Florida following the untimely death of her mother. “I could not be happier with the film,” he says now. “It’s a white guy making a film about a Spanish guy who looks like a black guy. God bless America!”
Ortiz courts the youth of America
Some of the most revealing sections in Bronx Obama have to do with Ortiz’s experiences on the faux-campaign trail in the run-up to the 2012 election. At that point, Ortiz had signed with Dustin Gold, a top manager in the field of political impersonators. To capitalize on election fever, Gold put together an all-star crew that included the Bronx Obama, longtime Bill Clinton impersonator Tim Watters, Mitt Romney stand-in Mike Cote, and a Donald Trump clone and took them around the country as a political comedy show for hire. Much like the Jerry Seinfeld documentary Comedian, the movie provides an eye-opening look into the backstage life of these road warriors, from the grueling hours of preparation (including rehearsing their fake stump speeches and debate patter, all the while keeping an eye on the 24-hour cable news networks to see what their real world surrogates are up to) to the clash of personalities.
As glimpsed onscreen, Ortiz’s relationship with Gold was particularly turbulent, as his manager openly questions his work ethic and threatens to fire him. Facing hostile audiences proved wearying as well. In one of the movie’s most memorable moments, Ortiz-as-Obama takes the stage at a libertarian event and is greeted by a chorus of boos and catcalls that would unnerve even the most seasoned professional. “That was hard,” he says. “But you take it in and you keep going. Even though it started off with boos, by the end there was clapping. People were like, ‘I’ve gotta have a picture with you — you were great!’ And I was all smiles, but deep inside, I’m thinking ‘Wait a second…weren’t you just booing me?’”
Bronx Obama ends with Ortiz watching a re-elected President Obama taking the oath of office in Washington D.C. But he’s not worried about demand for his services ceasing as Obama’s second term starts to wind down in 2015 and beyond. “Because he’s America’s first African-American president, he’s an icon. I believe that I will have work for many years to come. It may be the end of the story for him as far as his presidency, but I’m just getting started. There’s so much people hate about him and so much people love about him, there’s no way [my] work will end in 2016.”
The real Barack Obama
To prove his point, Ortiz already has several projects in development including a 45-minute one-man Obama show for corporate clients and a semi-scripted reality series tentatively titled South Bronx, which will focus on five Bronx residents as they try to pursue their dreams. And having met several other Obama impersonators during his travels (he says that his favorite celebrity impersonation is Key & Peele’s Obama and Luther routine), he’s also toying with the idea of doing some kind of team-up performance where they pit, say, a right-wing Obama against a left-wing Obama. “I’m trying to do it all before I go,” he says, laughing. “I would love a manager, if anyone is out there, to handle the marketing logistics and things. I just need to be the actor, not the all-around business guy. If I had another guy like me — well, actually I do. Barack Obama. But he’s busy!”
Though he has yet to cross paths with the man he’s spent six years impersonating, the Bronx Obama already knows what he’s going to say to the real Obama should they ever meet. “I’m just going to say whatever he says to me. I’ll just try and repeat everything he says for 30 or 40 seconds. Imagine looking at someone who looks just like you and whatever you tell him, he repeats back at you. Wouldn’t you get a kick out of that?”
For updates on the movie’s release go to the official site.
Photo credit: © Courtesy Bronx Obama Movie, Foto AP/J. Scott Applewhite