‘Windows on the World’ Star Edward James Olmos on Playing a 9/11 Survivor Without US Citizenship

The famed actor spoke at TheWrap’s Screening Series alongside his son, Michael, who directed the movie, and screenwriter Robert Mailer Anderson

Edward James Olmos has appeared in many films that explore what it means to be Mexican in America, but “Windows on the World” is one that he believes is truly special.

“I’ve done some really great pieces of story that I’ve had great passion for, and this is right there with him. I can’t believe that we got this on the screen.”

The famed actor spoke at TheWrap’s Screening Series alongside his son, Michael, who directed the movie, and screenwriter Robert Mailer Anderson. “Windows on the World” tells the story of America’s migrant workers through 9/11, as Olmos plays an aging Mexican named Balthazar who travels to New York and becomes an undocumented worker at the World Trade Center’s famed restaurant, Windows on the World. When the towers are destroyed, Balthazar’s son, Fernando (Ryan Guzman), follows in his father’s footsteps in order to find out what happened to him.

Anderson first sold the script for the film to Miramax in 2004, but at the urging of his wife, he bought it back and struck out to get the film made on his own. Though it was first written more than 15 years ago, Anderson says that little about the script had to be changed to make it feel more politically relevant. In fact, he feels that the scenes where Fernando struggles through the borderland desert into the U.S. with a woman and her two daughters and one in which he is kicked out of a bar by a racist bartender are even more relevant in Trump’s America.

“We’re fighting cultural wars right now, and we have to create empathy and understanding,” Anderson said. “The current political climate has made a story like this more necessary.”

Anderson’s inspiration for the film came from a mix of personal and external sources. Raised in Mendocino County in Northern California, the screenwriter went to a high school that had a high amount of migrant Mexican teens and learned much about their families’ struggle. That made it easy to empathize when he read a photoessay in New York Times Magazine about the 9/11 victims who were not U.S. citizens.

“There were people from around the world — Morocco, Guatemala — holding pictures of undocumented people in the building. I was just taken really, really aback, because it’s one thing to be part of the faceless masses doing a lot of work. It’s one thing to send your check home to another country. It’s another thing to be told you didn’t exist, that you’re dead, and your family can’t have any sort of closure.”

Reading about the tragedy the families of the victims suffered made the team a bit nervous about the film’s climactic scene in which Balthazar describes what he experienced when the planes struck the World Trade Center. In an effort to make sure that he was doing right by the survivors, Olmos reached out to a friend who knew someone who used to work in the World Trade Center and made it out.

When they met, the survivor told Olmos about how he was taking the elevator up the tower and was forced to jump out into the flames when gasoline from the jet started leaking into the elevator. Shocked by the similarity of what was in Anderson’s script, Olmos told him to stop.

“I had to tell him the monologue. I was afraid he was going to think we took his story,” he said. “When I told him the story, he said ‘It’s the truth. It’s all the truth.’ And I just said, ‘Thank you. Thank you for giving us this understanding and allowing us to express our selves and focusing us on the humanity of what we’re talking about.”

It was also a personal experience for Olmos and his son, Michael. “Windows on the World” is their third film as an actor/director duo; but for Michael, it was the first where he felt that they were working together as peers.

“It was really about the work, the scene, the story, and making sure he had everything he needed as an actor. It was a great experience,” he said.

“Windows on the World” is currently aiming for a limited theatrical release in February. To see more of Olmos’ discussing the meeting with a 9/11 survivor, click on the clip above.