For a television drama that's brimming with blood and bravado, Sons of Anarchy is surprisingly complicated with its storylines and character work. It's never been more surprising than the case of Juan Carlos "Juice" Ortiz, the mohawk-wearing SAMCRO soldier who somehow, against all odds, is still alive.
After spending three seasons as a background player tapped mostly for comic relief, Juice received a juicy storyline of his own in Season 4: He was blackmailed into working with the authorities against his own club, a betrayal that led to the murder of a fellow member. Juice's secret finally uncorked in Season 5, and after some master-class manipulation from SAMCRO president Jax Teller, he earned back enough goodwill to continue riding with the Sons. But even if things have stabilized to an extent, there's still darkness ahead for poor old Juicey.
Actor Theo Rossi spoke with Spinoff Online for an in-depth look at Juice's journey so far, and the road ahead as the current sixth season of Sons of Anarchy barrels forward.
Spinoff Online: I've been so surprised by Juice's arc. At the start of the series, Juice was a member of the club, but he wasn't a prominent player in the story. And then Season 4 happened. The ramifications of Juice's betrayal are still being felt two seasons later. What was your take when you learned about Kurt Sutter's plans for Juice? What were your conversations like going into Season 4?
Theo Rossi: It was pretty crazy. It's one of my favorite stories that I haven't told that many times. Basically, before every season, Kurt [Sutter, the series creator] sits down with the actors and talks about what's upcoming in the season. Kurt and I are super-close; we have an amazing relationship. He's extremely fucked up, and his humor is very bizarre. [Laughs] But he calls me in before Season 4, we're having our meeting, and usually we sit down and just get the broad-strokes. We don't know the details of what's coming. And he starts by saying, "OK, at the beginning of the season, we're going to find out that Juice's dad is African-American." Right there, if you know motorcycle-club culture, if you know the world that this is based in — for some reason, it's this weird and unwritten thing that's a big deal, and I was excited for Kurt to address it. But right then and there, I knew, "Well, that's not good. I'm not going to be in the club."
So he starts with that. And then he says, "Charming's new sheriff uses that to blackmail you and force you to turn on the club and start feeding him information." And I go, "Whoa! That doesn't sound good." [Laughter] And then, Kurt tells me Juice is going to steal coke. "I don't know how we get there, but then he hangs himself." And I'm like, "What? That's how I go out? That's it? I'm done? This is awful! I have to make so many changes in my life!" But then he says, "No, he lives!"
This storyline, I was just so excited. It's like you said: Juice was a lapdog, he had some funny bits, we had him feeding crystal meth to a Doberman with Tig in the first season. He had a lot of comedic humor and all that stuff. To go from that to Season 4, and to see the fans’ response — they were insane about that storyline. This innocent dude who really wasn't doing anything wrong was now putting the audience in a position to judge him. Was he doing it for the good of the club? Really, at the end of the day, now that we're in Season 6, all he wants to do is make things right. In his mind, everything he was doing was for the club.
Season 4 was definitely a tremendously magical season that put you on this ride. It led up to that last moment in Season 5, with Juice in a position to ultimately turn on his father figure, Clay, knowing that Clay isn't just going to jail; he's going into a very precarious situation. All the other stuff that's gone down in Season 5, and what the audience has seen in Season 6 — Chibs beating on Juice, which was the redemption Chibs needed — I've been really, really, super-lucky. Every day, I can be at the gas station or the supermarket and people come up to me saying, "Oh, my God. I'm so glad you're still alive."
That is exactly what I would say to you.
I know! [Laughs]
Even as Kurt was telling you about Juice's story, you kept fearing the worst. But here you are, two seasons later. Still, do you worry about Juice? Do you ever wonder, "How the hell is he going to survive this?"
No, the way I've looked at it from day one, is Kurt is the first person I've ever worked for that I trust in every single thing he writes. Whatever he writes is pushing the narrative, is for a reason. It affects the greater world of Charming and the Tellers and the Morrows in one way or another. I've been lucky enough since season four, and even before that, to really be involved in the pushing of the story. The things Juice has done and been a part of has really affected the greater story, with the ATF and all that. For me, I don't know what the end-result will be — or maybe I do! — but I know we're on the other side of the mountain now. We're in those seasons that are like the championship round of a fight. If you watch MMA, this is the fourth or fifth round. Basically, all of those balls that have been thrown into the air are now being resolved and answered.
You mentioned this quickly, but can you talk about the scene between Chibs and Juice in the premiere, the beatdown? That must've been a brutal shoot.
When we filmed that, that beating went on even longer. They didn't show it, but he literally had me on the ground, kicking me in the face repeatedly. There's just blood everywhere. He's beating me senseless. And then what I love about it, is you see Chibs patching him up. But what that beating does to Juice is the next stage in his character's journey. I'm really excited for people to see it. It starts tonight.
So, what is that next stage in Juice's journey? As much as you can say, what's the road like for Juice as Season 6 pushes on?
Survival is a big part of it. What he realizes is that all he wants to do is make things go back. It's like Lost. He just wants to go back! [Laughs] He wants to go back to when things were cool and none of this ever happened. He just wants to go back. In trying to go back, he has pushed himself in so many different ways, so many different emotions, so many different things have occurred and so many errors have been made. Because of that, he keeps becoming something so much further from what he used to be. We're starting to see now a side of the character we've never seen before. It's the genius of the writing. This is the world Kurt's created. When you go into survival mode and you go into this darkness, it's a trip, man.
It's interesting, because "survival mode" is on for just about every character right now. Jax wants to get the club out of guns, but that's easier said than done. Clay is fighting to stay alive in prison. Tara is fighting to stay out of prison. As you've said, Sons is on the other side of the mountain, and it's a big theme as we're heading toward the end: this club, this brotherhood, this family, is now marked by people standing and surviving on their own.
I think now more than ever, because we've grown the story so much through each character, some more than others … we've gone through so much. Now, we're starting to see the results of all the stuff they've done. All of that emotional toll. I love Juice's line in the premiere, when he's talking to Gemma and she asks him how he's doing. He says, "I'm tired." I always thought that was the line that almost every character wants to say. "I'm exhausted!" We've been trying to get this right and that right, there's constant maneuvering to avoid mistakes. It's exhausting.
I think that emotional toll, it's a dangerous place for every character to be in. You saw what happened with Tig at the mere mention of his daughter; he dropped the guy in piss, and he peed on him himself. These people are time-bombs! You say survival mode, and I'd say that for a few of these guys, but it's also just everything that's happened and everything these characters have gone through for five seasons. People are starting to feel [the weight].
Do you have a sense of where the story is going, of how it's all going to end? Do you think Kurt even knows?
Oh, without a doubt. That's not even a question. He knows. I wouldn't even begin to guess. One, I've never guessed right. [Laughs] I think Kurt's thing is, "Whenever the audience thinks something is going to happen, it doesn't. It goes the other way." That's why this show is so compelling. Nobody knows what these characters are going to do next, and he does. He has a plan. He knows what he wants to do. I can't even guess how this all wraps up. I just know that I've never trusted anyone like I trust Kurt. Every episode this season reads like a finale of another season. When every single script ends, when you turn on that page, you go, "Wow, really? Alright, let's do this."
Sons of Anarchy airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.