n the space of three years, singer/actor Sebastien De La Cruz has gone from being San Antonio’s beloved “Little Mariachi” on “America’s Got Talent” to a killer in a new movie.
His dark role in “Birth of a Killer,” a short film co-starring Ricardo Chavira of “Scandal” and “Desperate Housewives” fame, will screen Saturday at the San Antonio Film Festival. It is certainly a far cry from the charming mariachi performances that wowed the judges on “Talent.”
He was only 10 then yet made it all the way to the NBC show’s semifinals.
A year later, the tiny but big-voiced singer donned full mariachi garb once again for national TV, belting the national anthem at an NBA finals game between the Spurs and Miami.
When some ugly bigotry erupted on Twitter, he handled it with courage and class, prompting an outpouring of support from around the country and another invitation by the Spurs.
At age 12, he was the subject of Eva Longoria’s ESPN documentary about that fiery flap, once again drawing kudos from impressed viewers.
Now a teenager, and looking less like a kid and more like a thoughtful young man, De La Cruz can be seen in his first lead role in a movie.
In the 35-minute “Birth of a Killer,” he plays a tortured teen from a fractured home that’s marked by drugs and abuse. After befriending a professional killer (Chavira) during a night full of violence, he seems fast on his way to becoming a hitman himself.
De La Cruz delivers a sensitive tour-de-force in “Killer” that more than pleased writer and director Daniel Maldonado.
After meeting the teen and his family, the filmmaker, who was writing the script at the time, was so impressed that he wrote the role of the kid with De La Cruz in mind.
“I started making the decision in my head that I may write (the movie) around him,” Maldonado said in a phone chat. “Sebastien is very charismatic and genuine, a really bright kid who takes direction really well.
“At the same time, I knew it would be challenging because it’s his first major acting role,” Maldonado said. “It was really great working with him. Sebastien loved the script. He really likes these types of action films, Robert Rodriguez style. So it was easy for him to say yes.”
Maldonado got the idea for the film from a news story.
“It was about an 11-year- old who was apprehended by authorities in Mexico,” he said. “It was discovered he was a hitman who started at 9 or 10. So, I got to thinking: How do you go from being a child to this world of crime? How can you be so young and yet be already embedded in such a dark world?
“But I knew I wanted to do something set in San Antonio. And I got to thinking about the boy’s character and wanted to make him someone local.”
He shot all around San Antonio, downtown and on the city’s East Side.
“I wanted to find a unique way to incorporate the city in shots,” Maldonado said, “feature the darker underside of San Antonio.”
One of the scarier scenes takes place in a cemetery — located off New Braunfels Avenue and Commerce Street) — where the boy visits the grave of his dad and is threatened by some weird characters.
Also memorable is a shootout between Chavira’s character and violent patrons in a bar while the boy looks on.
“We filmed that at the South Side Bar, which is right down the street from my grandma’s house,” Maldonado said. “It was easy to write that scene, incorporating the boy, because my grandma used to take me to the bar after school.”
The director said he was thrilled to get an actor of Chavira’s caliber for the film. In fact, Chavira liked the script so much, he said, that he also is an executive producer on “Birth of a Killer.”
Does he feel young De La Cruz, who starts at Karen Wagner High School soon, has a future in motion pictures?
“Definitely. Sebastien picks up on things quickly, both in front of the camera and behind it. He also has shown interest in writing and doing his own films.”