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Tyler Dean Flores Talks Bringing 'Reefa' to Life (Exclusive)

“You pick up this role and you really don't realize how much it'll impact your life.”

4/15/2021 5:00:00 AM

“You pick up this role and you really don't realize how much it'll impact your life.”

'Reefa' tells the real life story of Israel 'Reefa' Hernandez Jr., an 18-year-old Colombian art prodigy killed by Miami cops.

Reefafollows its titular protagonist, Israel Hernandez, a Colombian kid who spends his days daydreaming about going to art school in New York City and bringing his signature style onto the streets of Miami. Known in the street art world as “Reefa,” Israel is stuck between different worlds. His lofty aspirations and influences (which include Basquiat, Haring and Murakami) put him at odds with the graffiti artists who value Miami’s homegrown icons. His immigration status (like the rest of his family, Israel is awaiting ruling on an asylum visa application) set him apart from his undocumented friends whose lack of papers restrict their everyday lives. 

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Vertical EntertainmentAnd in a family that values caution given their precarious situation, Israel’s penchant for tagging walls late at night means he’s often pegged as careless by his loving parents (played by José Zúñiga and Colombian acting legend Margarita Rosa de Francisco). It also means he’s just as often at the mercy of a pair of cops in his neighborhood who, as we see time and time again, seem less concerned with citizens’ safety than with asserting their own power. 

Even if you’re not aware of the real-life story that inspired Dornbusch’s film, the climactic moments ofReefawill feel inevitable, though no less aggravating. As the Derek Chauvin trial continues to expose the systemic injustices of police brutality,Reefa

fictionalizes a local headline-grabbing 2013 case that similarly had cops citing “excited delirium” as the reason for Hernandez’s death.For Flores, seeing the film in the wake of last year’s protests following the killing ofadds another layer to its impact. But he’s quick to frame

Reefaless as a film about Israel’s death than about his life.“What the film stands for will never change,” he adds. “This film is about just one of hundreds of police brutality cases. But this movie is also so much about an artist who just wanted to express himself, no matter what. And that's why this movie means so much to me. That’s how I see myself in Reefa, because I’m the same way. I just want to express myself, no matter what.”

Vertical EntertainmentFlores first turned to modeling to make some money and help his family out financially, and later to acting when he got supportive feedback from potential agents. He’s since grown to see his work on the screen as an extension of his artistic inclination. While preparing for

Reefa, Flores tapped back into the world he knew all too well.“I was really just drawn to his character. Because Reefa was an artist, skateboarder, philosopher, and I grew up with a ton of kids like Reefa. And I also just really see myself in Reefa," he explains. "As soon as I got the project, I just knew this is it for me.”

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Like many, Flores spent much of last year looking inward. “I was just trying my best to just really uplift myself, my friends, my family,” he says. But now, he’s eager to look ahead to what’s bound to be a busy 2021.“I have a film calledBirthday Cakethat's coming out soon with Val Kilmer and Ewan McGregor. That film was amazing to be a part of as well, because

my friendsactually put it together. I saw the film when it was literally just like any idea. I saw it coming together from start to finish, so that's something I'm excited about.”Like many young performers out there, though, Flores can’t deny he has his eyes on a certain buzzy title that was recently announced. “There’s also another project that I’d love to be in is called

Blue Beetle, which is a DC movie, because it’s the first Latino superhero. I would love to do something different like that. That’s what I’m aiming for.”Reefawill be released on VOD and digital platforms on April 16. Read more: Entertainment Tonight »

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