Genre-Bending Jewish Actor Rivkah Reyes Is In a Queer Christmas Movie

The "School of Rock" star chatted with Hey Alma about "A Holiday I Do" and the menschiness of Jack Black.

I dare you to find a performer, Jewish or otherwise, as versatile and genre-bending as Rivkah Reyes.

Twenty years ago, 10-year-old Rivkah’s first acting job was playing Katie the bassist in the classic Jack Black movie “School of Rock.” It was a consequential moment for them, with major pros and cons. At the same time that “School of Rock” jumpstarted their career and was a loving, supportive experience, the bullying and harassment from classmates and strangers online that followed pushed them to fall, as they wrote in a 2020 essay, “into the classic child actor pattern.” Feeling the pressure to find their next big acting job, Rivkah turned to alcohol, drugs and more for more than a decade to numb the pain.

But like I said, Rivkah is genre-bending.

In 2017, they were able to become sober and in some ways, it restarted their career. Since then, they’ve blossomed into the multi-talented and proudly queer, nonbinary Filipinix-Jewish performer they are today, guest starring on the Netflix show “Easy,” performing comedy on festivals produced by HBO and NBCUniversal and writing and performing their own music. Most recently, they starred in comedy horror film “Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls,” which opened at Sundance Film Festival in 2022, and this year they wrote and starred in a comedy thriller short called “Gianna,” in which a queer addict spends some time with her inner saboteur.

And now, excitingly, they’re starring in a queer Christmas movie.

“A Holiday I Do,” which came out Nov. 10, tells the story of queer, small town horse farmer and mom Jane (Lindsay Hicks) as she plays best woman at Christmastime to her ex-husband and best friend Mark (Joe Piazza). The hitch? Her ex’s new beau lowkey hates her, her mom won’t tell her that the farm is being foreclosed on and, oh yeah, she has a massive crush on the wedding planner, Sue (Reyes).

Naturally, chaos ensues, including a flying Nativity scene baby Jesus, a double-booked venue, a sled ride gone awry and lots of elves on the shelves. Spoiler alert: It’s all worth it in the end. The wedding goes on, the horse farm is saved and Jane and Sue seal their love with a kiss under an elf on the shelf wearing a Pride scarf. I’m telling you, there are an unprecedented amount of elves on shelves in this movie.

Rivkah chatted with Hey Alma about being a Jewish actor in a Christmas movie, their ideal queer Hanukkah flick and the menschiness of Jack Black.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

First, how does it feel now that the strike is likely over?

Oh my god, it feels great. I’m excited to get back to work. I am excited to see everybody sharing their projects online again. It feels really celebratory here in LA, like there’s a bouncy air. I was honestly worried it was gonna go on longer. But hopefully this deal is better and [provides] better conditions for the working actor. Because those are really the people that are keeping Hollywood together.

So I had a great time watching “A Holiday I Do.” What was it like for you being a Jewish actor in a Christmas movie?

Well, my mom was raised Catholic, so we grew up celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah. But we were never really like a Hallmark/Lifetime Christmas movie family. We’re more like “Grinch” and “Elf” and those classics. But I’ve now done two Christmas movies, in both of which I was a lesbian character. It just feels so good to be a part of an industry that is just made for people to feel a sense of holiday cheer and comfort and joy. Not to quote a Christmas song.

Most of them are written by Jews.

*singing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”* Comfort and joy, comfort and joy. I really do love Christmas culture. I love Christmas music. The songs absolutely slap, even the very Catholic or Christian ones. So yeah, it was super fun to be a part of something that is just so innately cheerful.

I got the sense that you were able to put a little bit of your own identity into Sue? Was that the case?

Yeah! In addition to being Jewish, I’m also Filipino and I wanted Sue to have a Filipino backstory. In the Philippines. Christmas starts in September. That’s true… Oh, hey, my puppy just drank a sip of coffee. *to the puppy* You’re going to be so crazy later, aren’t you? She’s a baby. We just got her on Thursday. Her name is Stevie Nicks.

I’m obsessed. That’s a good name.

And I think she’s a Gemini just like the real Stevie Nicks.

The scene when Sue learns the venue is double-booked and says “I’m a Scorpio with an Aries moon, I will not take no for an answer,” also felt very you.

Yes, the line about Sue’s astrology sign was improvised by me. I had a little fun here and there throwing in some ad libs, as I typically do. I can’t shut off my writer’s brain from adding little accoutrement to a script if the director and the screenwriter allow for it. And Paul, Melinda and Alicia, the director-writers, were very open to all of us having fun with the script where applicable. They sat down with me to ask how we could infuse a little bit of my culture into the character, which was really cool and doesn’t happen too often, especially in holiday films which usually have a very cookie cutter plot. It’s always like, the city girl falls in love with the country boy. They start out as foes and find frustrating attraction towards each other, and then it ends with a kiss and Christmas is saved. But I think what this team did so brilliantly was they tweaked that trope and went in directions that are uncharted territory for the holiday classic.

Oh, I don’t know if you caught it but the venue is booked by the Mendelsteins! The Jewish representation in “A Holiday I Do” is that the Mendelsteins got the venue over Sue’s clients.

I thought it was really funny that the Jews wreaked a tiny bit of havoc in this film. So you’ve been in two Christmas movies now, and played a queer character in both. If you were to be in a queer Hanukkah movie, what would you want that to look like?

I think it would be cute to have it be like “Jewish girl brings a goy girlfriend home.” The girlfriend is very Christmas-centric and she gets to learn the traditions behind Hanukkah. And of course, there are high jinks involving the mother. Not to play into the Jewish mother trope too much, but with this dog, I am already becoming a Jewish mother, basically. So it feels somewhat real to me. And maybe there’s like an ex from shul who’s still kind of in the picture. And they’re kind of smarmy and do the whole “you’ll never make it work with a goy!” But in the end, love prevails. And I’m sure there’ll be lots of kibbitzing, arguing at the dinner table and maybe a funny scene where the goy girlfriend realizes that the gifts for Hanukkah aren’t as exciting. Honestly, for me, that was a nice plus side to celebrating both. For eight days in a row, I got some really cool socks and books and stuff. And then for Christmas I got the big Barbie Dream House.

OK, I love the Hanukkah movie idea and that’s so true. I also grew up in an interfaith household and for Christmas my sister and I always got American Girl doll stuff. And then for Hanukkah, it was like socks. Which are necessary, but not American Girl dolls.

I have to know: who was your American Girl doll?

My sister and I collected them over the years and shared them. But mine were Kaya, Addy and Kit.

I had Josefina, Samantha and Molly. Those were my girls. And then I also had a baby doll that I made. She was an Asian baby doll and I named her Mei Mei. She was cute, but I was really a Molly-Josefina hybrid. I feel like that kind of makes sense for my identity and my gender now.

I love that. Speaking of gifts, what was your favorite Hanukkah-Christmas tradition growing up?

Every year my dad makes lasagna. We are not Italian in any way, shape or form. But my dad did grow up on Long Island where you’re seemingly either Jewish or Italian. So yeah, he makes amazing lasagna. And then my other one is that my sisters and brother and I would film a Brown family Christmas Carol on YouTube. Unfortunately we can’t do this anymore because we’re all on different coasts – one of my sisters is in Brooklyn, one is in Chicago, my brother is also in Chicago, and I’m in LA. My family is very musical. So I’m usually playing guitar, my baby brother is playing saxophone, and we’re all singing. And it’s fun to see over the years how our musical skills develop and our harmonies sound tighter, and the choreography gets better.

That’s amazing. Also, the 20th anniversary of “School of Rock” happened a few months ago. What did that anniversary mean to you?

I don’t think any of us really knew how special and almost culture-bending, genre-bending “School of Rock” would be when we were making it. But now looking back at it and seeing the legacy that we have where our 20-year anniversary was written about in Rolling Stone is a dream come true. Every day since the movie came out, I’ve gotten messages from people who the movie inspired in some way. Whether that’s girls who decided they too could be a rockstar, and then did, or parents who are like, “Thank you so much. This movie reminded me that I should let my kids choose their own creative path and I can’t choose it for them.”

It’s really a tender milestone for us to hit, and also incredible that a movie from 2003 has aged extremely well. It’s just such an honor to have been a part of it. It was my first project as an actor, and the second I set foot on set, I was just like, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” And every time I am on set, I am reminded how lucky I was that “School of Rock” was such an amazing experience. Hopefully this new SAG-AFTRA deal allows for better working conditions for child actors and for the day players and the guest stars and people like that.

The other thing I’ll say is that the cast of “School of Rock,” particularly the kids, have been a family since day one and we’re all still fully obsessed with each other. I went line dancing with Brian Falduto who played Billy last night. He’s a gay country singer and he has the perfect song for queer line dancing called “Same Old Country Love Song.” I asked the guy who runs Stud Country in LA to put the song on for the two-step break and he did. I mean, I would do anything for every single person that was in “School of Rock.” Jack Black has also been deeply supportive of us and Sarah Silverman too. When a film wraps everyone’s like, “Please don’t be a stranger. Stay in touch.” And then you never hear from them again. But we really have stayed in touch.

It’s so heartwarming to see how close you all are.

Thank you. We’re just a big family, and we just had our first “School of Rock” baby! Jordan-Claire, who played one of the groupies, just had a baby girl. 

That’s amazing. And to your point about Jack Black being supportive, he’s a producer on “Gianna,” right?

Yeah, Jack helped us out with “Gianna” which was so kind of him. But that’s the thing, he’s just always been so supportive of all of our creative endeavors and has kept abreast of our life updates. I am so grateful for that. Because some A-list actors are really not like that at all. He really is a mensch.

Are there any other upcoming projects you’re working on?

“Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls,” is now streaming on ScreamBox. Everybody can watch it there. I believe you can also rent or buy it on Apple TV. That was so fun, another incredible film experience where the cast was all super tight. And it’s a very good horror movie for folks who get scared super easily. It’s scary like how “Scooby Doo” live action is scary. Or “Gremlins,” or think of the B-movies from the 80s and 90s. And we also have horror legends Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs in the film. They were both super fun to work with. Horror is one of my favorite genres to write and act in, and melding it with silly goofy comedy — character-driven, ensemble-driven comedy, which is what I got my start in — was just so fun.

OK, last question: What does it mean to you to be a mixed identity Jew?

It’s interesting… I’m facing a lot of questions within myself right now with the state of what’s happening in the Middle East. Being Filipino, being pro-decolonization and pro-liberation of indigenous folks and being Jewish is… it was complex. But I was raised that to be Jewish is to question things and to be okay with some questions not having an answer.

Right now, I am and I’ve always been very interested in Jewish mysticism, and interested in the way that Jews use ritual, almost in this witchy way. So I’m very into that and incorporating that into my life however I can. Every year when Passover happens, I love to count the Omer. I think it’s just so witchy to do.

Getting more invested in the rich spirituality of Judaism has also completely reshaped the way that I think about death and grief, and I think that while we’re in this big grieving period in history it’s possible to hold space for the grief that is coming from both sides. It is possible for me to say “Free Palestine” with my whole heart and also say “may their memory be a blessing” to the Israeli folks whose lives have been lost and pray that the hostages are released. I believe in liberation and justice and peace for all and that everyone has a safe place to go. I just pray that this violence ends soon and I’m trying to do whatever I can to amplify and to be of service and to invite change. And I feel this way because I am Jewish, not in spite of the fact that I am.

Read More