James Roday Explains Decision to Reclaim His Birth Name Rodriguez and Why He 'Sold Out' His Heritage

ABC's "A Million Little Things" stars James Roday as Gary Mendez.
Matthias Clamer/ABC via Getty Images

'The bottom line is, I sold out my heritage in about 15 seconds to have a shot at being an actor,' he says.

Actor James Roday will now professionally go by the last name he was given at birth -- James Roday Rodriguez -- and in a new interview, explains how his past experiences in Hollywood led him to erase an important part of his heritage when he was just 21 years old.

The 44-year-old Psych actor spoke to TV Line about why he originally decided to change his name from James Rodriguez to James Roday after he started to audition for acting roles while studying at New York University. Rodriguez recalls auditioning for the lead role in the 1996 film Primal Fear -- which eventually went to Ed Norton -- and while the casting director told him he was great, he was told he couldn't cast him because his last name was Rodriguez. He was then offered a chance to audition for the role of a gang member, but was then told he "didn't look Latino enough."

He decided to change his name when three years later, he was told at yet another audition that his last name was costing him potential jobs. He recalled auditioning for a DreamWorks pilot and nailing it, but his last name again caused problems.

"Their only concern was that the role wasn’t written for a Hispanic or Mexican person," Rodriguez says. "They were worried that casting a white guy with a Mexican name could be construed as their version of 'diverse casting,' and there could be a backlash. They said, 'You might want to give some real consideration to changing your name.'"

"Now imagine someone giving that advice to an actor out loud today, with the climate and cancel culture," he adds. "That's it; they're done. But this is the late '90s. It was a different time and, frankly, my first two experiences kind of proved the point that they were making."

Rodriguez said he then asked his dad -- whom he describes as a proud Air Force veteran and a proud Mexican-American man -- for permission to change his last name from Rodriguez to Roday. His father said to go for it, given that being an actor was his son's dream.

"And sure enough, I did the pilot, I came up with this name that I pulled right out of a Chekhov play that I was doing at the time, and I've been Roday ever since," he says. "And 20 years later, I realize I essentially perpetuated an institutionalized element of what's broken about this industry, which is, of course, a microcosm of the world we are living in. I can't excuse the decision because of youth or naiveté or ambition. The bottom line is, I sold out my heritage in about 15 seconds to have a shot at being an actor."

Rodriguez said there was actually another actor named James Rodriguez in the Screen Actors Guild at the time, so he began using that as an excuse for why he changed his last name.

"And that became the explanation. But, in reality, it was not," he acknowledges. "It was something that I used to make myself feel better and to sleep at night. But now I'm going to go back to the name I was born with. It's long overdue. I'm a little bummed out that my grandparents are not alive to see it. But my dad is. And I think it will mean something to him. That, in and of itself, is reason enough for me."

"The last thing I would ever want in a million years is for anyone to feel like I'm co-opting a movement to point a light at myself," he continues. "But the truth is, it's a deeply personal decision that I am doing for me. And I just hope it's something that can be amplified. I hope we are all having these conversations in our lives. I hope we are all reflecting. I hope we're all learning sh** that we thought we knew but didn't know. And I hope we're all chasing the best versions of ourselves moving forward."

Rodriguez said he wants to be an ally for his community moving forward.

"The point is: Now is the time to dig in and seize the opportunity, collectively, to just be better," he says. "I want to be the best, most honest ally and amplifier that I can be for my own community and for my friends of color. I don't think any of us could do that if we're not even putting the truest versions of ourselves out there. It just seems like a hurdle right out of the gate. I just really hope that this is something that we can all sustain. I don't want this to be the thing that I look back at and go, 'Oh, remember that three-month period where we all got woke and I changed my f**king name?'"

Now, Rodriguez is proudly playing a Latino character -- Gary Mendez -- on the ABC drama A Million Little Things. He said that the show creator, DJ Nash, actually asked him if he wanted his character to have a Mexican last name without Rodriguez asking.

"And I couldn't believe that someone was acknowledging that I was 50 percent Latino and actually asking me professionally if I wanted to associate that with my work," Rodriguez marvels. "And I was stoked. I got excited. I thought this would probably be the only time I get to have a Latino name ever. And so I give credit for him for igniting a pilot light in me that opened the blinds a little bit so I felt more present in my own skin."