Tyler Dean Flores on the Impact of 'Reefa' Amid Conversations on Police Brutality (Exclusive)

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

A few weeks after Tyler Dean Flores attended his eighth grade graduation, he was on a plane to London. He had self-taped for a small role in what he thought was an indie film. That was a cover, he soon learned, for what was then one of Hollywood’s most anticipated films: The Dark Knight Rises. The young Harlem-born model-turned-actor couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to movie acting. 

“It was so funny because back then, I wasn’t really nervous at all,” he tells ET. “You’re just young, you know? You pick up this role and you really don't realize how much it'll impact your life. This was like a couple months into acting, too. And it just completely changed my life.”

In the decade since, Flores has slowly and steadily been building out an acting career in New York City. After booking roles in shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Blue Bloods and When They See Us, he’s set to have a splashy 2021. 

Disney+ viewers may have already spotted him in The Falcon & the Winter Soldier (“I guess I’m multi-universe now,” he jokes, noting how he’s appeared in both DC and Marvel properties) but it is his performance in Jessica Kavana Dornbusch’s Reefa that should put Flores on your radar as a young Latino actor to watch.

Set in 2013, Reefa follows 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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And 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 of Reefa will 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 of George Floyd adds another layer to its impact. But he’s quick to frame Reefa less 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.”

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Flores 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.”

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 called Birthday Cake that's coming out soon with Val Kilmer and Ewan McGregor. That film was amazing to be a part of as well, because my friends actually 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.”

Reefa will be released on VOD and digital platforms on April 16.

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