His career took a different track — but subway conductor Kevin Rivera still has fond memories of his scene-stealing turn in the 2002 movie “Raising Victor Vargas,” which is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a screening at the New York Latino Film Festival on Wednesday.
Rivera, now 39, made headlines in The Post earlier this summer when he survived an attack by an “unhinged” straphanger threatening MTA workers — so he’s glad to be revisiting a happier memory now.
He had zero acting roles before his cult classic and scored only a few more after its release — but he still counts his performance as Harold, the eponymous main character’s best friend, among his “biggest accomplishments.”
“I watch it over and over again. Over 2,000 to 3,000 times,” he told The Post ahead of the 8 p.m. screening, which will mark 20 years since the movie was shot on the Lower East Side during the week of of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Raising Victor Vargas” tells the story of a young, swagger-filled Dominican American teen (Victor Rasuk) coming of age with his two siblings and grandmother on the Lower East Side.
The film received near-universal acclaim upon release in 2002. The Post’s Megan Lehmann at the time praised it as “a love letter to a New York neighborhood that is rapidly disappearing – a tight-knit Dominican community of chicken runs, secluded gardens and social clubs.”
Rivera was a 21-year-old studying at Queensborough Community College when his cousin reached out about an opportunity to try out for the role of Victor’s caring wingman. Most of the cast, like him, had little to no acting experience.
“At first I was hesitant. I was cast without a portfolio, without a picture, without a resumé. I just went in there and acted energetic. I never acted before in my life,” Rivera said.
In the film, Rivera’s character provides a contrast to the protagonist’s foibles. While Victor attempts and fails to impress Judy “Juicy Judy” Ramirez for much of the film, Harold quickly wins the trust — and romantic affection — of her best friend.
Director Peter Sollett (“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) encouraged the actors to play their roles as close to their actual selves as possible.
“Everything was improvised,” Rivera said. “He gave us a script, but it was like, ‘How would you say it? What would you do in that situation?’”
“It was from the heart. It was so genuine,” he said of the acting in the film. “We just got along. It was just the right people, the right actors. We all just clicked.”
“The lesson of the movie is how Latino families are brought up in New York City, how close they are,” he said. “So many people could relate to the movie — you know, the struggles, the happiness. Money really doesn’t make you happy. I think it’s family. It’s the people you hang out with, your friends.”
The film was shot during the week of 9/11 — mere miles from the World Trade Center. The Twin Towers can be seen in the foreground in at least one shot.
“It was an independent movie that didn’t have a whole bunch of money to make it seem authentic,” Rivera said. “To tell you the truth, I really haven’t seen a movie like ‘Raising Victor Vargas.’ “
Other cast members moved to Hollywood to become full-time actors. Rivera, who grew up as the son of Colombian immigrants in Kew Gardens, Queens, nailed a few more acting gigs — but the work soon dried up.
“I did a Coca Cola commercial, I did a movie and ‘Law & Order,’ then I wasn’t getting gigs. But I was happy. I was just so proud,” he said. “I wasn’t in it to be an actor.”
Rivera joined the MTA a decade ago as a traffic checker — “the bottom of the bottom,” he says — and has since moved up to the role of conductor on the subway’s 7 line. He got married and now has two kids, ages one and three.
“Every time going to school, I used to see transit workers working. I was like, ‘Wow, they got a good pension, they got a good job, it’s a really good gig, man,’” he said. “I saw people able to take care of their families, and I wanted that.”
His former castmates, meanwhile, tracked him down this summer after finding a Post article from May about a harrowing attack Rivera faced on his way home from work.
He’s eager for tonight’s reunion, when the film will be screened “drive-in” style in a parking lot at Gerard Avenue and 151st Street in the Bronx. Tickets are available on the New York Latino Film Festival website.
“I felt like we all had a lot in common, since we all grew up and was raised in New York,” he said. “I saw them a couple times after the movie, but most of them went to LA and LA’s not for me. I’m a New Yorker. I want to be me.”