Jimmy Smits and Felix Sanchez

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded July 30, 2002, in New York.

Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly show about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guests today are Jimmy Smits and Félix Sánchez, founders of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. Welcome.

Félix Sánchez: Thank you.

Jimmy Smits: Thank you, Ken. Thanks for having us.

Paulson: My hunch is that Jimmy’s probably the better known of the two of you, at least to television viewers. And certainly when Americans are asked to name famous actors of Hispanic descent, your name comes up, which is both a testament to your ability and your popularity, and to the fact that there aren’t a lot of other prominent Hispanic actors on television today, which is part of what led to the creation of this foundation. Is that right? Can you talk a little bit about the origins of this organization?

Sánchez: Well, I think part of it was that I had the good fortune of working with a number of actors: Esai Morales, Jimmy Smits, Sonia Braga. And everyone came together thinking they wanted to use their celebrity to advance the presence of Latinos in the entertainment industry. But how to come together and do it was the issue. So, we created a foundation that works at scholarshipping students at prominent universities that have a pipeline into the entertainment industry.

Paulson: So, what is the problem? Is it that there are not more people of color behind the cameras or in front of the cameras? And is it an issue that is troubling the Hispanic community; or are we also talking about a lack of diversity throughout Hollywood?

Sánchez: I think one of the problems that people don’t understand about television is, really, all the production aspects behind the camera and all of the people that are making decisions of what you’re seeing in front of the camera. And so much of — we’re missing, we’re absent from both sides of that equation. And on television, on network primetime TV, we’ve only been at about 2%, no more than 3%, even though we are 12.5% of the population or 35 million strong according to the last census.

Paulson: One of the points made in the work you’ve done so far is about looking for role models for Hispanic youngsters, for example, who might watch television, and for that matter, anyone looking at the Hispanic community through what they see on television. When you were a young boy, were there role models for you? I know you later played the Cisco Kid. Was the Cisco Kid a positive role model in the Hispanic community?

Smits: Yeah, I think to see somebody that related to you because of a cultural similarity, that — that in and of itself makes it positive. You mentioned before something about the organization and how we started this whole thing with the foundation. And I’m someone that has had the opportunity to, thankfully, be working out there. But what we were trying to do in terms of getting this group together was to access this next wave and hopefully give them the tools, through education, to be able to take that next step.

Paulson: And you’ve emphasized education in your own career, though. You’ve had people who encouraged you every step of the way. You got a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in fine arts, and people who believed in you. And that made a difference.

Smits: Yeah, it’s interesting to speak on that topic with regards to the entertainment industry, because there’s no real A-B-C. For every person that you talk about that has a bachelor or master’s degree in fine arts, you know, there’s somebody who’s come from nowhere into a really big movie star or a television star. So, what we’ve emphasized is that training gives you a kind of groundwork and a base where you can spring from. And that’s what we want to keep, keep going. That’s what’s needed, really.

Paulson: So, what are you hearing from young people today?

Sánchez: Well, I think, you know, part of what is difficult about this industry is that it is a networking-based industry. It is a who-you-know kind of relationship-driven community. And if you’re not present within that network, well, then, you have a hard time accessing it and connecting to it. So, the goals that we have always tried is to create a kind of collateral infrastructure so that we can facilitate these relationships and we can try to connect the dots and create a bridge strategy so that talented young people can find their way to this industry. Because it’s not as simple as saying, “I know how to become a doctor, I know how to become a lawyer, or an engineer, but how do I become a writer on a television show? How do I become a show runner on a dramatic series? How do I become, you know, a lead actor on one of these shows?” And so by trying to create pathways, we are trying to open up and access this industry.

Paulson: Jimmy, you hosted a segment of the Grammy’s devoted to Latino music. And, and I think you made the observation that, that this was one segment of the entertainment world where there really was great diversity and more doors that are open. Any lessons to be learned from the music industry?

Smits: I think that — well, just what you said, that the music industry has always been kind of like at the forefront in terms of, like, pop culture and making diversity more accessible. What, what happens in television, which is a very, you know, super powerful medium, is — considering what the population numbers are, with Latinos in the United States, and you start looking at how that is represented in terms of roles that are seen, that image is not, you know, it’s about leveling the, the playing field a little bit.

Paulson: What are the hard numbers?

Sánchez: The hard numbers, in terms of — on television, in particular, and really in film, is that we have not really gone beyond 2% to 3%. And, again, when you talk about that, just think about the leads. You know, if you sort of close your eyes and you say, “OK, well, who is a lead character on a dramatic television show or in comedy?” There are very few names that really come to the surface. And, if there are very few names that come to the surface, there are very few images that you are experiencing. If there are very few images that you are experiencing, then you’re not getting to know a very important segment of this community. And, if you think that, you know, African-Americans are 12% of the community and we are also 12% of the community, but we are very — we have a very low reflection level — then that is why there is this sense that we’re missing the center. We’re missing the opportunity to, to be a part of the American mainstream.

Paulson: Well, of course, the population of the American people that will be of Hispanic descent is going to continue to grow.

Smits: Right.

Paulson: Any chance that this will fix itself as the marketplace also grows?

Sánchez: I don’t know. I mean, I think that, you know, we’ve certainly been struggling at this question, but I do think that more and more we’re seeing a lot of small steps that are going forward. And I think that the market will drive more content.

Paulson: Jimmy, you’ve had remarkable success, and, of course, most people first saw you on “L.A. Law.” Where — how did you get that role? Why did you not run into the kind of brick wall that we’re talking about for other young actors?

Smits: But — well, but I did. [Laughs] It’s a — just a lesson in — that whole particular job was just a lesson in kind of, like, perseverance, you know? I had — I was doing a job in Boston, and my agent had sent me the pilot script. And apparently, they were having meetings — I don’t even want to call them auditions, but meetings at Rockefeller Center over here, where NBC has their studios. And, and it was very evident to me that there were no — that they really weren’t — they were just kind of like shuttling people through, and they really weren’t interested in really — anything substantive there. And I had spoken to a friend that I had went to graduate school with, and he said, “Well, you didn’t really meet the producer. You met some kind of executive that — come, get on a plane. Go to California.” And that’s what I did, and I met the casting director and had a number of auditions with the producers and finally gotten that. But if I would have let that day pass at, you know, 30 Rock, it would have been something totally different.

Paulson: When they wrote the character, when they got to know you better, did the character become any more reflective of the Hispanic culture?

Smits: Well, I think one of the good things about that particular character was that Steven didn’t really want — Steven being Steven Bochco — and the writing staff there didn’t really want to have this character that wore his culture on his sleeve at the outset and that it was very important for the audiences to, to connect with this character and the whole group of attorneys as, first and foremost, good attorneys. And from there, you can springboard into, into different issues. And I think that happened with my character and Blair Underwood’s character. And Larry Drake, who played Benny Stulwicz, kind of a challenged character. And that was a lot of fodder for different types of stories.

Paulson: I have a sense that that was an environment in which the writers listened to the actors and vice versa. Were there ever moments in that show where you would say, “You know, this is wrong;” that, “This is not the way this character would do this”? Or, you know, one of the points you’ve made in interviews is about the challenge of taking on even a villain’s role when you’re one of the few Hispanic faces on television. Were you protective of the character?

Smits: I was very protective of the character. And — but you know what, so were they. And there were disagreements, and I lost sometimes. And, you know, sometimes points were made and things were changed. But what was important was the type of environment that we had. And it was always, as far as I was concerned, very open-door. And, and I think that’s why we collaborated again down the line in doing “NYPD Blue.”

Paulson: And again, a good guy again, a character that, you know, the country loved — heroic and all the positive attributes. Would you have worked with the same guys if they’d, if they’d given you the role of an SOB?

Smits: Oh, most definitely, because — no, because you can — well, you know, a lot of people would, would put Andy Sipowicz in that category, right, you know? And at certain times, he could be that. But when you have a trust in a relationship with a group of people — writers, producers — and you know that the overall message that’s trying to be conveyed to an audience is, is one that is positive, whether it be these people that work in — on a daily basis in the police force or, or lawyers — and that they’re very issue oriented, you’ll go along with that ride if you know it’s that kind of character, because you know at the end of the tunnel there, the audience is going to be engaged on a lot of different levels. So, you will be saying positive things.

Paulson: “NYPD Blue” pushed the envelope in so many ways. This is a show about free expression. Were there times when you, internally, you would say, “We may be going too far. We don’t need to see Andy’s rear end,” or — I mean, were there scripts that troubled the cast, or were you always pushing the envelope?

Smits: Well, I don’t — boy, we should get Steve in here at some point, because he could speak very well on this. But the networks wanted — at that time, they were going through this whole issue of cable and how to compete with cable. And, you know, Steven’s response was — and it wasn’t only about the nudity. But, if you look at that show, it was more about tackling different subject matter on a more adult theme. So, you know, I think it was very successful in pushing the envelope on a weekly basis. Certainly some of the, some of the things that happened with regards to racial relations that were talked about on the show made a lot of people very uncomfortable. We would have to have dialogues about that. And again, it’s, it’s not — it wasn’t always about being PC. If, down the line, all points of view are explored.

Paulson: As you look at the two roles that Jimmy played, they fit all the kind of criteria we talk about here, that they’re great parts, highly visible parts, people with courage, conviction, or simply great parts well acted. As you look over the last decade of television, are there other roles you would single out and say, you know, “We’d love to see a dozen more roles like that on television”?

Sánchez: Well, I think you do have to compliment people like Steven Bochco, because they create the ensemble cast that allowed a character like Jimmy’s characters to be a complicated portrayal, a multidimensional character, one that the audience could relate to and respond to. And when you do that, you transcend the ethnic or racial group that you come from and you become a part of the American spirit. And that is what is so powerful about this medium. But I would say that he has continued it with Esai Morales on “NYPD Blue,” and he’s one of the few people who has really — you know, it’s really a case study in how to do it right.

Paulson: Well, we’re about celebrating free expression here. We’re not real big on censorship. But are there shows out there that you think are destructive in terms of reinforcing negative stereotypes?

Sánchez: I think where there are shows — and, and without having to, you know, go into specifics — I think whenever you see that there are no Hispanic women on television — and that’s a huge issue — and then when there are, that they’re portrayed as maids or as nannies or as nurses; and they keep them extremely narrow, focused, then you seem to say, “Well, if that is all that they can see in terms of the women from this community, then that’s a really — a heartbreaker.” And I think that we need to concentrate more on complicated portrayal, and that’s the goal.

Paulson: There was a piece, I think it was the Los Angeles Times, in fact, 2000, the year 2000. They quoted a Screen Actor’s Guild report, which talked about issues of diversity in Hollywood. And there was an anonymous quote from someone in the studio where they basically questioned whether black and Hispanic organizations have the clout, that there had been a history of threatened boycotts; and then when they check the ratings, there’s really no blip. How do you react to that?

Sánchez: You know, it’s a — there is a reality there, and there is a certain sense of, “If over 50-plus years of television you’ve never had yourself reflected, or never have created an identity for this community, then the community itself doesn’t feel that they, you know, should necessarily belong there.” There’s this disconnect between them. And so when you ask them to respond in a way that sends a message, it’s very hard to galvanize this, because there’s not been a grassroots. It’s been created. But I do think that the issue of empowerment is one that is making sense from a marketing-advertising point of view. And then because you exhaust subject matter, people want new topics to be able to delve into and to explore. And we give a whole new opportunity in terms of that content and in terms of that marketing-advertising outreach.

Paulson: I was just thinking that if I were talking to people who are working for better representation of African-Americans in the entertainment media, we would talk about “Amos and Andy” and what a destructive kind of show that is in the view of many. Is there an “Amos and Andy” in the Hispanic community? Have there been television shows that are just so over-the-top in terms of reinforcing stereotypes?

Sánchez: Well, you know, I mean, I always think about “Giant” as a film, you know, in which the Hispanic migrant was portrayed in almost devastating terms. And then that image remained the only vibrant image — you know, a negative, mind you, vibrant image — that lasted, you know, for decades, because nothing came after it. And I think the problem on our side of the equation is not so much the destructive aspect as the lack of continued content that showed a progression, showed an advancement, showed an achievement, showed an elevation, showed more dimension. And when that isn’t present, then you think that this community remains stagnant. And that’s the damage.

Paulson: But was a show like “Chico and the Man” a positive or a negative?

Sánchez: I think it was a very positive show, and I think that Norman Lear did a lot to bring about, you know, almost minority programming, if you will. I mean, he was really the first person who, who took that upon himself. You know, and it was a successful — it was one of the most successful shows for NBC. And I think that, you know, we, we are certainly looking for more of that kind of development. And I do see small things coming forward. And small — you know, small steps being taken.

Smits: But certainly you want to see images that are, are positive, but you need to see the whole scope of, of images, also, that —

Paulson: You’re not looking for a laundering of the culture?

Sánchez: No.

Smits: Absolutely not.

Sánchez: And not a PC image of this community, as well.

Smits: But what happens is — and again, I go back to what the population numbers are in this country. What you see — what I’ve seen recently in a lot of television shows is that you’ll have people that are, quote-unquote “minorities” in supposed positions of power that don’t do anything, you know, the judge that gets hollered at. I could only explain it like that. It’s — so that it’s an almost — kind of like a, a subconscious subversiveness that kind of happens.

Sánchez: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a potted-plant strategy, you know? It makes me laugh. You the Latino judge or the Latino prosecutor ask one question. And then they exit and, you know, you move on. And so, you know, they elevate the “role” quote-unquote, that you’re playing, but it’s a one-liner.

Paulson: Why does it make a difference to every American? I understand why it’s important to the Hispanic community, but why is it important to America to have greater diversity both in front and behind the camera?

Sánchez: I think we’re — America is a mosaic and a reflection of its community. And when you have such a tremendous absence from one community, for many Latinos in the digital age, this is segregation. This is a civil rights issue. And the failure to integrate our presence in a mainstream manner is, in fact, a very severe and important issue that the industry has to reckon with, because it’s not only the domestic image. All of these television shows get sent worldwide. All of these films get sent worldwide. And when you have, you know, crowd scenes — say for — in “Spiderman,” you know, in New York and you don’t show, you know, a Latino population, you have to ask questions about that. When you have shows like “Friends” that, you know, have no amigos — I mean, you have to ask these questions, so —

Paulson: So given your convictions, Jimmy, there’s no way you could have turned down “Star Wars”?

Smits: There’s no way I could have.

Paulson: And for all kinds of reasons.

Smits: Yes, you have to have a Latino in space. [Laughing]

Paulson: But if you hadn’t accepted it, you might have the “Spiderman” situation as well. What was that experience like, “Star Wars”?

Smits: It was short, actually, for me. I’m not really in this, this current episode that you’re seeing in the screens — on the screens right now. I spent more time in the wardrobe trailer than I did actually on the set. But I’m joking. It was fascinating to see somebody like Mr. Lucas, who is — talking about pushing the envelope in terms of technology, that really, really fascinated me.

Paulson: And are, are you going to be more visible in the next —

Smits: It is up to Mr. Lucas.

Paulson: Oh, I see.

Smits: That’s his world.

Paulson: Do you want share some plot developments? You know, we could use the ratings.

Smits: There’s actually a lot of “Star Wars” people that know more about it than I do. But, yeah, I’ll be, I’ll be there in some form or fashion.

Paulson: We talked briefly about “The Cisco Kid.” And I’m sure that those early shows contained some stereotypes. I can almost conjure them up in my head. So, you get a chance to update it — was it in ’95?

Smits: Right.

Paulson: To what extent, then, can you kind of control that and make sure that it’s a film of which you’re proud and it doesn’t reinforce negative stereotypes?

Smits: Well, in that particular instance, you have somebody like Luis Valdez, who is very — has been very influential, influential in the Chicano theater movement, who was writing that script. You had producers who were a group that have done “Gettysburg” and have done the “Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.” I mean, they, you know, so those were the, those were the players that were involved. So it was kind of taking that, what some might perceive as a kind of a stereotype image and kind of turning it on its head a little bit and, and giving the humor that the original had with a little bit of a history lesson in there, too, so.

Paulson: I understand from your background that before you were an actor you were a community organizer. What kind of trouble were you stirring up?

Smits: Well, yeah, I was —

Sánchez: He’s still doing it.

Paulson: Yeah.

Smits: I was — I just have been involved in community organization since, since I was a teenager. And it’s always been in — with relation to education. So, that’s, that’s basically it. And it’s just continued, and it comes from my parents saying, “If you got something, find a way to give back some way.”

Paulson: Well, you’ve done that. You have tremendous clout as an actor now. Are you able to say, “I’m not taking that role,” A) because it’s offensive or it’s reinforcing stereotypes, or B) “You need to rewrite that piece for me”? I mean, are you able to call more shots now and make a difference?

Smits: You always have the power to say “No.”

Paulson: Of course.

Smits: That’s, that’s a good one.

Paulson: So what have you walked away from?

Smits: Well —

Paulson: It’s called “Speaking Freely.”

Smits: Yeah, I know; I know. [Laughter] There’s, there’s been stuff that I have walked away from. And what it has given me the opportunity is to be able to talk people — to talk to people, whether they be writers or directors, and try to get them to see — not always successfully — that, that the vision can be opened up a little bit.

Paulson: So, what’s the strategy? Education’s a big part of it, but what steps specifically are you taking to make a difference?

Sánchez: Well, I think, you know, being engaged with the — in the executive suites and, in addition to it, trying to really foster the writers and the people who can go up the, the, the ladder and become decision makers. And that is a really — probably the most important strategy. People focus in on in front of the camera, and that’s important. But those decision makers are the ones who can actually make a project happen.

Smits: I’ll tell you, Ken, one of the greatest joys for me is to see some of these scholarship recipients that we’ve had through the foundation kind of networking with each other, you know, kids that are going to Yale School of Drama and UCLA Film School, NYU. And they’re kind of realizing that they’re not doing this alone, that there, there’s a group there that hopefully will be the next, the next wave that will be very prepared.

Paulson: People who watch this and want more information, how can they get that?

Sánchez: They can reach us in Washington at 202/293-8330. And our Web site is Hispanicarts.org.

Paulson: Great. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Sánchez: Thank you.

Paulson: Our guests today have been Jimmy Smits and Félix Sánchez. Thank you for joining us on “Speaking Freely.”