Jimmy Smits

Changing Faces

Jimmy Smits

Written by Robert Carlo Lara

One of the difficulties many stage performers and Hollywood actors face when starting a new role is getting into character, remaining in character throughout the performance, and getting out of character once the performance is complete. The last of the three is often a difficult one and may take time to rebound, while the first two display the true skills of the actors. It is often a mentally draining process going back and forth adopting personas of various characters for different roles. For minority actor’s it seems Hollywood has laid out their path to stardom, a path consisting of generalized roles for the majority of entry level actors. The way in for Latinos is to accept such roles which satisfy the majorities fixed view of their culture. Often times they are not rewarded for their talents unless upgrading to conformed roles of what is an acceptable Americanized Latino. It is a double standard that Latinos from the U.S. and Latin America face in Hollywood where archetypes are created, and stereotypes, sarcasm, and sex sell. When it comes to representing the Latino culture, Hollywood has had a history of turning to stereotypes for Latino characters in their films.

The roles often given to Latinos, especially in the classical era, presented Latinos as sexual, childlike, or aggressive. Whether playing the “Villain” or “Latin Lover,” many Latino actors are force to recycle themselves in particular films, playing to a diverse crowd, assimilating just enough to be accepted by the majority, and taking on roles which keep them in touch with their roots. Jimmy Smits is an actor that can be viewed as a perfect example of this process. Smits, whose mother was Puerto Rican and father Dutch, has played various roles ranging from a Lawyer on LA Law in the 80’s, a Police Detective in hit 90’s TV series NYPD Blue, as well as recently Supreme Court Justice Cyrus Garza on the short lived NBC drama, Outlaw.

Those roles in particular are the roles in which Smits played a more conservative lead role, clean cut, Americanized Latino. After achieving an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 1990, Smits soon left LA Law a year later to pursue a bigger career in feature films, only to realize lead roles for Latino men were limited, and he would have to once again re-create his image, this time to reconnect with his people once again. In 1986, before finding his forte as Attorney Victor Sifuentes on LA Law, Smits landed his first big screen role as a drug dealer in “Running Scared.” Smits continued to balance the roles he played on screen, where it seemed TV requested a more conformist version of Smits and the films he starred in requested Jimmy revert to a stereotypical Latino.

With stints as a Lawyer and Cop in his back pocket, and five more Emmy nominations for NYPD Blue, Smits attracted additional attention in 1995, with his lead role in Latino film “Mi Familia.” “My Family,” is a multigenerational story of a Chicano family where Smits plays a confused Chicano from East LA, emotionally damaged after witnessing his older brother’s murder at the hands of local gang members. This was a role which really expanded Jimmy Smits horizons as an actor, displaying a great array of talent, and proving he had what it takes to take on a lead role in Hollywood. Unfortunately Jimmy Smits was never recognized by Hollywood for his participation in the film, but was acknowledged by the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA), in which he was awarded for Excellence in the film.

After making various films, and appearing on many networks in the 80’s well into the new millennium, Smits still has not received much recognition for his prominent roles in films. Jimmy like many Latino actors of his time continued to accept secondary supporting roles in films and attempted once again to make a jump back into television, where again Jimmy was asked to clean up his act. In 2004 Smits made a return to television in a short stint on the “West Wing” as a congressman and Presidential candidate Matthew Santos, role which was cut short when the show was cancelled. Smits again was cast by NBC as Supreme Court Justice Cyrus Garza in the drama “Outlaw,” which again was a short gig for Smits as the show folded after only four episodes. Smits recognitions differed throughout his career, with roles in mainstream Television leading to his Emmy recognitions, and playing a conventional Latino leading to smaller culturally based awards from ethnic groups in the U.S.

Even with all his accomplishments and busy celebrity schedule, Jimmy Smits remains close to the Latino community. Teaming up with comedian Paul Rodriguez and J-Lo, Smits invested in a Los Angeles based Latino Dance club named “The Conga Room.” In 1997, Smits co-founded “The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts”, a group that promotes Latino talent in the performing arts, and provides opportunities for the Latino people in media and telecommunications, increasing overall access for Latinos to all sectors of the Entertainment Industry.

After a quick stint on Showtime network series “Dexter,” where he plays an assistant district attorney, Smits once again decided to recycle his image from his bad boy roles in his early days in Hollywood. Having reached the crossroads in his career, Smits has re-birthed his image in Hollywood with his new part in FX’s hit series Sons of Anarchy. The series about a Northern California biker gang, ironically similar to the Hell’s Angels, and rumored to carry story lines from the real gang itself. Smits joined the cast in season 5 as Nero Padilla, a business man and pimp who refers to himself as a "companionator."  In his new role as the tatted-up papa chulo, Smits is introduced as the Sancho to Gemma the wife of Clay and Mother to Jax, former and newly crowned leader of the Sons. With a more than a handful of episodes in the bank Smits is seeing his role in the hit series increase every week, propelling him as a main character. Smits character Nero builds a relationship with Gemma, played by Katey Sagal, and eventually creates an alliance with the Jax (Charlie Hunnam), offering guidance to the young leader of the Sons, often reminding him of the importance of loyalty and family. A bit of a change for Smits on the main screen, especially for a network Television role as he ditches his token clean-cut look for the grit and grind of our world’s oldest profession. Re-gaining street credibility with the people of the barrios and adding to an already stellar portfolio for mainstream society to see. Smits is recycling his image as if it were cyclical, allowing himself, at 57, a second chance at acceptance in what is believed to be a more natural state, relating him back to his roots. The question remains, will Jimmy finally be recognized for his Chicano primetime role? Accepting of the growing demand, open-minded to the lucrative possibilities, the Sons of Anarchy and FX are investing in the right “companionator.”