In his 33 years in the business, Edward James Olmos has become the man to go to for paternal savvy: He got an Oscar nomination for his role as a dedicated teacher in 1988’s Stand and Deliver, won an Emmy as the stern but protective Lieutenant Castillo in Miami Vice, and was the human race’s protector as Battlestar Galactica’s Admiral Adama. Starting tomorrow you can see him in The Green Hornet as yet another father figure: He’s the wise newspaperman No. 2 to Seth Rogen’s media-magnate-by-inheritance. We chatted with Olmos about Gondry’s comic streak, racial casting in Avatar, and the time his dad didn’t speak to him for two years.
What was your take on Michel Gondry?
That guy is just funny. He has this tremendous sense of humor, but it’s really kinda dry. The funniest moment was when I was trying to do the Rubik’s Cube, and he said, “You should see the way I do it.” I went on YouTube, and saw he does it with his feet. [Laughs.] You should see that one! It drove me crazy. I started laughing and couldn’t take it.
What are your thoughts on 3-D’s pervasiveness in film?
I’ve seen almost everything that’s been out. I like 3-D because you can’t pirate it. It’s a real way of protecting a film. And guess what? About two and a half months ago, a guy walked into my office who was from China, and he showed me an Apple computer that was three-dimensional but without glasses. It’s unbelievable. It blows your mind. I watched it for twenty minutes. I think they have to put a covering over the top of the screen, and that creates the effect. And the material you’re looking at has to be treated. It was well worth the experience — that’s what televisions are going to be like in people’s homes.
Do you think it will minimize storytelling? What do you think about something like Avatar, which was universally praised for its effects, even though many thought the story was lackluster?
The story of Avatar is an old story: You see it in the conquest of the Americas, all the way back to the decimation of human life 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, by way of one culture interrupting another culture, wanting something that they have. The story permeates our souls as human beings, it’s one we know very well. I liked the concept, it was very simple. I kinda wish the protagonist had been a person of color rather than European-based. That’s really what is needed now, diversity in storytelling. We’ll get there, but it’s not there yet.
People are weirdly protective of race in superhero stories. Much hay was made when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor. What do you think would have happened if The Green Hornet had cast a person of color in the main role?
I think they would have been open to it, and that’s exactly what happened with Will Smith in Hancock. They loved it — they loved it!
You’ve run the gamut of experience, but is there something you’d like to do that you haven’t yet?
I’d like to do something with Latin heroes. We’ve never had one in the history of the industry. We have stories now that we’re trying to get done, but it’s been difficult to get backing. People still don’t see the need to create those heroes. The Latino community is about 18 percent of the population and they hold less than 2 percent of the images on film and TV. The African-American experience is 12 percent of the population and they hold 17 percent of the images. There’s a big disproportion right now.
Your IMDb page literally says, “Frequently plays men of authority and/or power who inspire and enlighten those beneath him.” Being a parental figure comes easy to you. What was your own father like?
My dad was a mailman. He worked in the post office for 25 years; before that he had been a welder for 20 years. He was pretty much a very down-to-earth and calm kind of personality … He was a very happy, upward kind of guy.
What happened when there were difficulties? Did he lose his temper?
He never yelled. Just the opposite, he was really introverted. The one time I disappointed him was when I stopped playing baseball and went into music. He didn’t speak to me for two years — I mean literally. He would talk to me in respect to, “Go do this,” but he wouldn’t talk anymore in an open way. Finally he saw I was as serious about music as I was about baseball, and I wasn’t going to change. When I was 16 years old, he kind of threw up his hands and said, “I guess I have to deal with this, and allow him to throw away an incredible career.” He thought I didn’t know what I was doing. I said, “I love baseball, but at the age of 38 or 39, your career is over; then you have to become a manager if you’re lucky.” At that time you couldn’t make millions of dollars. I think Sandy Koufax was making a quarter of a million dollars a year and he was the highest-paid pitcher in the league. A whole different world.
If your possible careers included only baseball and acting, you really rolled those dice.
[Laughs.] Amen. I did not create any sort of backup plan. But one thing I learned at a very young age is not to try and live outside my means. I don’t let possessions own me. I think the only payment I have is my house. I don’t have car payments or credit cards. I’m not a rich guy — I could have been very rich or much more famous had I done all the work I was offered. I just couldn’t do it. I’m not that gifted to be able to do stuff I don’t have passion for.