Jimmy Smits on Playing Role Models, Villains, and Everything in Between

Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait

Jimmy Smits is everywhere right now Fox’s upcoming 24: Legacy, The Get Down, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — but he’s always been one of Hollywood’s hardest-working actors. Since he became a known quantity for his portrayal of lawyer-heartthrob Victor Sifuentes on L.A. Law in the ’80s — the first central Latino role in an American TV drama — the Emmy winner and 12-time nominee has had several memorable turns on the small screen. He played a congressman and the president of the United States on The West Wing, a serial killer’s best friend and apprentice on Dexter, and a pimp with a heart on Sons of Anarchy. On NYPD Blue, he broke boundaries by regularly showing detective Bobby Simone’s derriere on camera. Most recently, in Netflix’s The Get Down, he’s in hustler mode again as a “poverty pimp” and power broker in the ’70s-era Bronx. And he’s back to being presidential on 24: Legacy — which premieres Sunday after the Super Bowl and reboots the franchise with a new cast and premise — where he plays a senator with presidential aspirations.

It’s been 30 years since the 61-year-old Puerto Rican–American moved to Los Angeles from New York City to pursue a dream that was so foreign to his working-class family, his late parents wondered if all of his early stage work was prep for a teaching job. In two separate interviews, Smits spoke with Vulture about what keeps him motivated in his acting, his disappointment over the presidential election, and the role he’d love to reprise.

Why did you want to be part of 24: Legacy?
Well, besides being a fan of the show, I always run everything by my kids and my nephews and they were like like, “Oh, yeah, definitely!” But also, [executive producer] Howard Gordon is somebody I’ve crossed paths with ’cause I worked at Fox on a couple of shows. When I read the script, I said nah nah, this is too much like Matt Santos [the last president on The West Wing]. But talking to [director] Stephen Hopkins, I really liked him a lot. And although I didn’t deal with [executive producer Manny Coto] on Dexter when I worked on Dexter, the vibe seemed very good between these guys. I thought there was a security thing there. To know all of those guys were involved, and then this idea that they wanted to re-create it in a different kind of way, with Corey Hawkins’s character being not a secret-agent type dude, but a guy that gets pulled into it — that felt good. I also like the fact that the women characters that were written were all very proactive to the story line. We have minorities on shows all the time, but they have no power to do things. So all these dynamics made it feel worthwhile.

Your character, John Donovan, is not Latino. What did you think about that?
I liked that. It’s not the first time. Simone [his character on NYPD Blue] was French and Portuguese. But, yeah, it’s rare. This part was more about this power couple — these two people who were very political and they made sacrifices for each other and the contracts in relationships that people make. And what happens on this given day when all that stuff starts breaking down.

You’re still filming. How are you feeling about how Donovan’s story has developed?
It’s going [pause] good. You know, it’s a genre piece and I have to keep telling myself that it’s one of the reasons that I decided to do it was because I’m trying to be versatile. The other day I was running up and down and was abducted for a moment, so it was a little different. There’s still a part of me that’s like, Well, where’s the substantive stuff? Because it’s not The West Wing. It’s a different lane. So, I’m having fun. This ensemble is very tight and they’re a good bunch of people. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s received, especially in the political climate that we’re in.

It’s such a weird time to be playing someone that’s running for president. How does that feel?
If it was more substantive about the campaign, it might feel more strange. But it takes place in one day. So you see the presentation of the character in that way and then everything changes because of what happened. I thought that I was going to keep getting these Matt Santos flashbacks but, nah, nah. That didn’t happen at all.

For most of your TV career, you’ve played positive Latino role-model types. Nero on Sons of Anarchy wasn’t totally a bad guy but he definitely wasn’t a role model. You might say the same about Papa Fuerte on The Get Down. Are you deliberately moving away from aspirational roles?
You have to deal with what comes in front of your desk. There are no illusions. It’s not like it’s a pick of anything. But in terms of the body of work, I’m at a place now where I can at least say, Well, I want to work with that particular person or I want to deal with that genre. Or I haven’t done this comedic thing. When you have celebrity, it’s a whole different thing than being an artist. As an actor, I just want to keep mixing it up. I had opportunities to stay on shows for long periods of time, and maybe financially that would have been good, but I feel good about trying to keep doing things that are a little bit different than what I’ve done.

What about creating your own show? You were a co-executive producer on CBS’s Cane.
One of the biggest joys and one of the biggest disappointments.

Did that discourage you from being behind the scenes on the creative end again?
It discouraged the hell out of me but not from being on the creative end.

How did it discourage you?
Because it ended the way it did. The writer’s strike happened and all that stuff, but there were a lot of other components that were going on. The landscape of what television is has changed completely, and now maybe if somebody pitched Cane, there would be a home for it. Network television is network television. They all said they wanted to do something that was more cable-like, but they wanted to turn it into a soap. That was very discouraging. And I wasn’t adept enough at being diplomatic to maneuver those waters.

I saw you on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Are you thinking of giving comedy more of a chance?
That show is zany! It would depend on the project. I couldn’t see myself doing a traditional sitcom. I know Andre Braugher, and at one point we were trying to pitch something together. I love the way they have cast the show. They have two Latina leads. I was also a huge Barney Miller fan, and that’s what it reminds me of.

The Get Down on Netflix is supposed to return this spring with the second half of the first season. Did you have something to do with nicknaming your character Papa Fuerte?
No, no. One of the head writers on that show is playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. He’s got this whole religious thing in him as a playwright. And he’s very bright. He’s Egyptian, originally. His Latinos sound very Latino, his African-Americans very African-American. He’s got New York down. Papa Fuerte’s name was is creation.

He’s a great character. He’s a villain, but then he has some good intentions and cares about family.
You’ll see his demise.

I don’t want to see his demise!
Demise meaning he takes a step down. Not like that!

What drew you to the role?
When the show was in preproduction, I was in New York because my parents both passed. It was weird, one right after another. Three months. I went through it, just really feeling emotionally vulnerable. [Pauses.] Anyway, when I read the script, it reminded me of my youth, growing up in New York. We lived all over New York. I did high school in Brooklyn, and I went to Brooklyn College, but we moved around a lot. Like a lot.

Did you ever live in the Bronx?
We lived in the South Bronx. The serious Fort Apache.

Before high school?
Yeah, when I was younger. And then we moved to Puerto Rico, and so there’s this whole confusion attached to that particular time period for me. So when I read the script and I read about those kids, I said, Oh my God. I remembered what was going on in New York around that time. I knew about the people who were involved.

So I had a conversation with Baz Luhrmann, writers’ offices usually have boards with cards, colors, outlines, stuff like that. Well, Baz had one of these New York lofts, his offices, and the wall must have 40 or 50 feet high. And that was the storyboard. It was like an art piece — you could put it in a museum. That’s just the type of guy he is. He had this whole timeline about hip-hop and the correlation of what was going on in the United States at that time and socially in New York. I was standing there going, This is my life in front of me right here.

And then he wanted me to meet the kids. I was in this emotionally vulnerable state — because the machine of the business does jade you if you don’t find a way out of it. These kids were learning in another part of the loft: hip-hop dances classes, disco classes with ballerinas. It was like a 1970s throwback university. And I read the script with them. I was like, This is some kind of elaborate shit to get me to do this job. But they were working already. And when I read with them, they’re so unjaded. When you think you have done it all in this business, it’s important to keep yourself open to do new things.

Were there any scenes that reminded you of your adolescence in New York?
I remember the night of the blackout, I remember hanging out in this park near the Bronx Zoo where they have these rock formations. Also the scene with the kids on the roof with the pigeons. I tried to have pigeons and they would get stolen. Whoever had a bigger flock would come and your birds would get entangled with that flock. Se me perideron los pichones! [I lost my pigeons!] But those memories that I have, although we were in poverty, were beautiful. The train was beautiful. When I lived in Brooklyn and I had to go visit my cousins in the Bronx who were the hip ones with the DJs and stuff like that, I remember being in the tunnel when the train came out of the tunnel and we were in the Bronx, it was like, wow! The Puerto Rican theater was out there, where they had live shows. I don’t know if we hit every note in terms of the social parallels, but they tried.

You work a lot. What keeps you going in acting?
I like working. I wasn’t good at school, but when I really figured out that this is what I wanted to do, I could spend so much time in the library with joy trying to research. I became a good student because I could immerse myself in different worlds. And the fact that as a kid we moved around a lot, that forced me to be in different neighborhoods that were socially, economically, and ethnically different.

How old were you when you moved to Puerto Rico?
I was 10. We moved for two years. It was traumatic, identity-wise. It wasn’t like going there for the summer or Las Navidades [Christmas]. But when I look back, what I am today as an adult has to do with the fact that we were there. How I feel about my culture, our music, how I identify myself, started then. The fact that we moved a lot made me constantly adapt and role play to fit in. It was the beginning.

Did someone say to you that you should look into acting? Or did you find it yourself?
My family has no entertainment background. I don’t come from a long line of trobadores or poets. They’re just good family, working people. Sat in front of the TV a lot and watched Ed Sullivan and shit like that. But there were always educators who’ve helped me at the right time. In junior high school, I had two music teachers who pushed me to get involved with plays. That’s where I first got the love of performance. There was a drama teacher in high school who would take us to see Broadway plays. The first time I got to see Raul Julia and James Earl Jones! They changed everything — permission to aspire. There were also professors in college who said, “You seem to be good at this. You can go to L.A. and become the crook of the week on Hill Street Blues or you can go to graduate school.” Those things cemented with me.

I’m blessed those people were there at the right time because, without doing the whole big violin thing, on any given day, you made choices, especially places where I grew up, that really could impact your life. You know, nefarious things.

What were your parents’ reactions when you started to become successful?
Why does everybody talk funny in those Shakespeare plays that you do? You want to be an actor? Like in Pepsodent commercials? It was always about, is there a safety net? So in other words, they [wondered if my acting was prep] for teaching in high school. All they saw were the potential pitfalls. And there were many. I mean you know, it’s the sueño [dream] of immigrants, right? They have their children coming into this country, the sacrifice of coming into this country, and having your children do better. I bet your parents feel the same way.

They do. Speaking of the sacrifices of immigrants, you just reminded me of the election. Were you surprised nearly 30 percent of Latinos voted Republican?
It was disheartening. The Democratic party needs to reassess what they are going to do to be a relevant party. It’s so weird that we thought the Republican party was self-imploding during the primaries and convention. The Democrats are still in the blame game, but they can’t be coming to Latinos two weeks before the election. They always do that. They wait ’til the end and they assume that we’re going to be there. It’s the economy, stupid. That has a lot to do with the way people make choices. And we’re not monolithic in the way we vote. There needs to be some serious reassessing.

How are you feeling about Trump becoming president?
Oh, my god. Yo tengo miedo. I’m scared of what’s going to happen. Yo no creo que el va a durar. No te se decir como o por qué. [I don’t think he’s going to last. I can’t say how or why.] I don’t see this thing following through all the way for some reason.

Social media especially is a terrifying place these days. Are you on any social networks?
Nope. Well, I’m on social on the DL with somebody else’s account. I see the value in terms of it being a marketing tool. I don’t need to be on Twitter giving my opinions or showing people what we are having for breakfast.

Do you have anything else lined up when you finish filming 24 next month?
I’m looking at scripts and waiting to hear what’s going to happen with The Get Down. In this landscape of 12 or 13 episodes a season, you can do several different things throughout the year. But I’m thinking to get involved with another Latino-oriented show may not be a bad thing as well. So that’s the kind of stuff I’m reading now.

Do you have a favorite character you’ve played?
I like them for different reasons. You always try to find the humanity in the guy, even when he’s a killer. Like Miguel, the Dexter guy. What is the por qué of the character? But I’ve had good experiences for different reasons. I loved working on Law because I knew it was about something and that character hadn’t been seen. I want to be able to say something with my work, if I can. So to have people come up to you and 20 years later say, “That guy Victor Sifuentes that you played had a lot to do with me going to law school.” That’s the icing on the cake when that can happen. So you like different jobs for different reasons.

20th Century Fox Television just announced the L.A. Law remake for this year. Will you be in it?
I don’t know. I saw one of the writers not too long ago in the supermarket, and he was telling me that they are indeed doing it, but I think it’s going to be more about young guns. Courtroom dramas have changed so much with all of the iconic cases we had in Los Angeles and the birth of court TV. It will be interesting to see how they do it. If Mr. Sifuentes were asked to make an appearance, I would be more than honored to. I don’t know if he would have a judge robe on or maybe be the mayor. Or a convict! I wish them all the best because [L.A. Law creator] Steven Bochco has been my fairy godfather. He’s my padrino in terms of giving me a shot, believing in me, and giving me that confirmation from the outside, This kid is pretty good, you know?

They’re saying they do want to bring back some of the original cast.
I would be so happy. I’m glad that they’re doing it, actually. Then I could get invited back to all those bar association conventions I used to get invited to, as if I could be a keynote speaker at a bar association. [Laughs.] What am I going to talk about at one of those things?

Is that something you’ve missed?
Uh, well, no. [Laughs.] But it did impact me to have people across the spectrum tell me they were inspired to go law school.

Do people also come up to you and say, “Your character inspired me to become a cool pimp.”
Yeah, right? Yo, man, I’m a pimp because of you. You’re a serious OG. No, I hope not! But that falls into the lane of trying to keep it versatile. I can’t be carrying that role-model flag every single minute.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jimmy Smits on 24: Legacy, The Get Down