Edward James Olmos needs no introduction but I’ll give you one anyway. Born in Los Angeles as a young man he dreamed of being a professional baseball player. However, as he got older he discovered rock and roll and the Dodgers lost an outfielder! As his musical career progressed he was encouraged to give acting a try. He found work with small roles in both film and television. In 1979 he earned a Tony Award nomination for his performance as El Pachuco in Luis Valdez’ play “Zoot Suit,” and reprised the role in the 1981 film version. Roles in films like “Bladerunner” and television programs like “Hill Street Blues” introduced him to new fans and in 1984 he began a seven year fun as Lt. Martin Castillo in the trendsetting show “Miami Vice.” Twice nominated for an Emmy Award for his work, Olmos was the coolest guy on television with the mustache to back it up!
In 1988 he became only the 2nd Hispanic actor to be nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award when he was nominated for his role as real life educator Jaime Escalante in the film “Stand and Deliver.” He went on to star in such films as “Selena,” “Talent for the Game” (one of my favorites) and “American Me,” which he also delivered. A second generation of fans embraced him as Commander Adama in the rebooted “Battlestar Galactica” mini-series, television series and films. Earlier this year he starred opposite Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg in the hit film “2 Guns.” He will next be featured as ex-cop Freddy Suarez in the new John Sayles drama “Go for Sister.”
I had actually been scheduled to speak with Mr. Olmos last year during an appearance in Kansas City. When we met I referred to him as “El Pachuco,” which drew a hearty laugh. Unfortunately a change in his travel schedule put our talk on hold so I was thrilled to speak with him this week about “Go for Sister,” telling a good story and playing baseball on screen.
Edward James Olmos: Hello Michael.
Mike Smith: Hello, El Pachuco! How are you, sir?
EJO: (laughs loudly) I’m doing pretty good. How are you?
MS: Just fine. I’ve been waiting over a year to talk to you.
EJO: Here we are finally on the telephone. I’m ready!
MS: Give us an introduction to Freddy Suarez and your new film “Go for Sister.”
EJO: “Go for Sister” is a film written and directed by John Sayles, and it’s probably one of his best films…it’s up there with “Lone Star” and “Passion Fish.” He has created a wonderful, complex character study about two women in need of help. That help comes in the form of a disgraced L.A. police detective who got caught up in the corruption around him and had to pay the price. He’s forced to retire without a pension. He’s also suffering from a tremendous case of macular degeneration, which is an eye disease. So he not only has to deal with his feelings of self-esteem and self-respect but he has to now deal with his physical inabilities. He’s now a shell of himself. A blind shell. But he takes on a last job in the hopes of gaining back some self-esteem. He’s also hoping to make enough money to pay his taxes so he doesn’t lose his house.
MS: What attracted you to the project?
EJO: (laughs) The story I just told you! It was so well written…I couldn’t believe it. John had actually called me and asked me to produce the film. I’ve known John for over thirty years but I’d never worked with him. I told him it would be my honor and asked him to send me the script. I read the script and I was like, “wow.” It was so original. He asked me if I liked Freddy Suarez and I told him I loved him. “Would you play him?” “Of course I would.” So that’s how the whole thing started.
MS: As a director yourself, when you’re on set with someone like John Sayles or Ridley Scott or Michael Mann, do you spend your time when you’re not performing studying their techniques…seeing how they run a set?
EJO: When I’m on a set, moment to moment, my first priority is to build my character to help tell the story…be it theater, a motion picture or television. It’s important to pay attention to the story. But we’re all story tellers. All of us. From the grips to the lighting people to the director…the producers…the actors…we’re all story tellers. We’re all there to tell a story. When I’m acting I’m there for one reason and one reason only. To tell a story. And the story of “Go for Sister” is one of the most original pieces of work I’ve done in a long time.
MS: You were in the big budget film “2 Guns” earlier this year and now you’re in “Go for Sister,” which is a much smaller independent project. Do you have a preference when you choose a film project?
EJO: Not really. Again, it begins with the story. If the story is worth telling then I’m interested.
MS: Since we both love baseball, here is one of the questions I’d hoped to ask you last year: In the film “Talent for the Game” you portray a former ball player who gets the chance to catch one more time in the big leagues. As someone that once dreamed of being a professional ball player was it a special moment being able to portray one on film?
EJO: (almost like a purr) Oh yeah. It was probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in filmmaking. I love that movie. It’s just the most unusual little film that more people are seeing now then when it came out.
MS: What do you have coming up next?
EJO: I’m working on a film now called “El Americano,” which is an animated film that should be out in March. It’s a co-production between the United States and Mexico and it stars the voices of Lisa Kudrow, Paul Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Rico Rodriguez (Manny on “Modern Family)….myself. It’s a handful of great artists lending their voices. It’s an animated film for children but adults will enjoy it. It’s not like PIXAR, where the films are made for adults but children go to see them also. I’m really looking forward to it.
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