Actor. Filmmaker. Activist. For over 40 years, Edward James Olmos has refused to be labeled just one thing. Olmos, 72, continues to be one of the most prominent hyphenates in the Latino entertainment community. He received a Tony nomination in 1979 for his portrayal of El Pachuco in the landmark play Zoot Suit. He would reprise the role in 1981 for Luis Valdez’s experimental film version of the play. Throughout the 1980s, Olmos left an impression in such movies as “Blade Runner” and the groundbreaking TV series “Miami Vice.” As Lt. Castillo, Olmos was the only actor from the series to win a Primetime Emmy for Best Supporting Actor.
In 1988, Olmos became the first Mexican-American actor to receive a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his moving portrayal of Los Angeles inner city teacher Jaime Escalante in “Stand and Deliver.” The movie was a labor of love for Olmos, who spent nearly a decade trying to get it made. And his portrayal of Mr. Escalante ranks as one of the all-time great movie teachers.
Other highlights include the Olmos-directed “American Me” (1992), a scorched-earth prison-gang drama that was released in the midst of the L.A. riots and the rise of hip-hop. And in “Selena” (1997), Olmos gave his most endearing performance as the stern but loving father Abraham Quintanilla. The speech where Abraham explains to his children the difficulties of navigating both Mexican and American cultures has become a source of pride in the Mexican community.
Olmos shows no signs of slowing down. He is currently appearing on the F/X series “Mayans M.C.,” a spin-off of “Sons of Anarchy.” When asked what he thinks is in store for the Latino community, considering recent treatment of immigrants by the government, Olmos says, “We are on the verge of a major breakthrough for something great.”
As a descriptor do you prefer Mexican-American? Hispanic? Latino? Do you have a preference?
All of the above. Because I am, you know? I mean basically, it changes with the cultural dynamic in the period of time. Originally it was Mexican-American, then it was Hispanic and then Latino recently. But you know, in considering debt to who I am and respect to when you identify me, Mexican-American and Latino are two of the most applicable.
My first question I wanted to ask you—
You’re Latino too, may I ask you?
Yes, I am Mexican-American. I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. My Dad came here from Mexico when he was 10 years old and my Mom was born here in San Antonio. So my parents are actually kind of like your parents. My Dad came from Mexico, my Mom was born here, both of Mexican descent.
Yeah, my father was born in Mexico and my mother was born here.
Right, same here. But they spoke Spanish and English. We had a household where they would speak Spanish to each other when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about, and so we grew up speaking English. It was one of those deals.
Yeah, we spoke English and that was really interesting. We spoke English to them and they would speak to us in Spanish. So we learned it both, but we didn’t speak Spanish. They really wanted us to speak English because ... you won’t believe this. They’re taking me to my preschool/kindergarten at Belvedere Elementary and there was a sign across the top of the archway that said, “If it isn’t worth saying in English, it isn’t worth saying at all.” And that was what greeted you. At the time it made sense to them, it was 1953 or ’52, you know? I actually used that signage on the movie “Walkout.” When I made “Walkout,” I used that line on the paddle.
I remember that. I wanted to ask you, do you remember the first time you saw on TV or in a movie a character that was intended to be representational of someone like you?
Yeah. Well, the most known character that I can remember on TV in the United States would have to be Zorro, and that was Guy Williams. But he wasn’t Latino, I suspect. I don't think he was, but he was representing a Latino homeowner. He owned a ranch. He was a rancher. And you know the story of Zorro? I guess that must have been around ’55 or ’56. That was truly one of the first times I had ever seen a character who I felt represented me.
In that time, you’ve got to remember, we weren’t really … we were so innocent in retrospect. I was a baby, five or six years old. We used to go to see Spanish-speaking films with my great-grandmother at the Unique Theater, and they would show two movies and a cartoon in between. The cartoon was in English and the films were in Spanish with English subtitles. It was kind of impressive, because you learned how to read by way of listening to what was being said in Spanish, which we understood, and then watching how they translated it underneath.
The gay actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein once said “visibility at all costs” when it came to depictions of gay characters in popular culture, particularly in movies, but also TV. He was saying he didn’t care if it was good, bad or indifferent, big role, small role. As long as a gay character was being seen, he thought that was better than not being seen. I’m wondering if you had a similar take early on when it came to Latino characters? Good, bad or indifferent? Or should certain types of characters, certain types of roles or caricatures, not be used anymore and so forth?
The stereotypical usage of any culture, any ethnicity, is based on fact or truth. The difficulty is that that’s the only fact and truth that they use. So therefore, it becomes, “Oh, everyone’s like that,” and everyone isn’t like that. Stereotypes are stereotypes. They’re just one-dimensional characterizations of what the person who’s depicted represents, and that’s the difficulty of what I learned as I moved older into the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, and I was 13, 14. Other than “Viva Zapata!,” which was about a Mexican Revolution hero, I never saw Latino heroes, especially in English. It wasn’t even thought about. Never thought about it, never saw it.
How do you feel now? We live in a world of identity politics, and when you were coming up it used to be actors could get cast in whatever they wanted. How do you feel about the school of thought of, “Well, if it’s a Mexican-American character or a Puerto Rican, we need to get a Puerto Rican or Mexican actor?”
Well, that’s how it should be, but it still hasn’t come to that. We tried like crazy to fight for that, but what we’ve found is that most recently the biggest upset was probably Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who was the lead in “Argo,” the Best Picture Oscar winner where Ben Affleck placed himself in the role of Tony Mendez. The sadness is that Tony is from El Paso, and they didn’t understand what the responsibility was. They didn’t think they had one. That’s really the problem, and that’s the issue. They don’t think, “Oh gosh, we’re showing a Latino and we’re casting a non-Latino, let’s make the people understand that he is Latino and these cultural references/cultural dynamics of something that identifies him as being a Mexican-American.”
That being said, that is the issue that permeates our art form. A lot of us though, of course, have been pushing forward and creating “Stand and Deliver,” “Mi Familia,” “Zoot Suit,” “La Bamba,” creating stories that are really poignantly Latino and played by Latinos. That’s what I’ve been able to do. Anthony Quinn couldn’t do it, Rita Moreno couldn’t do it, Ricardo Montalban couldn’t do it, neither could Jose Ferrer. They couldn’t create Latino-themed lead acting done in that culture because … and still is, they say that there’s no real need for that, there’s no market for that. And of course, that’s a big mistake.
I mean, the day we get one of our real heroes done well, it’s going to go right through the roof. It’ll go like “Black Panther” went through the roof: well-received and everyone will go, “Thank you, thank you for making it.”
But when we made “Stand and Deliver,” I thought we were on our way to being able to break through and start creating more Latino-themed projects: comedies, dramas, horror films, documentaries, all kinds, everything. I thought that the door was open. But even after creating Lt. Castillo on “Miami Vice” in 1984, I still felt that I was the rarity. People loved that character. They learned to love him a lot, and to this day non-Latinos appreciate that character as much as Latinos do, which is really a blessing.
I’ve got to ask about “Stand and Deliver.” When that movie came out I was nine going on ten.
I remember that was my first year really following the Oscars, so I went back and looked up the Oscars that year. The interesting little factoid is that not only you, but you and Tom Hanks, that was y’all’s first nominations. What do you remember of that awards season, being your first time and also the first Latino-American Oscar nominee for Best Actor?
Yeah, that was a monumental moment in understanding where we had come to and what we were given the opportunity to understand. I didn’t win the Oscar. I was nominated, but I thought that I won the movie. The role that I played in that movie has been seen more than any of the other movies that were made. The Oscar winners for that year all put together couldn’t compare to what that one performance and that one movie have done. It’s got some incredible accolades, one of them being that it’s one of the most viewed films of any film ever made in the USA, because over the last 31 or 32 years, tens of thousands of teachers show it every year, and have done so for 30 years. It’s like Catcher in the Rye. Everybody knows about “Stand and Deliver.” To this minute I can walk out there right now and say to high schools and junior high schools, “Have you guys seen ‘Stand and Deliver?” and there’ll be thousands of kids raising their hands going, “I saw it in my classroom, my teacher showed it.”
Tom Hanks was up for “Big.” That’s not used in schools! [laughs] Max Von Sydow’s movie ["Pelle the Conqueror"] wasn’t, and Gene Hackman’s movie ["Mississippi Burning"] wasn’t—or isn’t. And mine is! Mine is used right now! There’s somebody seeing it right now, and I can guarantee you that every day of the school year, somewhere in America, they’re showing that movie.
That is an awesome understanding of the power of the medium and the power of that film. That film is one of a kind. I think we caught lightning in a bottle and I think that movie per se is the stronger legacy. That one and “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” have inspired and given the most, even though “American Me” is used throughout the country all the time. It’s the “Scared Straight” of dramatic film—it’ll make you not want to go into prison if you’re a young person. It works very well.
I want to ask you about “American Me”: It’s a very interesting film. I remember when it came out in its first run in San Antonio. I was 13 or 14. It came out in like March of 1992, and I remember that film played in first-run theaters until mid-to-late summer in downtown San Antonio. It did not leave the first-run theaters down here for about five or six months.
Same way all over the country.
Tell me about that film. One, I know it was many years in the making and went through a lot of people before it got to you. And also, that film came out in the middle of the Black New Wave, the hip-hop movies. It came out the year after “Boyz n the Hood.” It’s not cited when talked about the hip-hop movies, but it is very much a part of that cultural movement in that time.
Yeah, because it represented where rap came from. In that film, my character's poetry that was spoken in voiceover was all rap. It was all poetry. If you go back and see the movie, you’ll see that when that voice comes in, it’s always done in some kind of a rhythm and time signature.
I think it took me 18 years of working on it to get that film made. I worked on it with [screenwriter] Floyd Mutrux when he told me about it back in 1973. Then Al Pacino took it over with [producer] Lew Adler in 1976, and he was going to make it with Pacino playing the lead role. And then they left the project and it went into 1978—’77, ’78—it became the number one movie that hadn’t been made, of scripts not made in the film industry. It was a long, long process to get that made.
Did you view that movie as kind of a corrective to the image of the Latino gang member that had been kind of glamorized and characterized in movies for the previous couple of decades, that we’d seen in exploitation movies?
I’d say it definitely set the bar, the standards that now have to be understood and respected, and that is the key to the whole idea. You make a film like “Stand and Deliver” or “American Me” or “Gregorio Cortez” or “Zoot Suit,” or “Mi Familia,” or “Selena,” or “La Bamba,” the Richie Valens story. You make those and that’s the standard. You’ve got to hit that every time.
Did you always intend for “American Me” to be something you both starred in and directed?
I was going to be just an actor originally, alongside whoever would play the lead. They were going to make the movie and I just wanted to be a part of the film. At the time when I read it back in 1972, ’73, it went on to have many different variations of it. And then the writer actually plagiarized himself and wrote another script called “Blood In Blood Out,” and that came out at the same time! That was really interesting, both movies were done at the exact same time. Taylor Hackford directed that one. But at the time that I started in the industry, I didn’t start into it to make a difference. I was just trying to make a living and stay alive and work in the art form.
So at what point did you say, “I think I need to direct this?”
I think it came when I won the Oscar nomination. I’d done Zoot Suit on Broadway, I’d done “Blade Runner,” I’d done “Ballad,” “ Zoot Suit” the movie, and done a long run for Universal on “Miami Vice.” When I went into ’89 we were hot then, so in 1987 they let me out of my contract to go over and do “Stand and Deliver,” and I came back and I got the Oscar nomination and it blew everybody away because nobody expected me to get it.
Did you expect it?
I didn’t expect it! I was shocked. I was at work. It was a little past 8:00 when they came to me ... the crew did! They said, “Hey man, did you know you’d just been nominated?” I was like, “What are you talking about?” And they said, “You’ve just been nominated for the Oscar.” I said, “What?” They go, “Yeah, congratulations.” Holy moly, that’s incredible! Then I went on stage and finished the scene.
And [Universal Pictures studio head] Tom Pollack asked me “What else would you like to do?” And I said, “Well, I’d love to do ‘American Me.’” So I locked myself away, and they gave me an office there at Universal and I started doing the rewrites. It was a slow process, and the only reason I got the opportunity to do that is because I got the Oscar nomination.
That’s one of the things I really appreciate with the choices that I’ve made. The strength that I got from the artistic, critical acclaim I’ve gotten, I’ve used to advance the culture in every single step I take. I haven’t done anything but that. I could have probably been a lot more, for sure, a lot richer [laughs], if I had done the other kind of movies. But I could die today and be very, very happy with how my life unfolded.
How much does your heritage, the culture, inform characters that aren’t, let’s say, explicitly written as Latino? Or do they? I’m thinking of like, “Blade Runner” or “Battlestar Galactica.” These are characters that you played, but they’re not written on the page as being the “Latino Cop” or the “Latino Space Commander.” I’m wondering what you bring to it, if anything.
Well, I think in the case of “Battlestar,” that was really just unbelievable timing between preparation of all my life and opportunity knocking at the door. They had asked me to play a commander in “Star Trek” and I turned it down because I had done “Blade Runner,” and that was enough for me in that world. That was such a poignant and incredible piece of work that having touched it, I didn’t need to go into sci-fi anymore. I didn’t have to go through a four-eyed monster chasing me.
And I was very fortunate because if I had done “Star Trek,” I wouldn’t have been able to do “Battlestar Galactica,” and that ended up being right alongside of “Blade Runner.” I mean, if you watch all of “Battlestar” and get to the end, the last scene, the last words, the last understanding, it goes to black, then put in “Blade Runner.” “Battlestar” ends in 2008, “Blade Runner” starts in 2019. In 2008, the people in “Battlestar” are talking are replicants. They’re robots, but no one knows it. And then of course, in “Blade Runner,” it’s the replicants who are off-world, and they’re trying to extend their lives, and they’re robots also. The final line in “Battlestar” is “This happened before, it’s going to happen again,” and Gaius Baltar’s character says, “No, humanity has learned its lesson,” and it goes to black. Then all of a sudden, you’re in 2019 and you see how far advanced it got in the time period since the “Battlestar” saga ended! It’s amazing.
“Battlestar Galactica” is truly one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever received, and that I think will stand the test of time right alongside “Blade Runner.”
Since I’m here in San Antonio, so I gotta ask about “Selena.” I want to ask you about the scene everyone talks about, and that’s the big speech you give to the kids.
About being Mexican-American? “You’ve got to be more Mexican than Mexican, you’ve got to be more American than the American.”
Tell me about that speech.
That was [writer-director] Gregory Nava. That was something that I had been discussing in my own life for many years before we got to do “Selena.” I speak a lot to communities all over the country. I’ve been doing that forever. [Nava] knew who I was, and he wrote it for me, so he knew that that was one of the strong centerpieces of what the movie stood for, and it became probably the most beloved moment in the movie. People just love it when they hear it, you know?
It’s tough being a Mexican-American, and of course, Jennifer Lopez was brilliant in that movie. She doesn’t really realize how brilliant. It’ll take her getting into her '70s for her to realize how good she was.
When you were making that movie, did you know how huge Jennifer Lopez was going to be?
Oh, no, no, no. No one knew at that moment in time or cared about what our careers were about. That movie was made because of the love for one of our super-talented gifted people who had been taken away too young.
That’s the most difficult movie I’ve ever made in my life, to this day. I say it every time I speak to people. I’ve got to tell you, it’s a very beautiful film, but boy, is it a tragedy. I see little people watching it with their parents and the parents love the movie, and the kids don’t know what’s happening or where they’re going—it’s a tragic, tragic film to them. They get to the end and go, “Why did they kill her, mom?” They start asking that question and then the parents have to turn around and say, “Well, some people are jealous. Some people are envious. They want to keep everything to themselves and they don’t want to share anything with anybody, so they destroy it.” All those conversations started, and they still do. I mean, there’s no way you can watch that movie without getting tears in your eyes.
A lot of those scenes are just adorable scenes. Wonderful, just heartwarming and really funny. The washing machine scene, and the scene when they’re teaching them how to play instruments and I’m setting up the drums for the first time, and then they say, “I don’t want to play drums! I don’t want to play music!” [laughs] and I fall backwards off of the thing. It was just wonderful, enlightening, and just a great movie, only to end in a death—a murder! This was terrible, you know?
I just hope that they never let her murderer out. She doesn’t deserve to live free. She didn’t let Selena live, so she should stay behind bars.
How do you feel about where Latino culture is now today, in terms of both entertainment but also in politics, as opposed to where we were when you were first starting out?
I think that we’re now on the verge of one of the biggest changes in human history. I think that our political structure has desecrated the very sense of what our society and our American values are all about, and it’s put on the back of fear and of racial—not even racial—discriminatory prejudice. It’s become a time that has brought all of us to the point of losing our sense of balance. I don’t care what side you stand on—you’re off-balance.
This will bring about probably the strongest changes towards the positive that have ever been felt in the history of humankind. The only thing that’s constant is change, and everything is going to change.
There’s still darkness coming at us, and it’ll come at us for a while, and it’ll become very detrimental to humanity, but I think in the long run right now, Latinos especially are on the verge of one of the strongest moments in the history of the culture ever. We are the dominant culture in the Western Hemisphere. We will dominate the Western Hemisphere, including the United States of America, within 50 years. That’s the fear of everything that is happening right now. They’re trying to stop that change, and you can’t. There will be more Latinos and ethnic people living in the United States of America than not!
Soon they’ll have to really get to the point of understanding, and this is the key: the understanding is that there is only one race. There’s no Latino race, there’s no African race, there’s no Caucasian race, there’s no Asian race or Indigenous race. There’s only one race—the human race.
And inside of that human race, there are incredible cultures, incredible ethnicities. But you cannot tell me the English are like the Irish. You cannot tell me that the Argentinians are like the Mexicans. You cannot tell me that the Cubans are like the Puerto Ricans. You cannot tell me that the Koreans are like the Japanese. It’s impossible. They are distinct cultures that have their whole method of understanding life.
We must stop using the word “race” as a cultural determinant and start using it for what it really is. It is a unifying word. There’s no two ways around it. The Caucasian people will have to accept the fact that the changes of diversity on the planet are constant, and that we propagate ourselves at a higher rate. So as far as I’m concerned, people, come to terms with it. You want to really understand the future? You’re going to have to understand that there’s only one race, and that’s the human race. Period.