Jimmy Smits chats about his role as Nero Padilla on this season of Sons of Anarchy. It was an honor to be able to speak with him on the press call. He promises that a “turn will happen” regarding Nero. Will we see his true colors? He’s my favorite new character but he’s really too good to be true and we are talking about Sons of Anarchy, so you know that something is brewing. Nero did a nice job welcoming Joel McHale’s character to the party. Don’t miss Sons of Anarchy Tuesday nights at 10:00 p.m., only on FX.
Press Conference Call Interview Highlights:
Q: Can you talk about filming the scene where Wanda’s character holds a gun to Nero and Gemma [and forces them into bed]? Was that a bit awkward to film because she’s your partner in real life—so was that weird?
Jimmy Smits: I mean, we’re professional actors. That’s what we do. I mean, it was—yes, in the beginning there was—the first time maybe that we rehearsed it or something it was a little strange but actually was—in a way, I thought it was really cool because the trust quotient is much higher because we all have another layer going on. I mean, I think we were able to hit, as actors, emotional chords in that particular scene, some of which is on the editing floor. But be that as it may, we were able to hit some kind of emotional chords that—because of those relationships there.
Q: What first drew you to the role? What was it about it that made you want to play Nero?
Jimmy Smits: Well, we didn’t know what the role was. In the beginning it was more about a vibe that I had with Kurt after meeting with him a couple of times. Paris Barclay, who is an executive and does a lot of the directing of a lot of the Sons episodes, is somebody that I know from NYPD Blue. He was one of the core directors there, and he did pretty much all of the final episodes that the Simone character was involved in. So we go way back, and we did the history there. It so happened last year that the DGA, the Director’s Guild of America was doing a tribute for him, and because of that they invited a number of different people from all of the wonderful shows that he’s participated in—In Treatment that he was involved with and Blue and of course Sons. So it was at that time that we were up there on the dais speaking about Paris that—you know, people know each other in the business, but they really don’t. You see each other at the award shows and stuff and we talked. The only person besides Paris that I have a comfort level with is Ron Perlman that I worked with on a couple of movies in the past. Ron is a really cool guy. But Wanda and myself and Katey and Kurt, we spent a couple of minutes talking and—I think in a way it was out of that that the call came from Kurt that he wanted to know if I would sit down with him and just explore the possibility of—he had an idea for an arc. At that time, I think he was formulating what he was going to do for the season and what he necessitated in terms of the spokes of the wheel of the show. So we had two or three lunch meetings. I went to his office, took me around to the set, and just started vibing [sic] about what the show needed and a character that he was interested in exploring. That’s the way it all started. That first script wasn’t really written yet, but he had it in his head. So basically, that’s how it happened. We were fans of the show, and like you said, it does have a really loyal, core base following that are very passionate about the show. It’s not just people that are into motorcycles. It’s this whole outlaw—it’s a very passionate following. It’s a kind of industry darling. A lot of people in our business are into the show. Like I said, I check in with a lot of different shows during the year. I watch the beginning episodes, and I’ll check in during the middle and usually see finales and stuff, but Wanda was—she was like a die-hard fan of the show probably because the fact that Kurt—besides the grittiness of the show, he writes very strong women characters. So when that call came in and Kurt wanted to talk, she was like, “You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do this. I mean, you’ve seen the show, but you don’t know what happened.” So we started watching that third season, which is when the—tell me if I’m going on too long. But you know, the third season where they did the whole Irish storyline, I think the show just jumped into another gear, you know, and it just struck me that the show is very, very cinematic in a way. They’re able to do these wonderful things and have a—that very iconic thing of outlaws. It’s almost like a Western—like watching a Western in a lot of ways. So that was the whole beginnings of our conversations. There was a comfort level there because of Paris and Ron, and I’m very happy that it all—it’s all worked out the way it has. I love those guys. They really are a very, very, very tight family. Without going into a lot of detail, that whole thing that happened with Opie’s character, it was—and I’m looking—I’m from the outside just trying to do my job there. It was not only what was filmed, but it was very emotional for that group during the read-throughs and those couple of weeks when those decisions were made and stuff like that. They’re a very, very tight group that have dynamics, like every family, and I’m just very—I’m proud to have worked on it this season and given a little contribution there. And there it is.
Q: I can’t ask it because you probably can’t tell me, but I hope you make it out to next season. But I guess we’ll find out one way or the other.
Jimmy Smits: Yes. You’ll find out soon enough. There’s a turn that happens, so we’ll see.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your character’s relationship with Jax?
Jimmy Smits: Well, just in those conversations that I’ve had with Kurt, I think that—you know, one of the things that’s great about the show is that it has this kind of—I mean, I think Kurt’s made—if you guys have talked to him before, besides these kind of archetypal images, there’s almost like a classic thing going on. It’s almost like Hamlet. It’s like you’re watching a production of Hamlet play out because there’s this—you have insights into this group that you’re not really—you don’t really know about them. They’re not like doctors or cops and stuff. It’s a world you don’t really know that much, and there’s a hierarchy of power and all of that, and there’s people that are vying for power, and there’s families and stuff. It’s a lot like Hamlet in a lot of ways. If you know Hamlet, there’s a character named Horatio, who’s kind of like—he’s on the side kind of like helping Hamlet try to decipher all of these feelings that he’s having. I think that there are a number of different Horatios in the scheme of the Sons world. Opie played that in a way. This year you had—I think what Kurt was doing is that he has Harold’s character, the Pope character, and this Nero character both vying in their way at Jax’s dilemma of where he is going to take this group, and they have different ways of how to deal with power, how to get what you need and move on. Nero is much more about—as Kurt talks about it—the exit strategy. How do you—in a world that’s gritty and on, some might say, the wrong side of the law—how do you maneuver and get on the straight and narrow for your family? So I think that Nero character with regards to Jax, he operates in that sphere as a mentor, as a friend, as a bro—you know what I mean? All of those things. Now it’s going to take a turn, and—It always does in Kurt’s world. It always does. He kind of blows up a lot of things on purpose to keep the characters totally off-kilter so they can go on to the next decision. So that’s what’s been going on in these past—last episodes that we’ve been shooting before the end of the season.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about Nero’s decision to want to stay with Gemma even though Jax told him to stay away, and there’s also her husband in the picture now. So what is the draw to him for wanting to be with Gemma?
Jimmy Smits: Well, I think that he operates pretty much—I don’t think he gets told a lot what to do by anybody. In that kind of outlaw mentality, that’s a kind of wrong—the definite wrong approach to outright just say you can’t do something like that. You’ll always go for, “Why can’t I,” or, “Watch me do this,” or, “Watch me do it the way I want to do it. I want to have my cake, and I want to be able to eat it too.” So I think that that’s kind of operating on some level. I think at the end of season four was—and just what I alluded to before—Kurt as a writer just mixes things up and then blows … up at the end, literally and figuratively, for all of his characters. At the end of season four, you saw the Gemma character very much wandering without a handle to grasp onto. So I think that on some level with the introduction of Nero it helps to right her in a certain way.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the Lovebirds?
Jimmy Yes. Other than the fact that when I saw, “Oh my gosh, birds again.” It’s like Bobby Simone with birds, and now we’ve got Lovebirds. It is a kind of theme that—didn’t they have birds? Didn’t the … have birds too? I remember seeing a birdcage in there. So I don’t know if it’s a continuation of that, but it just popped into the script.
Q: Have there been any moments on Sons of Anarchy when you saw a particular performance or a scene and thought, “This is really great television, something that could hold its own against any show or movie out there?”
Jimmy Smits: I think what I referenced before about what I saw in season three, which really cemented for me that the show had jumped to a different gear with that whole—for lack of a better word, the whole Irish storyline that was introduced and when they went to Belfast. That whole back and forth was really quite intricate. A lot of it, I thought that they were in Ireland for real. I was believing that they were somewhere else, and a lot of it was shot here. They did go and do some skeleton work to do exteriors out there, but that was really quite, quite wonderful—Titus Welliver, who’s a friend from NYPD Blue days, and now he came in and did a wonderful job with them. The performances there were very, very intricate by everyone involved, and jacked up the storyline to another kind of level. Some of this stuff that Ryan—Ryan, I have a lot of respect for him as an actor, and the kind of scenes that I saw, prior to jumping on board, between him and Jax character—what Charlie does—were very, very special. Just the grittiness of the show, the grittiness of the show just sold me 100%, and I think that it—like you say—it can go up against any film or TV show out there.
Q: Do you have a message for the fans of the show? Is there anything you would like to say to them?
Jimmy Smits: Keep watching. We’re so very, very happy that this season that loyal fan base that has been around has grown exponentially. To hear all of the wonderful things that we have around the table when we’re reading new scripts or out there in the grittiness of the motorcycle deserts riding around with—when the guys are riding around, that fan base has increased, and the numbers have increased exponentially. The show has grown even more popular, so everybody’s really happy with that. With that comes a kind of responsibility not only to that loyal fan base, but to the new folks that are around that are watching it to keep on doing it. So you’ve got to keep—everybody’s conscious of we’ve got to keep upping the ante and keep raising the bar.
Q: Are you similar to Nero in some ways?
Jimmy Smits: Am I similar to him in some ways? Well, he’s from California. He makes references to his family that he has an uncle in what is Brdo, which is San Bernardino, so that’s kind of like the southern, inland empire area of Los Angeles, but the show is based in northern California. I think what we’ve—because where you get sent in terms of the penal system, which has to do a lot with his background—he spent a lot of time in the penal system. So he’s from California and I’m not from California originally.
Q: How did you find common ground with him?
Jimmy Smits: I found the common ground like I do with a lot of different characters. The research for me is probably just as fascinating as being on-set doing work every day. Those couple of months when Kurt and I were talking, I dug up my mi familia files because it’s kind of like revisiting that particular character maybe 15, 17 years later. I went to interview people who were involved in motorcycle clubs—Latino motorcycle clubs—and spoke to a number of what we call …—so people who have been involved in the—been in the penal system who are now trying to be on the straight and narrow like that particular character—and just talked about stories that they’ve encountered and the lore that they have, and what tattoos mean when you have a—because your body is kind of like a board of your past. Things like that, those things flesh out a character’s life in a lot of ways. You hear stuff and you’re able to—you have to be like a sponge and use what you can and how it relates because TV is kind of fluid, and things change on a week-to-week basis. But those are the things that I do with every character. If I’m involved in a boxing movie, I’m going to see fights and learning about boxing. It’s part of what we do.
Q: You said there’s a twist coming, so is Nero maybe more than meets the eye?
Jimmy Smits: Well, you’ve heard something about his past, the little things that he’s talked about, and I think if you watched those last episodes, he’s revealed a little bit more about what his past is and where he’s come from. You know that he has been involved in the penal system prior to that. So there’s that potential that’s there. So it’s a springboard for that. Again, I’m going to go back to what I think is Kurt’s strong suit in terms of writing is that he lays the groundwork and then just mixes it up, blows it up—however you want to put it—so that nothing is what it really seems. It’s definitely going to take a turn. You can’t have this guy that’s this ex-gangbanger not see a little bit of that come out. So it’s going to—yes. It’s going to turn.
Q: It can’t be Sons of Anarchy if something bad doesn’t happen.”
Jimmy Smits: That’s what we always feel when we get that first draft of the script. Before you open it up, it’s like, “We know something bad is going to happen, and who’s going to take the bullet? What’s in his mind this week?” But that’s good. That’s what keeps it fresh in a lot of ways.
Q: You’ve had a lot of scenes with Katey, but are there any other actors on the show that you wish you had more screen time with or any actors that you will have more screen time with in upcoming episodes?
Jimmy Smits: Well again, go back to what I said a couple of people ago is I’m sorry that I didn’t really get to do some work with Ryan because I really, really, really have great respect for what he’s done as an actor prior to the show, and how constant he was on Sons, and how much of a rock he was in so many ways. So there’s a kind of letdown there that we didn’t really get to do anything. I’ve got people that I know like Danny Trejo and Benito that I’ve known—Benito I’ve known for year. I keep looking at them wondering—or Emilio’s character. Emilio was one of the people that I went to talk to about gang stuff when I first got the job. I mean, I can’t wait to be able to do scenes with him. And of course Harold P., my Brooklyn buddy—we’re both from Brooklyn, so we look at each other and go, “When is Brooklyn going to be on the set …” you know? They’re a bunch of great people out there.
Q: You’ve been a big part of the Star Wars universe with the prequels, and I’m just curious what your thoughts on the Disney purchases and if you think that you’ll maybe try and be involved in the new movies?
Jimmy Smits: You know, that’s interesting because I had—my kids were the ones that told me. They started texting me because they—I don’t know. They must be on blog sites or something about that. You know, congratulations to George, because that we a mega-deal. It’s great that it will live on in a different kind of incarnation. He built that in so many ways, and not only built that franchise, but because of that—the success of the franchise—he was able to do so much for the film industry really. This whole thing about digitalization—one of those films that I worked on was the prototypes of that HD camera was something that we were using. So he pushed the envelope in so many technical ways, not only with regard to the film industry. He’s got a lot of balls that he’s juggling, so it’s a good thing that he was able to find a way to pass that franchise on. Of course, it should—I mean, there are more stories to tell, of course, I think. You look at the 007 franchise, and it’s gone on for 40 years. There are a lot of people that have grown up watching that, so I know that he didn’t just pass that on without a lot of caveats. There will be involvement with George down the line. As far as me is concerned, my character was gone after—episode whatever—but if they want to call, let them call.
Q: You never know what they can do in the future, right?
Jimmy Smits: Right. Exactly—or the past. However they decide to go.
Q: One of the things they (the fans) were really interested in is whether or not Nero’s legitimate business is actually going to be the escape for the club that Jax wants it to be, and should that blow up if Nero is going to end up coming to blows with the Sons?
Jimmy Smits: I’m not going to be able to talk about that because Kurt—I know you have probably have talked to Kurt before. He is very—there are a lot of caveats when you even talk to any kind of media outlet about not talking too much about the future of what happens story-wise. You know that he’s going to mix it up, and things are going to blow up. I can’t be more specific about that with regards to … and that whole business. I mean, it’s safe to say that I think that what we’ve seen so far, it’s a pretty sure bet that the club is going to find this is a financial gain for them.
Q: How badly do you want to ride one of those bikes?
Jimmy Smits: Oh man, you know—okay, so we just talked about George Lucas, so I’ll segue like this. So when I first had my first conversation with George, it was like, “He’s going to talk to you. He’s going to call you on the phone and he’ll talk.” So the conversation was kind of like, “I really like your work, and I’ve watched you before, and I would like you to join our family. But this conversation is not going to continue unless you are cool with the fact that there will not be a lightsaber involved in the conversation.” So that’s the way we started that. So similarly with Kurt, that was the whole deal. If you were listening before, I went to this thing for Paris, and then we had these great little tete-a-tete social things with Kurt and Katie and Ron and all that group. Then I got this call about—Kurt wants to have a sit-down with you. I was like, “Okay, when is that going to happen?” So they scheduled a sit-down for a couple of weeks. Like I said, Wanda is a big fan of the show and was like, “You’ve got to get—if this is about a job, you’ve got to get into this.” So the first thing I did was I started doing my motorcycle research, and I got my motorcycle license. So I’m riding with my stand-in, who’s been my stand-in for 20 years, and I’m getting myself all geared up for this, and we have this … to talk to Kurt. Much the same way as the Lucas thing he was like—we can talk about Paris’s thing, and he’s always been a fan, and likewise I love the work that he did on The Shield. He was like, “Okay, so before we continue this conversation, know that we’re not talking about bikes.” And I’m like, “Oh no. I just got my license.” But who knows, a Vespa might be in Nero’s future. Who knows? Albeit to say—to be honest about this thing, I knew that there wasn’t going to be any—that bikes weren’t going to be involved with regards to this character. But in my heart, I’ve been riding and that’s just the actor in me. If I’m going to be in a Western—even if I’m going to be riding the stagecoach wagon, I’m going to learn about horses just in case somebody says one day, “You know, maybe if Nero got on one of the bikes that fell,” and then I’m going, “Duh. Duh. I can’t ride. I don’t know how to ride.” So I’m ready. If it happens, I’m ready—even for the Vespa I’ll be ready.
Q: You’ve talked about this turn coming with Nero. Can you say is that going to be this next episode; are we talking very soon; or will we have to wait a little while longer for that?
Jimmy Smits: It’s coming. I’m not as up on the—the season is kind of like a blur to me right now. I remember the birds with this past week, right? So it’s coming. It’s coming soon. You know, little hints of it—it’s coming.
Q: We’ve seen Gemma and Nero talk so openly and easily, like in the playground scene with his son, and then I loved the scene in the cemetery, which was really romantic in a weird way when they were walking out holding hands. In your mind, why isn’t she sort of being open with him about what she has to do with Clay at this time?
Jimmy Smits: Because I think that it traverses the bounds even of this new, budding relationship that she feels comfortable with. I mean, I think that they still have …, but those are deep, deep, deep wounds that go back prior to even the beginning of what the fans know about the show. That goes back to the original …, right? Yes, I think that’s probably one of the reasons why she hasn’t gone that far. You want to open—you’ve got to open these things up like an artichoke. It’s got to be little by little.
Q: Can you just talk more about your approach to Nero, because just like whenever she was asking him, “Are we seeing each other?” And then the way you said, “I see you, Gemma,” so sincere and so earnest. It sort of makes us fall in love with him, which then I think will be the payoff whenever he does this turn. It’s going to hit us even harder. How have you made him just so decent?
Jimmy Smits: Well you know, in the framework of all of these people’s lives—people don’t walk around thinking of themselves as bad people, as bad guys. You’re part of the environment that you grow up in, the socialization, and in that there can be decency. I always try to find a little glimmer of that in anything that I do because I think that those little glimmers, finding places where there’s humor or lightness in something that’s deep and profound, it tends to resonate more and makes people more human. I think as an actor and a performer, I think that resonates more with the audience when you do have the turn and the payoff. So I’m always—it’s great to be able to play the “bad guy” role because you get—you always get a lot to do. But I’m always looking at the why. How does a person get to that particular point. It’s those little cogs in the wheel that make it interesting for me to play. Ultimately, I hope for the audience to be engaged with it, because it is going to take a turn. That’s going to happen. That’s part of the schematic of the show, right. So hopefully the audience will understand why. When you talk about things like violence and all of that, which are guideposts for this particular series, you understand it’s kind of justified more.
Q: We have seen Nero’s excellent driving skills, which was a very fun scene to watch, but can you tease are we going to see any of his—you mentioned the violence or the turn—is that going to involve any kind of signature move for Nero? Will we find out more of what he’s capable of?
Jimmy Smits: I think weaponry will be involved.
Q: Are you interested in going back on doing series television or series cable, because I know you’ve done some things off and on, and I always thought after the West Wing—it made a great series to have you as a president, but of course West Wing got canceled. Do you have any desires or are you looking into feature films, or just whatever comes along?
Jimmy Smits: Whatever comes along. Yes. I mean, I’m getting ready to go and do a play now, and pilot season will be coming up in January. I’m always sitting down and talking to people that are doing independent features and stuff. It depends on the project and the quotient of the people that are involved. It’s for a lot of different reasons—a particular script that resonates with me in a particular way, maybe not so much even the part but what the script has to say. What I really like doing more than anything is …, and you have to know that this has to do with what comes on your plate because I don’t—it’s not like I get to pick and choose every single thing that I want to—there are a lot of doors that still get shut, and there are a lot of walls to still breach on a lot of different ways. But the stuff that does come across to me or stuff that I hear about or read about that I’m willing to go out there and fight for or audition—I still have to go audition and do all of that. I do have a certain leeway to choose from that group what I want to say as an artist. In this particular circumstance, I love the fact that this particular show allows me to mix it up in a different way than TV audiences have seen me before. So that’s good. Yes.