He found success in Tinseltown, but
's dream is to bring his work home.
grad stars on
's "Law and Order:
," playing a detective who investigates sexually-based offenses for an elite squad in
. He's also known for another detective role, on the former
series "Cold Case," and for his portrayal of Cuban entertainer
in a 2003 TV movie.
But what Pino really wants is to be a working actor in South Florida. The region has grown as a TV and movie mecca in recent years, but Pino believes it has a way to go before it can be called a powerhouse production hub, like New York and Los Angeles.
"I just don't see a reason why Miami can't be a character in a show the way that New York is for 'Law and Order.' And I think Miami has an equally distinctive identity and is equally as compelling as New York but just different," said Pino, 38, who is based in New York. "For me, it's important not only to go and learn as much as I can from the most talented and intelligent people that are in the business, and work with them and grow as much as I can from them, but to take that and hopefully develop something here, with Miami talent telling Miami stories."
There have been shows with
as a backdrop, such as the recently canceled "
" but that was shot mostly in California, where the actors, writers and producers were based.
Pino had his first major stage role in Miami three years ago, in the Cuban-rooted play "Havana Bourgeois," which he performed during his TV hiatus.
Whenever he has down time, as he did last month, he brings his wife, Lilly, and their two young sons to South Florida to visit family and friends,
who are scattered throughout Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
On a recent afternoon, he stopped by one of his old haunts, The Roxy Theatre Group, a Miami nonprofit arts school where he mentors aspiring young actors.
"Being an ex-member of our family, as we call it, he saw the ins and outs of so many things we did and created,'' vice president Ulises Otero said. "So participating with us, he's gone to the big time and now he remembers the little guys."
Kids peppered Pino, who happily sat on a stage, with questions about "SVU" and "Cold Case." A young girl in the back row asked how he got started in acting.
"I am doing what you are doing, sitting where you are sitting," he replied.
Pino would love for them to have more local opportunities to pursue acting, something he didn't find as a theater major at FIU.
"Whether it's having an independent movie production company here, or whether it's starting a production company that develops television shows based on stories in Miami, or developing an acting company in South Florida — to me all of those things are things that excite me,'' he said.
His first big break
Pino and his four brothers were born in Miami and reared by Cuban exile parents. At home, the family watched TV shows such as "China Beach" and "LA Law."
"It was always what my mom wanted to watch,'' a tanned and relaxed Pino said jokingly. "That was my introduction to television."
Acting became one of this creative outlets at Rockway Elementary School in Westchester, where he performed in plays.
"If I wasn't drawing, I was writing. If I wasn't writing, I was going back to my action figures and stuff. I had this whole storyline to all my '
' figures. I was always trying to tell a story. I was always trying to create, " said Pino, who continued acting at Miami Coral Park Senior High and, later, FIU. Although he was studying engineering and pre-law, theater increasingly appealed to him.
"I realized that the longer the equations got, the more attractive acting became,'' said Pino, who graduated from FIU in 1996. Over coffee and pastelitos with his father, who wanted Pino to pursue law school, they discussed his future.
"I didn't realize that [acting] was something that I could actually do professionally. Unfortunately in Miami, I felt like there were very few opportunities to truly make it a profession. So I pitched to him, 'Look, if I get into one of the top acting schools, I don't think I am going to law school,' " Pino recalled.
He was accepted into the Tisch Graduate Acting Program at
, one of the top-tier acting schools nationally.
"I think that is what gave me the confidence to believe that there was life outside doing theater out of pure love of it, but that you could actually maybe sustain yourself and a family."
His first big break came in 2000: Performing Shakespeare in the Park in New York City when he was 27. He landed a part opposite Madonna in the London production of "Up for Grabs" in 2002. But the part that catapulted him into TV fame came in 2003 when he began playing rookie detective Scotty Valens, who helped solved old crimes on "Cold Case."
"'Cold Case'definitely was a sea change for me,'' said Pino, who appeared throughout the show's seven-year run and wrote two episodes. "When you are welcomed into people's living rooms, it says not only a lot about the show and the quality of it and the people you are working with, but hopefully it also says something about your own work and where you are at and the all-star team you are surrounded by."
While on "Cold Case,'' Pino got the role of Arnaz in the 2003 CBS movie "Lucy," which followed the rocky relationship with
and the rise of the sitcom "I Love Lucy." To prepare, Pino watched a dozen episodes of the iconic show, recorded Arnaz's voice and read his autobiography, "A Book." Pino also learned to play the infamous drums that Arnaz became famous for.
"I had a very personal stake in making him the good guy because that was the way I saw him,'' said Pino who learned that Arnaz struggled with the bottle and infidelity. "How do I incorporate this into his character and not make him the bad guy? How do I make him human, how can I make him three-dimensional and not this mustache-twirling villain?"
For the past year, Pino has investigated sex-based crimes
as Detective Nick Amaro on "Law and Order: SVU." It has a demanding schedule: Eight days to shoot one episode; 40 to 60 scenes per show; 22 episodes from July to May.
He admitted feeling pressure as the new addition to a cast who had worked together for more than a decade. He said the role was another opportunity to grow as an actor.
"The better team you play on, the better you play,'' Pino said. "I have been lucky to have all-star teams I have played with. I feel the same kind of atmosphere on 'SVU.'"