TÊTE-À-TÊTE: JIMMY SMITS
If it seems Jimmy Smits has been in our living rooms for the best part of 20 years, it’s because he has. With iconic roles on L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, Cane and a recent stint on Showtime’s Dexter, this actor has carved out an exceptional career. While he’s not a celeb who hangs in bars, he can often be found at L.A.’s Conga Room, a Latin music club he started with friends, including Jennifer Lopez, back in 1998. In December, the club relocated with much fanfare to a space downtown at L.A. Live.

Nic Harcourt: Where was your earliest recollection of music?
Jimmy Smits: Brooklyn. And then we moved to Puerto Rico, which was a really big change. But the earliest music growing up was actually through television. American Bandstand, Ed Sullivan and the crooners— Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Andy Williams—along with Latin music for the holidays.

NH: Bandstand was aimed at younger people rather than families—is that what grabbed you?
JS: Yeah, absolutely. Chuck Berry, the Temp­ta­tions...I remember my mom bought an Elvis album. And that whole Beatles- Rolling Stones sensation—my cousins were wearing Beatle boots. But there was this big gap musically in my head, like I missed out on rock and roll in a big way.

NH: It must have been culture shock. Did you like Puerto Rican music at the time, or was it more, “I wish I was still hearing the Beatles”?
JS: I never really thought, Oh I’m missing out on the rock ’n’ roll thing. That’s just the way it was. There was Chucho Avellanet, a local singer, and El Gran Combo, one of the big salsa groups.

NH: Right. So when you got back to New York...
JS: I was 12. New York was going through what we now know to be salsa music—the Fania, which was a record label in the ’70s. That was huge, with Rubén Blades and Willie Colón. And then...I feel like this is a therapy session.

NH: [Laughs.] I’m gonna charge you at the end.
JS: A musical therapy session. When I came back, we lived in an area in Brooklyn called East New York. There was a Latin population, but for the most part, there was a big African-American community, so R&B became a big influence. We would get on the train and go to the Apollo— Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin. It made me feel like the world was much bigger than the four corners we lived on.

NH: That there was something else?
JS: I had a high school teacher who was going for his masters in fine arts, and he started taking this drama group to Broadway. Seeing people like James Earl Jones and Raul Julia performing—it gave me permission to say I can maybe aspire to that, too.

NH: Do you mean because of your ethnicity?
JS: Yeah, doing Shakespeare, doing Pinter, doing…Brecht. Seeing a musical version of The Wizard of Oz called The Wiz with a whole black cast. I was thinking, This makes sense.

NH: Let’s jump forward. How has music played through your commitment to acting? Do you listen to music when you’re preparing for a role?
JS: Well, in my profession, you’re simulating reality. I’ve experienced loss, but I don’t know myself what it is to take another life—the characters I’ve played have had to do that. So you have to put yourself into the mindset of the anger. What would take a person to that level? Music has always helped me get to those...emotional places.

NH: Can you give me an example?