TÊTE-À-TÊTE: JIMMY SMITS
If it seems Jimmy Smits has been in our living rooms for the best part of 20 years, its because he has. With iconic roles on L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, Cane and a recent stint on Showtimes Dexter, this actor has carved out an exceptional career. While hes 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 Williamsalong with Latin music for the holidays.
NH: Bandstand was aimed at younger people rather than familiesis 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 sensationmy 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 Im missing out on the rock n roll thing. Thats 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 musicthe 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.] Im 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 performingit 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: Lets jump forward. How has music played through your commitment to acting? Do you listen to music when youre preparing for a role?
JS: Well, in my profession, youre simulating reality. Ive experienced loss, but I dont know myself what it is to take another lifethe characters Ive 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?
JS: Just recently, on Dexter, the journey my character [D.A. gone bad Miguel Prado] tookhe went to this very dark place, and there was a lot of guilt attached to it. I would have Latin music playing in the trailer. But there was a time in the last four, five episodes where my music got very religious. I was listening to a lot of chorales.
NH: Its not something I'd think ofyou know, religious music to get yourself in the emotional place to be ready to kill somebody. [Laughs.]
JS: It works! Maybe it had to do with the Crusades or something...I dont know.
NH: How did your involvement in the Conga Room come about?
JS: This whole thing about finding ways to give back to your communityits always something that runs in me. Its important to have this music. Its educational for the larger community to know it exists, and it can be just as classyit doesnt have to be marginalized. It really made sense when we went to see Buena Vista Social Club in Beverly Hills and were the only Latinos in the theater. My lady and I saw how some of the younger people were into it, because Ry Cooder was involved and kind of legitimizing it, you know? And there were older people remembering doing the mambo at the Palladium. I met [developer] Brad Gluckstein, who was starting this nightclub, and it just so happened that when we were talking, the whole Ricky Martin and J.Lo thing was happening, and it made sense that a club like this could be successful.
NH: The original location was in the Miracle Mile, but as the lease was coming to an end in 2006, you were already thinking of bigger things.
JS: We decided if we were going to make the move to L.A. Live, we would take a hiatus.
NH: Now that youve reopened, what are your goals for the new club?
JS: Well always have salsa music. Well always have Latin music. But you know, we are also planning to have Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and I would love to see Santana play there.
NH: I could talk to you for ages, because your story and how it all connects are so fascinating.
JS: Thank youjust send me the therapist bill.
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