What the hell are we? De-Mexicanized Mexicans, pre-Chicanos, cholo-punks, Mexi - Americans, or something that still has no name?
--Guillermo Gomez-Pena, from The Broken Line/Linea Quebrada.
Years before Edward James Olmos earned his Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance in "Stand and Deliver," the ruddy-faced actor with a piercing gaze was known to millions of TV viewers as "Miami Vice's" Lt. Martin Castillo.
For just as long, Olmos' ability to steal a scene with wounded silences had made Castillo something of a mystery. Whenever it came to time read about the 42-year-old actor, however, it was generally the same story: Olmos as underdog, as son of immigrants and of the barrio preaching his bootstrap message of hard work and self-responsibility.
But this reading of Olmos as ethnic artist moving into the movie mainstream through sheer will is too conventional, say close friends and associates. There's another side to the artist, they say, a studied "otherness" that implies new notions of American identity.
Olmos agrees. He sees himself as a kind of prototypal Pacific Rim man who fuses Latino, Asian and rock 'n' roll strains into a new hybrid of American culture. Said another way, Olmos has tried to expand the meaning of his mestizo (mixed race, mixed culture) Mexican roots by seeking unexpected points of resonance in the new and old worlds.
"We (Mexicans) are Asian," Olmos abruptly pronounced during one of a series of recent interviews. "We come from the first people who came over (the Bering Strait) to this continent." He said his family, natives of Mexico City, "go back five generations to Spain on my father's side. My father's mother was Aztec. So I'm mestizo all the way."
He does not, however, restrict the meaning of his mestizo roots to a Latino world:
"I never stop knowing that I'm Latino," he began. "I'm very much a part of the Latin experience. But I don't limit to one form or theory of being. I've been exposed to Russian culture, Asian culture, to Indian and Mexican cultures. I draw from all of them. I understand . . . that the future involves a tremendous awareness of the world."
It's this mestizaje-- blending of culture and races--that Olmos draws upon to postulate a distant family connection with his present character in "Triumph of the Spirit," a film now shooting in Poland. Olmos plays a Hungarian Gypsy capo and part-time magician inside Poland's Auschwitz concentration camp who helps a Greek boxer played by Willem Dafoe survive to-the-death matches inside the ring.
"I'd been searching to see how many Gypsies there were in my own family just before I started this film," he said. "Really, because the name Olmos, which means elm tree in Spanish, is a prominent name in Hungary. It means lead, or people who work with lead."
Screenwriter, director, playwright Luis Valdez--author of the 1978 play "Zoot Suit" and the director of the cross-over hit film "La Bamba"--said Olmos represents a new breed of artist expanding the envelope of Latino cultural possibilities.
"In Eddie's case, I guess his uniqueness comes from the fact that he grew up in East L.A.," said Valdez. "There's a lot of Asian-Chicano fusion, even though it's not acknowledged. But it should be. I think fusion is it, man. You can fuse Asian and Chicano or Latino qualities and come up with some very interesting abilities."
Flashes of Olmos' chameleon "abilities" have surfaced throughout his career.
By retaining creative control of his Castillo, Olmos said he has tried to offset "Miami Vice's" high fashion, hyper-reality by creating a character of stark moral dualities: The chivalrous samurai locked inside a disillusioned big-city vice cop who stubbornly clings to his own personal code of honor and ethics.
More than a decade earlier, Olmos became the conscience of "Zoot Suit" and a Chicano cult hero, binding the thinly veiled hostility of the pachuco ("street tough") with defiant stoicism of an Aztec warrior and rock 'n' roll rebellion; performances that won Olmos an L.A. Drama Critics Award, a Tony nomination and vaulted him to the big screen.
Olmos has also played a Mohawk high-rise rivet-pounder with shamanic powers in "Wolfen," a wrongly accused Mexican rancher turned outlaw in "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," even an Italian fisherman in an NBC-TV movie, "Fortunate Pilgrim."
But it was his performance in "Stand and Deliver" and the subsequent Oscar nomination that has increased his acting options, acknowledged producer Arnold Kopelson, who has cast Olmos in "Triumph of the Spirit," now shooting in Poland. He plays a hardened, but compassionate, death camp trustee.
"Eddie not only looks right, he has the acting skills we need," Kopelson said. "It's a very pivotal role, and he's just a very exciting actor."
Becoming a fusion artist, Olmos contends, had everything to do with growing up in Boyle Heights. In the late '40s and '50s, his Russian, Jewish, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, and Mexican neighbors on Cheesebrough Lane near First and Indiana were precursors of the ethnic diversity now commonplace throughout Los Angeles.
"I was raised with a lot of Hispanics and a lot of Asians, mainly Japanese," Olmos said. "After the war, they seemed to mill around that area. My best friends, growing up through grammar school, were Asians. So I learned a lot about their cultures just by hanging around them. It wasn't any deep-rooted direction on my part. It was the environment."
If his neighbors brought him the world, the streets provided the first stage for practicing his role in "Zoot Suit." Because the pachuco's machismo is expressed in an opulence of physical gesture, a reclining posture that defies gravity and authority, mime and meticulous observation, Olmos said, became more than mere barrio survival skills.
"A lot of that came from the street," he said. "There's so much time spent checking people out. So much of the street is body language and attitude." Role playing on the streets and finding himself in a multiethnic universe, he said, thus became his central life themes.
After a long childhood obsession with baseball--literally spending seven days a week on the diamond--Olmos, drawing on afternoon dance session he'd spent with his father and sister, suddenly adopted music and modern dance as his new disciplines in high school.
By the time the rock clubs began to multiply on the Sunset Strip in the early '60s, Olmos had formed Eddie and the Pacific Ocean, a raucous rock group that eventually became a fixture at Gazzarri's. It was his sheer physical ability as a spinning and diving rock 'n' roll stage performer, not his voice, that allowed Olmos to make "Zoot Suit's" El Pachuco his uncontested possession, said Michael Wadleigh, who later directed Olmos in "Wolfen."
"When I went to see 'Zoot Suit,' the thing that knocked me out, was his physicality," Wadleigh said. "They way he would hit those poses and then just tip the brim of his hat so the light would catch his face. It was like Kabuki, but it was also rock 'n' roll."
Wadleigh wasn't the only one to see a classical figure hiding in Olmos' El Pachuco.
"There were people from the Royal Shakespeare Company who (saw the stage version of "Zoot Suit") who said my character was one of the few to come out of American theater that was big enough to walk onto the Shakespearean stage," Olmos said. "The Japanese Kabuki families proclaimed the same thing. They were seeing disciplined, classical movement."
These observations opened a door for Olmos that he didn't hesitate to jump through.
"I fell in love with Kabuki theater and Kathakali theater from India, which are two very poignant, very stylized types of theater," he said. "What I took from them was not so much the philosophy but their theories of movement, the control and discipline. This fascinated me and I studied it."
During a brief hiatus between "Zoot Suit's" last curtain call in Los Angeles and its short-lived Broadway run in 1979, he also spent a month in Japan on two uneventful movie projects learning "tons of dialogue in Japanese."
It was during his transition period, said Wadleigh, who for a time shared his home with Olmos and wife, Kaija Keel, that Olmos explored the linkages between the Mesoamerican and Inca style of rendering human figure and stylized Asian dance and theater.
And he had begun to wear his face, say some of his Latino admirers, like a Mesoamerican death mask, the equivalent of the vato's (tough guy's) shield of stoicism and a bridge between stereotypes and continents--the reticent Indian and the inscrutable Asian.
Still, Olmos maintains that his attraction to Asian theater and culture was a matter of personal curiosity and artistic instinct.
"What you do a lot of times is that you go ahead and you work in a specific way," he said. "You read, you do research, absorb. Then you allow all of that to be absorbed by your subconscious. Then you just go ahead and be."
He anticipates a Pacific Rim future in his supporting role in the 1982 film noir detective thriller, "Blade Runner."
Olmos played Gaff, a Los Angeles detective who coerces Harrison Ford to liquidate a crew of killer humanoid robots. Set in the year 2019, "Blade Runner" is meant as a worst-case metaphor of Los Angeles as a locus of cultural fusion and environmental chaos.
Olmos claims, however, that his role in the 1982 film directed by Ridley Scott was too vaguely drawn. "At first, they didn't know what his character was," Olmos said. "Then they wanted to make him ethnic. I said, 'I'll play him, but you've got to understand where I'm coming from. My character was a total Gaff.' "
His character, he decided, would have the world for his family tree, with each ancestor represented by a different race. He then proceeded to invent an equally convoluted pidgin of Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, English and German for his character.
"I went out to Berlitz language school and learned pieces of languages," he said. "I wrote down my own dialogue, but instead of saying, 'I am going to the police station' in English, I would say each word in a different language. It was bits of languages. I called it Cityspeak. They couldn't deal with it. What I had done was beyond their wildest dreams."
Gaff's brooding silences reminded film director Masato Harada of a younger Toshiro Mifune, the hero of the classic '50s samurai movie trilogy produced by Toho Studios.
"If I direct another samurai movie, I'd like to cast him as the leading character because Olmos has that kind of ability," Harada said via telephone form Tokyo.
His role in "Blade Runner" also illustrates why Olmos is so different from other Latino actors of his generation. Instead of trying to cross over, Olmos said he has battled to define in his screen image on his own terms. He paid a price for his obstinacy, turning down, his friends say, as much as $2 million in acting parts at one point, because he would not accept roles that portrayed Latinos or anyone else with lopsided stereotypes.
As a consequence, Olmos said, he still found himself refusing roles that he believed weighed him down with ethnic stereotypes or denied him control of his character.
The turning point came in August, 1984.
Four episodes into the first season of "Miami Vice," executive producer Michael Mann asked Olmos to fill a role left vacant by Gregory Sierra. Though the role intrigued him, he feared a weekly television series would not allow him the freedom to pursue his own projects. Olmos kept on saying no until Mann reportedly gave in to several demands, including creative control of Castillo's character.
"He (Mann) allowed me that strength," said Olmos. Again, Olmos proceeded to invent a past for Lt. Martin Castillo, an ex-DEA agent who'd burned himself out fighting rogue CIA agents and guerrillas pushing heroin to U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.
Although he complains that the show's writing has deteriorated, he still identifies with Castillo:
"I speak eight languages, four of them are Asian, and Spanish, English and Russian. It's an unusual blend. Basically, Castillo is probably the most disciplined character I've worked with in all my life. But that's what extraordinary about him. He's able to survive (on TV) doing close to absolutely nothing, except for thinking on camera."
For Olmos, thinking on camera also meant exploring Castillo's Asian seam in nearly every episode where he was cast in the leading role.
"Bushido," his directing debut, won "Miami Vice" its only Emmy in 1985 when Olmos adopted the stance of the sword-wielding samurai. In "Duty in Honor," a 1987 episode in which Castillo plays against Haing S. Ngor, best supporting actor Oscar winner for "The Killing Fields." Ngor played an undercover North Vietnamese operative who goes to Miami to avenge the deaths of Vietnamese prostitutes and political leaders killed by a psychopathic ex-CIA operative during the war.
Olmos believes the episode stands as a rare example in the post-Vietnam War genre that has allowed the former enemy to emerge from the background and reveal the individual dignity and humanity in his suffering.
"For the first time, we see two enemies fighting for the same cause," Olmos said evenly. "Both he and I had our own (political) values as police officers, but we were both after the same person. It made us the same."