For Benjamin Bratt, it's quite an honor: landing a role on a critically acclaimed TV show and having the character tailor-made to his bloodline.
Bratt arrived this season on "Law & Order" in the wake of Chris Noth's departure from the cast. He plays Rey Curtis, a half-Peruvian Indian, half-white conservative police detective who clashes with the older, more liberal Det. Briscoe (Jerry Orbach).
Bratt shares the same heritage as his character on the NBC drama, which is not just a coincidence. Executive producer and creator Dick Wolf wanted to work with Bratt after their 1990 collaboration, the NBC series "Nasty Boys," stayed on the air only five months. "Ben's a terrific actor," says Wolf.
"He [Wolf] flattered me with offers on other series, but I was focused on my film career," says Bratt from his New York apartment. Then timing played its own role. "With Noth leaving," Bratt explains, "it was an opportunity to mix things up a little on a show that was well-written and smart and worth watching and endured despite all the cast changes."
In the series, the single actor, 31, finds himself playing a married man with three daughters under 5. A man of strong personal convictions, which Bratt says he admires. "Rey's conservatism is born of high-moral fiber, not a political agenda. He's very protective and highly principled."
In a rare turn for "Law & Order," story lines examine Rey's personal life with his Native American wife. "The show's been very much like 'Dragnet,' a 'just the facts, 'mam' kind of thing, so it's unique to bring in a personal angle."
Bratt, a native of San Francisco, calls himself "brown to the bone" and says he takes his new role seriously: "As a person of color, with every role I play, I carry a certain amount of responsibility to my community. There's no denying the fact that, whether you want to be or not, you're forced into being a role model because there are so few to look to. Today, there's a real sense of pride that runs through the community when one of our own makes it."
Bratt says he was open "to create a character who is what I am, which is a bicultural person. [I am] excited at finally playing someone who's reflective of myself in cultural makeup and reflective of a huge number of people in the U.S."
The actor cites his biggest break as Taylor Hackford's 1991 movie "Bound By Honor." He played Paco, who he says "begins as the archetypal bad [guy] and ends up as a narcotics office."
Bratt suddenly laughs. "Wow. I've played a lot of cops! I think like 10 of them." He reels off the ones that come to mind: "Nasty Boys," "Demolition Man," "The River Wild," "One Good Cop," and his failed 1987 TV pilot "Juarez," among others. He adds, "I went from shuttle driver to 'Juarez.' It's actually a good thing it didn't work, I needed the time to grow."
Bratt doesn't play a cop in his allegorical film "Follow Me Home," written and directed by his brother Peter and produced by Bratt. The family affair--their mother was the on-set nurse and Bratt's girlfriend Monika McClure served as associate producer--weaves a tale of four urban muralists of varying ethnicities who embark on a spiritual cross-country odyssey. Alfre Woodard stars with Bratt.
"It's really a community and family project" Bratt says of the film, shot at the Morongo Indian Reservation a year ago.
A fund-raiser helped. "It was a beautiful thing," Bratt says dreamily, of the movie produced by the team's Chacras Prods. (The word is Quechua Indian--his mom's tribe--and means fertile soil.)
"So few communities really respond as one and you know they feel good when they're so supportive of the work and the craft. It's genuine and comes from the heart."
"Law & Order" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.