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Mr. Smits Goes to Washington

Jimmy Smits talks softly and without a big shtick about the education of Hollywood, his love of cigars and a possible (scripted) move to the West Wing.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

(continued from page 1)

"I'd thought of Jimmy for the role before George Lucas had even confirmed the character's appearance," said Gurland at the time. "Then, completely independently, his agents let me know that he would love to be involved in a Star Wars project. It worked out great."

The role was a small one, that of Senator Bail Organa, the adoptive father to Princess Leia, but it was one that Smits wasn't about to turn down, even when Lucas called with a gravely worded, preemptive warning to the actor.

There was to be no light saber.

When Lucas called, Smits says, he began by praising Smits's work in a variety of projects, but immediately cut to the chase. "He said, 'I've got to tell you now that there's no light saber.' I said, 'Why did you feel the need to tell me this?' and Lucas replied, 'Because that's the first thing that people always want to know…what color is my saber?' "

Smits laughs out loud telling this story, but also admits to having been a big, big fan of Star Wars and of Lucas; being included in the trilogy was, for him, more like playtime than work. Something in the play-as-work approach must have worked for him because he's back as Bail Organa in Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, which opens in mid-May.

Like all Star Wars films, Revenge of the Sith's plot is closely guarded, and Smits is careful not to spill any beans. He does, however, admit that his character, while still that of a statesman, does get to finally see a little action. "Let me just say that there's a speeder involved," Smits grins.

Smits admits that while he took the original film offer without knowing anything about what the role would ultimately entail, the opportunity to work with Lucas was a no-brainer. "I was fascinated not just by what we were doing every day, but about the life that George has led. He has pushed the envelope in terms of the technical aspects of this business, and to look at the way he pushed Panavision and Sony to construct this digital camera…he's revolutionized the way we perceive or are going to perceive cinema in the future."

Following Revenge of the Sith, Smits returned to the stage, a move and a medium that, he says, "always calls to my heart. I am someone who's left roles, big roles, to take other, smaller things, and I've never regretted it."

He had a starring role in the 2004 Shakespeare in the Park presentation of Much Ado About Nothing, which was almost immediately followed by the leading role in the Pulitzer Prize—winning Anna in the Tropics.

Written by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, Anna in the Tropics is a story about a family-owned cigar factory where, while hand-rolling Flor del Cielo cigars, the workers listen to the new lector (Smits) hired to read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to them.

Did Smits get to pick out the cigars he smoked on stage?

"Yes…and no. When we first started doing the play, we had technical advisers—cigar rollers, or torcedors—come in, and they made recommendations. Then there was a place in Princeton [New Jersey] called A Little Piece of Cuba that was a cigar joint. I got to go and pick out cigars that they could afford for the production and that I liked. So in Princeton, I got to smoke Buteras," Smits says. "And in New York, Shermans, a short called the Harrington. The Sherman family brought a box of them to me as a gift, and the Harrington has a little sweetness to it, so I used that in the play."

Smits confesses that while he doesn't specifically remember ever swiping any of his father's Tiparillos as a kid, he remembers buying cigars for the first time to celebrate his daughter's birth. "I like short smokes," Smits continues. "And I started off smoking Davidoffs…I like a cigar that has a little sweetness to it. But my attorney, Tom—he and I were at [an event] recently and he brought some Montecristos…now that was a friggin' good cigar!"

Smits uses our visit to The Conga Room as the perfect excuse to light up another Montecristo. We're in The Havana Room, the indoor smoking room at the club—there's also an outdoor patio—and Smits is clearly relaxed and at home.

When a couple at the club come by to introduce themselves and tell Smits that they're big fans, Smits is gracious, offering his hand and a few words about how he hopes that they've enjoyed themselves. With the club's staff—whether security guard or valet attendant, cocktail waitress or band member—he's even less guarded. He greets many by name, slaps hands while walking by, or, in the case of a singer who's taking a break from the stage, a slap on the back and a warm compliment.

And the compliment is well deserved. If the food at the restaurant is passable, the music—and subsequent dancing—at the club is fabulous. The place is loud with laughter, there's always music playing, both live and recorded, and the mojitos and "congapolitans" flow. It is, Smits says, "one of our favorite places in Los Angeles…and not just because we're investors."

The "we" refers to him and actor Wanda De Jesus, his girlfriend and partner of 15 years. Tiny, she barely reaches Smits's chest, but it's obvious in the way that Smits's voice softens and his face warms when he talks about her that he's still, well, smitten. "We've been together fifteen years. We're more married than most people that we know that have been married…and divorced," he says simply.

"I'm very lucky to have her in my life. I don't know if it works the other way around," he says, laughing. "I lack a lot of communicative skills and I constantly have to work on that. I'm glad that she's been around to help nurture that and to put up with me."

The two met while both were doing stage work in New York. "We traveled in the same circles," Smits explains. "Being Latino actors in New York, you kind of see the same group of people around all the time. They lump everybody [Latino] together. We had [mutual] actor friends, so we knew each other as casual acquaintances before ever working together."

Being in the same industry, Smits says, is a positive. "It's great in the sense that you really have somebody to bounce off of in terms of creativity, who knows the 'creative speak' that a layman might not know when you're researching a character or when you have to make a choice on [a part]. There's a real beauty in that. Although I might be more in the public eye right now, we've both worked pretty consistently, and I think there's a piece of both of us in each other's characters. There's a real kindred thing about the process, in what we both feel about the art and, both being Latinos, how we feel about the community."

The "community" to which Smits refers is the Latino community and, specifically, the tiny community of Latinos in the entertainment industry. If there is, Smits says, the appearance of closed doors and glass ceilings to all those brave enough to try entering the entertainment industry, for Latinos the door is padlocked and the ceiling crafted from safety glass.

This is a hot, hot topic for Smits and one where he's put his money—and his name—where his mouth is.

In 1996, while in San Antonio, Texas, on a swing tour for the Clinton re-election campaign, Smits and fellow actor Esai Morales began to question whether, aside from photo opportunities, their participation in the campaign event made any real difference to the Latino community that they were hoping to reach. Also on that campaign tour was Felix Sanchez, a Washington, D.C., attorney and political consultant.

"We were on our way to the Alamo, I think, for a rally," Smits remembers. "And we began talking about voter registration and young people. We shared stories about education, and the topic [turned to] 'How are we going to get to the next level and get more Latinos into the arts, into media and into positions of power?' We were talking about studio executives, scriptwriting, people behind the camera, and the [subject] kept going back to education [and] young people moving on to the next level.

"There's this whole validation and confirmation," Smits continues, "that comes with an MFA, a degree from Yale or USC film school or UCLA. There's a certain cache. So if there are [Latino] college students already interested in the arts that have demonstrated skill, and if we could help facilitate them getting into these schools, help provide funds to those that are already there to continue, we could tangibly effect change."

So, in 1997, Sanchez, Smits, Morales and actor Sonia Braga founded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit specifically aimed at providing scholarship monies and career planning to Latino students already in college but who have an eye on a graduate degree in the arts. The foundation is funded through a mix of private, corporate and grant donations that, to date, have provided more than $650,000 in scholarship awards to Latino and Latina students.

"Jimmy is so incredibly committed to giving back to [the Latino] community," explains Felix Sanchez. "He'll roll up his sleeves and work on whatever needs to be done, including picking up the phone and calling donors or prospective donors who haven't responded to a call from anyone else. He's given money, sure, but more importantly, he's given his time and his energy.

"He's a mentor, a true inspiration to the students," Sanchez adds. "They see him as a [Hispanic] role model, a successful role model, but he doesn't downplay the importance of work and education. He puts the responsibility on them to do what needs to be done to make success, to be successful. When he gives advice, he says 'Know your craft. Prepare, prepare, prepare.' "

Esai Morales puts it another way. "One of my favorite lines when talking about the foundation is, 'Violence is free, art you have to pay for.' The foundation and Jimmy have found a way to see that art is paid for."

Morales laughs when told that Smits was hesitant to talk about himself much, even when asked about the foundation. "That's Jimmy! Jimmy hates—and I mean hates—blathering about himself, but the guy can think on his feet and he's a tremendous role model to those in the industry and the kids aspiring to the industry."

Morales pauses for a moment to try to summarize what Smits brings to the foundation besides his name and his checkbook. "Jimmy's quiet, wary and believes in preparation. He's cautious and careful and he'll spend hours perfecting a line or a part, [but] when he walks on stage or on a set, he'll be the most prepared person there. It's what makes him what he is. He's not a big talker—he's actually very quiet—but when he talks, people—even in Hollywood—listen."

If Smits once used a real-life campaign swing and a push to encourage the Hispanic vote to formulate his thoughts on how to change the image of Latinos within the entertainment world, the entertainment world is now offering a venue for changing how viewers look at a Hispanic candidate.

Last summer, while Smits was still in New York performing in Much Ado About Nothing, "West Wing" producer John Wells flew in to chat with Smits about a possible role on the award-winning NBC drama. According to Smits, Wells shared his views about how the power of television and the media could influence young people, create a more realistic awareness of what campaigns are really made up of, and possibly introduce a Latino candidate as a legitimate contender for president of the United States.

"I remember thinking, 'Wow,'" says Smits. "We were talking about concepts, and then in concert with that the power of the media. Just look at the impact that Barack Obama, Henry Cisneros and Colin Powell have had. I admire the hell out of Colin, by the way. I really do. I don't agree with all the politics, but…."

Smits was obviously intrigued with the idea. Now in its sixth season, the sophisticated drama also stars Martin Sheen as the incumbent second-term president, Bradley Whitford and Smits's former "L.A. Law" co-star John Spencer. The show, which holds the record for most Emmys won by a series in a season, which it set in its first year, brought Smits on to play Matt Santos, an idealistic congressman from Texas who's campaigning as the dark-horse candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.


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