In Season 5, when many shows are already on the decline, the FX drama series Sons of Anarchy has proven to be stronger and more popular than ever. Nearing the end of its season with only a handful of episodes left, things feel like they’re ready to explode for many of the characters and storylines.
During this recent interview, actor Jimmy Smits – who plays Nero Padilla, a Latino gangbanger with an exit strategy that gets into the escort business with SAMCRO – talked about how he got involved with the show, how he sees the relationship between Nero and Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), why he thinks his character is drawn to Gemma (Katey Sagal), how he finds common ground with Nero, who he would have liked to have shared some scenes with, the turn his character will be taking, and whether he might return next season. He also talked about being open to working in any medium, how he’ll be doing a play in the winter, and his thoughts on the Disney purchase of LucasFilm, having been a part of the Star Wars universe with the prequels, as Senator Bail Organa. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: What first drew you to the role of Nero Padilla, and what made you want to play the character?
JIMMY SMITS: Well, we didn’t know what the role was. In the beginning, it was more about a vibe that I had with (show creator) Kurt [Sutter], after meeting with him a couple of times. Paris Barclay, who is an executive and does a lot of the directing of a lot of the Sons episodes, is somebody that I know from NYPD Blue. He was one of the core directors there, so we go way back. Last year, the Director’s Guild of America was doing a tribute for him and, because of that, they invited a number of different people from all of the wonderful shows that he’s participated in, like In Treatment, NYPD Blue and, of course, Sons. The only person, besides Paris, that I have a comfort level with is Ron Perlman because I’ve worked with him on a couple of movies, in the past, and he is a really cool guy. So, Wanda and myself, and Katey [Sagal] and Kurt, spent a couple of minutes talking, and I think it was out of that that the call came from Kurt, that he wanted to know if I would sit down with him and just explore the possibility of being on the show. He had an idea for an arc. At that time, he was formulating what he was going to do for the season and what it necessitated, in terms of the spokes of the wheel of the show. So, we had two or three lunch meetings. I went to his office, he took me around to the set, and we just started vibe-ing about what the show needed, and a character that he was interested in exploring. That’s the way it all started. That first script wasn’t really written yet, but he had it in his head.
Had you been familiar with the show?
SMITS: We were fans of the show. It does have a really loyal, core base following that are very passionate about the show. It’s not just people that are into motorcycles. It’s this whole outlaw thing. It has a very passionate following. It’s an industry darling. A lot of people in our business are into the show. I check in with a lot of different shows, during the year. I watch the beginning episodes, and I’ll check in during the middle, and then I’ll usually see the finales. But, Wanda was a die-hard fan of the show, probably because of the fact that, aside from the grittiness of the show, he writes very strong women characters. So, when that call came in and Kurt wanted to talk, Wanda was like, “You’ve gotta do this!” We started watching that third season, where they did the whole Irish storyline, and I thought the show just jumped into another gear. It just struck me that the show is very, very cinematic. They’re able to do these wonderful things. It’s almost like watching a Western, in a lot of ways. So, that was the whole beginnings of our conversations. There was a comfort level there because of Paris and Ron, and I’m very happy that it’s all worked out the way it has. I love those guys. They really are a very, very, very tight family. Without going into a lot of detail, that whole thing that happened with Opie’s character – and I’m from the outside, just trying to do my job there – was very emotional for that group, during the read-throughs and those couple of weeks when those decisions were made. They’re a very, very tight group that have dynamics, like every family. I’m just very proud to have worked on it this season and given a little contribution there.
Any chance you’ll be back for Season 6?
SMITS: You’ll find out, soon enough. There’s a turn that happens, so we’ll see.
With her being your partner in real life, how weird was it to shoot that scene where Wanda De Jesus’ character holds a gun to Nero and Gemma (Katey Sagal)?
SMITS: We’re professional actors. That’s what we do. The first time that we rehearsed it, maybe it was a little strange, but I actually thought it was really cool because the trust quotient is much higher, since we all have another layer going on. As actors, I think we were able to hit emotional chords, in that particular scene, some of which is on the editing floor, because of those relationships there.
How do you see the relationship between Nero and Jax (Charlie Hunnam)?
SMITS: Well, just in those conversations that I’ve had with Kurt, one of the things that’s great about the show is that it has these archetypal images. It’s almost like you’re watching a production of Hamlet play out because you have insights into this group. They’re not doctors or cops. It’s a world you don’t really know that much about, and there’s a hierarchy of power with people vying for power, and there are families. It’s a lot like Hamlet, in a lot of ways. If you know Hamlet, there’s a character named Horatio, who’s on the side, helping Hamlet try to decipher all of these feelings that he’s having. I think that there are a number of different Horatios, in the scheme of the Sons world. Opie played that, in a way. This season, Kurt has the Pope character and the Nero character both vying their way into Jax’s dilemma of where he is going to take this group, and they have different ways of how to deal with power and how to get what you need, and then move on. Nero is much more about the exit strategy. In a world that’s gritty and some may say is on the wrong side of the law, how do you maneuver and get on the straight and narrow for your family? With regards to Jax, I think Nero operates in that sphere as a mentor, a friend and a bro. Now it’s going to take a turn, which it always does, in Kurt’s world. He blows up a lot of things on purpose to keep the characters totally off-kilter, so they can go onto the next decision. That’s what’s been going on, in these last episodes that we’ve been shooting, before the end of the season.
What can you say about Nero’s decision to stay with Gemma, even though Jax told him to stay away? What do you think it is that draws him to her?
SMITS: I don’t think he gets told what to do by anybody. In that kind of outlaw mentality, the definite wrong approach is to outright just say, “You can’t do something like that.” You’ll always go for, “Watch me do it the way I want to do it. I want to have my cake, and I want to be able to eat it, too.” I think that that’s what’s operating, on some level. At the end of Season 4, Kurt mixed things up and then blew things up, literally and figuratively, for all of his characters. You saw the Gemma very much wandering without a handle to grasp onto. On some level, with the introduction of Nero, it helped to right her.
Have there been any moments on Sons of Anarchy, when you saw a particular performance or scene and thought, “This is really great television”?
SMITS: What I saw in Season 3, which really cemented for me that the show had jumped to a different gear, with the whole Irish storyline that was introduced when they went to Belfast. That whole back and forth was really quite intricate. I thought that they were in Ireland for real. I believed that they were somewhere else, and a lot of it was shot here. They did go and do some skeleton work for exteriors out there, but that was really quite wonderful. Titus Welliver, who’s a friend from NYPD Blue days, went in and did a wonderful job with them. The performances there were very, very intricate, by everyone involved, and jacked up the storyline to another level. I also have a lot of respect for Ryan [Hurst], as an actor. The scenes that I saw, prior to jumping on board, between him and Jax were very, very special. The grittiness of the show sold me, 100%.
Is there anything you would like to say to the fans of this show?
SMITS: Keep watching. We’re so very, very happy that this loyal fan base that has been around has grown, exponentially, this season. To hear all of the wonderful things that we have, around the table, when we’re reading new scripts, or when the guys are riding around, that fan base has increased, and the numbers have increased, exponentially. The show is even more popular, and everybody’s really happy with that. With that comes a responsibility, not only to that loyal fan base, but to the new folks that are watching it. So, we’ve got to keep upping the ante and raising the bar.
What’s Nero’s ethnic background, and how do you find common ground with him?
SMITS: Well, he’s from California, and I’m not from California, originally. He’s spent a lot of time in the penal system. I found common ground, like I do with a lot of different characters. The research for me is probably just as fascinating as being on set, doing the work, every day. Those couple of months when Kurt and I were talking, I dug up my Mi Familia files because it’s like revisiting that particular character, 15 or 17 years later. I went to interview people who were involved in Latino motorcycle clubs, and spoke to a number of people who had been involved in the penal system, who are now trying to be on the straight and narrow, and just talked about stories that they’ve encountered and the lore that they have and what tattoos mean. Those things flesh out a character’s life, in a lot of ways. You have to be like a sponge and use what you can and how it relates because TV is fluid. Things change on a week-to-week basis. Those are the things that I do with every character. If I’m involved in a boxing movie, I go see fights and learn about boxing. It’s part of what we do.
So far, Nero has proven to be a good guy, but is there more to him than meets the eye?
SMITS: Well, you’ve heard something about his past and, if you watched those last episodes, he’s revealed a little bit more about what his past is and where he’s come from. He was involved in the penal system, prior to that, so there’s that potential. It’s a springboard for that. Kurt lays the groundwork and then just mixes it up and blows it up, so that nothing is what it really seems. It’s definitely going to take a turn. You can’t have this guy who’s an ex-gangbanger not see a little bit of that come out. It’s going to turn.
Are there any actors on the show that you wish you’d more screen time with?
SMITS: I’m sorry that I didn’t really get to do some work with Ryan [Hurst] because I really, really, really have great respect for what he’s done, as an actor, prior to the show, and how constant he was on Sons, and how much of a rock he was, in so many ways. There’s a letdown there, that we didn’t really get to do anything together. I know Danny Trejo, and I’ve known Benito [Martinez] for years. Emilio [Rivera] was one of the people that I went to talk to about gang stuff, when I first got the job. I can’t wait to be able to do scenes with him. And Harold [Perrineau] is my Brooklyn buddy. We’re both from Brooklyn, so we look at each other and go, “When is Brooklyn going to be on the set?” They’re a bunch of great people there.
With as open as Nero is with Gemma, why don’t you think Gemma is being open about what she has to do with Clay (Ron Perlman)?
SMITS: Because I think that it traverses the bounds of this new, budding relationship that she feels comfortable with. Those are deep, deep, deep wounds that go back ,prior to even the beginning of what the fans know about the show. That’s probably one of the reasons why she hasn’t gone that far. You’ve got to open these things up like an artichoke. It’s got to be little by little.
How have you approached making him so decent?
SMITS: Well, in the framework of all of these people’s lives, people don’t walk around thinking of themselves as bad people. You’re part of the environment that you grow up in, and there can be decency in that. I always try to find a little glimmer of that, in anything that I do, because you can find places where there’s humor or lightness in something that’s deep and profound, and that tends to resonate more and make people more human. As an actor and performer, I think it resonates more with the audience when you do have the payoff. It’s great to be able to play the bad guy role because you always get a lot to do, but I’m always looking at the why. How does a person get to that particular point? It’s those little cogs in the wheel that make it interesting for me to play. Ultimately, I hope for the audience to be engaged with it because it is going to take a turn. That’s going to happen. That’s part of the schematic of the show. Hopefully, the audience will understand why. When you talk about things like violence, which is a guidepost for this particular series, you understand it’s justified.
Are you interested in doing more series television on network or cable, or are you focused on feature films, or is it just about whatever comes along that interests you, regardless of the medium?
SMITS: Whatever comes along. I’m getting ready to go and do a play now, and pilot season will be coming up in January. I’m always sitting down and talking to people that are doing independent features. It depends on the project and the quotient of the people that are involved. There are a lot of different reasons [to do something], like a particular script that resonates with me, in a particular way. It may not so much even be about the part, but what the script has to say. It’s not like I get to pick and choose every single thing that I want to do. There are a lot of doors that still get shut, and there are a lot of walls to still breach. But, the stuff that does come across to me, or that I hear about or read about, that I’m willing to go out there and fight for, I still have to go audition. I do have a certain leeway to choose, from that group, what I want to say, as an artist. In this particular circumstance, I loved the fact that this particular show allowed me to mix it up in a different way than TV audiences have seen me before. For me, it’s just about doing good work and working with good people, and mixing it up and keeping the versatility happening.
What’s next for you?
SMITS: The next thing I’m doing, after Thanksgiving, is rehearsing for a play in Steppenwolf. I’m going to be there the whole winter.
Having been a part of the Star Wars universe with the prequels, what are your thoughts on the Disney purchase and whether you’d like to be involved in the new movies?
SMITS: Wow. That’s interesting because my kids were the ones that told me. They started texting me because I didn’t know. They must be on blog sites, or something. You know, congratulations to George [Lucas] because that was a mega-deal. It’s great that it will live on in a different kind of incarnation. He built that, in so many ways, and not only built that franchise, but because of the success of the franchise, he was able to do so much for the film industry. One of those films was the prototype of that HD camera that we were using. He pushed the envelope, in so many technical ways, and not only with regard to the film industry. He’s got a lot of balls that he’s juggling, so it’s a good thing that he was able to find a way to pass that franchise on. Of course, there are more stories to tell. You look at the 007 franchise, and it’s gone on for 40 years. There are a lot of people that have grown up watching that, so I know that he didn’t just pass that on without a lot of caveats. There will be involvement with George, down the line. As far as I’m concerned, my character was gone. But, if they want to call, let them call.
Sons of Anarchy airs on Tuesday nights on FX.