Two years ago, a TV writer wondered why Jimmy Smits, “one of TV’s most beloved stars,” hasn’t led a series since L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, despite lauded turns on The West Wing, Dexter and Sons of Anarchy. When I mention this in a small conference room at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Smits says, “Um, Dangerous Liaisons. Mr. Malkovich.” He smiles, looks up at the walls as if searching for the Steppenwolf ensemble member’s photo, then quotes him: “It’s beyond my control.” Within the 57-year-old’s control is Ralph D., who’s the AA sponsor, but not necessarily the ally, of a recovering addict just out of prison in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker with the Hat, Steppenwolf’s latest production.
You requested not to be on our cover; usually we get the opposite request.
I didn’t want to just be about “Jimmy’s doing a play here in Chicago.”
“TV star comes to Chicago”?
Somethin’ like that.
A humble actor. Okay.
Behind every humble actor… You fill in that blank.
For this role, did you talk with people who’d been in AA?
Yes. I like doing research. The research part of a job was the handle that Jimmy found as a young person in college. I wasn’t a great student, but I was interested in this theater thing, and I could spend hours in the library researching why the cuffs in the 18th century had four buttons. It was my handle.
So what’s your handle here?
One of the precepts about 12 stepping and addiction is anonymity, so I’m not one of those actors who, like, every time he has a movie or a TV show he’s gonna give this big reveal about his life or sobriety or people in my life that have been touched.
But I didn’t ask if addiction touched your life—
It has. So I understand it on a lot of different levels, and that’s as far as I’m gonna go. [Laughs]
You’ve said you feel you have to carry a role-model mantle as a Hispanic actor.
[Laughs] This past year we can throw that out the window.
Right, ’cause in Sons of Anarchy, you play an ex–gang member who runs a brothel.
As an artist I want to try to be as versatile as possible. I’ve had the good fortune to play characters that have a role-model thing to them. But I would think now, after 25 years, 30, that the body of work does say something about where I’m coming from. So now it’s not so much about role models. Although this character does have a nihilistic approach to life and he’s very complicated and flawed, that’s a meal for an actor.
So as a culture have we gotten beyond that question of cultural responsibility, that as a minority actor you have to play good guys?
I wish I could say that were true. Don’t let the fact that we have an African-American President—no, no, that’s not true.
At a gala for the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, which you cofounded, you placed an empty chair on the stage à la Clint Eastwood and said to the Obama-chair, “I gotta tell you, bro, you’re gonna need the Latino vote this cycle.” You were right.
It’s fascinating to see something that I’ve heard about for the past twentysomething years really come into fruition in a cogent, tangible way: the sleeping giant of the Latino community in the United States. Now because the population numbers are what they are in major urban centers, we can really have political influence, have influence with regards to the media.
What do you make of this GOP idea of going after the Hispanic vote in 2016 by stressing the community’s social conservatism?
That’s something that they should be shooting for. But the way the vote turned out is demonstrative of the fact that, if you’re talking about sending Grandma back, if your immigration thing is gonna be [Hits his palm with his fist] solid and intransigent, then those other things are not gonna make so much of a difference.
On The West Wing, you played the first Latino President. Do you think if people see images like that in entertainment first, they then can imagine them in reality?
I do, yeah. If somebody comes to me and says, “I’m a lawyer now because I saw [L.A. Law’s] Victor Sifuentes,” it’s that permission to say, “I’m seeing it. It’s possible.” I know it affected me when I saw certain actors growing up. I had a drama teacher that would take us to see plays in New York, and it was seeing James Earl Jones and Raul Julia—I mean, this guy comes from the place my mother comes from. He’s doing Shakespeare right now, and it doesn’t seem to matter that he has an accent.
At ten, you lived in Puerto Rico for a couple of years; you didn’t speak Spanish before then. What had been your cultural identity?
I was listening to the Beatles and the Righteous Brothers. Puerto Rico was Christmas and having people sing navideño songs and family. There was no, like, English as a second language. I was in Puerto Rico going to school, and it was very jarring for me. “Traumatic” is the only way that I can say it. Kids were making fun of me: “Oh, you’re a Yankee.” And I acted out a lot. A lot. But looking back, and through a little bit of therapy, everything I am has to do with that time.
The Motherfucker with the Hat begins previews December 28.