Jimmy Smits keeps racking up the roles
Tell Jimmy Smits he never ages and all he does is shake his head.
“Please,” says the 61-year-old TV veteran.
The actor is starring as a regular in his ninth TV series, 24: Legacy (Mondays on Fox and City). Before that, he was a fan favourite on everything from LA Law to NYPD Blue, with stops on The West Wing, Dexter and Sons of Anarchy.
Recently, he even snuck in a half season on the Netflix series The Get Down.
“I’m always looking,” says the 6-foot-3 actor about good parts to play. “I’ve got kids to put through college. I want to keep working and not just be defined by one particular series or roles.
Smits plays Senator and presidential candidate John Donovan on 24: Legacy. He says he’s happy to be a supporting player opposite young star Corey Hawkins. Formerly on The Walking Dead, Hawkins has the daunting task of following in the footsteps of 24’s previous main attraction, Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland, now an executive producer on this series while shooting Designated Survivor in Toronto).
“Cory is the no. 1 guy here on the call sheet,” says Smits. “I love where he’s coming from. He’s got his head in the right place, on his shoulders, and has an emotional depth to him, so I’m happy right now.”
The series shoots in Atlanta, “a very nice home right now,” says Smits. “I love this very diverse cast and the fact that the women characters are so empowered.”
Miranda Otto (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) plays Smit’s character’s wife Rebecca, who also happens to be the former head of the Counter Terrorist Unit.
The series was originally supposed to shoot in North Carolina, “until something happened there politically,” says Smits.
That something was the so-called “Transgender Bill,” a move by the State to deny human rights. Musicians started to boycott the State, and so did movie and TV productions.
Smits lives with his partner, actress Wanda De Jesus (CSI: Miami) in Los Angeles. He gets that an actor’s life is a gypsy life, perhaps more now than ever before with TV becoming a borderless business. He’s worked in Canada before, including a dozen years ago when he was playing another politician running for president on The West Wing
Production on that series shifted from LA to north of Toronto for two weeks in 2004 as producers sought to re-create street scenes in the wintery New Hampshire primaries. Smits, as congressman Matt Lantos, found himself ducking into pubs in Stouffville, Ont., just to keep warm between takes.
“It is a bit of a shock to be in Canada,” he told me at the time. “I knew the storylines were going to take us north. I just didn’t realize this far north.”
The Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner had worked Toronto before. “Your film festival is rocking now,” he said. “It’s become a barometer for the industry, as well as one giant party.”
Born in Brooklyn, Smits is of Puerto Rican ancestry and spent summers growing up on the Caribbean island.
His Hispanic heritage has been woven into his characters’ back stories in the past. He played a Mexican as the title character of the 1994 cable movie The Cisco Kid. He played Cuban Alex Vega in the 2007 CBS drama Cane.
Smits is proud of his heritage and is mindful he is a role model for young Hispanic actors looking to get into the business. Graduating with a Masters Degree from Cornell University, Smits is a big believer in education as the great leveler in terms of opportunities for minorities.
He feels leading roles for Hispanics on television will come once there is more diversity among writers and showrunners.
“It’s about moving into that other realm,” he says. If the parts aren’t being written, “we have to find ways to write it for ourselves.” Still, Smits is also happy to be part of America’s melting pot. He embraces the colour-blind casting that has been a hallmark of the 24 franchise.
“It’s been part of the legacy of the show,” he says, singling out Denis Haysbert’s role as America’s first “Black President” on 24, a casting choice made years before Barack Obama took office.
Smits also loves that the clock is always ticking on 24. “The whole real-time factor of it injected a kind of energy into episodic television in a different kind of way,” he says. “I really embrace that aspect of the show.”
The gun play and other action elements – not so much. “I’m taking a lot of anti-inflammatories,” says Smits. “I’m just trying to keep up with Corey and Miranda.”
Smits’ co-star Otto says she was excited to hear he was cast as Senator Donovan, “because I think it’s really hard to cast somebody as a presidential candidate. I’ve seen people in the past in films, and sometimes I believe it and sometimes I don’t. But as soon as they said Jimmy to me, I thought that’s perfect. He has the weight and presence and gravitas that you need for the role.”
Smits has played politicians before – just not of this earth. He appeared as Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) as well as last year’s spinoff movie Rogue One. Smits says he was cautious about accepting the Star Wars role.
“I really wasn’t sure about all the dynamics of the Disney thing,” he says, skeptical of the studio that took over the fabled sci-fi franchise. Smits went so far as to call creator/producer George Lucas at his home before accepting the role and asking, “Are you guys really behind this?”
Lucas was, and so Smits was in. Movies, theatre or television, shooting in Atlanta or Toronto, Smits is just happy to keep honing his craft.
“I’m a craftsman, just like the electricians and the rest of the crew,” he says. “We’re all in the crafts business.”
24: Legacy airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on City and Fox.