Jimmy Smits as Chief John Suarez in East New York
Jimmy Smits as Chief John Suarez and Amanda Warren as Regina Haywood in East New York
Jimmy Smits is a lot of things to a lot of people. "If somebody comes up to me now and says, 'I'm a lawyer because of watching that show you were on,' it's like the icing on the cake," says Smits, who won an Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in 1990 for his performance as attorney Victor Sifuentes on L.A. Law.
"It's as valued to me as some young person who's dressed up in all black with piercings all over the place and says, 'Yo, you were on Sons of Anarchy!' Or the person who's into the Comic Con/cosplay universe of Star Wars," adds the actor, also known for playing pimp Nero Padilla on Sons of Anarchy and Senator Bail Organa in the Stars Wars prequel films and Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi. Not to mention Detective Bobby Simone from NYPD Blue, President Matthew Santos from The West Wing and, more recently, Kevin Rosario in the musical film In the Heights. The list goes on.
When choosing roles, Smits says, "It's about mixing it up as much as possible and trying to work with people who are like-minded. That's important to me, because you want the experience to be gratifying."
His current project, East New York — premiering October 2 on CBS and streaming on Paramount+ — has Smits reuniting with executive producers William Finkelstein and Michael M. Robin, whom he worked with during his L.A. Law and NYPD Blue days. The series follows Regina Haywood — played by Amanda Warren (The Leftovers, NCIS: New Orleans) — a newly promoted deputy inspector, and the officers and detectives who are hesitant to follow her lead. Smits portrays Haywood's mentor, two-star Chief John Suarez, on the procedural set in the easternmost neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Smits spent much of his youth.
Here, Smits talks about returning to his old stomping grounds, playing a member of law enforcement and working with Warren.
Can you take me back and tell me about growing up in Brooklyn?
Most of my family that came from Puerto Rico on my mom's side wound up in the Bronx. We lived in the Bronx for a little bit, and Puerto Rico for a while as well. I was actually born in Manhattan, but my formative years, my wonder years, were all in Brooklyn, including junior high and high school. The first plays that I did were at George Gershwin Junior High School, where my love of theater first came.
In high school I quit the football team and decided to go with the drama club, because I had a teacher who really exposed us to professional theater, and would take us on these trips to see things at Lincoln Center.
What was it like to be back in the neighborhood all these years later making this show?
When we were shooting at the New Lots Avenue subway station, two people came up to me and mentioned an artist's workshop I was a part of during high school and college that we called "The Way." This dude said, "Yo, 'The Way!'" It was like, "Oh my God. That's a serious blast from the past." Another person came up to me and said, "My moms went to school with you in Jeff [Thomas Jefferson High School]. We're really proud of you." That kind of thing.
We were in a van traveling to a location, and I'm pointing out, "That's where I went to high school. And this is where I first met a young reverend named Al Sharpton." I'm just reliving my past while I'm going through the streets.
Did your colleagues on East New York use you as a resource since you knew the neighborhood from back in the day?
I've had a dialogue with the producers about different things that stick out to me. Mike Robin directed the pilot, and there was a shot on a rooftop that he was showing me, and he did this pan and focused on the city, with the skyline in the distance. I mentioned to him that I had vivid memories of being on a rooftop and looking at the city like it was Oz.
What's it like playing a member of law enforcement today versus when you played a detective on NYPD Blue?
If some shit goes down on your block, you're picking up the phone, and you're calling 9-1-1. But you have to look at both sides of the coin if the people that are supposed to be your guardians are coming in with pre-existing thoughts about how the interaction is going to possibly wind up. If we didn't have that cell phone footage, George Floyd would've been just another statistic. And Breonna Taylor. You can just rattle off the names. That whole dynamic needs to change.
Bringing it back to [East New York], I think there is room for us to focus on that. That's why I am onboard with this particular group. It means something to me to give back and be part of this show. I had something vested in it, in terms of the community and what we're trying to say in the context of doing a procedural show on network television in 2022. Bill [Finkelstein] was very adamant about talking about everything that's been happening — whether it be BLM or the embodiment of Amanda Warren's character, Regina Haywood, of women's empowerment and breaking the glass ceiling.
What's it like working with Amanda? Did you have time to get to know each other before you dove into filming?
She's a trained actress. She went to NYU, then Yale and has [worked] in theater. I just have crazy respect for her, and I am happy to call her scene partner on a day-to-day basis. The good thing about the pilot is that we did have a little bit of time prior to shooting to have discussions about backstory and just get to know the person — the whole breaking the ice thing, which I think is so important.
William Finkelstein and Mike Flynn are showrunners, cocreators and executive producers of East New York. Executive producers also include Michael M. Robin, Christine Holder and Mark Holder. East New York is produced by Warner Bros. Television.