Yancey Arias is part of a generation of Hispanic actors born in the 1970s and now making its mark in Hollywood with a wide range of movie and TV roles. Actors such as Michael Peña, Jacob Vargas, Freddie Rodriguez, Adam Rodriguez, Kirk Acevedo, Vincent Laresca and Enrique Murciano.
Born in New York to a Colombian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Arias started off as a singer, auditioning for the Latino boy band Menudo at age 12. He was signed to another boy band, Fuego, but it never got off the ground.
Al Pacino’s performance in “Scarface” made such an impression on young Yancey, he decided to try acting. By 14, he was attending Stagedoor Manor, a theater camp in the Catskills whose alumni also include Robert Downey, Jr., Natalie Portman and Zach Braff.
In July, Arias will begin work on “Fire Bay,” a feature film about the Bay of Pigs invasion, in which he plays an exiled Cuban doctor. We had a conversation over lunch a couple of weeks ago...
DAVID MILLS: In the early to mid ’80s, it seems to me that music was an easier path in entertainment than acting. Edward James Olmos and Jimmy Smits were about all you could look at in terms of television. What did you see in TV or movies that made you think you could make a living as an actor?
YANCEY ARIAS: Esai Morales in “Bad Boys,” with Sean Penn. Those two, their conflict together in jail – I just said, “You know what? I can do that. Absolutely. I can do movies. That’s me. I could be the tough guy, I could be the good guy, whatever.”
Watching Esai at his young age... I was in that age range where I could play his younger brother. And there were a couple of Hispanics in that aside from Esai; “Well, I could’ve played that part.” But I wasn’t in L.A., I was in New York. I was just a kid.
After Esai was “La Bamba.” By that point, I was 15. I was the age of Ritchie Valens when he was taking off in his career. I was already singing, doing shows, I had a manager already. I was in the mix. When that movie came out, I went nuts. I was like, “He looks like me! I sing! What the hell? How come I didn’t get an audition?” And I saw that movie, like, 10 times.
When I saw that movie, I was like, “That’s it.” My overall goal one day is to be able to combine my music and my acting in one movie. And it better be a damn good movie, because I’m not just gonna do any movie to do it.
Then “Mambo Kings” came out. You had Antonio Banderas doing his thing. And I’m like aaargh! The lion roar came out. All of these, again, L.A. decisions. I knew that I had to build a strong foundation before I went to L.A. ...
But those are the films and people that quickly sparked in me the need and the fire to make sure that I’m on top of my game at all points.
MILLS: I get the feeling that things are better today than they’ve ever been for Latino actors. Am I wrong?
ARIAS: Things are better, and things are not better. Things are better because now, if you’re an actor, whatever color you are – Asian, Hispanic, black, white, blue, green – if you’ve done some really good work and proven yourself, you will be considered for a role.
Will you get the job? That’s where politics comes into play: How many Hispanics are already in the show? What is the number of people so there can be a color-friendly palette in front of the camera? Do you have three Caucasian actors, one black actor and one Hispanic actor? Do you have two Hispanic actors? Suddenly it’s a different show if you have a certain amount of Latinos in the show, or blacks in the show, you understand? So the politics plays its role.
But at least now, the power of the work that you’ve done before starts to stand on its own in a way that they want you to come in and test for projects.
MILLS: Even if the role is not specifically written as Hispanic?
ARIAS: Especially if the role is not specifically written. They don’t know what they want. You just go in and you do your thing and hopefully you’re the best actor for the job.
In the past, even if it was non-specific, there was no way a Hispanic [would get the part]. It was white or black, there was no in between. No room for Asians, no room for Hispanics. It was either/or.
MILLS: That’s what the ’90s were like.
ARIAS: Today, it’s broader. And I love that. Gives us a shot. At least a shot.
MILLS: Are the types of roles changing? Part of that has to just be a function of being in your thirties.
ARIAS: The types of roles definitely have changed. I’m playing more doctors, more important figures, FBI agents. I think that’s a true sign of the times. Before, we were always the drug dealers, in the ’80s, or the cleaning man or the doorman.
But you know what? Nowadays, even if you’re playing a doorman or a janitor, nowadays that storyline is thicker, and it shows other facets of who that person is, like I played in “Walkout.”
MILLS: Now here’s something that, unless you’re Latin, people don’t really know about. But I’m curious about the color lines in the Latin community. You are considered dark?
ARIAS: Right. To some people I’m considered dark, to some people I’m considered very light. I’m right in between. I’m coffee and milk.
What happens is, a lot of times, for me, I’m either too light or too dark for a certain role.
MILLS: How do they let you know that? Or how do you know that?
ARIAS: If the script is written about a very Anglo, upper-class Latino family, and the description of the character is “light eyes” and “very WASP-y” or what not, it’s very clear that it’s a light-skinned Hispanic. As I read it, I go, “Why bring me in for this, if that’s the way it’s written?” “Oh, they’re not sure.” “Really?”
They’re not sure because somebody in the team doesn’t know – because they’re not Hispanic themselves, they just love my work. They want to see me do my thing, and I appreciate that. But in terms of the Latino community, everybody pretty much knows that if you’re light-skinned Hispanic or you’re mulata Hispanic – like half black, half white – or if you’re Afro-Hispanic, there is a difference.
Today – [from] the mid-1990s to today in 2007 – amongst the Latino community, there is no class difference any more. You can be any color of the Latino gamut and you can be a powerful person. Back in the day – the ’50s to early ’80s – it wasn’t so.
A lot more light-skinned Hispanics were usually the ones who went to the better schools, who had a better shot at life, and had stronger positions and offices. And the darker Hispanics were usually the working class or lower class. Even inside their own countries, not just in America.
So class has a lot to do with it. And there was discrimination in different countries, in South American countries. Slowly but surely, over the years, that broke apart. I think that America as a country did a very interesting job, through history, in making a statement that all men are created equal. And that resonated to the rest of the world. ...
MILLS: I guess there’s also an element of being able to play the generic ethnic type. I don’t know whether you’ve ever played an American Indian, but Jimmy Smits has.
ARIAS: Oh my God, are you like on a radar with me? Last night, Adam Beach, he’s on a rerun of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” – and he’s a new series regular on that show or one of the “Law & Order” shows. My wife’s like, “You could have totally played that role.”
I’m like, “Yeah, honey, I know.” But here’s the thing. He just finished coming out with “Flags of Our Fathers.” He was in a movie with Nicholas Cage, “Windtalkers.” He’s got this great HBO movie that he did about the American Indian.
I was asked if I was any part American Indian in casting [for] one or two of the projects that I was up against Adam Beach.
And I said to my agent, “I’m an American. I was born here, from immigrant parents. I understand the plight of the American Indian. I’m an actor. And I love research. And I love immersing myself into a role so that I respect that culture. What difference does it make? We’re in a whole new time now. I don’t have to be American Indian to go in for that role. They know my work, let me show them.”
“Oh, they’re very sensitive, the producers of this project, to making sure that they’re American Indian.” “Then don’t send me in. And don’t ask me this again, if they’re that sensitive. I’m sure that they were that sensitive back in the ’80s and ’90s when somebody said, ‘Is that person Latino? Oh, they’re Italian? Oh, they’re Irish? Well, they can look Hispanic.’ ”
MILLS: (laughs) Right.
ARIAS: What is this double standard today? We’re actors. Give us a shot. All I ask is for a shot.
MILLS: You played an Asian on Broadway in “Miss Saigon,” right?
ARIAS: And people mistake me for Asian today.
MILLS: Did anybody complain?
ARIAS: At first. When I first came onto the show, people wanted me to be Asian, have a little bit of Asian, were upset that I was getting that role. You understand? The buzz was in the air. But I had the heart and I had the training far beyond their expectations.
And that first night when I came on, I kid you not, in the wings it was packed with all the rest of the cast members and all the crew, to see if I could pull this off.
And I nailed that performance like nobody’s business. And everybody who had anything to say about the fact that I wasn’t Asian suddenly embraced me, thanked me, loved me, and wanted nothing more but to see me on that stage representing that culture, representing that story.
And over a period of time, collectively, audiences mistook me for Asian all the time. I was a very proud and very happy actor to have been able to give that effect to everybody. Because then I knew for myself that whatever I set my mind to, and research and give myself all the possibilities of that role, I can make people believe in that story.