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Prime Time For Latinos On TV
By Bill Keveney
August 26, 2001
When it comes to Latinos, television needs to wise up. While the Hispanic population is booming, making up 12.5% of people in the USA (according to the 2000 Census), Latino performers accounted for 4.8% of that year's small-screen roles, according to the Screen Actors Guild. The disparity is not for lack of talent. Just a few calls to networks, studios and talent agents yielded more than two dozen rising performers, from the obscure to the newly established (Jay Hernandez from crazy/beautiful). USA TODAY talked to four who are poised for bigger things: Judy Reyes, twentysomething, who landed a role in NBC's upcoming comedy Scrubs; George Lopez, 40, who has a deal for an ABC sitcom; Freddy Rodriguez, 26, who works in a mortuary on HBO's Six Feet Under; and Alanna Ubach, 25, who has a role in an NBC comedy pilot called Tikiville.
PHOTO: Judy Reyes, Freddy Rodriguez, George Lopez and Alanna Ubach are four to watch.
If networks are serious about diversifying and luring the growing audience they must find more performers such as Reyes, Lopez, Rodriguez and Ubach. The fact that all have roles or shows in the works points to efforts to bring more Latinos to mainstream TV.
It's about time. These days, stars with Hispanic heritage are big everywhere else. On the silver screen: Salma Hayek, Freddie Prinze Jr., Cameron Diaz. In music: Ricky Martin, Christina Aguilera, Marc Anthony. And Jennifer Lopez does it all. While TV has its names Martin Sheen, Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales there aren't a lot of them. When roles do come up, they often fit stereotypes: maids, gang members and drug dealers.
TV's weak track record with people of color, including Latinos, has drawn complaints, and broadcast executives say they are trying to better reflect the population.
"It's a big ship, and it turns rather slowly," says Marc Hirschfeld, NBC's executive vice president of casting. In addition to Jon Seda, cast in NBC's UC: Undercover this fall, "there's no higher priority for our network than to get another Latino actor in the lead role of one of our series."
Reyes has noticed positive change, at least with regard to her own casting experiences. A few years ago, she went to a TV audition and "the casting director never looked at me," concentrating on the white actresses.
As with many performers, Reyes has had to deal with perceptions of how a Latino looks and acts, even though that description covers a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and skin colors. When Rosie Perez became a star, all Latina roles seemed to be based on her prototype for a time, Reyes says.
"Everybody wanted me to talk like Rosie and dress like Rosie and shake my head like Rosie and wag my finger like Rosie," she says.
When Reyes auditioned for the new NBC comedy Scrubs, the experience was much better. She won the role of savvy nurse Carla Espinosa, a character who could be considered progressive, in comparison to many Latina roles.
Carla is "a highly skilled, very confident nurse with a bit of an edge and a really great heart," says Reyes, who praises the show's writing. "It's a terrific job."
Executive producer Bill Lawrence (Spin City) planned for the character to be a Latina, Reyes says, but not a stereotyped one. Reyes incorporates elements of her experience in the character.
"There's an urban reality that comes with the person I am," the actress says. "You get to see different colors, different splashes of it."
And Carla doesn't have a Spanish accent, the bilingual Reyes says, which is a refreshing change after so often seeing accents automatically tied to Latino roles.
Ethnicity without stereotype
Avoiding caricatures also has been a priority for Lopez, a veteran stand-up comic and Los Angeles radio personality.
"I've spent 10 years turning down derogatory parts ... gang members and killers and all that stuff," he says.
In Lopez's sitcom, based on his comedy work and produced by Sandra Bullock and The Drew Carey Show's Bruce Helford, he will play a married father of two trying to provide the emotional support missing from his own upbringing by his grandmother.
Helford says Lopez's perspective on life, including Latino families, will provide the point of view needed for good comedy. He sees rich possibility in telling stories not told before on prime-time TV.
At the same time, Lopez says, the comedy will have to touch on universal issues for all families.
"We are all just people," he says. "We all have problems."
Helford says the show will have Hispanic writers. Lack of contact with people of color is one reason that many TV writers don't create Latino characters or limit them to roles they are familiar with, such as maids, Lopez says.
That means "more pets are in prime-time TV than Latinos," he jokes.
Getting a custom-designed role
Latino performers describe auditioning for roles that seem like one-size-fits-all, but becoming known in the business can help them get beyond that experience. For Rodriguez, it resulted in a custom-designed part.
He had worked on a sitcom, Oh Grow Up, whose executive producer, Alan Ball, won an Oscar for writing American Beauty. When Ball was asked to create the HBO series, he included the role of Federico, a young mortuary employee who is married, has a son and another baby on the way.
"There were so many similarities to me," says Rodriguez, a married father of two. "Alan said, 'You know, I wrote this for you, right?' "
Now, with a role on a successful series, Rodriguez says he is becoming better known to viewers and within the entertainment industry. That should improve his choice of roles he says he has been careful to be choosy and make it easier to avoid the more obvious Latino characters offered to lesser-known actors.
Rodriguez says he never would have become an actor if a specialized theater program hadn't visited his inner-city Chicago school. Such outreach initiatives, he says, can open up acting as an option for poor kids and enrich the pool of Latino talent.
"In those neighborhoods, people are just on survival mode," he says. "I wish there were more programs like that around America."
Like Rodriguez, Ubach wants to play a broad range of characters. She plays Serena in the movie Legally Blonde and is cast as a Cuban-American character in Tikiville.
As a woman of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, Ubach says she is proud to portray Latino characters and feels a responsibility as a role model. As an actress, she also would like to play other ethnicities. As she demonstrates, hiring actors of Latino heritage and creating Latino characters can be separate matters.
Now, she says, is a great time for Latino performers. "They're more out in the open," she says. "I have recently been going out for more Latino characters. There have been more Latino characters written these last few years."
Ubach also has the benefit of seeing a newer wave of stars, such as Lopez, Hayek and Penelope Cruz, show what is possible.
"They're leading ladies, and they have a lot of power," she says.
Some actors are using their influence to expand opportunities for Hispanics on television. Hayek is producing and starring in Showtime's In the Time of the Butterflies, the story of three Mirabal sisters who fought Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Up-and-coming performers are seeking to have influence behind the camera, too.
Ubach has written a script. Rodriguez has formed a production company, written two scripts and has hopes of directing. Reyes and her filmmaker husband, Edwin Figueroa, have co-produced a short film, Taino, and she hopes to find ways to make TV's representation of Latinos match real life.
"I had years where I wasted my time contemplating the disparity, but I'm in a position now where I can focus on what I can do to change it myself," she says.