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NBC News: Today

Interview: Jimmy Smits Discusses His Broadway Play "Anna In The Tropics"

December 22, 2003
Copyright ©2003
National Broadcasting Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

KATIE COURIC, co-host:

We first got to know him as the sexy and soulful Victor Sifuentes on "LA Law," then he moved east to play Detective Bobby Simone on "NYPD Blue." These days, though, you can find Jimmy Smits on the Great White Way playing the romantic Juan Julian in "Anna in the Tropics."

Jimmy Smits, good morning. Nice to see you.

Mr. JIMMY SMITS ("Anna In The Tropics"): Good morning, Katie. How's it going?

COURIC: Fine. Fine.

Mr. SMITS: All right.

COURIC: Well, we chatted briefly when you were nice enough to collect toys as part of our toy drive.

Mr. SMITS: At the toy drive. It's been going good. Yeah, I see you have Trump out here collecting toys.

COURIC: Can you believe it? And I got to tell him what to do. It was really fun.

Mr. SMITS: I hope he was giving a couple, too.

COURIC: Yeah, I hope so, too. I wanted to ask him about that, but I didn't want to put him on the spot. So tell me a little bit about how you're enjoying Broadway. Because you've done plenty of theater, but this is actually your Broadway debut.

Mr. SMITS: Yeah. Well, we--we were doing this play at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey before for a couple of months before we made the move. And I--I would just say, `It's just going to be a bigger venue.' But you get on those blocks there, and there's the--the tradition there that's kind of like in this play, too. The play's about a tradition that's--was done in Tampa. And you feel that on Broadway. You--you--it's very exciting.

COURIC: Were you a nervous wreck on opening night?

Mr. SMITS: Oh, it's not so much nervous, but you just feel the excitement of knowing who's been on that block before and all that. It's exciting.

COURIC: Well, tell us a little bit about the plot of "Anna in the Tropics."

Mr. SMITS: Well, first of all, it was the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama for this year. And it takes place in Tampa in the 1920s. And the tradition of the cigar-rolling factories was that they would have these guys come--lectors, that would come and perform mechanization and all that. And they would read current events and novels to the workers. And it's about this small cigar factory and how this guy comes and through reading "Anna Karenina"--Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," he's kind of changed the lives of these people.

COURIC: Would you say it's uplifting, the story?

Mr. SMITS: Yeah. Well, thematically it talks about the--the transformative powers of--of art, and how a--a wonderful piece of art, whether it's a painting or a good book that you read over someone, can really kind of change you in a lot of ways.

COURIC: Now your--your mom is from Puerto Rico, is that right?

Mr. SMITS: Yes, she is.

COURIC: And your dad is?

Mr. SMITS: From Surinam in South America. It's a Dutch colony in South America.

COURIC: So you must have...

Mr. SMITS: That's where Smits comes from.

COURIC: ...obviously been quite enamored of this theme, and it was an opportunity for you to--to play an Hispanic man living in the United States?

Mr. SMITS: Yes, yes, yes. And--and there's a cultural kind of specificity of--of the play in terms of finding out this tradition that I didn't know anything about that existed in Tampa and in Cuba prior to that. But, again, the--the--the chords that this young writer, Nilo Cruz, has written are just really deep in terms of the emotionality and--and just--you know, what--what are can do, how it can change you.

COURIC: We have a clip--a scene, actually, from the play where you're reading to Conchita, who is the woman you end up having an affair with.

Mr. SMITS: Correct.

COURIC: Lucky, Conchita. Let's take a look.

(Clip from "Anna in the Tropics")

COURIC: I understand you did a...

Mr. SMITS: Happy holidays to you, too.

COURIC: I know, it's like `Hello!' I understand you did extensive research, though, for this. How does one...

Mr. SMITS: In that scene.

COURIC: Yeah. I was going to say that's sort of a funny question off that. Like...

Mr. SMITS: That was Daphne Rubin-Vega, by the way, from--who you know from "Rent." Yeah, I went--I spent some time in Tampa and, you know, went to--spoke to people whose families had been involved in this tradition of--of being lectors to these cigar rollers and--and went to some of the different factories that--that are still around there.

COURIC: I bet that was interesting, huh?

Mr. SMITS: Oh, it was fascinating. It was fascinating to know...

COURIC: I bet it smelled good, too.

Mr. SMITS: And--and...

COURIC: I like the way it smells until people light them.

Mr. SMITS: Yeah, exactly.

COURIC: You know what I mean?

Mr. SMITS: Sure. And in Trenton--I found out that in Trenton, they have the tradition--because it was a big cigar hub manufacturing thing there. They had opera singers that would sing to the workers before, these woman who would come and do arias.

COURIC: But that's so amazing. That's so thoughtful, by the way.

Mr. SMITS: It's incredible. It's incredible that--that people, maybe, that couldn't even read were getting, like, "Zola" and "Cervantes."

COURIC: That's wonderful.

Mr. SMITS: It's a cool play.

COURIC: And I know that there was a study done last month, and I think this is interesting given this play. It was by the League of American Theaters. It showed 83 percent of Broadway patrons are white, and only 4 percent are Latino. And so, I mean, is this an effort--obviously, I know in a lot of your work, Jimmy, through the years you've tried to reach out to the Latino community, which I think is wonderful. And is this a way that you're hoping to attract more Latinos to the--to Broadway?

Mr. SMITS: Yeah. Well, we're--we--we do have, like, an outreach person that's dealing with that in terms of, like, discount tickets and stuff. But people shouldn't be afraid to just, you know--it's because they don't know, you know? But the play functions on a lot of different levels, and you will have the Broadway audience that will come. But, yes, we are--we are reaching out because, you know, you want that...

COURIC: Well, you want diversity in the theater...

Mr. SMITS: Sure. Absolutely.

COURIC: ...on stage and in the audience as well, obviously.

Mr. SMITS: Absolutely.

COURIC: But it seems everybody has a lot to gain by going to seeing this. It's "Anna in the Tropics." And what--do you have any plans for after this? Are you going to do this indefinitely, or hopefully it'll...

Mr. SMITS: Well, it's--it's an open-end run, but--it's an open-end run, but I'm going to do a pilot for you guys, for NBC, later in the year. And I'm excited about that.

COURIC: Great. Well, you're staying busy. Well, Jimmy Smits, it's always great to see you.

Mr. SMITS: Happy holidays to you, Katie.

COURIC: Happy holidays to you as well.

Mr. SMITS: Thank you.

COURIC: And "Anna in the Tropics" is currently on Broadway at the Royal Theater.

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