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Seattle Times

Actor Esai Morales Traveled a Troubled Road to the Truth

By LUAINE LEE, Knight Ridder Newspapers

April 14, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

HOLLYWOOD--- He ran away from home at 13 and could've counted himself a member of the Bloods or Crips or Los Traveosos. But Esai Morales instead found himself at the High School of Performing Arts.

"The first time I ran away it was because my mother didn't want me to be an actor, and understandably so," he says. "I dread the thought of my own children, if I ever have them, having to undergo the trials and tribulations of this craft."

Morales, 41, is starring as the troubled Esteban in PBS' "American Family." He also just finished a stint as Lt. Tony Rodriguez on ABC's "NYPD Blue."

The actor wasn't a bad boy, but he was stubborn. He put himself into a group home as a voluntary ward-of-the-state after his third flight from home.

"I had a 12th-grade reading level when I was in 6th grade so that wasn't a problem ... ," he says. "Discipline has been my problem. At the end of the day, I'm one of those people that will pull it out of somewhere in his soul even if I haven't prepared. I don't mind rehearsal ... but sometimes the material is good enough to try to get it right the first time. When you don't rehearse and you do that first take on camera your heart is beating hard, different from your character."

While he was working in the theater in New York, Morales would visit Los Angeles to pick up some small parts. He was 23 when he won his movie entree as Sean Penn's adversary in "Bad Boys." But it was his role as Richie Valens' half-brother in "La Bamba" that made an indelible impression.

Morales, who is of Puerto Rican descent, spoke Spanish till he was 5, and was raised by his mother.

His mother still lives in Puerto Rico, but she has forgiven him for being an actor. "When she gets treated almost reverently she assumes I'm doing something right," he smiles, sipping from a bottle of Evian. "When you help her buy a house ... and my mother will not ask me for money."

Though he has a girlfriend, Morales has never been married.

He continues to work in both ethnic and nonethnic roles. He's played everything from Elian Gonzalez's father in "The Elian Gonzalez Story" to an Easter Islander in Kevin Costner's "Rapa Nui" to an Irish gangster in "Bloodhounds of Broadway."

"What works in this town is getting in touch with something that no one else can imitate, can reproduce," he says. "That's your own genius. And it's not about imitating anyone else, it's about getting in touch with we're all looking for the truth. And the truth has many sides."

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