Students in Brooklyn College’s theater
department were given some practical advice from a pro on Monday
night when Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning actor Jimmy Smits
arrived for a master class.
Hosted by theater department chairman Samuel Leiter, one of Smits’ former professors, the event was held in the college’s New Workshop Theater.
A 1980 Brooklyn College grad, Smits, 48, entered the theater a bit cool and aloof with sunglasses on. But as the overcoat and shades came off, he became animated, eagerly casting about for a connection with his young audience.
"I have a lot of great memories in this room, of taking a lot of emotional leaps here," said Smits.
"And it hasn’t changed very much - the ceiling is still the same," he said with a smile, pointing up at the black, peeling
Before critiquing three student acting scenes, the tall hunk of an actor sat on the stage next to Leiter for an hour, candidly offering advice about everything from acting technique to where to find work.
Smits is now starring in Nilo Cruz’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Anna in the Tropics," which opened last month at the Royale Theater on Broadway. The classically trained Smits is well-known for his long-running roles in two television series, as Victor Sifuentes in "L.A. Law" and as Bobby Simone in "NYPD Blue," and he is respected for his theater work, including a starring role in last year’s Public Theater production of "Twelfth Night" in Prospect Park.
Smits revealed that his interest in acting was born in that very same room, when, as a 16-year-old student in East New York’s Thomas Jefferson High School, a teacher brought him to see his first play. Smits said he enrolled in Brooklyn College as an education major but soon switched to theater, acting in productions staged in that building including a Japanese kabuki play "Terakoya," O’Neill’s "Desire Under the Elms" and Shakespeare’s "The Tempest."
Smits credits Brooklyn College Prof. Bernard Barrow for encouraging him to pursue a graduate degree in acting.
"He told me, ’You’ve shown here an interest in the classics, do you want to nurture that?’" Smits went on to earn his master’s degree from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Smits said he again turned to Barrow, who died in 1993, when he thought he had botched a New York audition for "L.A. Law."
"It was horrendous," said Smits. "I was walking around 30 Rockefeller Plaza saying, ’God, I really f--- that up.’ Then I talked to Bernie about it, and he told me to think about going to L.A. [and audition again] So I broke into the kids’ piggy bank, went to L.A. and got to meet the casting people, and meet [the show’s creator] Steven [Bochco]. If you feel something strongly, keep going at it. So that was my first series job."
Smits told the students that doing extensive research helps him immerse himself in a role.
In "Anna in the Tropics," Smits plays the sexy role of Juan Julian, a lector who’s job it is to educate and entertain - although he manages to inflame the passions of - the workers in a Cuban-American cigar factory in Florida by reading Tolstoy’s "Anna Karenina."
"I immerse myself in research. Listening to music of the time period, you learn a lot. Not only reading books but books of the period - even fiction," said Smits. "This play is set in Tampa in the 1920s, and I didn’t know jack about it. I started reading books about that time, the cigar industry it just got me into this world. I got my ass on a plane to Tampa and talked to people.
"This character reads novels to cigar workers before there was radio - it’s a fascinating thing. I talked to people who were descendants of people who did this for a living. You see films and documentary films that give you an idea of how people looked. I watched a documentary film that gave me an idea of how to wear my moustache. Research is fascinating to me."
Students asked Smits about how he keeps his acting instrument - his body - "in tune."
"It’s always good to keep taking acting classes. The professors may disagree with me, but you could take an acrobatics class," advised Smits. A professor shouted her approval.
"It is important in the literal sense, too, not just figuratively," said Smits. "Take classes for accents or yoga. I’m doing yoga, now, because after two-show days, it really helps.
"This is your instrument so the more tools you have, the more versatile you can be."
In the years since winning his 1990 Emmy for "L.A. Law," Smits has become an icon in the Latin community. On Monday morning he was invited by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to join his New York City Latin Media and Entertainment Commission. Later, at Brooklyn College, a student asked how the actor was able to break barriers and avoid being typecast in stereotypical, degrading roles.
Smits offered a pragmatic answer.
"There are very few people in this business that have complete control in terms of what they do, so it’s a relative thing. But you always have the power to say, ’No’ - always - right? But you also have to put it in terms of the scope of what comes your way. When I’m offered roles that are offensive or stereotypical - I look at my bank account," Smits said with a smile. "You can justify it, right? In one of my first films, [the character] was a drug dealer. Did I say to myself, ’It’s a comedy. I’ll put a spin on it, I’ll give him a heart of gold.’ I tried to do all of those things, but in essence, it was not a great role.
"But I have since been afforded opportunities like ’L.A. Law,’ when I did a role where [Victor Sifuentes] was of Hispanic descent, but it wasn’t the most important thing about him. First and foremost, this guy was a good lawyer. Then we could get into the other stuff.
"But you have to have people around you that support that."
The diverse group of acting students at Brooklyn College on Monday night absorbed the advice of their famous alum, and just maybe their career paths will be a bit smoother because Smits has already paved the way.
Nilo Cruz’s "Anna in the Tropics" plays at the Royale Theatre, 242 W. 45th St. in Manhattan, Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets range from $46.25 to $81.25 and can be purchased online at Telecharge.com, by calling (212) 239-6200 or at the theater box office. Student tickets are available for $21.25 with a valid student I.D. at the box office.
©2003 Community News Group
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