When ‘SOA’ creator Kurt Sutter asked the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning star of such TV classics as ‘NYPD Blue' & ‘The West Wing’ to join the cast of his hit outlaw biker series, Smits couldn’t resist the offer to hang with the Charming MC.
During the current, fifth season of Sons Of Anarchy, loyal fans of the hit cable series – that follows the personal lives of the Charming, California-based MC (motorcycle club) and the criminal inner workings of the outlaw SAMCRO biker gang – have been treated to a host of recurring and newly-introduced characters, courtesy of the series' creator, writer, actor and director, Kurt Sutter. Viewers of the well-written, finely-acted and skillfully-directed Sons Of Anarchy have witnessed the return of actress Drea de Matteo as Wendy Case – the one-time, formerly-drug addicted mother of the first-born son of anti-hero Jax Teller, the newly-appointed head of the gun-smuggling, dope-pushing SAMCRO brotherhood of bikers (brilliantly portrayed by British-born leading man Charlie Hunnam) – and have met new guests at the MC headquarters like former High School Musical regular Ashley Tisdale (as Emma Jean), as well as Lost and Oz alumni Harold Perrineau, who portrays the ruthless, calculating drug overload Damon Pope.
Additionally, in a stroke of creative genius, Sutter has also introduced Sons Of Anarchy devotees to the accomplished, masterful acting talents of the iconic Jimmy Smits, the veteran actor of such legendary, classic series as L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and The West Wing. The Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning Smits breathes life into the new character of Nero Padilla, an intriguing and mystifying ex-gangbanger who has a romantically questionable relationship with Jax's mother, Gemma (Sutter's real-life wife Katey Sagal) and an even more ambiguous, potentially dangerous, mentor-like partnership with Jax.
Jax (Charlie Hunnam), Gemma (Katey Sagal) and Nero (Jimmy Smits) discuss personal business in a scene from the fifth season of 'Sons Of Anarchy'
Smit's involvement with Sons Of Anarchy began to take root after a serendipitous encounter with Sutter. The always charming and incredibly candid Smits recalls first meeting the Sons Of Anarchy creator at a tribute ceremony for a mutual friend. "Last year, the DGA, the Director's Guild of America, was doing a tribute to Paris Barclay, who is an executive and does a lot of the directing of Sons (Of Anarchy) episodes and is somebody that I know from NYPD Blue," the 57-year-old, Brooklyn-born actor explains. "He was one of the core directors at (NYPD) Blue, and he did pretty much all of the final episodes that the (Detective Bobby) Simone character was involved in. So, we go way back, and we do have a lot of history together.
"For the event, they invited a number of different people from all of the wonderful shows that Paris participated in – from In Treatment to Blue and of course, Sons," he continues. "Look, people know each other in this business, but they really don't. You see each other at the award shows and stuff, and you end up talking to everyone. The only person besides Paris that I have a comfort level with, who was at the event, was Ron Perlman (Clay Murrow on Sons Of Anarchy), who I worked with on a couple of movies (The Cisco Kid, Price Of Glory) in the past. Ron is a really cool guy."
Jimmy Smits and his real-life romantic partner, actress Wanda De Jesus, at an entertainment industry event
It was while he was catching up with Perlman at the Barclay event that Smits and his longtime love, actress Wanda De Jesus (Blood Work, The Glass Shield, CSI: Miami), were introduced to Kurt Sutter and Katey Sagal. "Wanda, myself, Katey and Kurt spent a couple of minutes talking together," recalls Smits, who starred in Episodes 2 and 3 of the most recent Star Wars big screen trilogy. "I think, in a way, it was out of that little chitchat that the call came from Kurt saying that he wanted to know if I would sit down with him and just explore the possibility of joining Sons, because he had an idea for a character arc. At that time, I think he was formulating what he was going to do for this season and what he necessitated, in terms of the spokes of the wheel of the show. I didn't even know what the role was all about. So, Kurt and I had two or three lunch meetings. I went to his office, he took me around to the set, and we just started vibing about what the show needed and a character that he was interested in exploring. That's the way it all started. That first script wasn't really written yet, and I didn't know what the role was, because he had it all in his head. In the beginning, taking the role was more about a vibe that I had with Kurt after meeting with him a couple of times."
Jimmy Smits as Nero Padilla in 'Sons Of Anarchy'
Surprisingly, it was at De Jesus' insistence that Smits even considered going to his initial in-person tête-à-tête with Sutter. "Wanda was like already a die-hard fan of Sons Of Anarchy, because besides the grittiness of the show, Kurt also writes very strong women characters," he explains. "So, when that initial call came in and Kurt wanted to talk, Wanda was like, 'You've got to do this! I mean, you've seen the show, but you don't know what happened. You gotta go.' So, we started watching that third season, where they did the whole Irish storyline. I think that's when the show just jumped into another gear. It just struck me that the show is very, very cinematic in a way. They're able to do these wonderful things and have a very iconic thing about outlaws at the same time."
Once Smits’ participation in Season Five of Sons Of Anarchy had been made official, the classically-trained actor began to research the type of life Nero Padilla might have had and would be currently living. He delved deep into his character's psyche in order to understand Nero and his motivations. "Research, for me, is probably just as fascinating as being on-set doing the work every day," explains Smits, whose impressive acting résumé includes unforgettable performances in such major motion pictures as Old Gringo, The Believers, My Family (Mi Familia) and the aforementioned Star Wars prequels. “Those couple of months when Kurt and I were talking, I dug up my Mi Familia files, because it was kind of like revisiting that particular character, but maybe 15 or 17 years later.
“Also, I went to interview people who were involved in Latino motorcycle clubs, and I spoke to a number of people who have been involved with the penal system who are now trying to be on the straight and narrow, like Nero,” he continues. “We just talked about stories that they've encountered, the lore that they have and what their tattoos meant, because your body is kind of like a storyboard of your past. Doing those kinds of things helped me to flesh out Nero’s life, in a lot of ways. But, those are the kind of things that I do with every character. If I'm involved in a boxing movie, I'm going to see fights and learn about boxing. It's part of what we do. It’s true that an actor has to be like a sponge and use what you can and how it relates to your character, because TV is kind of fluid, and things kina change on a week-to-week basis.”
Jimmy Smits, at a press conference for 'Sons Of Anarchy'
Not only did Smits land a role on Sons Of Anarchy, but his “ol’ lady,” Wanda De Jesus, also scored a gig on the series – a five-episode character arc as Carla, Nero's brothel business partner and "sister." "I'm very happy that it's all worked out the way it has," confesses Smits, who has also made appearances in such small screen cult classics as Pee Wee's Playhouse and the infamous Cop Rock. Although the characters of Nero and Gemma have shared several intimate scenes together during Season Five – and one unforgettable sequence in which an emotionally betrayed Carla (De Jesus) tried to force Nero (Smits) and Gemma (Sagal) into having sex in front of her – Smits confesses that there is absolutely no off-screen emotional discomfort or awkwardness between he and his romantic partner of nearly thirty years, because of his pretend intimacy with Sagal. Actually, he says that DeJesus' presence on the SOA set has had nothing but a positive affect on his performance.
Gemma (Katey Sagal) and Nero (Jimmy Smits) talk about their relationship in a scene from the fifth season of 'Sons Of Anarchy'
"Look, we're professional actors, this is what we do," offers Smits, whose post-Wing Wing television and cable work has included a season on Dexter and lead roles in two phenomenal, but short-lived, network series – Cane and Outlaw. "Sure, maybe in the beginning – maybe the first time Katey, Wanda and myself rehearsed that scene, it was a little strange. But, in a way, I thought it was really cool because the trust quotient is much higher because we all have another layer going on. I think we were able to hit, as actors, some really deep emotional chords in that particular scene – some of which are on the editing floor – but, be that as it may, we were able to feel those emotional chords because of the real relationships between us."
Jax (Charlie Hunnam) and Gemma (Katey Sagal) in 'Sons Of Anarchy'
Most of the actors who have long inhabited the fictional town of Charming, California have been on Sons Of Anarchy ever since the show's inception. According to Season Five guests, Tisdale, Perrineau and Smits, they are a close-knit bunch, but an incredibly warm and friendly one. From the moment he stepped on the SOA set to begin filming his scenes as Nero, Smits says that each and every member of the cast welcomed him with open arms and treated him like a long lost friend. "I love those guys, but they really are a very, very, very tight family," Smits says of his Sons Of Anarchy brethren. "Without going into a lot of detail, that whole plot thing that happened with Opie's character (Ryan Hurst), his murder, was interesting to watch. I was on the outside looking in and just trying to do my job there. But, Opie's murder had a real impact on the other actors. I mean, it was very emotional for that whole group, even during the read-throughs and those couple of weeks when the final decisions were being made (about Hurst leaving the series for good). Like I mentioned, they're a very, very tight group that have certain dynamics, like every family does, but they treated me like I was part of the family, without any hesitation. I'm just very proud to have worked on the show, this season, and was able to give my own little contribution to it."
Jax (Charlie Hunnam) and Nero (Jimmy Smits) discuss personal and business matters in a scene from 'Sons Of Anarchy'
To date, Nero has appeared to be more of an ally, than an enemy, to Jax and SAMCRO. In fact, Nero has offered Jax some incredibly sound advice on how he should handle some of club’s more tenuous affairs – much like a surrogate father or concerned mentor would. Consequently, Smits likens the son (Jax), mother (Gemma) and stepfather (Clay) trinity at the core of Sons Of Anarchy to the powder keg-like familial triangle depicted in one of William Shakespeare's greatest and most tragic dramas. "There's almost like a classic thing going on with Sons, it's almost like Hamlet," observes Smits, who will begin working on the new play, The MotherF**ker With The Hat, for Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre after he wraps up his commitments to this season of SOA. "When you see Sons, it's like you're watching a production of Hamlet play out, because you have a lot of insights into this group but you don't really know about them. They're not like doctors or cops. It's a world you don't really know that much about, and there's a hierarchy of power, and there's people that are vying for that power, and there are families who drive the action. Believe me, it's a lot like Hamlet, in so many ways.
Charlie Hunnam portrays Jax, the new head of SAMCRO in the fifth season of 'Sons Of Anarchy'
"If you know Hamlet, there's a character named Horatio, who is kind of on the side of helping Hamlet try to decipher all of these feelings that he's having," continues the Shakespeare In The Park graduate. "And, I think that there are a number of different Horatios in the scheme of the Sons world. Opie played that in a way, but Pope (Perrineau) and Nero are both vying, in their own ways, to help Jax in his dilemma of where he is going to take this group. Pope and Nero both have different ways of how to deal with power and ideas on how to get what you need and move on."
Harold Perrineau portrays drug lord Damon Pope in the fifth season of 'Sons Of Anarchy'
Even though Nero has thus far proven to be someone Jax can rely on, Smits confesses that there is a dark, treacherous side of Nero that is about to surface in upcoming episodes. "A turn is going to happen real soon with Nero," Smits forebodingly confesses. "Kurt used to talk to me about Nero always having an exit strategy. At the moment, in regards to Jax, Nero operates in that sphere as a mentor, as a friend and as a bro. But, things always change very quickly, and dramatically, in Kurt's world. It always does. He kind of blows up a lot of things on purpose to keep the characters totally off-kilter, so that they can go on to the next decision.
Jimmy Smits in a promo ad for 'Outlaw'
“Viewers have already heard something about Nero’s past, the little things that he's talked about, and I think if you watched the last few episodes, he's revealed a little bit more about what his past is and where he's come from,” Smits adds. “You know that he has been involved in the penal system prior to meeting the Sons. So, there's that potential that's there – it's a springboard for that. Again, I'm going to go back to what I think is Kurt's strong suit in terms of writing; he lays the groundwork and then just mixes it up, blows it up – however you want to put it – so that nothing is what it really seems. For each episode, we always feel like we're on the edge of our seats when we get that first draft of the script. Before you open it up, it's like, ‘We know something bad is going to happen... Who's going to take the bullet? What's in Kurt’s mind this week?"
Jimmy Smits as Alex Vega in 'Cane'
Abiding by Sutter’s general gag order to remain silent about the details of Nero’s ultimate endgame, Smits apologizes for not being able to reveal if he will be returning as Nero for Season Six. “You'll find out soon enough, the turn is going to happen real soon,” he cautions cryptically. “After the turn happens, we'll see. Whatever happens will probably come as a shock to most fans, because, so far, Nero’s been a pretty decent guy, but he does seem like a bad guy. Of course, people don't walk around thinking of themselves as bad guys. You're part of the environment that you grow up in, the socialization, and in that there can be decency. I always try to find a little glimmer of that in anything that I do because I think that those little glimmers – finding places where there's humor or lightness in something that's deep and profound – tend to resonate more and makes people more human.
Jimmy Smits with Michael C. Hall in a scene from 'Dexter'
“As an actor and a performer, I think that resonates more with the audience when you do have the turn and the payoff,” he continues. “It’s always great to be able to play the ‘bad guy’ role, because you always get a lot to do. But I'm always looking at the why. ‘How does a person get to that particular point?’ It's those little cogs in the wheel that make it interesting for me to play. Ultimately, I hope for the audience to be engaged with it, because it is going to take a turn. That's going to happen. That's part of the schematic of the show, right? So, hopefully the audience will understand why. When you talk about things like violence and all of that, which are guideposts for this particular series, you understand it's kind of justified more. I can only say that I think the turn will involve some weaponry.”
Jimmy Smits as Matthew Santos and Alan Alda as Arnold Vinnick in the iconic presidential debate from Season 7 of 'The West Wing'
Can Smits at least reveal if he’ll be riding a motorcycle if Nero is coming to aid Jax or while he’s trying to hasten the SAMCRO leader's demise? “Don’t even talk to me about motorcycles, because that’s a touchy subject with me,” he says half-jokingly, followed by a good-natured laugh. “After my initial meeting with Kurt, the first thing I did was I started doing my motorcycle research, and I got my motorcycle license. So, I'm riding with my stand-in, who's been my stand-in for twenty years, and I'm getting myself all geared up for this. When it was decided that I was going to do Sons Of Anarchy, Kurt was like, ‘Okay, so before we continue these conversations, know that we're not talking about you riding bikes.‘ And I'm like, ‘Oh no, I just got my license.’ I was heartbroken.
Jimmy Smits with Dennis Franz from the classic cop series 'NYPD Blue'
“But who knows, a Vespa might be in Nero's future,“ Smits jokes. “Who knows? Albeit to say, to be honest about this thing, I knew that motorcycles weren't going to be involved with regards to this character. But in my heart, I've been riding them, hard, and that's just the actor in me. I mean, if I'm going to be in a Western, even if I'm going to be riding the stagecoach wagon, I'm going to learn about the horses. I have to do that just in case somebody on Sons says one day, ‘You know, maybe if Nero got on one of the bikes that fell...’ and then I'll go, "Duh. I can't ride. I don't know how to ride!’ So, I'm ready. If it happens, I'm ready – even if I have to ride a Vespa in Sons Of Anarchy, I'll be ready.”
Jimmy Smits played Victor Sifuentes on 'L.A. Law'
Although his character will probably never be seen on a motorcycle, riding alongside the members of SAMCRO, and, even worse, while this may be the one and only season of Sons Of Anarchy that we see Smits as Nero Padilla (Sutter insists the series will only run for seven seasons before calling it a day), the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winner says he already feels satisfied about having been a small part of Sutter’s twisted, brutal world of fictional outlaw bikers. “We're so very, very happy that – with this season – the loyal fan base that has been around has grown exponentially,” Smits contently admits. “It’s been a real treat and honor to hear all of the wonderful things that we talked about around the table when we're reading new scripts or when the guys were out there in the grittiness of the motorcycle deserts riding around. The show has grown even more popular, so everybody's really happy with that – especially me. However, with that comes a kind of responsibility, not only to the show’s loyal fan base, but to the new folks that are around who are watching it, to keep on doing it better and better. So, everybody's conscious of the fact that we've got to keep upping the ante and keep raising the bar to make Sons Of Anarchy the best show on television.”
Ron Perlman as Clay Murrow on 'Sons Of Anarchy'
Assuming Smits will not be making it back for Season Six of Sons Of Anarchy, he plans to keep on doing the best projects available in order to keep honing his already flawless acting abilities. “I'm getting ready to go and start rehearsing this Steppenwolf play (The MotherF**ker With The Hat), right after Thanksgiving, and then pilot season will be coming up in January, so I've got to ready for it,” Smits says of his plans for any post-SAMCRO future. “Plus, I'm always sitting down and talking to people that are doing independent features. What I end up doing next all depends on the project and the quotient of the people that are involved with it. I’ll choose to do something for a lot of different reasons. Usually, it’s a particular script that resonates with me in a particular way, maybe not so much even the part, but what the script has to say.
Jimmy Smits portrays ex-gangbanger Nero Padilla in the fifth season of 'Sons Of Anarchy'
“Also, you have to know that a lot of what’s next has to do with what comes on your plate, because it's not like I get to pick and choose every single thing that I want to,” Smits continues. “There are a lot of doors that still get shut, and there are a lot of walls to still breach, in a lot of different ways. But the stuff that does come across to me or stuff that I hear about or read about that I like, well, I'm willing to go out there and fight for an audition – I still have to go audition and do all of that. But, I do have a certain leeway to choose from that group what I want to say as an artist. In this particular circumstance, with Sons Of Anarchy, I loved the fact that this particular show allowed me to mix it up in a different way than what TV audiences have seen me do before. This was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of job for me, and I will always be thankful to Kurt and the guys for letting me share it with them. More than anything, getting to do Sons has taught me one big lesson – to go to every Hollywood party they throw, because I never know who’ll I’ll meet that will offer me a great job like Sons. There’s a whole lot of holiday parties coming up, so we’ll see what happens.”
Sons of Anarchy: Season Five episodes air on Tuesdays at 10:00pmEST/9:00pmCST on the FX Network in the States. If you miss an episode, you can always catch it on the FX’s Official Sons Of Anarchy Site @ www.fxnetworks.com/shows/originals/soa/ However, some countries are behind a season or two, so check your local listings for days and show times.
ON THE INTERNET: If you’d like to see more of Smits’ in his various past projects, head to YouTube to watch: The Sons Of Anarchy "Before The Anarchy" featurette with Jimmy Smits on the character of Nero Padilla @ http://youtu.be/_2L0jVhwGFM * Jimmy Smits at the Sons of Anarchy Premiere @ http://youtu.be/O3kYWNmoBds * A Behind-the-Scenes featurette about the making of the intense, but short-lived series Cane @ http://youtu.be/Y9AYQFoRET4 * Smits talking about his appearance on Dexter @ http://youtu.be/GWbVxHQmVX4 * The West Wing: Season Seven debate between the presidential candidates played by Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda @ http://youtu.be/zTFp7WG9J-E * Detective Bobby Simone's NYPD Blue death sequence @ http://youtu.be/bzK31Qf8SOw * The 1996 Golden Globes ceremony where Jimmy Smits gives his Best Actor speech after winning the award for his work on NYPD Blue @ http://youtu.be/hJrslWm_JBY * Attorney Victor Sifuentes (Smits) is asked to defend Donald Duck in a scene from L.A. Law @ http://youtu.be/D9WefvnzofE