In many of his award-winning roles, including those on “The West Wing,” “NYPD Blue” and “Dexter,” Smits has operated on the enforcement side of the law, as a cop, a legislator and an assistant district attorney. Even in one of his very first roles, on “Miami Vice,” he played a vice detective in one episode of the iconic 1980s crime drama.
But in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” which concludes its Season 6 with a two-hour finale Tuesday at 10 p.m., Smits is firmly in the outlaw camp. He portrays Nero Padilla, a pimp and former gangbanger who runs a house of ill repute near the fictional Northern California town of Charming. His softer side is seen in his relationship with his disabled son.
Smits’ Padilla, whom he calls a “companionator,” made his first appearance last season in Kurt Sutter’s motorcycle gang drama — in bed with Gemma Teller Morrow — and now a good portion of the main action revolves around him. Spoiler alert: With Clay Morrow gone, he’s rid of his main rival for the affections and attention of Gemma (Katey Sagal). He’s also still navigating his relationship as a mentor, protector and father figure of sorts to her son and the MC’s president, Jax Teller.
Smits sat down recently to talk about his experience on the show, and the shifting relationships among the volatile and violent characters created by Sutter. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: It’s been evident for a few episodes now that Nero is feeling a lot of confusion over his relationship with Jax and his affiliation with the motorcycle club. So where is Nero’s head now?
Jimmy Smits: Just where Kurt Sutter likes to keep all of his characters — off kilter. He’s navigating between what the character started out with was with this kind of goal to have some kind of exit strategy, and that’s not working at all, and now it’s combined with this pull between his past and what the characters are each calling the streets and these new affiliations that he has with the Sons, and specifically with Gemma and Jax. So there’s a real kind of pull there. And as in Kurt Sutter style, all of the characters are left kind of off kilter.
Q: So if he does decide to break away from that partnership with Jax, do you think that it will be enough for him to break away or will he want to teach Jax a lesson?
Smits: One thing that I’ve noticed just in watching the shows previous, being in fan mode of the show, is that Kurt’s been really good about people getting their comeuppance and things that you do tend to come back and bite you. That’s been this recurring kind of shade that he’s had going through all of the six seasons, I think, and you’re seeing with the loss of different characters that that is a big thematic force with regards to the show. I do think it’s another kind of deep resonant chord that goes through the show, is that this sense of family and betrayal and what betrayal means when you’ve “sacrificed” something and the person transgresses in a way.
So I don’t know where it’s going. It’s going to materialize in some heavy-duty fashion. But he’s definitely torn right there because, as Gemma has said in the previous episodes to the Nero character, there’s an affinity that Jax has for him. He has many kind of consiglieres in this show that offer advice or that he gets wisdom from in different ways, and I think that Nero realizes that, and with the relationship that has developed with Gemma’s character it’s become even more solidified. But, having said that, his past and where he came from and what all that means is very, very strong as well.
Q: Is there anything about Nero that you added to this character that wasn’t originally scripted for you?
Smits: When Kurt writes these characters that have some grit to them, that are on the wrong side of the law, and when you’re doing somebody like that, even when I was involved in “Dexter” a couple years ago, I’m always trying to find people just don’t do bad things because they want to just do bad things. There’s some kind of reason behind it that they feel justified in doing that makes them feel in their minds morally right. So that’s been a constant with me in terms of Nero in trying to find out what makes him tick.
So I don’t know if because of that there’s a certain vulnerability that came out that I don’t think that they expected, and they’ve kind of been writing to that. My job is just to keep — and we talk about this constantly — is that to keep the edge going with him at the same time, because you want the character as much as possible to be fleshed out. So that’s the whole thing about a television show is that there’s a fluidity to it, and then the writers they’ll write something and they’ll see a spark there, whether it’s, “Hey, I didn’t know that there could be a comedic aspect to this particular character,” and they will start writing towards that. And so then it’s your job to keep things in moderation, too, because you want the character to be as flushed out as possible within the scope of the show.
Q: What have been some of your favorite scenes to film this season?
Smits: The little physicality that Jax and I had a couple of episodes ago was great for me, because I literally and figuratively got to exercise a different kind of muscle. So that was fun to do. And they had some great stunt people there that did a lot of work, and they wound up using not a lot of that. So we really, Charlie and I that day, that was a long night, and fun, fun to do.
Charlie’s work has been really superb, and I really give the guy a lot of props as an actor. He’s the lead on this particular show and the way he comports himself really kind of funnels down. And he’s a very bright guy and loves to talk acting, so there was a kind of good rapport that we’ve had. But when you get involved in some kind of physical thing like that it manifests itself in 30 second of a fight scene or whatever, but there’s something that transpires between the two people that are involved that brings the relationship literally to another kind of level. That’s the only way that I can explain it. So I really feel much closer to him as an actor and as a supporter.
Q: As you continue to delve into this character is there anything that you’ve found that you’ve been surprised to learn about yourself?
Smits: Kurt casually mentioned the aspect of the son, and I didn’t realize where that was going to — you haven’t really seen the kid a lot — but I didn’t realize how important that element was going to be. I just started to realize his essence and what he represents, because of his disabilities, plays so much into where that character and where Nero kind of lives and breathes and the choices that he makes. So it was kind of like serendipity that the make-up artist chose to put the kid’s name so prominent on the guy’s neck and just little things like that that you kind of go, “Oh, this makes sense on another kind of level.”
Q: Fans of the series are very notorious about what they like and what they don’t like, so how happy are you with how the fan reaction has been to your character?
Smits: I’m not really a social media person, so I’m not on Twitter and I don’t have a Facebook page. I’m not down on it, because I really see the value of it. But I’ve been told that they are very vociferous, they really are engaged in the show. And I’m amazed that they’ve kind of like embraced him the way they have, and we’ll see what happens when things turn.
Q: If 2013 Jimmy Smits could talk to mid 1980s Jimmy Smits about like the stuff that’s available on TV today, could you ever have fathomed that this type of show would even exist and that you would be part of it?
Smits: That’s a great point and a great question, because I have traversed a lot of genres and I’ve gotten to do that in the television arena. Certainly like Steven Bochco will say that for him to pitch “NYPD Blue” now on network television he would be hard-pressed to get that particular show on the air. But now, with the advent of cable and such, it’s like different branches of a big tree TV’s become. And they’ve found these great outlets for writers to be able to paint these very broad canvases, as Kurt has done here. You’re getting an insight to a particular culture thing with regards to this motorcycle “club” that people haven’t seen before. So they’re learning about all of that, but they’re getting engaged in this whole thing about family and this kind of like Shakespearean undertones that Kurt has put in there. It’s just great to see that we’ve been able to find these kinds of different outlets.
I’m going to be fascinated to see what happens with the different platforms like Netflix and all of these other stations, all of these other arenas that are happening where people will be able to see television in different ways.
Q: It’s very obvious how much Nero cares about Gemma and how important that relationship is to him, but is it enough to keep him from doing something he may wind up regretting?
Smits: I think you hit the nail on the head right there. What has developed over these past two seasons between these two characters is you’ve watched them kind of do this awkward, different kind of courtship that’s happened. I mean they’re saying “I love you” to each other now, and who would have thought that would have come out of Gemma’s mouth. Not just to her son and stuff, but to another relationship guy. We’ll see how that all plays out. I guess his way of dealing with the opposite sex is definitely very different from what you might normally think of when you think of the P-word, the pimp word. So I think that floods over in terms of the way he deals with everybody, and that includes Gemma.. But there’s a kindred spirit there; it’s no accident that they both have these like cuts where their heart is, and they’re trying to keep that repaired. Since they’ve met, they kind of have found a way to fill in that missing piece, that void that each of them had in their own way. And I’ve liked the way they’ve had to kind of negotiate their lives realizing what each of them bring to the party and they’ve found ways to navigate through all of it.
Certainly it was not easy for me to rationalize in my head how a guy would accept some of the things that have happened to her this season and not go off about it. Again, I think that speaks to the whole process of them completing each other in a way.
Q: When you signed on, was it with the understanding that it could be a multiple season thing or did it grow once you got into it?
Smits: No, when I signed on I really thought we were going to do what we did when I signed on to do “Dexter,” which was like 10 episodes and we’re out. I was surprised that it kind of morphed into what it has. Last season there was a point where I did kind of have to shift gears a little bit, because we started having these conversations about the possibility of staying on. We’ve had many conversations about this in terms of keeping the character’s edge going. So it’s important for me not to become this just kind of like functional character for one specific aspect of the show. I’m not down with that, so we talk about that a lot. Now we’re going to have serious conversations in the next month or so to determine what happens.
Q: So what was it like working with David Milch back in the day and how does it compare to working with Kurt Sutter?
Smits: David has a certain way of working that is kind of unorthodox because of the pace of television, but that man is a genius with regards to what he puts down for characters to do. And whatever his process is, or was with regards to “Blue” specifically, after whatever it was that it took to get to where we got to it was always better. So if it was late or whatever, last minute or on set changes or like that, there’s not a day that I can walk away and say, “Well, damn, we went through all of that shit and look at this.” It was always better. It was always gold, actually. So we had to go through what we had to go through to get to where we got to, but it was always better. I don’t have enough superlatives for the way he has his characters voice their inner thoughts.
And with regards to Kurt, although the shows might be long, and I don’t mind that and FX has to deal with that and it’s great that they give him that kind of leeway, and whatever kind of madness he has you can’t ever say the working relationship on set that doesn’t affect at all. The scripts are always on time, and it’s a different kind of way, it’s more your traditional kind of like what you would expect in a television show. Now the other kind of stuff that happens when they’re in the writer’s room I can’t speak on. But Kurt’s madness is controlled madness, which I like; it’s cool.
Q: Do you see for Nero that every decision he makes now means maybe there can be an end game for him?
Smits: That light at the end of the tunnel that he thought he saw — there’s a realization that he has this relationship now that it’s very kind of real, he has this business partnership with the club and the relationship with Jax and that’s very real, and this tug with his past, where he came from, what the streets mean to him, and that is very, very real. In one of the episodes he alludes to something in a kind of jovial way about it’s the Godfather syndrome, I keep getting pulled back in, and I think that’s very much the case with a lot of the characters on the show.
And we’ll see how the tugs that he has on either side what direction that takes him to, because it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a straightforward path towards the end game; there’s going to be a lot of like curves that he’s going to have to take. And certainly this transgression that he’s found out that happened with the death of that young woman and what that meant to him and what he feels about that transgression with Jax and what that means is going to take a lot of different turns. And it looks like that this underlying chord that Kurt has in his writing about betrayal and people getting their comeuppance and all of that stuff biting you back, that the turn, when it happens, it’s not going to be pretty as far as Nero is concerned.
Q: We were talking earlier about it being a golden age of TV, and clearly “Sons of Anarchy” is part of that. Personally, what shows do you like to watch?
Smits: Since I work in television I check in a lot on a lot of different shows just to see what’s going on in the landscape. So I like “The Blacklist” on network television and “Scandal” has become something that I’ve kind of gotten into because my family is really into it. I saw the first couple of episodes and I went, “OK, this show, that’s good,” but I’ve gotten back into it. And then on cable there’s just good stuff happening all over the place, so I’m a big “Boardwalk Empire” fan and into “Breaking Bad” and love “Ray Donovan” this year. And then I’m a news junkie, so I’m watching my boys on CNN and MSNBC.
Q: You founded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, to promote the advancement of Latinos in the media, telecommunications and entertainment. How far do you think things need to go in that regard as far as Latinos in the entertainment industry?
Smits: I think we’ve made great strides, but it’s nothing for nothing, because it all relates to the fact that our population numbers have increased so much. And with regards to the entertainment industry the bottom line is it’s a business, so the fact that when you look at opening numbers of grosses for weekends in terms of like big tent pole movies and the Latinos are very involved in that first weekend, business- wise it just makes good sense that more opportunities are there. In terms of the landscape of actors since I started out, that has increased exponentially. Because there were always four or five different actors for every decade or generation that you could rattle off names, Ricardo Montalban or Raul Julia, Andy Garcia, there were always four or five, but now it’s exponentially grown in all of the different genres, all of the different arenas of the entertainment industry.
The next move has to be to jump on the other side, and what I mean by that is to be much more in control of the product with regards to writers, directors, producers, studio people. And once we make that kind of achievement, we’ll be much more in control of the product and be able to really tell stories that are much more relevant.
Q: What has “Sons of Anarchy” done for you as an actor? Has it ignited something different in you now for the future?
Smits: Certainly, I’m touching a different audience than I did when I was involved on “Law” or “Blue.” I definitely feel that, and that’s a good thing. I like the fact that this world is dark and gritty in a lot of ways, so that’s accessing something different for the performer. When I signed on to do “Dexter” a couple of years back it was with that kind of conscious intention to take the perceived television image and flip it on its head, and I felt like in a lot of ways we were able to do that and walk away from that experience having done what I set out to do. And this is kind of like I initially went into this with that expectation, and it’s kind of morphed into something else because I’ve stayed on, but I’m happy that it’s worked out the way it has.
(“Sons of Anarchy” airs on FX Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)