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Speaking With... Jimmy Smits 01.04.13

Jimmy Smits

Jimmy Smits

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‘The Mother------ With THE Hat’

♦ In previews; opens Jan. 5 and runs through March 3

♦ Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

♦ Tickets, $20-$86 (adult language)

♦ 312-335-1650;

Updated: February 5, 2013 6:13AM

His resume boasts: successful L.A. lawyer, New York police department detective, Texas congressman, high-level pimp, president of the United States and Alderaan senator. Ok, so it’s a fictional roster of jobs, but it’s all in a career’s work for veteran actor Jimmy Smits and his myriad characters from hit television series such as “L.A. Law,” “NYPD Blue” and “The West Wing,” among others, and the feature film “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.”

Most recently, the 57-year-old Brooklyn-born-and-raised Smits has done some time on the hit series “Dexter” and “Sons of Anarchy.” But it is the stage that brings Smits to Chicago, for his role as the fast-talking schemer Ralph D., an Alcoholics Annoymous sponsor in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Tony Award-nominated dark comedy, “The Mother------ With the Hat,” at Steppenwolf Theater, directed by Anna D. Shapiro. The play co-stars Sandra Delgado, Sandra Marquez, Gary Perez and John Ortiz.

Question:Chris Rock made his Broadway/stage debut in the role of Ralph D. You are making your Chicago stage debut in the role. What is it about this role that is so appealing for an actor?

Jimmy Smits: Steppenwolf was the reason I decided to jump on the bandwagon. Because Anna [D. Shapiro] was involved and she had done the production in New York. Growing up I’d seen six or seven productions from Steppenwolf in New York. Their whole sense of what a company is, what an ensemble is, truly resonated with me. Some of my best work, I feel, has been in an ensemble setting. So I understand what that dynamic is. I also know some of the members of this production from Labyrinth [Theater Company in New York] and I know the playwright. So I guess everything just aligned. Chicago is lucky to see Anna’s work on a regular basis. It’s great to see her get the props in New York as well. But this will be different than the Broadway production. It’s a different dynamic; different people involved. For Anna and others who were involved in New York, they’re able to look at the play in a new way. To me it’s what’s fascinating about piece of great writing; you go see it 10 productions of ‘Hamlet’ and no two are alike. A good piece of work stands up to that. There’s no proprietorship on good writing.

Q.You’ve worked with a wide variety of directors on state, television and in movies. What’s it like to work with Anna Shapiro?

JS:The best directors in any genre are the ones that have a true appreciation for what the actor has to go through. And they know that ALL the creative people, not just the ones on stage, but the scenic designers and the lighting designers, everybody, they all need different things from a director to spark them. The best directors know how to ignite that spark to get the best performances out of the actors and everyone else. Anna is that kind of director, that’s her strong suit. She has great visual sense. She has a real sense of what ensemble acting is all about, having risen through the ranks herself at Steppenwolf. She knows how each little piece of the puzzle is important. She gives actors their space, but she has a definite vision. She makes that trust factor between actor and director happen.

Q.Is it difficult for Jimmy Smits to establish that trust with a director?

JS: [Laughing] Well, at the other end of the spectrum I’ve experienced directors who never did earn my trust. Ultimately I know I have to give it up. It’s a process I have to go through. Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes it’s not. I have a certain vision of what I want to do wiht a aprticular role and sometimes that vision doesn’t jive with a director. You have to find the common denominator and work through it. I would take a bullet for Anna. Seriously. I’ve totally given it up to her.

Q.What attracted you to Ralph, a guy with a lot of baggage of his own, trying to make sense of someone else’s life at the same time?

JS: It’s an ensemble piece so he’s not the center. But it’s a character in a play that’s haunted me for a little while because I know Stephen and I was aware of this play long before it got to Broadway. I have a great respect for playwrights with a distinct theatrical voice. He has an ear for an urban voice that you don’t hear much in theater. Ralph, all the characters, are so deep in so many ways. The play is a feast for an actor and I knew I had to be a part of it. This character is complex and has a view that’s, well I can’t say more or it would spoil it. He’s good at what he does, helping others maintain their sobriety, but in life you become addicted to many different things as this play points out, through loneliness, be it food, or drugs or power.

Q.Ralph does a lot of talking in the play, but he is also a good listener. Are you a good listener in real life?

JS: I try to be. I’ve been told sometimes that I’m not because I’m very impatient. [Laughs] My patience threshold wanes sometimes. That comes with age and being a little jaded. I don’t think of myself as very communicative. Maybe that’s one reason I’ve chosen this profession. Emotionally, I feel a lot of things, and with the help of the characters I’ve inhabited through the years, that’s helped me voice a lot of things that Jimmy Smits feels.

Q.You’ve done Broadway, Shakespeare in the Park in New York. What does theater do for your soul?

JS: As an actor you need to, from time to time, go back to [acting] 101. It always goes back to that. I love the fact that the process allows actors time to do that. When I was in high school my teachers were taking me to see theater in the park the Public Theater, so when I got out of graduate school it was natural to go back to the classics, which for this kid, who came from where I came from, with no acting experience and no real access to great literature in schools, the chance to do Shaw and Pinter and Shakespeare just gave me the confirmation I needed to succeed.

Q.What did the fictional election of Matt Santos on “The West Wing” teach you about our political process?

JS: The entire campaign process was the most fascinating to me. I think all politicians start out with this very idealized concept of serving the people. But to make that decision to go to that level of the game, there are just incredible steps to that kind of decision, and the deals and compromises.

Q.I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Star Wars.” What’s it like to be part of that dynasty?

JS: I was so happy to be part of it. And recently the news that Mr. Lucas has decided to pass on the mantel is great because the lore will continue. I gotta tell you I spent more time getting fitted for the costumes than I did on screen. But I enjoyed it.

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