For nearly 30 years Esai Morales has enjoyed a diverse acting career that has played out in film (Bad Boys, La Bamba, My Family) television (NYPD Blue, Resurrection Blvd, Caprica) and the Internet (Los Americanos.) Now the 48-year old Brooklyn born actor is dazzling audiences once again in his latest feature film, Gun Hill Road. In it Morales plays an ex-con dad who grapples with how to reconnect with and love his transgender daughter (played by Harmony Santana).
BET.com caught up with Morales and he discussed his new film, his former Bad Boys costar’s Sean Penn’s work in Haiti and which rapper he’d most like to act with in a movie.
The theme and plot of Gun Hill Road was fascinating to me because it was set in a Latino household. Is that what drew you to the project?
I was attracted to the unique nature of Gun Hill Road, although people erroneously equate the movie to La Mission [a film starring Benjamin Bratt as the ex-con father of a gay teen] and it’s different. [In this movie] my son isn’t gay, my son rejects the body he was born with and that’s beyond gay. We’re talking about sexual identity as opposed to sexual orientation, it’s really gender identity and that’s the difference. This is not La Mission this is Gun Hill Road. It’s an east coast Nuyorican, Dominican, Afro-American look at our own world. It shows you what happens to a family with a father who’s trying to redeem his life.
That set up is pretty refreshing; as well as the fact that the story’s locale is set in the Bronx.
You don’t get a lot of these movies coming out of the Bronx. You get gangster flicks, we get all sorts of cocaine cowboys and king pimp of the city type stuff, but a movie that deals with the complexities of trying to survive in a hostile world? That’s why I love Gun Hill Road because it’s a beautiful, heartfelt story about human beings trying to find acceptance in their world, life and society. It’s nice to know that hood has more than guns, violence and negativity. And how refreshing is it that a white character doesn’t have to laud over us and save us?
As a Puerto Rican actor who has worked in Hollywood for nearly three decades, what are some of the similarities between the struggles of African-American actors and Latino actors?
There are many similarities yet some socio political differences. The benefit of being African-American in the entertainment community is that there's a very sensitized white community that doesn’t want to reoffend their Black brethren, but they still harbor prejudices—they are just are very well controlled, very submerged. In the '80s and '90s I would get Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and other Latin folks asking me to ask Steven Spielberg to tell our stories too, because he had done The Color Purple and Amistad, which had incredible performances and were incredible productions. We [Latinos] don’t get those types of budgets. We don’t get that production value and that hurts because we have incredible stories too. We get small films and when we try to go big it’s always some stupid ass Chasing Papi-type movie, corny ass stuff.
So the great epic historical story on the various experiences in Latino culture hasn’t been told?
Do I have to see movies and television about the English throne or the Holocaust every year? There are multiple multi-million dollar movies with the same backdrop. But our Holocaust—meaning Latino—aren’t ever told. We understand Roots and that experience was mind-boggling and it changed the way society viewed race relations. It was incredibly important. With Roots I was just as proud as anybody else that people of color were getting their stories told. But I’m still waiting for our Roots.
One of the times Hollywood got it right was the film La Bamba; do you have any reflections about making that movie?
It was one of those movies I knew I had to do. They wanted me to audition for the role of Ritchie Valens and I could have played Ritchie and sung the music easily. But I didn’t want to. How often do you get a movie where the coolest character has your own real last name? I played Bob Morales as a cross between my own father—the passion, the fury and the real Bob Morales. I loved that movie. People, kids always come up to me and tell me how much they still love La Bamba.
You’re a noted activist and began your career in the film Bad Boys opposite Sean Penn, what do you think of his work in Haiti?
I have nothing but respect for a lot of what Sean’s done, it’s beautiful. Sean’s a classic bleeding heart liberal, but he knows about things that most folks don’t so he cares about them on a whole other level. I was thinking maybe it's because he’s Anglo. Maybe it’s because he came from Malibu, his father’s a director and his mother’s an actress. He grew up with the cream of the crop, so he doesn't feel what I feel about taking a stand. I applaud his ability to shirk the system, he must feel free to do so. I somehow believe that it would endanger me and/or my ability to feed my family to really speak my mind.
What’s your take on rappers turned actors? Is there any rapper you’d like to co-star with?
Sometimes it’s insulting when you worked all your life, you’ve trained and you see a guy with the latest handle and it becomes,"Chingy wants to do the next Godfather." It’s like, “C’mon now, please! Y’all don’t want to hear us rap.” But there are some [rappers] that are good actors; Mos Def, Will Smith you can’t take it away from those guys. Will is a legitimate actor, he brings it and he’s a professional at whatever he does. I heard 50 Cent is really giving it all, so I wouldn’t mind doing something [a movie] with him or Mos Def.
Gun Hill Road opens in New York City today and select cities on August 12. Click here for the BET.com review.
(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)