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We chatted on the phone at length in what became one of the most fun and relaxed interviews I’ve ever had. We spoke, for example, about how we both got goosebumps when we saw “Spring Awakening” on Broadway — a show that starred Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff of TV’s “Glee” — and how we hope shows like “Glee” and “Smash” will help make stage musicals more popular. (Read my story about season two of “Smash.”)
Speaking of “Glee,” Raul told me about the time he ran into Matthew Morrison (Mr. Schue) — at Target of all places. I told him about the article in which “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy said he would love to cast Raul. Lea Michele even mentioned Raul’s name in the Jan. 24, 2013 episode. (Time for a letter campaign? Who’s with me?)
But mostly, we talked about his recent screen work, including his recurring role on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” his part on a not-yet aired NBC series based on the Hannibal Lecter stories, and the evil character he plays in the independent film, “Trouble in the Heights.”
In “Trouble in the Heights,” Raul is Nevada, a Latino drug kingpin in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. (Watch for my interview with the film’s director, Jonathan Ullman.)
Raul is a Cuban-American, but he has often been told he “isn’t Cuban enough” for Latino roles. This is one of the reasons he was interested in the role of Nevada.
“I never get cast in a Latin role ever, so that intrigued me,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s an easy sell to see me as a Puerto Rican or a Cuban in the Hollywood stereotypical way. And I liked the script. I liked the writing, and I thought it had potential…. Here was a role that had intelligence that was also fun and had qualities I could play around with that was more than just a street corner thug. It was a little bit of seeing if I could maybe do that.”
Another attraction to the role was the freedom that an independent film affords an actor as opposed to a studio movie. “The best thing about a low budget independent film that you’re doing kind of ‘on the fly’ is that you can learn a lot,” he said. “It’s very different to drop into a massive film. I’ve not done a lot, but I’ve done one or two, where there’s a machine that takes over and you can’t ask questions. You’d just better know the stuff, jump in, and do it.”
“I knew that with an interesting role and an interesting script,” he added, “I would probably be able to try something that I maybe wouldn’t be able to try working in a bigger project.”
Nevada is a brutal character, so I asked Raul how, as an actor, he inhabits someone like that. “I tend to work from a place of [thinking] a person like that is angry, and a person like that is very defensive because of that anger and selfish because of that anger,” he explained.
“I’m not saying he’s hurt in any way because he’s not. He just assumes that everybody’s out to get him, so I tap into that deep sort of angry core of resentment that we all have and expand it by 200….,” he said. “And then, you make the cruelest [acting] choice you can think of, which ends up being a lot of fun.” [Laughter.]
Another way he “inhabited” Nevada was external, through the use of a small facial scar created with makeup. “I wanted to have some sort of disfiguration on my face. It barely reads, but it reads just enough to me that it allowed me to do things that Raul wouldn’t do. That’s kind of like wearing a mask, and I think that that’s a very powerful thing,” he said.
He described it as a “kind of ritual” that he engages in to “shock” himself into becoming the character. It’s a device he has used successfully on stage as well. “I did it with this particular character in the film because I thought it’s just so far from me, I need something to shock me,” he said.
Even though Nevada is very threatening, Raul brought a lot of humor to the role. “I always look for the opposite of whatever the scene seems to be about,” he said. “One of the inspirations for Jon [director Ullman] and myself with this character is what Orson Welles did with his villain in “Touch of Evil.” There’s a great deal of humor in that performance. He enjoys himself. He’s gluttonous. So, that was kind of a key in.”
“Look, I’ll steal from the best,” he said. “I was not doing Orson Welles, but I’ll try to find inspiration. And my instinct was to always look for the opposite, and the opposite is how is he funny, how is he friendly? Those things then become frightening in a character like that.”
There is one scene in the film that is particularly harrowing between Nevada and a child. I asked Raul what it was like to shoot such a difficult scene with young actor, Cruz Santiago, and the veteran actor had nothing but praise for the work of his younger counterpart.
“That was all on him, honestly. He really just went there,” Raul said. “I had specifically kind of stayed away from him because he’s a musical theater fan. So, he was already intimidated by me and he knew of me. And I did not talk to him before the takes, and I just kind of loomed in the corners and did not deal with him and was not friendly to him.”
He treated the boy like a professional and just went for what the scene required when shooting began. “So, we just stepped into it, and I got in his face,” Raul described. “I went as over the top as I could go without in any way hurting him, and he just ran with it…. Then, afterwards, we all had lunch together, and I gave him a big hug. And we never had to do that again. And he was sweet and playful from then on out, and I was sweet and playful with him. Talented kid!”
“Trouble in the Heights” is now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, Netflix, Redbox, and elsewhere. It’s an unusual story that is not your stereotypical “drugs and violence tale.” I recommend it and will write more about it in my article covering my interview with the film’s director.
Meanwhile, Raul has been playing the recurring role of Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba on “Law & Order: SVU.” I asked him the most fun thing about working on the long-running TV drama. Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered, “Mariska.” That would be the show’s star, Mariska Hargitay.
“She’s a goddess,” he went on. “She’s a sweetheart, but she’s demanding. She is someone who works very, very hard, and if you rise to the level and challenge her and work with her and play, she loves it. So, it’s inspiring because with someone like that, I feel like I can’t make any mistakes around her. I can try anything, and we’ll just see where we go.”
The part was written specifically for Raul, and he says the set is a very supportive atmosphere. “The show is established, and I have a part that’s being tailored to me with people who are willing to play. And almost every line I get to say is delicious and fun because they’re the kinds of things that I can deliver well. And the character’s such an a**hole, but he’s a good guy. And it’s really fun to play that,” he said.
Barba’s lines are so delicious, in fact, that Raul has been told the rest of the cast likes to read them during script read-throughs when he isn’t around. “People take turns trying to read Barba, and they imitate me,” he said.
Mostly, Raul is grateful for the opportunity. “It’s a hell of a learning experience for me in that every day, I discover something else about what a camera can do and what you can play with,” he told me. “And when you feel like you can do that, it’s an amazing thing to go to work.”
“Not to say that I’ve figured it all out on stage; I haven’t. But I know the stage and how to be on stage in my bones, and I’m starting to get this into my bones, too. And that’s a great opportunity because most of my film and TV work has been sporadic because I’ve been doing stage,” he said.
Raul is also getting more experience in front of the camera in “Hannibal,” a show that’s currently shooting in Canada and also stars Hugh Dancy and Lawrence Fishburne. The problem is that NBC hasn’t decided yet when it will air, so we’ll have to wait for word. There’s a possibility that it will become part of the network’s summer season.
As for the experience of working on this new show, Raul is enjoying it. “Hannibal is the opposite of SVU in that I play a completely evil human being, and it’s a really, really, really creative set because they’re still trying to figure out what they are…. I think it’s kind of amazing, and I hope it does well when they finally get it on the air,” he said.
Besides his work in film and television, Raul is frequently on stage in both straight plays and musicals. He also performs his own concerts (I saw his solo all-Stephen Sondheim concert in California in Nov. 2012) and participates in concerts with others, such as Live from Lincoln Center on New Year’s Eve and the Latino Inauguration concert for the President on Jan. 20, 2013.
For theater buffs, this man is a beloved fixture of the art form. If you aren’t yet familiar with his work, check out “Law & Order: SVU,” and rent “Trouble in the Heights.” Meanwhile, take a look below at his most celebrated stage performance in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” which you can watch in its entirety on Netflix streaming, or plug in his name on YouTube to enjoy a myriad of musical performances.Tags: Broadway, exclusive interviews, hannibal, Jonathan Ullman, Law & Order: SVU, Mariska Hargitay, Raul Esparza, Trouble in the Heights