A great example of this is Yul Vázquez. You’ve undoubtedly seen him before, whether it be as part of the cast of Steven Soderbergh’s award-winning crime drama Traffic, playing a Cuban gangster in Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II, as Julia Roberts’ ex-fiance in Runaway Bride, or in his recurring role as Bob, the Hispanic homosexual, on the sitcom “Seinfeld.”
In the last year, Vázquez has been making the move from being a bit player to taking on more prominent supporting roles and even leads in a number of movies, whether it be reuniting with Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro in the Che Guevara biopic Guerilla or playing Russell Crowe’s fellow cop in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster or playing the lead in the indie horror movie Southern Gothic.
So sit back as ComingSoon.net gets to pretend we’re James Lipton on “Inside the Actors Studio,” by speaking with an actor who has been making movies for years, but is still fresh enough that people will think he came from out of nowhere when he starts getting attention for these and other movies.
ComingSoon.net: You’ve been in so many great movies and you have such an interesting back story. Can you talk a bit about your acting background? You actually started off as a guitar player, right?
Yul Vázquez: I was in a band called Diving for Pearls and they were signed to Epic Records, and we got dropped from Epic, and we were trying to get a new deal. The singer in the band, his girlfriend worked for a talent agency, and I think they were casting “The Doors.” I had actually acted as a little kid, because my mother was an actress for many, many years, so just by default, if they were doing a play and there was a little kid in it, they would throw me in there, reluctantly. His girlfriend said to me, “Why don’t you come and meet with my boss?” So I just went over there and met this woman by the name of Holly Lebbit, and she basically said to me, “I would be your agent,” which is kind of wild because it’s so hard for actors to get agents.
CS: How old were you at that point?
Vázquez: I was probably about 23. This was here in New York. We talked and she said to me, “Why don’t you take an acting class?” which was actually a great thing, so she set me up with five teachers and the last one I met with was a guy by the name of Bill Esper, and I took his class. I was a guitar player with really long hair, and the guys in the band, they weren’t real keen on me taking the class. We were basically a band that was trying to get a deal, so I left the band, ’cause I was really loving this acting class, and I was getting a lot out of it emotionally. It was really fulfilling. Six months later, I had my first job, which was “The Mambo Kings.” I went out to Los Angeles, they cut all my hair off, and I haven’t looked back since.
CS: Since then you’ve done so many movies and then went back into stagework, but it’s amazing that your first professional acting job was a movie, which is kind of opposite how it usually happens.
Vázquez: That’s interesting. Somebody else mentioned that to me. My life is a very interesting thing because I’ve never done anything by the rules, so I think what I’ve come to learn is that everybody has their own path, and the key is to just accept the path that has been chosen for you, embrace it and just roll with the changes in it. I started in a movie, and then I came back and I joined this theatre company. I’m actually one of the founding members of this company (Labyrinth Theatre Company).
Vázquez: I’ve been incredibly busy. I’m doing “American Gangster” right now, which is a Ridley Scott film, and I’m on that until November, and “Southern Gothic” is a film that I’m the lead in. I think that’s going to be very, very cool. I also have a movie coming out called “Music Within,” where I play this Vietnam vet, so it’s really diverse and interesting sort of things. I’m also working on the Soderbergh film, the Che Guevara movie. We shot a week on it. The situation with that is that Steven had a very small window of one week to shoot inside the General Assembly of the U.N. before they remodeled it. So we shot one week, but he had to shut the movie down because he had to go into “Ocean’s 13.” He had things that were already on the schedule. We continue with that in the spring of next year, probably outside the country somewhere, I’m not quite sure where.
CS: It must have been nice to be reunited with Benicio in another movie directed by Steven after being in “Traffic.”
Vázquez: You know what? It was great. Those guys were amazing. They’re excellent people, and Steven is one of the most incredible directors I’ve ever worked with. He’s always 20 steps ahead of everything. It’s amazing just watching him. He’s so clear on what he needs, what he shoots, and it’s amazing to watch him work.
CS: When you’re on set working with someone like Soderbergh or Ridley Scott, are you able to watch them work and learn stuff just by being on set?
Vázquez: You do. There’s so much going on in these movies, but you’re really kinda concentrating on what you have to do. It’s different than when a guy will trail a director, like young directors who are fortunate enough to get involved in a situation where they basically just come to set and watch him. All eyes on him. That happens a lot in TV shows, but I’m concentrating on what I have to do, so it’s hard, but you do learn a lot of things, even sometimes by osmosis. It’s in the air, and you’re watching choices of lenses. It’s great, because I actually think I would like to one day direct something.
CS: So who are you playing in “American Gangster”?
Vázquez: Russell Crowe plays a cop, and it’s kind of like a “Bad Boys II” role where I’m one of the guys on his team, and I think this is going to be an incredible film now. They’re already a month into it, so it’s very complex movie to shoot. Lots of pieces and lots of locations. It’s quite daunting actually, to watch Ridley put this whole thing together is pretty incredible.
CS: And because it’s being filmed in New York, you always have an automatic audience, like being on stage.
Vázquez: (hearty laugh) We were shooting in Bushwick, Brooklyn on a street corner under the “L,” and I can’t even tell you how many people would walk up, ride their bicycles into the shot and start screaming. It was wild.
CS: Is this a modern day story or is it set in the past?
Vázquez: No, it’s ’60s and ’70s. It’s such a great time period and it’s such a colorful time period, especially in New York. That time I think was an exciting time in the city. I mean, I wasn’t here then, but from the pictures I’ve seen, and the history
CS: I wasn’t here either. Now “Southern Gothic” is also an interesting role, because it’s a horror movie with vampires. Is that a completely independent movie?
Vázquez: It is an indie. It’s interesting because it’s not just a horror movie. It’s a film that literally has one foot in the arthouse world and one foot in the slaughterhouse world. It’s a new director, this guy Mark Young, very smart visually-oriented guy. He was incredibly clear on what he wanted to do on this film. One of the things that impressed me about Mark when I met him the first time the whole movie was storyboarded, so he had a very clear idea of how it was going to look. The way he’s lit it, and the whole look of the film is very arthouse. It’s a dark movie, and it’s an excellent story. I’m very excited about that.
Vázquez: He’s editing now. I think they’re looking at Sundance for that, but I had done a film called “Music Within” and it’s the same producer, who asked me to come in and do “Southern Gothic,” so it was nice to work with him again. His name is Frank Vicolo, he’s got a lot of stuff going on and he’s very clever. It’s definitely an indie movie, which I love doing. There’s a great feel to them.
CS: I was looking at the cast for “Music Within” and that really seems like it could be a strong movie.
Vázquez: That’s the other period piece [I’m doing]. That’s a very interesting film, that’s the story of the guy who created the American Disabilities Act. He’s still alive, he was a Vietnam vet who comes back deaf and tries to go to college, and he’s basically told, “How can you go to college? You’re deaf.” He begins to realize that he has all these vet friends, like I play this guy who is a very close friend of his who comes back without a leg. He realizes that all these guys are rotting, because nobody will hire them because they’re disabled. He begins to realize how screwed up the world is for people who are disabled. Then he begins to find jobs for his friends, ’cause he’s a very smart guy and a great speaker. That’s basically that story. That movie’s going to be very, very cool.
CS: I seem to have caught you at a good time, because you seem to be on the cusp of going from bit parts to being the lead and the co-lead in movies.
Vázquez: You know, I’ve always tried to look at things as just what the part was. I never tried to worry about whether it was the lead or not the lead, because I think you can really mess your mind up when you’re too caught up in those things. I’ve had an incredibly interesting career. If I died tomorrow, I’ve done a lot, so I try to stay focused on what’s in front of me.
CS: Do you have any advice for other actors, especially young Latino actors, because there aren’t a lot of great roles out there, but you seem to have found them.
Vázquez: It’s funny, because I’ve never thought of myself as a Hispanic actor, like in “American Gangster,” I’m playing an Italian. I’ve always been fortunate enough to have been allowed to play all these diverse roles. My advice to young actors is probably to do some theatre, definitely do that. I keep running into these actors who have never been on stage, and it’s invaluable for an actor. What you will learn about yourself is huge.
CS: Did you find that doing stage work yourself was a bit of a turning point in terms of how you approached roles?
Vázquez: Yeah, I think that a play is a huge commitment, and I think that what it requires of you is a lot, so it really makes you dig in and find things, and it just makes you sharp, ’cause it’s live. Really, to me, it separates the men from the boys. I always say it’s like the frontlines of acting, when you’re on stage. I love doing it. Some people just aren’t interested. It just doesn’t interest them, and I guess that’s cool, too. I think it just hones you, makes your chops sharp.
CS: How do you feel about how Hispanic or ethnic characters are portrayed in movies and TV, particularly when you’re asked to do more pronounced accents like your character in “Bad Boys II”?
Vázquez: Well, that was a case where yeah, that was what [Michael Bay] wanted. I have no problem with that, ’cause there are people in the world with accents. That doesn’t really bother me. It’s when the accent is bad that I have a problem. If I hear the accent and go “that’s terrible.” It’s funny, because I think that if I have any accent, it’s a New York accent.
Vázquez: What’s interesting about Bob was that it was not written the way that I did it. When I walked in and did it that way–and what I’m basically doing is an impersonation of my mothermy mother is very intense and in your face. I read this character and went, “That would be really good” so I did that for Jerry [Seinfeld] and Larry [David] in the room. I remember the first time I did it, they just looked at me like, “What the f*ck was that!?” Jerry just started laughing and he was like, “That’s crazy, man!” So they really dug it. I did three of those. That was an amazing thing to do, to have a recurring character on that show and to work with those guys. That show was such a well-oiled machine, it was incredible, executed bum-bum-bum they had their steps so together. They’re also all just very nice people to work with.
CS: You’ve been jumping a lot between doing TV and movies and in the last few months, stagework. Do you have a preference at this point or do you just like the variety?
Vázquez: I like films and stage. I haven’t done TV in a while, actually. It’s not that I don’t like TV. It’s just that sometimes, unfortunately, it’s not great. I’d love to do a TV show that was well-written and shot in an interesting way. There was a TV show that was on HBO that I loved called “Carnavale.” I thought that was really clever and it dealt with a lot of things that I’m personally into, a lot of mysticism and that type of esoteric world. That would be interesting to do something like that. There are a lot of interesting TV shows out there, most of them are on cable, not on network.
CS: Living in New York, do you find you have enough work here or do you always feel like going out and doing the “L.A. thing”?
Vázquez: I go where I need to go. I love living here. I have nothing against Los Angeles, I just prefer my life here. I feel more like an artist here than in Los Angeles. It’s funny, I was just in L.A. working. I just finished a film there a few weeks ago called “The Take,” and I was actually traveling back and forth, doing that and coming here and doing “American Gangster” and then going back. It was a tough week where everything overlapped. My first day on “American Gangster,” actually I had worked on L.A. on a Wednesday and I took the red eye and I went right to set on Thursday morning from the airport. That was a little intense. I just like it here. I think you know what I’m talking about. It’s amazing. I love going away and I love coming home, and all my close friends are here. It’s just nice here.
You might have to wait a while to see some of Yul Vázquez’s upcoming movies, but here at ComingSoon.net, we think he’s an actor to keep an eye out for, whether it’s in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, Steven Soderbergh’s Guerilla or the indies Music Within and Southern Gothic, which are likely to be playing the festival circuit next year.