A shrewd lawyer. A quick-thinking detective. A Star Wars rebel. A United States President. An ex-gang member. A power-broker. Over the course of his 35-year career, Jimmy Smits expanded the world of possibilities for Latinos both on screen and off screen.
Latino attorneys would thank him for his work on “L.A. Law” that inspired them to pursue their dreams. Audience members would marvel at the shocking similarities between his character’s arc on West Wing and America’s first black president, Barack Obama.
Hispanic graduate students would receive a scholarship from the organization Smit founded, National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. The organization would go on to develop talent in rising stars such as Gina Rodriguez and Eva Longoria.
Now, the Emmy-award winning actor takes a turn as patient, level-headed Elijah Strait — a legendary lawyer in the upcoming NBC show “Bluff City Law.” The series will follow Strait and his hot-tempered but equally brilliant daughter Sydney Keller (played by newcomer Caitlin McGee) as they take on controversial landmark civil rights cases.
We caught up with Smits over the phone to reflect on his career, this new role and diversity in Hollywood.
Q: You’ve played many roles relating to law, politics, and police before. How do those experiences shape your role as Elijah in “Bluff City Law”?
JS: They’re all fuel because they all have law or law enforcement backgrounds to them. What interests me about doing this particular show is that the characters in terms of the relationships with the son and daughter and the family are very nuanced and complicated. That to me was a good indication that it would be a good jump-off pilot because audiences can get engaged with each one of those characters and then use that as a springboard to deal with these really relevant and timely legal cases.
Q: What was the research process like to prepare you for this role?
JS: That’s part of the joy of being an actor. It was about revisiting previous experiences I had when I was working on other shows but also talking to the legal people who are the technical advisors on this show, going to watch cases that have social relevance — that’s the fun part of being an actor.
Q: Anything that surprised you in your research?
JS: Lawyers and performers share something in common in the sense that you’re trying to affect a jury in terms of making a decision. You have to structure your presentation to them, the way you put witnesses on the stand, the way you open and close. It’s much like doing a play, it’s very nuanced. It didn’t surprise me but I saw how layered and similar it is to what we do as actors.
Q: In a time like this, where corruption in big companies and the government are ever so present, what does it mean to you to be able to play lawyers fighting for the right thing and protecting the innocent?
JS: You realize there’s more opportunity story-wise to deal with topics that are in the news — hot-button topics things that really are relevant and affect our society. The law has an aspirational quality to it and is a reflection of our society in a lot of ways. Laws that can be passed or struck down say something about our society. To have the chance to voice these stories that are so important to us right now is a beautiful thing.
Q: What is an episode of “Bluff City Law” that you’re personally excited for fans to see?
JS: I love the family stuff that we’re doing. It’s nuanced and complicated because it lays the groundwork for the audience to get engaged with the characters, like them, and try to understand them more.It’s not even so much about the legal cases so much but it’s about how Sydney, who I like a lot, can face a particular situation. How is Elijah going to use his experience to tackle a particular legal case? I’m excited about having that dynamic play out in the show.
Q: Elijah tends to take a more level-headed approach, while Sydney is all fire and aggression. Whose tactics do you relate to more?
JS: Sometimes you could think of Elijah’s approach as more conservative but [they share] the same DNA in terms of their idealism and what is important to them in the law. But through years of experience you’ll know that there’s a time for pushing through the wall and there’s a time to be diplomatic. That’s our differences in how we deal with cases.
Q: How can you relate to Elijah’s relationship to Sydney?
JS: The fact that I’m working with a young actress right now who got a really big break in terms of being the lead of the show — it brings out a lot of paternal aspects of me just in having her navigate this side of the business. I’m very protective of her in a lot of ways and I think that fuels the relationship our characters have as well.
Q: We often talk about diversity in Hollywood, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts about what it’s like as an actor of color on the progress Hollywood is making, and how that has changed over the years?
JS: To me there was always every five or six years where there was a successful Hispanic song or TV show that came out and we would say, it’s our time! What’s happened over the course of the past 25 years is that population numbers have become what they are and we’re intrinsically part of pop culture on so many different levels. It’s not a surprise that we’ve made these really quick strides. But, there’s still a lot to do. With regards to this show, in terms of diversity [I’m proud of] our writers room and how diverse that room of 9-10 writers are, I look at our cast, the diversity and versatility that the cast has.
“Bluff City Law” premieres on NBC on September 23, 2019.