En español | Jimmy Smits was tired of being a photo op for causes — just another celebrity asked to say a few words and then gently trundled offstage. If this was activism, it wasn't very active. So in 1996, while he, Esai Morales, and Sonia Braga toured with the Rock the Vote campaign, they asked themselves how they could make a difference in people's lives. The answer, says Smits, "seemed like a no-brainer — the education quotient was very important." With that realization, the three, along with attorney Felix Sanchez, cofounded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.
Since 1997, the foundation has awarded 500 scholarships to Hispanics working on graduate degrees in film, production, set design, direction, and acting, areas in which they're underrepresented. Says Smits, "Media images are so important to young people feeling positive about themselves. It bothered me that the images were mostly negative."
Throughout his career, Smits, 54, has shown he's a versatile and substantive actor as well as a forceful and articulate advocate for change, appearing at Congressional Hispanic Caucus hearings on Latinos in the entertainment industry, working with Red Cross relief efforts for Katrina and Hugo, and recording a public service ad for colorectal cancer.
Charitable impulses come naturally to the Brooklyn-raised star. Son of a Surinamese/Dutch father and Puerto Rican mother, he says his altruism comes from his mother and her connection to the church: "If you're given gifts or blessings in your life, it's up to you to help the guy coming up behind you."
Smits's interest in theater began in junior high and gained momentum in high school. "He was very quiet but assured onstage, committed to the character. The role he played was not showy, but Jimmy held his own," says Mickey Tannenbaum, who directed Smits in a production of Ossie Davis's Purlie Victorious at Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High School. "The kid who played the lead was so powerful, it was easy to overlook what Jimmy was doing, but there was this quiet intensity; in the back of my head it was, 'This kid really wants this."
When Tannenbaum took his students into Manhattan to see plays, says Smits, "The people who stuck out were Raul Julia and James Earl Jones. [Seeing Julia] gave me a permission in some sort of way. He's from the same place my mother is from, and the fact he had an accent didn't impede him as an artist."
It seems nothing impedes Smits. For his roles in L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, and Dexter, he's been nominated for Emmy, Golden Globe, ALMA, and SAG awards, winning on six occasions. He's also earned praise for such films as Old Gringo and My Family, and performed in Much Ado About Nothing. Last fall, he starred in the hit God of Carnage on Broadway.
Rodrigo García, who directed Smits in the soon-to-be-released Mother and Child, says, "Actors who are stars bring two things: things they project—and he projects intelligence, humor, a lot of humanity. And their quality as an actor. He still works very hard. He's not someone just relying on talent."
Daniel Swee, Carnage casting director, says Smits "is at ease with himself, simply standing there. That's one of the things that always made him sexy. It's a deeply attractive quality."
He's a six-foot-three-inch heartthrob. But even with a non-Hispanic surname and looks that transcend ethnicity, he's usually cast as a Latino. "I've always strived to keep mixing it up, keep doing different things, and work in all different parts of our business," he says.
He's mixed it up ever since his years in Puerto Rico as a boy. "That was a formative time of my life," he says. "My musical taste, cultural taste, come from that time." So the boy who liked the Beatles embraced El Gran Combo and Trio Los Panchos, and now co-owns the Conga Room in Los Angeles. He enjoys arroz con pollo and Indonesian-inspired Surinamese food. He remains a diehard Yankees fan and displays Delft Blue china in the Los Angeles home he shares with longtime girlfriend, actress Wanda De Jesus. (Smits has two grown children, Taína and Joaquín, from a previous marriage.) But being Latino nurtures him.
In the last 10 years, Smits says, "the Latino population has become such a presence. We are part of the American tapestry in a very profound way, in every area you can think of, and are very significant in popular culture." Still, Hispanics fill just 6 percent of roles—and 5 percent of lead roles—though they make up 15 percent of the population. "Things have changed for the better. But we still have a long way to go."