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Jimmy Smits Talks About Dad Love ‘In The Heights’ and (Maybe) Returning to ‘Star Wars’

"I felt like I understood what that journey was for that small businessman, immigrants, with the same dream to do better for their family."

Credit: HBO

In the Heights is a candy-coated, hopeful, toe-tapping romance-drama-musical that also breathes enough to dig a little deeper, touching on identity, dreams realized and dashed, and the magnetic grip of community and family. Moviegoers – whether they see the cinematic adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage show in theaters or at home on HBO Max – spend time with the young main characters, but also with two adult figures, “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), an older woman who serves as a sort of honorary grandmother to everyone in Washington Heights, and Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), a proud man and father of the film’s leading lady, Nina (Leslie Grace). Kevin has built a successful business, and the locals look up to him, but he wants even more for Nina, stoking tension with her and risking financial ruin for himself.

Smits is the movie’s sweetest surprise; not that he nails Kevin’s dramatic arc, but who the heck knew that the star of L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, and several Star Wars films could dance and sing? We at Fatherly were so impressed with Smits’ performance that we specifically requested an interview with the actor, who kindly and quickly agreed to chat in order to support the musical, which debuted last weekend to stellar reviews but modest box office. Over the course of a half-hour conversation filled with both emotion and laughs, Smits discussed In the Heights, shared memories of his relationship with his own father, and revealed whether he’d be open to reprising his roles as Bail Organa and Victor Sifuentes in the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series and the proposed L.A. Law sequel show set to star Blair Underwood.

You’ve had quite a couple of weeks, receiving your Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and reuniting with much of your family in New York City – for the first time since the pandemic kicked in – for the premiere of In the Heights. What’s it been like for you?

I’m doing a roller coaster motion on zoom here with my hands. It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster ride, but in a good way, and emotional in a lot of ways. The Walk, it’s something that came up prior to the pandemic, and then when the pandemic hit, they didn’t even think there was going to be a list of nominees for that. We all thought that it would move on to the next year, and there would be an asterisk. So, I didn’t even tell anybody. Just my publicist, Carol. I got a lot of flak for that, too, afterward. Then, when things started opening up, and In the Heights was going to be released, the conversation came back up – and the whole dynamic of it being virtual, which is fine with me. When I look at the tradition of this, it’s humbling, because there’s a permanence to it. It’s a kind of an acknowledgment of your work.

I don’t know how I would’ve navigated it if it wasn’t in the way that it went down. I would’ve been mortified to start calling people and say, “Will you come and speak on my behalf or say something on the podium” or have Carol try to acknowledge a fan club that really doesn’t exist. This ended up being myself, my life partner, wife, and Carol, who’s been with me for 30-plus years, and a photographer… and the homeless encampment that was like 150 feet away, which is all part of Hollywood, all part of the business. When I looked at the placement (of the Star) in terms of (it being right by) Gregory Peck, it just seemed so beautiful and right. This particular corner, it’s at the beginning of the Walk, so you can see the Star of Stanley Kramer, the first person ever inducted, and you can see Gregory Peck, and if you look one way you can see Sunset Gower Studios, where I’ve done a lot of work, and if you look the other way, you can see the Hollywood sign. It’s like so… me. It made sense. And it was very emotional because of that.

And how about coming back to New York for the premiere, and seeing your family again?

That was an incredible experience because it was for the opening of the film and there were a couple of family milestone things that happened. My nephew/godson — he’s my son as far as I’m concerned — got married that weekend. I hadn’t seen my daughter and my son. My daughter came up from Virginia. My son was there. My granddaughter, I hadn’t seen. It was like Kleenex box time. We were all up under each other, holding on to each other. It was emotional. And then there was the film, which had to do with all of this, in a way.

You are not exactly known for singing or dancing. You’ve said in interviews that you sent in clips of you singing briefly on The West Wing and NYPD Blue, and that you took singing and dancing lessons to prepare for In the Heights. But how did you react to seeing yourself on screen, singing, and dancing?

I’m fine with it. I got to check off the little artistic box there on the bucket list, wanting to be in a big musical. When I read the newest version of the script, there were these thematic themes that had changed a bit from the play, and songs were taken out. And it was clear that that wasn’t going to change. I just felt, “Well, I don’t see the part being diminished. I think that I can bring something to the party here. It’s not going to be heavy lifting for me vocally.” For people who didn’t know that I can at least carry a tune, I just felt like I could contribute something, especially in those quiet scenes, the dramatic scenes, that weren’t about music. I felt like I understood what that journey was for that small businessman who came to this country like so many waves of immigrants, with the same dream to do better for their family and to, at all costs, “I have to make sure that my kids do better than me. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

So, Lin and the singing and dancing aside, the story hit home for you as a parent…

I understand that as a parent. I understand my folks, how adamant they were about education. And I understood from Nina’s point of view, having been the first in my family to attend university, and then go on to a very prestigious postgraduate program. It was like they put all their eggs in that basket, and they didn’t understand about (him pursuing the arts at first). There was pressure you felt about that. So, that’s kind of how I pitched myself to (the In the Heights team). I don’t even know if (the filmmakers) got to see the little clips (of him singing). I think that was more for my agents than it was for them! I have to ask Lin about that!

Kevin is proud and prideful. He’s achieved so much and people in Washington Heights look up to him, but he wants – almost demands – that his daughter do better than he did. Tell us more about your dad’s role in your life.

My Dad, God bless his soul… that authoritative thing was part of his dynamic. I remember him telling me… I got a JD card once in New York. I had these model airplanes and I needed some parts. So, I went into this store in Times Square and… I got them. Then I got caught stealing, was brought home by the cops, and my dad, he was so adamant about it. He felt there was a shame of the cops bringing me home. He kept on saying, “We came to this country… We came to this country to…” Maybe it’s because he had a lot of immigration problems. He got deported once, and he was on one of the islands (in New York) where they kept people, immigrants they’d detained, for a while. He was adamant about we came to this country to do better to our name. That wasn’t advice. That was the message.

(My parents) didn’t have a theatrical background. They didn’t get what I was doing. “Oh, so you’re gonna go to graduate school. That means you can be a professor,” because it was always, “Have a safety valve, in case it doesn’t work out.” That was the whole thing about college for them. But I remember I was having trouble getting cast. I had this thing in my teeth, some vitamin deficiency, and the bottom row of my teeth were deformed. I told him, “Dad, I need money to fix my teeth,” and he gave me the money. I was an adult already. I was in my 20s, I think, and he pulled enough money together to help me get my teeth fixed. That was such a big confirmation to me that he believed that this was going to help in terms of my career thing.

In the Heights got great reviews, but it only did okay at the box office last weekend. How hopeful are you that people will find the film, whether it’s at home on HBO Max or in a movie theater?

I’m so proud of the work. Genuinely. I’ve had been in the situation before, where I felt like I was hedging because there are things about the work I was involved with that I didn’t fully 100% believe in. It’s not a perfect movie, but I’m behind this film 100 percent in terms of what it says about the community, and what it says universally. I’m happy about that. Do I feel like there needs to be an asterisk because we were released on streaming? They don’t really don’t give those numbers up. The show business, with the capital letters, I can’t get into all that. The work is good up there, from a creative standpoint, and it was done with a lot of love. The brushstrokes that (director) Jon Chu did in terms of his cinematic vision… You have these homages to what we think of as the Golden Age of musical cinema, and it’s so current on so many levels. I’m proud of the work and I hope that it’ll have legs.

The Obi-Wan Kenobi series is shooting as we speak. You played Bail Organa, Princess Leia’s (step)father in the prequels and Rogue One. If the show’s producers called you and said they need you for a holographic conversation Bail Organa and Obi-Wan, how open would you be to that?

Yeah. OK. Fine. The franchise has become Disney-fied now, so there are possibilities. The possibilities are endless. It can go on go to have many manifestations. So, of course.

Blair Underwood is involved in a pilot for an L.A. Law sequel. If the show goes to series, what are the chances you’ll revisit Victor Sifuentes, even for one episode?

Blair is one of my aces. So, if he needed me for something, he knows that I would be there.

In the Heights is playing in theaters and on HBO Max.