Raúl Esparza is Tired of Being Told He’s Not Latino Enough

Raul Esparza

Raúl Esparza has been very productive while in quarantine. He admits that at the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown in New York City, he was sad, like everybody else. And then he helped produce the Take Me to the World concert special for composer Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday (which, despite some tech mishaps the night of, was joyously received by theater fans). Esparza soon realized that making art was a way to make himself feel better. “It began to fill the days in a way that was really nice,” he said.

That’s why on Saturday, June 27, the four-time Tony nominee will perform opposite Samira Wiley and a full cast in two livestreamed performances of Tartuffe, produced by Moliere in the Park, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. EST. The video of the performance will be up on YouTube until July 12. Below, Esparza talked to the Friends about how the hardest parts for him to get casted in are Latino parts, and his favorite Spanish curse word. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

We’re here talking to you about doing Tartuffe, the Moliere in the Park production. You’ve been doing a lot of these virtual acting experiences.

That’s a great description for them! They are experiences. It’s been a couple of interesting months for all of us. And this is not the way to make theater necessarily, but it is a way to make theater. Honestly, the first month of the pandemic was intensely hard for a lot of personal reasons. We had a very big loss in our family: Santiago Miranda, who died in Madrid and he died by himself—he was like an uncle to me and a dear, dear, dear man. And then I had a teacher that died in Miami and then relatives who were getting sick. So the beginning of this felt like, what’s the point in getting up in the morning?

So in the midst of all that, I had the idea to create the Take Me to the World concert for Steve’s birthday. For a week or two, it felt like we were in a room together. And then friends would reach out and say, “Hey, you want to sing a little song here?” And then you say, “Okay.” Because it began to fill the days in a way that was really nice. And I can say about Tartuffe right now, it feels like we’re in a rehearsal hall. Of course we’re not. But we get on these Zoom calls, essentially, and we’re rehearsing and we come up with ideas. You’re not moving around, you’re still in your apartment. But you are creating something. And that’s extraordinary. It’s a great feeling. So all of this is a long way of saying that all these experiences have helped to fill my days. And they have helped to make me feel like I own a little bit of my creativity, and can share it a little bit more.

Because as actors, we’re always spending our time asking for permission to do the thing that we know how to do. And I’m not saying this is the way to do it. But I think our future opportunities potentially may change, given that we have all had to come to terms with the fact that right now, if we don’t create something for ourselves, there’s nowhere to go. So yeah, I didn’t realize how many doors I had opened to this. It’s not easy, but at least it’s filled the time and has alleviated some of the sadness.

There’s people who know you from Law and Order: SVU, but they’re like, wait, he can sing? And they have never seen you on stage. And what’s happening right now is giving access to Latinos, to people of color, to people that are often kept from theater. I wonder if you’ve encountered that.

I’ve always thought we should have done a musical episode of Law and Order. Benson hits her head and then we all end up in the courtroom singing and dancing. Mariska [Hargitay] would totally go for it. I know she would. She was so obsessed with Hamilton. I think she saw it 22 times. How could she get tickets is what I want to know!

Theater has always been my love because I love the relationship to the audience. And I never thought that I would be an actor who made a lot of film or TV because I never really felt like I cracked it. Law and Order came out of the fact that [show-runner] Warren Leight and I had worked on Leap of Faith, and it was supposed to be a couple of guest star episodes. And then it turned into a really wonderful thing. Because he wrote beautifully and I really hit it off with Mariska. As the show goes on and on, you’re suddenly recognized all over the world. And that opened doors to people who didn’t know my work before. And that comment about, “Oh, I didn’t know you could sing,” it was constant, you know, it’s constant.

But if the work on television brings people to my work on stage or any of the other things that I’ve done, then I think that that is extraordinarily good in terms of what’s going on now. In the world of being a Latin actor, I can’t tell you guys the number of times I’ve been told, “Change your name. You don’t look like what we expect you to look like. You’re not Cuban enough.” And what they mean by that is, “You don’t look right to play drug runner number three.” It was a very big deal to me to hang on to who I am and where I come from, and to own that over and over and over again.

When I saw [the marquee] for Company, it said Raúl Esparza, over the marquee. All I could think about was: That’s my dad’s name. And that’s my grandfather’s name. And that’s my great grandfather’s name. Because we’re Cuban, and we all call each other Raúl. There’s a whole history there of men who lived in Cuba, who came to this country. And then the fact that I get to be up there and carry their name forward was just a really big deal to me. And I hope that whatever little bit I did helped open doors to more Latin actors getting the opportunity to play whatever parts they want to, instead of being told you’re not enough of what we think the stereotype is. So it seems to me that it’s very important. And it’s also really great to talk about it now and to own it and to not apologize for it. Because I do feel like we’re still pretty underrepresented in the theater world and on television and film, but I hope that we’re gonna be able to take that into our hands.

Did you ever play a part where you were actually surprised that you got it, because you thought that the cards were stacked against you?

That’s a good question. I was surprised I got cast to play George Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George. But that was because I was so new here. I have never felt like the cards are stacked against me in any way because I’m Lat necessarily. Except when it comes to Latin parts and then I just simply don’t get cast. Barba [on Law and Order] was a Cuban character because Warren made him a Cuban character and we decided to go for that. And that was a part of his story. But I think that’s about it for major things I’ve done professionally, where someone will see me as a Latin. So the cards are stacked against me in the opposite way for Latin parts. Again, I don’t look like the expected stereotypes and I’m not really even sure what they mean by that, to tell you the truth.

The last time Esparza was on stage, “Seared” by Theresa Rebeck at MCC Theater, where he played a chef. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Do you think it’s because of what’s stereotypically Latin versus what the people actually look like, which spans a whole range? The identity is varied. And American culture not being able to recognize the fact that there’s a diversity within Latinx culture.

Yes, I think Latinx culture feels too varied and too multiple to be contained. And people in Hollywood especially—I feel a little bit less so with the theater because the theater is a physical place where talent can really blossom, talented people can come in the room and kind of blow you away and they’ll get hired, hopefully. With Hollywood I think that there are constant efforts to put people in boxes because it is easier, because you are casting personalities, types. And I think that also, in American culture, there is such a constant interest in things being Black and white, yay or nay, A or B, and there’s no room for complexity. And that means there’s no room for complexity in human experience either. There’s no room for the difficult explanations. I think of Hillary Clinton who kept saying, “I can’t give you an answer that is a soundbite about these issues. That man can, but I can’t.” And then they attack her for that. Or anybody—Obama was too intelligence, he spoke to well, you know. They don’t want to hear the clear, more complicated version of things, they want to hear the easy answer.

And I think it also applies to what we’re talking about here, that multitude with many different colors and shapes and sizes and varieties of experience, within something that they want to call “Latin” is uncomfortable. It’s very uncomfortable and not at all the way that is easy for decisions to be made, particularly in entertainment and also in politics. My experience as a Cuban American growing up in Miami is very different from someone who is Nuyorican. We carry our cultural heritage with us and we carry our families with us, our ancestors, and all of the history that shapes us. In Miami, to be Cuban was to be king of the world. Whereas I had met other kids who were raised to feel almost ashamed of speaking Spanish, of being part of the culture and had to rediscover it later. I wanted to be so American when I was growing up among all the Cuban kids in Miami, and then I left and all I wanted to do was be Cuban. So I think that yeah, I feel that we complicate things on a bigger scale than people are comfortable with.

Let’s celebrate the culture then, what’s your absolute favorite word in Spanish? And if it’s a curse word, then we’ll love you even more.

Comemierda! That’s my favorite. I’m always trying to teach people how to curse in Spanish. English is alright, but you got nothing on us.

It’s music.

Yes it is. Also because we can say it so fast and emphatically. My favorite words are always curse words, but I don’t know a Cuban who doesn’t curse every other minute.

When all of this is over, are you looking forward to being in a show or seeing a show?

I’m looking forward to seeing shows. I really am. I took it for granted that I could just kind of go see my friends do stuff. And now I wish I hadn’t. First of all, theater’s too expensive. So I hope that one of the things that changes right now is—nobody can afford a $300 ticket or $400 ticket or $200. Hopefully this will make some intrinsic changes in the structure of how we price theater and who theater is available to. But that being said, I took it for granted that I could go see stuff and support stuff. But now I’m like, I want to go back. I want to be out there and see what people are creating. This is the greatest city in the world. I think it’s the capital of the world, New York, and I miss the energy of it. It’s so inspiring. And I want to get out there. Joe Papp once said that, “The artists need an immediate environment to create.” You get chipped away at, like a block, a sculpture. “Well, there’s no more immediate environment,” he said, “than New York City.” And I think it’s true. And I’ve been so aware of it in the silence for the last three months of, God, we live here so that we can all shape each other. That’s how we get better. I’m really looking forward to that.

Listen to the rest of Esparza’s interview on the Token Theatre Friends podcast.

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