Having captivated audiences with his dynamic and powerful performances for decades, Edward James Olmos is one of the most celebrated Latinx stars in Hollywood. The Mexican American actor-producer-director prides himself on his diverse and non-stereotypical roles, having portrayed countless three-dimensional characters over the years, on both the stage and the screen, that have left audiences entertained and inspired.
"To me, trying to understand your life and your culture and your heritage, and the roots that make you the tree that you are – the human being that you are – sharing it so that others can understand… it makes everybody stronger. And that's why I'm a storyteller," Olmos tells Nick Barili in the latest Seen episode.
"That's why I got into this, and that's why I stand here today telling stories and trying desperately hard to listen. Listening is the key," he adds, as the two meet at Bell Gardens Intermediate School in Southern California, to see firsthand how Olmos' Youth Cinema Project empowers students to tell their stories on film.
Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Olmos grew up in a diverse neighborhood, living among different cultures and religions.
"I was exposed to the clarity of culture. I didn't know anything about any kind of cultural differences, discrimination or any kind of prejudicisms at all. We were exposed to religions, we were exposed to cultures, and I thought that that's how the whole world was. Until I left," he shares, "I crossed the L.A. River or the First Street bridge," recalling the first time he saw people of different races segregated in small communities around the city.
Before becoming an actor, baseball was Olmos' first love. From a young age, he disciplined himself to practice seven days a week in hopes of becoming a professional athlete. "I learned the whole understanding of, you had to spend 10,000 hours to master [a skill]. You could be all that you could be," he recalls. "And that doesn't make you better than anybody else, it just made you whole."
At the age of 13, he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system as a catcher, giving him the training he needed to make it in the big leagues. Right around that same time, his love for music and the stage took over, and he decided to switch paths.
"That moment destroyed my father. I'll never forget it. He didn't quite get it. But how could he have gotten it? Everybody in the world told him, 'He's a real natural, 'natural,'" he laughs. "'Natural' is just years and years of hard work [that] make you a 'natural.' There was nothing natural about me playing baseball. There was nothing natural about me being a rock and roll singer. There was nothing natural about me being an actor."
The intense rhythm, the feeling that he got when listening to rock and roll, and watching his father dance to "all the great Latin music" as a young kid are what drew him to his path as a performer. "He got me into music. And that's what happens when you get exposed to certain things, it changes your perspective on life."
"So, in 1960, I was playing baseball every day, seven days a week. But, then I realized, 'You know what? I want to sing and dance.' I love baseball, but I really love singing and dancing and moving," he recalls. "So I went into that the same way I played baseball. Fourteen years old, I hung up my cleats, and my father lost it. And it was sad because he really got hurt by it. I didn't know how much because I was so stuck on my own world. I want[ed] to go sing and dance."
Olmos, however, took the same discipline that he had applied to baseball and he put it into music. And he excelled. "Couldn't sing very well," he says with a laugh. "But man could I perform. I could move and dance using my Latin, my African roots. I would perform seven days a week. So we were constantly working."
That led to him auditioning for plays. He landed his big break as El Pachuco in the Zoot Suit production, which debuted at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in April 1978. The story follows a dramatized version of the Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943, when mobs of U.S. servicemen, off-duty police officers, and civilians clashed with young Latinos and other minorities in Los Angeles.
El Pachuco, to this day, is still profoundly one of the most beloved characters to arise on the American stage in the history of American theater.
"Everything that I had been working towards and understanding through my life were funneled into this. I could use it in this performance. This character became capable of using it all. It was amazing what happened with that character," he reflects. "El Pachuco, to this day, is still profoundly one of the most beloved characters to arise on the American stage in the history of American theater. And that's not me saying that, the American Theater Wing said it."
Olmos would go on to portray the character in the Broadway production, earning him a Tony Award nomination in 1979. He also took on the role in the 1981 feature film adaptation, written and directed by the play’s creator, Luis Valdez.
"It was the character. Granted, I was capable of handling the responsibility, which – thank the lord. I was ready because we really needed it," he remembers. "The year was 1978 and there had never been a play dealing with the Latino culture other than West Side Story. But studying the Puerto Rican in West Side Story was like studying the Polynesian in the [film] South Pacific. It wasn't meant to study the culture. It was meant to use the culture to tell a story, which is fine. [But] this was the first time the culture had ever spoken."
"This was a culture that spoke – and what it said was monumental," he continues. "That play changed the perspectives and the understandings of the Latino culture in this country and opened it up."
Olmos would continue to break barriers and make history with his 1988 drama, Stand and Deliver, in which he portrayed real-life high school mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante. It took him five years to get the film independently made after having a difficult time pitching the powerful story to studios. "We got our money funding from the Public Broadcasting, PBS, and the American Playhouse, which started the seed money," he recalls, noting how studios told him that while it was "a wonderful story," people wouldn't watch it. "It just hit like a ton of bricks."
"[But] we captured lightning in a bottle," he says of getting the film made. "And I'm very grateful because that movie has helped so many people…The truth of the story itself is powerful. A hundred years from today, that movie will be seen and understood, and be appreciated. All we wanted to do is document the behavior of this man, and we did it. And I was very fortunate I was able to do it."
His role as Escalante earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, becoming the only US-born Latino to be nominated for Best Actor or Best Actress in the history of the Academy. Olmos believes it's been a struggle to get another US-born Latinx performer to be nominated because of the lack of opportunities.
"It's just a story. The roles are what defined it, and it's been very hard to get that opportunity. Like, for instance, Argo, a beautiful movie, best movie of the year when it came out, got all kinds of accolades for Ben Affleck [for directing] and everything. But it didn't win him the Academy Award [for acting]," he notes. "Had he used a Latino… it was about a Mexican American, but nobody ever knew it. Tony Mendez was the character that they portrayed, but they used his name a couple of times. But it's still thrown away, that most people, you could ask them, 'Did you know that this is a Mexican American person?' It was a Mexican American culture. 'No' [would be their answer].”
At 74-year-old, Olmos continues to be a pioneer and a strong advocate for representation, establishing the Young Cinema Project, the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, and Latino Public Broadcasting. Seeing the children excel in the YCP, brings him a "sense of emotion," expressing, "This is a dream. You don't quite get it until you really experience the differences, and these kids have become whole. They're able to look at you and to talk with you. They have confidence, self-esteem, self-respect, and they've only been doing it for like six months."
Don't let anything stop you. Die doing it, just don't stop.
The strongest advice Olmos can give any aspiring artist is "don't stop." "Don't let anything stop you. Die doing it, just don't stop," he firmly states. "Success is not money, it's not fame, it's not fortune. Success is having lived your life doing what you really wanted to do, and doing it to the best of your ability."
For Olmos, that means spending thousands of hours doing what you love and never stopping, even "when you don't feel like doing it." "The moment you want to stop and say, 'This too much, I can't take the rejection, no one really cares about my music, no one cares about my movies, nobody cares about me… ah, I'm stopping,'" he says, "that, never can you do."
Over the course of his 50-plus year career, Olmos has never stopped working for the underrepresented. The actor notes that he has much more to do, and that, before he passes, he still has movies he’d “love to make."
"I could have done way more work, because I've been offered a lot of work, more work I'd been offered than I've taken. People say, 'Why don't you do that? You could've been a lot more famous and a lot richer,'" he laughs. "I said, 'Yeah, but in essence, I wouldn't have felt the way I feel right at this moment.' You know, I have movies that I'd like to make – that I've been trying to make for 35 years – that I still haven't been able to make. And I hope that I can make them. And if I don't, I'm going to die trying. And that's all I can tell you."
Seen premiered on Jan. 24 on The Academy's official YouTube page.