Stage veteran Raul Esparza embraces the role of the bad guy on screen
Raul Esparza, 42, most familiar to TV viewers as Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba on "Law & Order: SVU," has received four Tony nominations for his Broadway roles in "Speed the Plow," "Company," "The Homecoming" and "Taboo."
In Jonathan Ullman's new independent film, "Trouble in the Heights" (available on Redbox, iTunes and Amazon.com), Esparza takes a turn as a bloodthirsty, vengeful drug dealer named Nevada who terrorizes the families of Washington Heights. Esparza, who lives in Chelsea, also plays Dr. Chilton in the new NBC series, Hannibal.
How does the Washington Heights in "Trouble in the Heights" differ from the neighborhood depicted in the Broadway musical "In the Heights"?
Director Jonathan Ullman has a contagious affection for the Heights and is writing a story from his perspective as an outsider, but with a great deal of admiration, respect and affection for the community.. He's showing how the families take care of themselves. Lin-Manuel (Miranda) wrote 'In the Heights' from inside the culture. He is a great artist and uses rap like another writer might use prose. His musical is a love letter to his community with a candy colored veneer. There are so many stories about the problems immigrants face: It's nice to have a celebration of what we've done right.
Were you concerned about playing a Latin gangster?
My character (Nevada, in "Trouble in the Heights") is a monster. It's a role (as a drug dealer that) people rarely see me, with my light skin and green eyes, as stereotypically suited to play. The one part I don't get hired to play is a Cuban! They take one look at me and think, 'he's a white boy! You're not Cuban enough.' But I've got nothing but Cuban blood in my veins, even though I was born in the United States.
Any ambivalence about playing someone viewers are sure to hate?
Nevada was such an outsized character he borders on opera. It's always way more fun playing a guy who is morally questionable. But there's always a limited lifespan for the villain (in series). The DA I play on SVU is a bit of an a-----e, but he's a good guy so I have fun language and posturing - but I get to come back!
Did you grease in any of the Washington Heights restaurants?
I did! Dominican food is not that different from Cuban food. I like vaca frita - fried cow. It's a Cuban dish, shredded beef with garlic that's fried till it's crispy, with tostones. I might have chuletas and morros - morros is a shortening of 'Christians and Moors.' You cook the white rice and the black beans together and they blend into grey. But I'm 42 now, and you're not allowed to eat like a Cuban in your 40s if you want to be on television.
How do you compare the NYC's Latin culture to that of Miami's, where you were raised?
Miami has changed a great deal from when I was a child: It's much more international and cosmopolitan and you hear more Spanish spoken than English. In New York, the (ethnic) neighborhoods are separated more; they're much more discrete. In Chinatown, by Mott St., there's an old woman who sells sweet cakes. They're like 10 for a dollar, and she just pours the batter out of a gallon jug. I love being able to turn the corner and find something wonderful like that.
How much longer will those wonderful things remain?
I'm a real New Yorker now. I remember 'what used to be there when' on the Upper West Side. Essentials used to be Shakespeare & Company! It sucks! I don't want another Banana Republic! Nothing against them, but if I wanted to go to a Banana Republic, I'd go to a mall. It would be so nice if the city could hold on to its character and all its idiosyncrasies.
Did you see any change in the roles you were offered after your epic interview with the New York Times? (In the 2006 story, Esparza candidly discussed being separated from his wife while struggling to accept an attraction to men.)
I didn't see any change at all in the roles I was offered, but I also don't allow myself to be pigeon-holed. You don't get rights if you don't fight for them. We live in a city that is so inclusive and so live and let live. Who cares? That's what so great about New York.
Are you still married?
I don't talk about that.
Do you dance on one, or New York Style, on 2?
I dance to the guaguanco, on the clave! There is definitely a New York style, but the Cuban style is cooler. They're our rhythms: They all come from our island!
Are you into all those old Afro-Cuban singers, such as Arsenio Rodriguez?
Absolutely. Benny More is my absolute favorite. Albita Rodriguez is kind of a successor: She is absolutely ferocious in performance. Then there is all this amazing mambo stuff from New York, like Machito and Xavier Cugat. I met Tito Puente in a Holiday Inn in Columbus Ohio when I was on tour with "Evita. My parents brought me up to that music: Celia Cruz, Tata Ramos. One thing I fully regret is not getting to dance more. Growing up in a Cuban family, I didn't know there were families that didn't dance at home and outside every day. But we film sometimes until 2 a.m.: You finish a show and you're dead.
What have you learned about sex crimes after playing a DA on SVU?
It's a tough, difficult world these detectives function in. It's a really harrowing show to be a part of. We're doing an episode now about a woman who decides to keep a child conceived in a rape. There are no laws on the books in New York to keep the rapist away from the woman and the child! I had no idea! We had a story about the repercussions of abuse and how men who are abused can end up on death row. You learn a lot about things like how pornography is distributed on line, how people are hurt by the people they love. As a person, they're upsetting. Also, I'm amazed at the prevalence of sex crimes. Their fallout is huge. Lives are affected way down the line.
So if you don't dance, what do you do for fun?
I love to ride my bike up the Hudson. I've fallen in love with a little gastro pub called Buvette that has little dishes of French food and perfect wine. Izakaya is a great saki bar and it's open late.