Jimmy Smits Interview: ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and Playing Nero

Jimmy Smits Sons of Anarchy Season 7 Interview
Jimmy Smits as Nero Padilla in ‘Sons of Anarchy’ (Photo by James Minchin / FX)

Although our conference call with FX’s Sons of Anarchy‘s Jimmy Smits was completely spoiler free as far as the series finale which will air on Tuesday, December 9, 2014, we did touch on things that happened in episode 12 of the final season. So prior to reading this informative behind-the-scenes interview with Smits (‘Nero Padilla’), make sure you’re completely caught up on the series.

Jimmy Smits Sons of Anarchy Interview:

Looking back, what would you say you’re taking away from your experience on Sons of Anarchy as a person and as an actor?

Jimmy Smits: “I don’t know. The whole thing about the strength of family through thick and thin, and even though the whole thing about family is questionable with this particular family, but that’s something that was like an ongoing [story as] the club becomes the family and when things are done against the family, how the family kind of like sticks together and the glue. That was just like a running theme and to see that group from being a fan and watching them on television to partaking with them on the performance level, I think that that bond was really, really strong, so that’s something that I’ll always remember about that particular group and about what they conveyed not only in the writing, but on a performance level as well.”

As an actor, did you take anything away from playing Nero?

Jimmy Smits: “It just kind of reinforced for me what we need to do as performing – this might be boring for the audience – but just as performers how you really need to stay focused on any given day, so that when it’s your turn to be up at bat, you try your best to bring your A game. And when I get stuck in terms of how to play something or how to approach it or I start thinking too much, I always just go back to the basics of what does my guy want in this particular scene and what is his major objective in terms of life, that would be in his case the exit strategy, what are the people saying about him and just trying to keep that as fluid as possible while I’m putting my tattoos on, so that when it’s my turn that I make the most of those two or three scenes every episode that I get to do.”

There’s such an intrinsic strength, power and gravitas to Nero that he acts as somewhat of a grounding force to the Tellers, particularly to Gemma, but also somewhat to Jax. What are your thoughts on the context of the role that Nero plays in the family?

Jimmy Smits: “I think that when you start thinking about the fluidity of a television series and how it evolves and changes and grows and is kind of like symbiotic with not only what the writers’ vision is, but what the interaction is between the actors, the ensemble, the crew, all of those things, how the writers respond to when they see their particular scene that they’ve written in the writers’ room come to life on the stage and then in film, I think about that character. And of course going in, it was supposed to be 10 episodes and out, and all of those things that you alluded to, thank you very much, are nice, and I think that it’s evolved into that.

I remember having a conversation with Kurt at the end of the second season that I was on, which was Season 6, and he expressed interest in me thinking about the way he framed it, the Nero character becoming part of the mythology of the show. And that’s the way it was framed, so I think that all of those qualities that you cited are probably are things that I have developed. So for the character besides that ongoing super objective that he came in with and was what his major character tag or pillar was that he wanted this kind of exit strategy, it’s something that permeated not only his character, but I think it influenced actions of the other characters. The character served this purpose of confidant, foil, love interest, all of those little spokes in the wheel that fleshes out the show in general.

With regards to the gravitas and stuff, I don’t know. The whole fluidity again of television and the character and the performer because it’s not just an open and close, it’s not like a film or a play in the sense that everything is spelled out and has a fluidity to it; I’m just happy that I had the respect of that group when I came in and they were very kind of like warm and open. They are a close knit, very close knit group, and that kind of respect had to do probably with the prior work, the fact that I had worked with Paris [Barclay] before, all of that and I think that bleeds over into the character as well.”

Another element that comes out is the humor displayed with Wendy and particularly some of the lines in the latest episode, like, “Hey, Junkie, I’ll put you in the trunk.” Can you talk a little bit about that aspect of the character and also his relationship with Wendy?

Jimmy Smits: “It’s one of Kurt’s strong suits, I think, if you look at the whole gamut of the seven seasons of the show when he has characters that one would conceive or consider to be dark or askew, you can see it in Tig, you can see it in all of the characters actually that Kurt operates best when he does this kind of one-two punch to the audience and can present kind of like the lighter shade, humorous side and then socks you with something that can be very emotionally impacting. I think that engages the audience in a lot of ways. It makes them root for these people who are on the wrong side of the tracks, so I like the fact that he operates as a writer from that kind of level.

With regards to Nero and Wendy, the similarities that they have is that their sobriety is something that they have in common, so I think that that’s the strong bond that they share or will continue to share. Whatever happens, that’s an element of it. I think it takes kind of the stink off the possibility that there’s a romantic thing. It’s more paternal, brother/sister. You get that vibe from the back and forth that they have, so it functions on a lot of different levels because of that.”

You can’t give away any spoilers, but when you got the last script was it what you were expecting? Were you surprised?

Jimmy Smits: “I’ve been continually shocked with the past maybe five scripts in terms of like we’re really blowing sh** up here. He’s going for broke, so it was always with like a little bit of trepidation on everybody’s part when that new script would come in in your email or whether you would get it in page form to make that turn of the first couple of pages to see what was next or who was going to go down next. I don’t think audiences are going to be disappointed at all. I think they’re going to be very satisfied and it’s touching in a lot of ways. It’s sad, but it’s also grim, too.”

Is this a role that you’re going to walk away from and be one of your personal most memorable roles you’ve played?

Jimmy Smits: “I hope there will be other memorable roles down the line, but I know I’m going to have fond memories of the group and this guy. When I first was jotting down little things in my little composition high school composition notebook, which I always buy for each of the characters that I have, I wrote down Jimmy S. and a slash and Jimmy Mi Familia/Nero Padilla. That character that I played in Mi Familia was kind of like a little sprouting seed of maybe where this guy wound up being. I don’t know. It was just a stream of consciousness kind of thing of what kind of attributes you want to give to a character. It’s like putting little strokes onto a canvas like if you were painting something.

I wanted to try to do something a little bit different and I’m glad that Kurt really gave me that opportunity to do something that was kind of like a more guy/guy thing. You realize where a character falls in terms of the different…if you think of a series as a wheel and there are different spokes in the wheel that support it and keep it going, you have different characters that have different functions, a role to play on a basketball team, so I knew what was needed. That was expressed to me and, ‘You’re going to be this for Jax and that for Gemma, and that’s where he’s going to,’ but you want to try to keep, or it was important for me to try to keep a couple of balls in the air when I was juggling all of that.

Kurt and I, we had conversations. There were conversations that we had because I just didn’t want to be that. I wanted to make sure because it’s a show about outlaws and people on the wrong side of the tracks that you kept that vibrant as well, so it wasn’t just a guy coming to have somebody cry on his shoulder and giving coffee out. Do you know what I mean? So we definitely had to, because he’s got a lot going on. There are a lot of characters to serve and you have to find ways. If we keep that other element going, it makes everything else more believable so I’m just glad that there was a kind of real back and forth respect and trust that we had with each other. At least the facade of it was there; no, I have a huge, huge respect for what he’s done with the show, and I hope that’s mutual.

Our conversations like in season five actually started getting less, not more. You would think that it would be as the character flourishes, you would have much more, but they were less, less frequent, but when they happened, they were more ‘intense’ is not the word but to the point, and there’s a realization on my part that he’s spinning a lot of plates, so you have to be very succinct in terms of getting what points you need or what you think needed to be looked at in a particular scene, because you want to try to do that before you get on set. Things when they happen when you’re on set when you want to start making changes, it doesn’t make for a good environment in television because of the quickness that you have to work.”

How much do you personally relate to Nero Padilla?

Jimmy Smits: “The whole thing with him about how religion is part of his life or some kind of spirituality was just like a simple little kind of brush stroke on the writers’ part I think, and that became very important to me. I don’t want to say I embellished it, but I gave it a lot more weight and I think because of that then subsequently they added more. That’s satisfying to me because I like the fact that this guy that seemingly has a spiritual side to him, too, that’s intense. It made sense to me because of the fact that he’s sober and higher power and all that stuff, so Jimmy relates to that so that was a nice little flare that the character had that I like and can relate to.”

We saw Nero breaking down on the bed in the next to last episode of the series when there is no news from Unser following his search for Gemma. Where is Nero’s head in that particular scene?

Jimmy Smits: “I think there’s pain. There’s guilt. There’s remorse. Did you do the right thing? And I’m sure that the scenes afterwards that are not written or maybe you won’t get to see in between the episodes are full of maybe anger and trying to grapple with what’s the next move. You got to remember with all of these people that there’s this bubbling kind of how do they deal with the feeling of betrayal and how they try to go about exacting one might term it vengeance or making things right for them or their point of view. Hopefully all of that is full for this final chapter.”

One of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful scenes took place two episodes ago between Nero and Jax when they’re just sitting together. Can you talk about that connection a little bit?

Jimmy Smits: “Yes, I think it was the culmination of what the relationship has been between these two characters over three seasons and certainly the weight of what the Jax character has been carrying or feeling for the past seven seasons. Because of that relationship between Jax and Nero, there was the availability of a kind of vulnerability, those words that Kurt wrote that came out of Jax’s mouth there about the bottom line, ‘No matter what’s happened, she’s my mom,’ have to really resonate in a huge way. I’m kind of happy that the way that turned out and just like on a performance level that we were able to have enough trust between us as actors, and that Peter Weller who directed that particular episode that you’re talking about kind of just said minimal stuff and just let it happen, but was very supportive. I think it resonates and has the power that Kurt intended when he wrote it.”

One of the seasons’ best moments was the scene with you and Gemma where you’re on a cell phone with Jax and we know that Jax is explaining to Nero what he has learned. Can you discuss how you decided to play that scene?

Jimmy Smits: “In terms of the technical performance aspects of it?”

As an actor getting into the mindset and deciding at what moment to convey the progression of the emotions.

Jimmy Smits: “Right, right. We knew that it was just from a dramaturgical look at it when we had the read-through for it, that the scene was going to have impact, but that it was going to be demanding because of the fact that it’s not a back and forth. But in the scope of that particular episode, you do have the fact that the act is repeated a number of times and most notably in the scene between Jax and Juice in the jail cell where in vivid detail Juice has recounted what happened with Tara and Gemma’s involvement in it. You see that registering on both of them, so I think it was a great writer stroke that Kurt decided that the subsequent retelling of it would play in a different kind of way. I think because the audience now is engaged and they know and it becomes more about how each of the subsequent characters are going to start relating to the news. So when I look at it in total, I think it really points to Kurt’s strength as a writer.

Now the execution of it was a little bit scary and somebody asked me about what I took away from the show about trying to stay focused as a performer in the environment of television, which can be very quick. That particular day was a little scary because we were at the end of the day. We were losing light. It had to be outside and Paul Maibaum, who’s been the DP for the show since its beginning, is just wonderful and kept on telling me, ‘Don’t worry about it. We can make this work.’

My thing I kept on saying, ‘We’re going to have to come back and do this and I don’t know how I’m going to be able to get back to where I was.’ But it all became a day of trust on that level. And on recounting not having the phone call actually in my ear and just knowing that I could be emotionally full with all of the information that I’ve had about these particular characters and knowing that when I looked in Katey’s eyes and she looked at my eyes that it would resonate emotionally, we had that one aspect going for us and I think it played out. I think it has a kind of power to it and I’m happy with most of it. There’s a lot that I still kick myself about, but that’s just me. I’m never totally happy, but thanks for the good words about it.”

When you look at the final episode and your final arc as Nero, would you say that you think this is a satisfying ending both for the show and for you personally when you look at this last episode and even this last season as whole?

Jimmy Smits: “As far as the last season is concerned, I think that Kurt ended it really beautifully and it has all of those elements that the show has been the signature of the show throughout the seven seasons. I was a little surprised specifically about the way Nero ends up, but I totally get it. I totally get it.”

Nero told Unser before he asked him to go after Gemma that this is not about saving Gemma, it’s about saving Jax. What do you think has changed in Nero that he seemed more concerned with saving Jax than Gemma?

Jimmy Smits: “Well, I think that that particular line I tried to give it a little bit of weight, so that it really means both because we all know that in the episode prior to that when Nero starts talking about, ‘You know what you’re thinking about doing is kind of like one of the biggest sins that you could impose upon yourself and the weight that that’s going to put on you,’ so knowing that that was a possibility, that was part of where that line was coming from. I tried to imbue it with all of that, but I don’t think that he meant discard Gemma or there wasn’t that thing going on. I hope that didn’t read like that because the love that he has – you did see him in the next subsequent scenes in the bedroom. I think that reinforced that even though the events that transpired have transpired, that he still has a profound kind of love and emotional connection with the Gemma character. So it’s like everything that Kurt writes, it’s not just one thing. It’s layered in many, many, many different ways.”

Do you have a favorite scene or maybe a scene that was harder for you to film during the series?

Jimmy Smits: “The two scenes in episodes 10 and 11 of this season were both very difficult because it had to do with focus, I alluded to that, and just the head space of where I am in my life, in Jimmy’s life, so those were kind of difficult. But you got to know that in season five when my partner in life was playing a character and that character had to go down, that was a very tough day because you’re looking at a character who is supposed to be your sister, but in real life it’s the person that you live with and love with. That was a difficult, memorable, difficult day as performer and character as well.”

If Nero had gone instead of Unser, do you think that things would still have played out the same?

Jimmy Smits: “If Nero had gone, there would have been probably three dead bodies there. All of them would have gone down in some way. I think that was his big fear that he didn’t want to try to have to make that particular choice, but I don’t think that the Nero character understood how profound and deep the relationship that Unser has with them also. I guess he thinks that because of the police element or line in Unser’s character thread was there that he would be able to exact some kind of calm out of the situation.”

Do you think we’ll be seeing a little bit of guilt once he realizes what happened?

Jimmy Smits: “You’ll see more than guilt…”

Why do you think a show like this, dark as it is and about a motorcycle gang, resonate with viewers so much?

Jimmy Smits: “Since we’re in this time in television where we have all of these channels and niches and I think the great thing about it is this kind of golden age of TV, because the canvas is much broader and you can go into much more specifics. I think that audiences want to relate to or want to know about different worlds that they might not get on a network TV; your typical doctor, lawyer, police type show. So it affords the opportunity to get a professor who’s dying who runs a meth lab, or how it was in New York and New Jersey in the ‘20s, those types of things and really become engaged with those characters. And in this case with a world that you think you might know something about, but don’t really know about. And then layer that or texturize it with all of those things that that world and what they learn about that world and the things that every particular family has: the family dynamics, the codes that a family has, the hierarchy and that’s what engages it. I think Kurt was really successful with the writers in terms of presenting this kind of like Shakespearian story in a lot of ways that has a lot of emotionality and humor and tragedy and all of that, violence, but at the same time has this thread of family and brotherhood, so those are the things that I think really engage audiences with the show specifically.”

What can you tease about the fallout from all of the devastating deaths that just happened in the last episode?

Jimmy Smits: “I can say that the audience is going to be satisfied with the way the show ends up and that it continues to deliver its one-two punch that I talked about before. And as much as it is exciting and sad and funny, it’s got that grim quality to it as well.”

How was it for you personally to film that very last episode?

Jimmy Smits: “Your investment has not only been with the characters and the story, but the crew that you spent in Katey’s case seven years with, that crew has been very kind of cohesive. There haven’t been a lot of changes and the crew really loves the show. They’re like into the show. There are a lot of tattoos on that crew, let me just say that, so I guess in that way there were a lot of tears. There’s a sadness that that family unit that you develop, because you do work for so many hours, is going to disperse and we kept on reaffirming that we know we have great memories and that we’ll see each other again hopefully down the line, because this business is all kind of circled. But it was sad.

I finished up I think it was halfway into the shoot, so there was that particular eight days. I would come back for a couple of hours every day until we wrapped-wrapped because I wanted to be there for like Charlie’s last scene or the last scene of particular characters. A lot of people did that, so it was very emotional.”

Do you plan on keeping in touch with the other cast members?

Jimmy Smits: “I will and we all say that, but we probably won’t. That’s what happens in our business, and I think that makes it sad, too, because that’s the gypsy aspect of the business that we all kind of acknowledge that you’re going into something and it has to be a certain level of trust, particularly with the performers and you get to share parts of your life to gain that kind of trust that the characters are going to have. And then the reality is you move on to the next thing. But when we see each other again, the true mark of it is like it’s like you never skipped a day.”

Since Nero never rode motorcycle, have the guys finally gotten you on a motorcycle?

Jimmy Smits: “Yes, I’ve been on motorcycles. When I first knew that I was going to be working with the show, Kurt and I were just having meetings and I didn’t know where it was going to go, so the first thing I did, besides watching/rewatching all the at that point it was five seasons over a weekend, I went out there and I got my motorcycle license. There’s this great group of people in Southern California and a lot of them are women that have this motorcycle training facility, and I got my license and did a crash course and I was pretty happy. […]Also, my stand-in, we’ve been together for like 20 years now and he’s a motorcycle rider, so we rode a lot together. I would always through the past three seasons, I always kept myself in tune hoping that one day I’m going to open up the script and it’s going to say, ‘And then Nero jumps on Jax’s motorcycle and goes away.'”