Edward James Olmos has been acting, directing and producing film and television for 45 years, establishing himself as an iconic Latino actor when there weren’t many of them. Films from Blade Runner to Zoot Suit, Selena, My Family and American Me, and TV work including his Emmy-winning turn as Lt. Castillo in Miami Vice, Battlestar Galactica‘s Commander Adama, and most recently Mayans M.C. patriarch Felipe Reyes. Last time Los Angeles was engulfed in the kind of turmoil we’ve seen this week was the 1992 LA Riots, the lifelong Angelo assisted in the cleanup effort. At 73, he continues to self- quarantine, which he has done since early March. But he has watched this drama unfold like the rest of us. He shares his thoughts on what’s unfolded, and taps his own frustrations and experiences to advise how to turn Hollywood’s receptiveness to get involved in anti-racist causes into a tipping point that might mean not only an increase in inclusive film and TV projects, but more decision making executives of color.
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DEADLINE: I have always found you to be a reasoned thoughtful actor/activist, and a minority who has worked in Hollywood long enough to have seen everything. We are all shell shocked over the killing of George Floyd, and the peaceful protests and the looting and political rhetoric that followed. Hollywood agencies and studios went dark for Blackout Tuesday, and made pledges to donate and be more sensitive and promote anti-racist causes. But Hollywood’s power structure is dominated by whites and there have never been many people of color in real decision making positions. What do you make of all this, coming on the heels of a coronavirus pandemic that brought Hollywood to a screeching halt like nothing we’ve ever seen?
EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: This time period has given us an opportunity for us to have a real introspective look at ourselves and the society we live in. It started with the pandemic, which might again be in full swing, and about to have a devastating effect on the entire country because of what we’re doing right now, and people are pushing it over to one side. The difficulty is that there will be a lot of people that will end up bringing about the death of a lot of other people, and by August I bet you we’ll lose another 50,000.
DEADLINE: You mean protesters in the streets spreading the virus to others protesting the same worthy cause?
OLMOS: Oh, yeah. I mean, the virus is very, very, very communicable. It is very contagious and people are not even thinking about it right now. Some people are wearing masks and I’m very proud of that, but not everyone, and so my instincts are that in about 10 or 12 days, we will see a spike in cases. Everybody says that we’ll see a second wave come around in September, but I fearing now, based on what we have been watching, it’s evident that it’s going to be here before that.
DEADLINE: Oh, my. I hadn’t even thought about that. I read that after the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, you went down and helped with the cleanup effort. And here we are, again. Have we as a society made any progress since that flashpoint moment?
OLMOS: We’re more sensitized, and so many people have been killed. Minorities that have been killed within their own culture and by way of the law enforcement police department. This is a cultural issue that hasn’t changed, the police who end up using their strength and their power. We have people right now in the police department that really need to understand…maybe this will bring about a sense of awareness, and will sensitize them to realize that this whole situation we’re experiencing right now was caused by a vicious, vicious murder which was seen on camera and projected to the entire country. And the world, and the response from powers that be was different than the response would’ve been had anyone else done the exact same thing. Now you say, well, they’re the police department. Yeah, but when we saw it, we all knew from the moment we were watching it that the man died under the hands of this police officer…officers, because there were four of them, and we all knew it. We all saw it, and one of the people right there that was holding the camera was hollering and saying, you’re killing him! Let him breathe, and you could hear him saying, I can’t breathe, and then you heard him call for his mother and then he stopped. He wasn’t talking to his mom anymore or doing anything for like two-and-a-half minutes, and then when they picked him up, everyone saw that he was gone.
You could say well, he was unconscious. No, he was dead, and they have now had a very strong private autopsy done by a well-established doctor who stated that he had died of asphyxiation during the time period of the nine minutes that he was under the knee of that policeman. We have a murder that was seen, and for them to treat it as well, the police are different, there might be some things that we have to check, so the unions come in, and of course police department tries to handle their own in the way that they handle their own. But it was really evident that by the first day that they should have done with them what they would have done to anyone else. They should not have placed them on another level; they should have taken them in and arrested them for murder, until they find out exactly what happened. All four of them should be in prison right now, and that caused people to want to express themselves and created such a strong reaction. This is probably one of the strongest reactions we’ve had in a long, long time. Of course, some people are taking advantage of this and that is really sad.
I saw something [Tuesday] that was amazing, that they’re out here doing it this way. A very interesting tweet I received, and I can’t quite believe it. It’s exactly what we know is going on right now throughout the country and around the world, and their intentions are pretty clear, with the way that it’s written. It is breathtaking because you know exactly where they’re coming from and what they’re saying and why they’re doing it.
Here is the Tweet:
DEADLINE: It seems just part of the polarizing collective response that includes seeing President Trump walking to that church with a Bible and saying he’s the law and order president and an ally of protesters, just as the peaceful protesters outside the White House were being dispersed by force and tear gas to allow him that photo op. How not helpful was that response?
OLMOS: Whenever you’re doing that, intention equals content, okay? His intention was to bring an awareness to his constituency of his commitment to safety and military might, and also his religious beliefs. I think what happens though is that the intention is pretty easy to understand and realize that he has nothing to do with religion and that he’s holding that Bible up for a PR statement and not that he believes in anything that he’s doing. He doesn’t believe anything he’s doing, and that’s been the total issue with him. People have gotten to the point now where we know that he’s lied like 19,000 times in the three-and-a-half years that he’s been in the presidency, so we have a really difficult situation.
It’s in Venice. It says, come out and protest. Be heard. June 2 at eight AM, Venice Boulevard and Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
DEADLINE: What do you think was the purpose of this?
OLMOS: Well, it’s what’s inside the Tweet. It says, cover-up, it’ll help to be as unidentifiable as possible, and give protection against rubber bullets. And then bring water and snacks to stay hydrated and energized. Then, bring baking soda and water mixtures, it neutralizes tear gas. Then, write emergency contacts on your skin. Then keep your phones on airplane mode and keep your faces out of cameras. Spread the word. So, this is a means of understanding that these people are coming out here not to be in a positive way. They’re there to…they’re saying come out and protest, and then in big, big letter it says be heard, and in other words, they’re going to cause damage and havoc. I don’t think they’re there on behalf of George at all. This has nothing to do with George, what they’re saying.
You can call it somebody on the extreme left or the extreme right, or somebody who is really inciting and wants to incite people to overthrow the existing government as we see it today by having people revolutionize. This is something that’s been going on for many years. I remember the ‘60s, they tried to do the same thing, and Kent State was the formulation of it and when they killed four us there at Kent State, people just went ballistic and wouldn’t take it. And then when they killed Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. And then what happened to Rodney King. Ask me about Rodney King and that demonstration, rebellion, riot…I would put the word rebellion there first because that’s what it was, and same with this one here.
The riot is secondary but the rebellion is primary. It’s the same thing as the Boston Tea Party rebellion, The rebellion riot around Rodney King came off of those nine or 10 police officers who were being tried and in turn were released and found not guilty. This one was the death of a human being by the police department, documented in the most prolific way, and that being said, wait until the trial. If the trial does not find them guilty of at least second-degree murder, or even third-degree murder it would be a situation where…if they get manslaughter and a two-year sentence or a year and eight months sentence, and the other guys get a year sentence for being part of it, then you’re going to see what is being done right now as far as the riot portion, the destruction portion. We’ll do exactly what happened with Rodney King.
When that happened that time? There was no marching. They were so angry that they just took it unto themselves to completely sacra-pillage. There were 6,000 buildings that were gutted and burned in Los Angeles, 57 people were killed, and there was over thousands of people on the streets in Los Angeles alone. I think there were six other cities that went up but nothing as strongly as what happened here in LA, and I don’t think we’ve had one of those since maybe the Civil War. That was the strongest time we’ve ever had that many people out on the street, actually.
DEADLINE: So what we’re seeing is collective rage, or is it well-meaning protestors and have nots who are opportunistic and using this tragedy as an opportunity to create anarchy, and steal?
OLMOS: Exactly. That’s exactly what it is, and you can tell by this tweet, by the one I sent you. It’s manipulative. The intention of this tweet is to manipulate those that understand what they have the opportunity to do. Come here, be dressed the right way, make sure that you have the right elements with you so that you can fight back the tear gas, and stuff like that, and get ready to be heard. In other words, be heard is, be ready to commit mayhem and destruction. I guess we lost two people [Monday]. I think it was in Philadelphia. One police officer is critical right now and got shot, and then two people were killed yesterday by the police during the situation. We ourselves have to control it. We’re making our statements. Right now people are marching. Everybody knows what this is about. Everybody knows the condition of everything that everybody’s trying to do, and they made the curfew because people are pillaging. Otherwise, you should be able to go all night with rallies, which is what should be being done. Don’t let up. That’s nonviolence civil disobedience, the essence of living. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Jesus, all taught us that non-violent civil disobedience is one of the strongest things that we can be doing with our lives because that is the voice of the collective. That’s how you end up changing things. People should be able to walk for ten blocks, and then everyone sit down and rest, and people should talk about their feelings as to what they’re doing and why they’re here, and different people can stand up and express themselves. I haven’t seen anybody break a window in the main thrust of the group. I’ve only seen people breaking windows and trying to break into buildings when they’re away from the main group. They are the ones the police, the helicopters should focus on.
DEADLINE: What of the president saying he will keep the military at the ready?
OLMOS: There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both then the enemies of the state tend to become the people. That to me, Michael, was the most important aspect of what was done yesterday, when he turned around and said, I will send out the military. That is why others are saying no, don’t do that. It’s enough that we’re using the National Guard in some places. That’s enough. Don’t send the United States Army in to police United States citizens because of what I just told you.
DEADLINE: Studios and talent agencies shut down Tuesday and all made statements of support to Black Lives Matter. There’s a difference between lip service and real change. You have fought to make movies about your own culture and ethnicity over a long period of time. What can Hollywood do to create permanent constructive change in its industry?
OLMOS: Film and television, the audiovisual event, is the single strongest discipline in the world that humans have created, bar none. More than the written word of a book, or a play, or a live performance, or music. When you sit down in front of a huge screen in a theater, no peripheral vision and Dolby stereo sound 5.1, 5.2, whatever it’s at now, and two hours of these images…it goes straight into your conscious mind but it doesn’t stop there. It goes right into the subconscious mind also, which is so powerful. Needless to say, the industry has a great responsibility. The original question was can they do something? Yes, they can. Okay. Right now, Michael, I want to ask you very directly. Name me one Medal of Honor winning hero who’s Latino that you’ve ever seen a movie…
DEADLINE: I can’t think of one.
OLMOS: There’s not one. And when they have made movies about Latinos, “our heroes,” say like Tony Mendez in Argo? Ben Affleck played Tony Mendez. He should never have played Tony Mendez. He was the director and he should’ve either gotten Michael Pena, or Andy Garcia, or myself, Jimmy Smits, any one of a multitude of people that can handle those roles. He said, well, they wouldn’t have made the movie if I wasn’t playing the role. Bullshit. He was directing it, he wrote it. It won the best film of the year Academy Award, so what are you talking about? Tony Mendez was a Chicano, a Mexican American, born and raised in El Paso, Texas. Now, 99% of the people don’t even know that. They have no idea that there was a Latino that did that, not even a little bit, and yet…because Tony, who hates being Chicano, which that’s an even better storyline, hates it. He hates it because his father impregnated his mother. His mother was thrown out by her father, and his Anglo mother and him went off to live in Arizona and he never saw his father again, so he hated being Mexican. He hates it. That’s what I’ve heard through the grapevine and it’s my understanding of who he is as a human being. I don’t know him personally, but it stands to reason why didn’t they make a point of saying Mexican American Tony Mendez. So just do one scene where somebody says hey, man, let’s go get some tacos, Tony, and he’s just looking at the guy and they start laughing. That’s all you had to do. Then you realize, say, hey man, don’t make fun of this kid because…you know. But they didn’t, and you didn’t even know that the guy was Latino, right?
Now you’re probably figuring out for the first time, wow, I had no idea that he was a Mexican American, this is the story about a Mexican American hero, one of our greatest Mexican American heroes of the CIA and no one knows that we did that. Right now there’s never been a Mexican American, or even the Latino, any Latino, Puerto Rican, Guatemala, Central American, South American born in the United States of America, American of Latino descent heritage that has won the Congressional Medal of Honor and a movie has been made about them. Now, there have been two movies that were made about the stories but they put Caucasian kids in there to play the roles so that there was never any correlation between that person being Latino.
The industry has to start to put out images of stories told through the perspective of your lead character being a female or a male of minority cultural dynamic, whether it be Asian. Indigenous people need it badly. Asians need it badly. Their participation in this country is overwhelming.
DEADLINE: When we watched that horrifying video of George Floyd, my thought was, there needs to be more black police officers in the streets, and in leadership positions. I didn’t see any black officers on the scene with George Floyd and I felt it would have made a difference. I’ve covered Hollywood long enough to see the occasional surge in success of black directors, leading people to say, things have changed. I always go back to what Spike Lee says: nothing changes until there are an acceptable number of blacks in decision making positions. All these studios and agencies say they are going to listen. So tell them right now what to do.
OLMOS: We, as the people in our industry, have not…there is no minority head of ABC, CBS, NBC, Universal, Paramount, Disney, Warner Brothers. Never has been and never will be. There never will be because this is the entertainment business. It’s not the entertainment society for social relevance and understanding of life. No, this is a business, and the business was created back when the audiovisual event…well, the audiovisual event happened in 1917, but the visual event happened even earlier with Edison when he made the Motorola. Francis Coppola calls his company American Zoetrope. The zoetrope was the first motion picture element that created motion to still life. It was created maybe in the 1890s, 1888, and that being said, the exploitation and the usage, and an understanding of the marketing of motion pictures came a short time after. I think the first motion picture was maybe in 1906, but the first sound movie was The Jazz Singer, 1927, with Al Jolson. You’d sit down in a dark room and you’d get this element of still motion pictures that are created to get movement, and that has sound, and people say something, and you can hear them, and that was…the people loved it, and to this day it’s kept its magic.
It also came with the understanding of who made it. It was done by Caucasian European people, and they’ve controlled it since then and they never wanted to give up that control, and to this day they don’t want to. You get people that start to make any kind of a noise, like right now we have a couple of companies that are coming along. African Americans, and Latinos have one studio but I don’t know if the two brothers are going to be able to pull it off. They’re in Atlanta. They used to run Tyler Perry’s company and now they’re starting their own motion picture company, and I hope they make it because we need it.
I tried to become…I put my hat in the ring when Warner Bros was trying to make an independent, low budget section named for their famous water tower. This was 20 or 30 years ago. It was called Water Tower, and I put my hat in the ring with Bob Daly and Terry Semel and asked them if I could run it. Make me the president. Of course, they said no. You’re kidding. Give me a break. You’re a good actor, Ed. Go make your movies. And so, they wouldn’t let me.
DEADLINE: What would you have done if they’d said yes?
OLMOS: I would’ve made independent movies at low budget, but I would’ve made them with cultural diversity at its helm. That’s in front of the camera and behind the camera. Everybody would’ve been diverse and understood the standing of it, and how important it would be for us to be successful and do great work as a multi-ethnic group of people to get out here and make the director who’s a woman who’s Chinese, and Asian, and the director photography is a Latino, a woman. The sound man is a woman…African American woman. Just watch, man, we’ll make movies with nothing but women, and they’ll be great movies and people will say wow, that’s a really good movie.
The industry is not diversified at all. As a matter of fact, one of the biggest difficulties we have today is that Hollywood has turned the whole diversity issue into a black and white issue, so it’s all about Africans and Caucasians having it out, and of course, the Asian, and the Indigenous, and the Latino are nowhere to be found. They’re nowhere.
DEADLINE: Is there a solution?
OLMOS: Yeah, there is. The solution is diversity becomes not a word or a phrase. It’s like freedom and clarity, and understanding the difficulties of justice in America. Justice means something and if we’re not equally balanced with justice being balanced for everybody in the same way you’re going to have a problem. Well, we’re that way right now with diversity. We’re not balanced. It’s a black and white issue. We have to let it become a multicultural significant issue so that the indigenous people have their ability to make their films with their stories that are commercial and can attract an audience around the world.