The Essential Esai Morales Interview

The veteran actor and activist talks about his inspirations, career, and run for SAG-AFTRA president

By Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Herald de Paris
Published on LatinoLA: July 30, 2013

The Essential Esai Morales Interview

Originally published at Herald de Paris. Republished by permission.

NYPD Blue and Caprica star Esai Morales has joined Criminal Minds as the new FBI BAU section chief. Morales will recur as Matt Cruz, a longtime FBI agent who gets promoted to work with the BAU and has a previous professional relationship with JJ (A.J. Cook) that will be revealed as the season progresses. Might they have worked together during her stint in the Department of Defense? Morales will make his first appearance in the third episode of season nine.

Showrunner Erica Messer previously told that Hotch (Thomas Gibson) would be acting section chief for the summer in the wake of the death of their former boss Strauss (Jayne Atkinson) in the season eight finale. Besides NYPD Blue and Caprica, Morales has appeared in Law & Order: SVU, Burn Notice, and co-starred as Bob Valenzuela in the 1987 biopic La Bamba. He also appeared in the PBS drama American Family and in the Showtime series Resurrection Blvd. However, he is best known for his roles as Lt. Tony Rodriguez on NYPD Blue and Joseph Adama in the science fiction television series Caprica.

Morales is of Puerto Rican descent and was born in Brooklyn, New York to parents Iris Margarita (n?®e Declet), a union activist involved with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, and Esai Morales, Sr., a welder. Morales began his pursuit of an acting career by attending the School of Performing Arts in Manhattan.

His first professional performances were in theater and television in New York and his first film--Bad Boys, about teenagers in prison--was released in 1983. He played the ex-convict and biker half-brother of 1950s rock and roll singer Ritchie Valens in the 1987 movie La Bamba. Some of his other roles have reflected his socio-political interests, such as The Burning Season in 1994, My Family/Mi Familia in 1995, The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca in 1997, and Southern Cross in 1999. In the latter three films, as well as in others such as Bloodhounds of Broadway in 1989 and Rapa Nui in 1994, Morales saw increased amounts of screen time, starting with a role in the Pauly Shore film In The Army Now. He portrayed a police officer in the film Dogwatch in 1996. He played Father Herrera in The Virgin of Juarez.

Morales appeared on television in the mid-1980s on Fame. He co-starred with Burt Lancaster in the NBC-TV miniseries On Wings of Eagles, playing the Iranian Rashid, the hero of a true story about Ross Perot. Morales also appeared in Miami Vice, The Equalizer, and 24.

In the 1990s he guest-starred on episodes of The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt, and two shorter-lived series, L.A. Law The Hunger. He was a featured TV actor seen in a two-part episode of Family Law in 2000. His tenure on NYPD Blue as the head of the 15th precinct detective squad began in mid-season 2001 and continued until 2004 when he decided to cancel his contract. Paid in Full was scheduled for release in October 2002. It marked a return to a criminal character such as those in his previous roles - in this case playing a drug dealer named Lulu.

In 2005, he (along with Mercedes Ruehl) received the Rita Moreno HOLA Award for Excellence from the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA). That same year he contributed his vocal talents to the video game True Crime: New York City playing Sgt. Victor Navarro.

Morales was cast in the film American Fusion and on June 19, 2006, he joined the cast of the Fox series Vanished as FBI agent Michael Tyner alongside actors Gale Harold and Ming-Na. The series was later canceled.

In 2007, he completed filming for Kill Kill Faster Faster, a contemporary film noir inspired by the critically acclaimed novel of the same name by Joel Rose. Later that year Morales appeared in an episode of the USA Network drama series Burn Notice as a Cuban shopkeeper being shaken down for "protection" money by local criminals.
In early 2008, Morales had a role in the CBS drama Jericho as Major Edward Beck. He appeared in all seven episodes of the shortened second season.

In May 2008 it was announced that Morales would play the role of Joseph Adama in the science fiction television series CapricaÔÇô Syfy's prequel to the series Battlestar Galactica. The series premiered on January 22, 2010.

In 2011, Morales starred in the drama film Gun Hill Road as Enrique, and in the web drama Los Americans airing on

Morales has described himself as an "actorvist". He is one of the founders of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, taking inspiration from his mother who was an organizer for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. He is also interested in environmental issues and was a founding board member of E.C.O. (Earth Communications Office).

Mr. Morales is currently running for union president of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild ‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists).

Herald De Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez was honored to speak with Esai through an introduction from mutual friend producer/director Dennis Leoni.

DR. HERNANDEZ: Tell us about your early years growing up in Brooklyn. I understand that your mother was a union activist. Does her work inspire you to this very day?

ESAI MORALES: Brooklyn born, Bronx bred... I felt like the dreamer/day tripper of the neighborhood with a vivid imagination and a longing to transcend the mundane through my love of the arts. My mother inspired me a lot. I can remember growing up hearing her voice in the background on the phone urging others to stop putting up with abuse and to stand up for themselves in order to better their lot in life. She was always helping people - mostly other women - liberate themselves from oppressive relationships whether it was at home or work.

DR. HERNANDEZ: You coined the term "Actorvist". How does that title define you and what social sensibilities and responsibilities come with that mind set?

ESAI MORALES:: I think it's all there in the name: an actor-activist. I'm someone who's not content merely achieving success for its own sake but rather to take my understanding of the human condition and try to move the discussion towards a better world for us all. There's too much apathy and ignorance among the populace keeping us divided and easily conquered by our own fear. I want to dispel the unreasoned fear crippling our societal evolution. That's what I like to tackle as a responsibility. "In Lak'ech Ala K'in" -you are my other self - is a Mayan greeting that I try to live by as often as possible.

DR. HERNANDEZ: How did you get to attend The School of Performing Arts in Manhattan? Was it your goal at that time to be an actor? How was it there at the time? Who were some contemporaries?

ESAI MORALES: I auditioned with one instead of two monologues and made the cut anyway. That was a life saving moment for me for I don't think I would've survived a 'normal' high school experience. Performing Arts was an island of individual artists in a sea of conformist institutions where the bullying might've driven me to suicide or murder. It was great at PA. Wesley Snipes went there for a year or so as well as others who worked a lot in the biz, but are less well known.

DR. HERNANDEZ: What was your first big break in New York?

ESAI MORALES: While doing a play right out of high school at The Ensemble Studio Theater called "El Hermano" by Romulus Linney, I got my first and quite a nice review from the NY Times. Also, I was cast as one of many Ariel's in "The Tempest" with Raul Julia at Joseph Papp's Public Theater production as part of the Shakespeare in the Park. That was heaven for me. There's nothing like working under the stars at the DeLacorte Theater in the middle of Central Park in NYC.

DR. HERNANDEZ: How and when did you decide to come to Hollywood and what was your first big break?

ESAI MORALES: I first came to Hollywood during the promotion of "Bad Boys" with Sean Penn and that put me on the map. I realized that there was so much more film work here so I came back more often. I finally moved here in the late eighties around the time we shot La Bamba. You could say "Bad Boys" put me on the map and "La Bamba" kept me there.

DR. HERNANDEZ: Tell us about La Bamba. Did the role cause you to be type-cast? Can you ride a Harley?

ESAI MORALES: I auditioned for "La Bamba" after reading the script, which moved me to tears. Rarely, if ever, had I seen a bona-fide Hollywood script with Latino characters fleshed out as real human beings. It was a rare opportunity to play a role with my name on it - literally. I seldom, if ever, saw this in movies and/or TV. Even though they wanted to see me for the Ritchie character, my heart was set on playing Bob Morales. Of course I would gravitate toward the character with all the pain and pathos. It was a challenge that I was eager to take on.

I learned how to ride a motorcycle for the role. It was a '68 Harley Davidson Sportster rigged to look like a '48 Indian. The original had a suicide clutch which was way out of my comfort zone as a beginner.

DR. HERNANDEZ: You have done stage, screen and TV. Which platform do you enjoy the most and why? As an artist, what is the dream?

ESAI MORALES: I enjoy them all because they each have different upsides. As an actor, theater gives you the most time to prepare, experiment, and get immediate feedback upon performance. In film you get more time than you would in television but now, as a father, the pace and the pay of television is hard to beat. I like the challenge of coming up with something cool and compelling quickly, yet have the good fortune of exploring and revealing our characters for the duration of the series.

DR. HERNANDEZ: Do you want to write, direct, produce? What kinds of stories are not being told?

ESAI MORALES: Yes, to directing and producing if and when the right story comes along. I don't know if I have the patience to write. I respect that craft enough to leave it to its experts.

I am currently working on putting together a landmark slate of inspirational and compelling stories of Americans who have contributed to this nation's greatness - people who have been left out and/or ignored by our narrowly focused historical narrative. These are people who achieved great things for all Americans through their struggles for social justice in trying times.

DR. HERNANDEZ: What are some of the more challenging roles you have had? What part did you really want to play but were not given the opportunity?

ESAI MORALES: Nothing is more challenging (and rewarding) than being a father. Every other role I've played pales in comparison to the point that I can't even think of a specific answer to your question. As far as acting goes, the best is yet to come, though I did want to pay Che Guevara.

DR. HERNANDEZ: Speaking of challenging roles, why have you decided to run for the union office of SAG-AFTRA president?

ESAI MORALES: Because I truly believe we can do better for our members and our industry, to be quite frank. We were merged without due diligence and promised a lot of things that have yet to come to fruition. It's time to put past squabbles behind us and make the most of our current situation in order to really move ahead with the business of our union. We need transparency and democracy back in our board rooms. I believe in our motto 'one union' but I would add 'for all' to it in name AND practice...

DR. HERNANDEZ: What is the Membership 1st slate?

ESAI MORALES: Membership 1st is a group of experienced and committed actors who believe that the union needs to be more responsive and accountable to its members first and foremost. Then we avoid the pitfalls of a 'company union' which may be more concerned with its own welfare than that of its constituents.

Go to our website:

DR. HERNANDEZ: What is the problem with the casting directors workshop situation? I understand you believe it is illegal.

ESAI MORALES: What I spoke about had to do with some of the call-in services that charge more actors than they can effectively service and find employment for. There seems to be no limits that protect our less savvy members from paying for a chance to increase the odds of finding work whether it's a simple misunderstanding or deliberate and unwarranted exploitation. We need to protect our most vulnerable.

DR. HERNANDEZ: You had mentioned that the A-list actors don't really need the union, but the middle class actors do. How do you define a middle class actor?

ESAI MORALES: Middle Class actors are the people who dedicate their lives to their craft and achieve a level of success and notoriety while never getting a film financed and green lit. They are the supporting cast or the leads of independent films and they have families to support. Along with this comes the rising cost of staying relevant in an industry which requires a team of agents, lawyers, business managers and publicists who don't come cheap. That's a middle class actor. The ones you see over and over again but don't necessarily remember their names - usually because they are all about the work and not caught up in the celebrity aspect of the business. They are now in crisis and need an industry that hears and addresses their vital needs. They are vital players in this business and we can't afford to lose many more to a dearth of adult themed programming.

DR. HERNANDEZ: What should be the role of SAG-AFTRA in the lives of working actors? How has it been for most working actors up until now? Has the union helped or hindered actors' rights?

ESAI MORALES: They are there to set the standard by which our employers provide wage floors and working conditions; they should help protect and guide their members. When the union completes a successful negotiation, its wins are shared by all and we don't have to negotiate every single other employee's contract repeatedly thus saving our employers time and money.

The union serves as the only voice for the solitary worker who cannot possibly compete with the resources of management giants like the ones we work for. Where else can one go if they are unjustly treated in the workplace? I think the unions are indispensable, but only if they're really engaged with their members on many levels and actually doing what they were designed to do.

Be sure to see Esai on season nine of Criminal Minds which premieres Wednesday, Sept. 25 at 9/8c on CBS.

About Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Herald de Paris:
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