Among the chrome skyscrapers and beckoning show lights in Downtown Miami stands The Freedom Tower, a government building with a distinctive Mediterranean flair that processed Cuban refugees who fled the nearby Caribbean nation to pass the time between Fidel Castro and democracy.
Cuban-born actor Yul Vázquez was one of those thousands of exiles who found themselves in that immigrant wave’s Ellis Island, waiting for rations of powdered milk, cans of SPAM and surplus eggs, holding his mother’s hand next to his sister.
Everyone in that tower thought the situation was temporary. That was in 1971. Fifty years have passed, and Vázquez has kept himself occupied, amassing over 60 combined roles in movies, television and theater.
“People say to me, ‘Yul, you never stop working!’ I always tell people that I have that Cuban exile mentality,” he told Variety. “My mother got here with two kids that didn’t speak English, and she immediately went to get two jobs to support us. That mentality is a very real thing and a very powerful thing.”
You’ve seen Vázquez’s face — simultaneously sharp and youthful, a Desi Arnaz doppelgänger for the next generation, and instantly recognizable (though, perhaps not by name). He’s been in “A-Team,” “Russian Doll,” “War of the Worlds,” “Traffic,” “The Infiltrator,” “Sex and the City,” Magic City” and “The Outsider,” to name a few standout titles from his extensive résumé.
Recently, Vázquez portrayed Peter Kilmer on Apple TV Plus’ slow-burn sci-fi thriller “Severance” alongside Adam Scott and Patricia Arquette but was killed off memorably by the end of the third episode. He also played Father Ramos on Matt Lopez’s “Promised Land” with Bellamy Young and Cecilia Suárez. The status of that show, which was banished from ABC to Hulu mid-season, is in contention. While Petey won’t be making a comeback to Lumon’s severed floor on the show (RIP), and “Promised Land” may go down in television history as one of the many series that deserved a second shot but was prematurely slashed by the powers-that-be, Vázquez remains booked and busy.
Vázquez spoke about his run on “Severance” and “Promised Land” with Variety, his surprising personal connection to his upcoming part in HBO’s “The White House Plumbers,” and how becoming America’s go-to Cuban character actor was both the product of hard work and destiny.
Like many Cubans, Vázquez’s first name starts with a Y, a wink toward the Soviet Union’s influence on the island. Specifically, Vázquez was named after Russian Renaissance man Yul Brynner, a polyglot best known for playing “The King and I’s” King Mongkut both on stage and on-screen, later winning awards for both portrayals. Brynner also directed, wrote, played instruments and photographed, channeling his energies into creative pursuits.
Vázquez’s namesake may have both been a gift and a curse, imbuing in him a nagging need for artistic self-expression in whatever medium was readily available.
By the time he was six years old, Vázquez was banging on cardboard boxes with sticks and pencils, imitating the house band that would play at the theater where his mother worked. She used to take him to her day job, opting to immerse him in the arts rather than spend money she didn’t have on a more traditional babysitter. Vázquez lived in cramped digs when he and his family moved to Miami, and a natural inclination toward showmanship and making noise, as well as being the youngest and the only boy in the house, led his mother to encourage his budding talents, rather than temper them.
“This should tell you just how amazing my mother was,” Vázquez began. “She bought me a drum kit while living in an efficiency apartment in Miami Beach — essentially, a studio apartment with my mother and my grandmother and my sister and I.” Later, as Vázquez began to show signs of interest in the visual arts, his mother bought him his first camera, a clunky 75-center, from the local thrift store.
Vázquez credits his mom’s consistent support in catapulting him to a lifelong love of performance. He was a frontman for the 80s hard rock bands Urgent and Diving for Pearls. Though those acts were short-lived, Vázquez still picks up his guitar pick. In the fourth episode of “Severance,” Vázquez plays a cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”
It was also through his time as a rocker that he became a Mambo King. Surrounded by Jim Morrison lookalikes, Vázquez wound up at a casting call for Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” biopic, given that he had just the amount of long, shabby hair to fit the bill. People in his music circle incentivized him to take a chance on something somewhat new — his only other acting gigs were small, filler parts in his mother’s plays. His first agent discovered him there, and although he did not score that gig, she did wind up paying for him to get a trim and go to acting school. It paid off: by 1992, Vázquez was playing Flaco on Arne Glimcher’s “The Mambo Kings,” Antonio Banderas’ breakout role in the United States.
Between his “Mambo Kings” appearance and a Tony Award win in 2011 for “The Motherfucker With the Hat” opposite Chris Rock, Vázquez was in over 30 features, including “Runaway Bride,” “Bad Boys II” and “Little Fockers.” In addition, he made appearances shows like “Seinfeld” as Bob, the Intimidating Gay Guy, and “The Sopranos” as Reuben the Cuban, and he even lent his voice to Cartoon Network’s cult animated series “Courage the Cowardly Dog.” When he wasn’t on a set, he was getting his paintings and his photographs showcased and sold in galleries. In 2002, Vázquez married Linda Larkin, the voice of Princess Jasmine from Disney’s “Aladdin;” actor Sam Rockwell was his best man.
Vázquez points to his Tony Award as one of the most pivotal moments in his acting career for directors to take note of his potential. “It opened a lot of eyes. I’d been around for a long time by then, for about 20 years, but I don’t think they paid attention until that win,” he said.
Though Vázquez was still getting the “Hispanic character” role, he was no longer playing a tokenized bit part— instead, they got more serious and meaningful.
In 2013, he was tapped to portray the real-life United States Naval captain Frank Castellano in the biographical action film “Captain Phillips” alongside Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, which received six Academy Award nods. Over the past decade, Vázquez’s on-screen Latino representation has gotten more authentic and nuanced as writers rooms have begun to diversify and inclusion has become more of a priority in Hollywood. That trend has not gone unnoticed by Vázquez.
Vázquez grew up surrounded by American kids, so his English is Americanized — but he can switch on a thick, Cuban accent on command if need be. “That’s helped me. That has opened many doors for me and allowed me to play various characters. So, to that extent, it’s been great to be Cuban in Hollywood. I mean, sometimes the spelling of my last name can prevent me from getting a part, but it’s helped me get it for some other parts. So it’s all a give and a take.”
Recently, Vázquez felt the responsibility of being a Latino in Hollywood weighed on him in a way it hadn’t in his previous 30 years in the business. For the first time, Vázquez found himself with other actors across the Latinx-identifying spectrum for “Promised Land,” ABC’s first-ever almost-100% Latino project— from its showrunner to its cast and crew, down to its themes. Vázquez played a Mexican priest and brother-in-law to the Sandoval Rach patriarch, Father Ramos.
“It was a pretty big deal. It was not taken for granted at all by anyone on this show. We knew we had to be at our best, that we had to be better than good because there is so much already working against us,” Vázquez said.
Hispanics watch the most TV on both broadcast and SVOD platforms in the country and make up a significant portion of the population, but they are still primarily shunned by Hollywood. Such neglect is reflected in the amount of Latino-powered projects that survive in the industry, what types of Latinos are represented on TV, and how Latino stories are told. To get a series like “Promised Land” on ABC — a bilingual, multigenerational ode to Mexican immigrants set to a lush Sonoma Valley backdrop with loads of telenovela and prestige drama tropes — was groundbreaking.
Currently, the fate of “Promised Land,” which stars Vázquez’s fellow LABrynth Theater Company founding member and longtime friend, John Ortiz, is tenuous. “Promised Land,” which was marketed poorly by ABC, was booted from the channel after five episodes with lackluster ratings, despite overwhelmingly positive critical reception. The show finished its inaugural season on Hulu at the end of March 2022, and a Season 2 renewal remains TBD.
“I want this show, and I want Latin shows, in general, to do well because it says to the network and the world that they can make money and be successful. That hurts other potential Latino shows coming down the line when they’re not. So I want to say that representation is the most important thing, but we all know that networks thrive and make decisions based on economics, not diversity,” Vázquez said.
Next, Vázquez will portray Bernard “Macho” Barker on HBO’s “The White House Plumbers.” Barker was one of the real-life, anti-Castro Cuban exiles recruited by the FBI to overthrow the dictator, and he was one of the burglars paid by Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign fundraising committee to break into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
“These guys were our heroes in Miami,” Vázquez said and began trailing off the Cuban men involved in the Watergate burglary by their nicknames— Macho, Musculito and Villo, aka Bernard Baker, Eugenio Martínez and Virgilio González. “It was an honor to play Barker, to be honest with you.” Martínez and González are portrayed by Cuban actors Nelson Ascencio and Tony Plana, respectively, in the forthcoming miniseries.
Barker, a Havana-born Jew who wound up in a German POW camp during World War II, was also one of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion organizers. Part of why it was such an honor to portray him, Vázquez explained, is that his uncle probably crossed paths with Barker. Both were members of Brigada Asalto 2506, a CIA-sponsored group of Cuban exiles that attempted to topple the Cuban government headed by Castro. His personal connection to the series was one that director David Mandel was unaware of when casting him.
According to Vázquez, he was wearing a replica of the Brigade 2506 ring while acting, and it was a surreal and unforgettable experience.
“I work very hard. I will work harder than anyone. There’s been an element— I don’t want to say luck, because I think luck can discount hard work sometimes. And I’ve made much of my good fortune. But, I’m grateful to have never taken any of this for granted,” Vázquez said, noting that he often thanks directors after working on series or films for trusting him with a role. “It’s important never to forget that.”
When Vázquez was asked about his Cuban-ness and if or how it has affected his career in Hollywood earlier in our interview, he responded by quoting fellow Cuban contemporary Andy García, “I’m an actor who happens to be Cuban.”
Blessed as Vázquez has been to reside in the United States and live comfortably in this country in the privileged and revered social class of celebrity, he remains a Cuban exile. It isn’t just a drive to work tirelessly stamped in the refugee mentality— there’s also a yearning. It is a homesickness decades in the works. Even if much of that time is spent professionally playing pretend and inhabiting the lives of others, the desire for return lingers. Vázquez is not immune to this, especially when the role hits close.
“Hasta la próxima entrevista en La Habana,” Vázquez signed off. “Until the next interview in Havana.”
All episodes of “Severance” are available on Apple TV Plus, and all episodes of “Promised Land” are available on Hulu. “The White House Plumbers” is coming soon to HBO.
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