Here’s one of the safer statements you could make about today’s TV landscape: it will always be in a better state when Jimmy Smits is a part of it. The Emmy and Golden Globe-winning star of L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, Dexter, and Sons of Anarchy is now starring in Fox’s 24: Legacy — following his POTUS role on The West Wing with another character angling to become the president of the United States, albeit one who’s dealing with as much threat from his family as he is from his political opponents.
Smits, who also stars in Netflix’s The Get Down, which premieres its second season on April 7, and who just completed narration for an April episode of PBS’s Nature series, talked to Yahoo TV about joining the cast of one of his favorite TV series and how 24: Legacy has required him to be a little more of an action star than he’d planned to be — especially as his character, Sen. John Donovan, starts to spend time with star Corey Hawkins’s terrorist-thwarting, world-saving Eric Carter.
He also previews what’s ahead for his Papa Fuerte on The Get Down, and shares what it would take to get him back in the legal game for that upcoming L.A. Law remake, or back on the less law-abiding side of TV land — complete with those cardigan sweaters — as Nero Padilla on Kurt Sutter’s upcoming Sons of Anarchy spinoff.
You’ve said you were a 24 fan before signing on for the show. At what point did everything gel for you as a cast member being in one of your favorite shows?
New York Comic Con [in 2016]. For me and much of the cast, that day was a really big indicator of if we were in the right zip code of the 24 universe, because the Comic Con audiences are very discerning, and they’re very vociferous about telling people when they’re not feeling little changes that are made, casting-wise, or changes in the [show’s] world, or of the lore of a particular beloved series or franchise. The 20-some minutes that we got to show before the panel… I don’t know if you know, but we were all in the back really in tune with [the audience], because it was the first time, besides teasers, that we were actually showing a big chunk of it. It was just really refreshing. We already knew that Fox was talking about doing a post-Super Bowl premiere and all that. It was more important, for me anyway, to feel the vibe of the first five minutes of the audience — hearing that familiar clock, and the multiple screens, and really relishing that part. To hear them being won over by Corey’s character in the first few minutes, and rejoicing when Anna (Diop, as Nicole Carter) picked up a gun and knocked out one of the bad guys — all of those things were very indicative for me that we were on the right path.
If I remember correctly, the NYCC audience cheered and clapped the first time we heard the clock.
Yeah, but that was because of the familiarity of the franchise itself. Then there was this, “All right, I’m going to fold my arms now. Win me over.” It was cool to feel that we did that, and that they embraced Corey.
You got one of the biggest audience responses when you came out on the stage for the panel.
Okay, okay, okay, okay. That’s only because I’m the old guy. I’m the senior member.
No, before production even began, I talked to 24 producer Howard Gordon, and we agreed that it felt like you had already been a part of the show. It just seemed like 24 and Jimmy Smits was a match that had, or should have, happened already.
Thanks for saying that. I was a big fan of the show beforehand, and one of the reasons why I jumped on board is because the visual template of the show was so iconic. That pilot episode aired just a little bit after 9/11. That was a very sensitive time, but just in terms of the way we receive information, entertainment information I’m talking about now, multiple screens, and the real-time format — the show was really a game changer in terms of the way people view television. The fact for me that the guy who directed the initial pilot episode, Stephen Hopkins, was helming [the 24: Legacy premiere], and that Howard was involved, and that both Manny [Coto] and Evan [Katz], who had done a big chunk of episodes in the middle of the life of the show [were, too] — there was a certain comfort level that I had as a performer in terms of jumping on board. It wasn’t like somebody was saying, “Let’s do this again.” They wanted to really expand the universe.
The fact that they chose Corey: I was impressed with his work on Straight Outta Compton, but I have a bromance with this guy now in terms of him as a man and as an actor, what he brings to the party. I love the fact that they have a really diverse cast. I think I alluded to this before when I was talking about Anna, but in terms of what Miranda [Otto] is doing, and Anna’s character, I love that the women characters are really there in a proactive way, and that they move the storyline. The worst feeling is when you have an allusion towards some kind of diversity, but the character is really powerless or ineffective, because then you get that token thing, when it just reeks of that. To me, all across the board, the female characters were very proactive and moved the story along. I appreciate that. The prospect of where the springboard was for relationships and characters, and what could possibly be… there was a big comfort zone for me. Then, I wanted to delve a little bit more into this action genre.
Did you end up liking that aspect of it?
We just finished the 12th episode. I was thinking that the rollout of my guy, John Donovan, would be maybe largely behind a desk or podium, being that he was in campaign mode, but it really turned into something that was a lot more in the action lane on a lot of levels. I took a lot of anti-inflammatories. I got to do a little running around. That was cool. It had much more of an emotional landscape to it than I thought initially that it would.
Was that a good thing?
Yeah, for me it was great. Being that you have to take into account that this is an ensemble show and there are many different spokes to the wheel, and you see from the pilot and first couple of episodes that there are multiple storylines going on, you want to know that when you’re up to bat you’re getting stuff that’s, I don’t want to say juicy, but that you could have some kind of emotional resonance, as well.
The Donovan family is compelling. I want to know more about the family’s backstory, John and Rebecca’s romance, the history of John’s relationship with his dad (played by Gerald McRaney). The Donovans could be their own drama series. How much of that was written when you signed on? Did you know how much of a force this family was going to turn out to be?
Not really. Originally, they were talking about something along the lines of a Tennessee Williams, Big Daddy-kind of character, that type of relationship. An oil mogul-type thing. That’s been tempered a little. I’m just telling you what the initial stuff was. What we talked about more than anything in terms of the first 12 episodes was that relationship between this political power couple and what happens in that dynamic — that in any kind of industry, when you have a couple that is very successful in a pressurized professional scape, they had made silent contracts with each other about what they’ll do to further their relationship, and their professional aspirations, as well. What happens when people have to step back for a moment to let the other one shine? Also, being in the same governmental sphere, because of that, because of the secrets that are kept knowingly, or unknowingly… those are all dynamics that unfold in the 12 episodes with regards to our characters. That was what the pitch was from the [producers] when they sat down with me and talked about, “It’s going to be more than what you see in the pilot.”
You had never worked with Gerald McRaney before this. How did you build your rapport so quickly for this father-son relationship? It’s a powerful dynamic, and with just 12 episodes in the whole season, you really only had one or two to get that spark going with that storyline.
We’d [only] seen each other socially at award shows and the like. I’m a big-time fan of his from Simon & Simon. And now I have a real Major Dad. With regards to working with Mac, as opposed to the stuff with Miranda, we had a little bit of time to talk about it, because Gerald’s stuff came in a little bit later. It was condensed. And he comes to his stuff with an A-game. It’s no surprise that the guy is on House of Cards, and This Is Us, and 24: Legacy at the same time. That’s the gravitas and all those powerful dynamics that he exudes. It’s only because he’s a true professional. I guess I’m rambling because what we had to do as actors was, and as it sometimes happens when you have a romance on-screen, too — here’s the person who’s playing your wife, and now let’s do that love scene that’s on page 32 — you have to find ways as actors to bond with each other really quickly. With us, besides the fact that we have had mutual people that we know in the business in common, it was just talking, having conversations about Simon & Simon, his work on Major Dad, and just talking about our family lives, too. That was the glue that was able to make us really stick together and feel like a family very quickly.
What about working with Miranda? Had you watched her work, especially on the previous season of Homeland?
Of Homeland? Are you kidding me? That was like, “Oh my God. Work with her? Cool, so cool.” Yeah, and Miranda was a different deal, because our commonality thing was the theater. She comes from a theater family in Australia. We talked a lot about material and plays that we like, and people that we know in common. I worked in Australia a number of times. Yeah, she did some really cool work, got to be a really cool baddie on Homeland, don’t you think? It was cool for her to be able to show her nice side and her strong side here.
The fifth episode of the season airs tonight, so we’re nearly at the halfway mark, and without spoiling anything, this is where the various Donovan family members all start to come together, where all their stories begin to merge in a big way.
Right. The fifth episode is when there’s a realization that dad, Henry Donovan, has been complicit in some form in setting up [John’s] campaign manager. Yeah, at that point, there’s a realization that the campaign might have to be suspended, and, are we going to cover this up? More importantly, there’s something very pressing with this terrorist threat, the potential terrorism thing that’s happened that needs to be gotten to the bottom of, to go to this relationship dynamic of letting Rebecca do what she does best, and go back to CTU, and get to the bottom of this.
And, you know, it’s 24, so it’s going to take some deep, dark turns, definitely.
Have you thought at all about future seasons of the show?
They haven’t gotten an official pick-up yet to my knowledge. There were conversations that we had, because I had to make some performance choices in the latter episodes. I needed to know, “What are you guys thinking about where we’re going?” Especially in the last episodes of the season… the whole thing about what you would do to get to the truth, but with much more of a sense of resolve. As the episodes go on, there’s much more of an interaction between Corey’s character and my character. So, yeah, I had to make some decisions. We did have to allude to next season. There were a lot of little surprises that I had to be fluid with.
You were talking about Gerald McRaney and the variety of his recent roles. You’ve got a lot of that going recently, too, with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Get Down, Rogue One, and 24: Legacy. You were excellent in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Any chance we will see Mr. Santiago return?
I don’t know. I had fun, a really great time doing that. It was right in the middle of two episodes of doing 24. There were some makeup and hair things that we had to deal with. I’m just a big fan of that show, first of all, because it has that police dynamic. I always used to get the NYPD Blue pangs when I would see them in the bullpens and interview rooms. And I was a huge Barney Miller fan. It harkens back to Barney Miller a bit, and then has that zany quality, and what Andy [Samberg] brings to it. It almost feels like they’re riffing, but they’re not. There is a jazz quality to it. There is method to the seeming chaos. As long as people are specific about the characters’ point of view, I guess that’s when they tend to pop. You get a character like what Andre [Braugher] is doing on the show, which is an anchor in a lot of ways, but you know that his character, [Capt. Holt], he’s very, very specific in terms of his point of view and his life story and all that. The audience engages in that, and they relish to know how he’s going to react in a particular situation with Andy’s character.
What can you say about Papa Fuerte in Season 2 of The Get Down, which jumps ahead about a year in the story?
Not looking good for Papa Fuerte. He’s going to take some tumbles. I’m channeling some of my own uncles, God bless them, in that character. Some still with us, and some who are on the other side. So there’s a special little thing I have for this guy, and where he comes from. You got to remember that the thrust of the show is the music, and that particular time, and the story of these kids.
There’s an L.A. Law revival in the works. What are the chances that Victor Sifuentes will return? He should be a judge by now, right?
Come on, why settle for judge? He could be the mayor of Los Angeles. What are you talking about?
I love it! Sounds like a great starting point for the new series to me.
Either that or a hardened criminal somewhere. One of the cases went south. I don’t know. I had heard about this, and I saw Bill Finkelstein, who was one of the writers on L.A. Law, and I don’t know what’s been announced, but my understanding was Bill was the one who was doing the writing on the pilot with Steven [Bochco]. I know it’s going to be young guns, and certainly, my God, if you think about all of these landmark, iconic cases that have happened over the past 20 years, the Menendez brothers, O.J., all these cases that were game changers in terms of the way we as the American public perceive the legal system, there’s a lot of fodder for storylines there. I would be very, very interested to know what has been the evolution of Mackenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak, in light of all of these changes, these cases that have happened in the legal system.
And then there’s Mayans MC, the upcoming Sons of Anarchy spinoff. We know it’s set after the activity of Sons, and Kurt Sutter’s still involved, obviously. This could be a way to at least update us on what happened to the people who survived the Sons finale. Any talk about you being involved with that?
I’ve not heard from Kurt about that at all. I know about what’s going on with that only because there are a number of people who are working on 24: Legacy who were working on the original Sons, who are working on the [Mayans MC] pilot, as well. The unit production manager. There’s a bunch of people that we have in common, so I’ve been hearing, kept up to date in terms of what’s going on. Not story-wise. They’re not going to shoot at the same studio that we shot before. It’s going to be different, which I think is a great thing, the right way to go with that. With regards to characters, I know some of the actors that have been announced. Kurt knows where to find me. We’re in walking distance from each other’s houses. If he needs me to be there, to come in and put on Nero’s sweater…
Yes, the sweaters, Nero’s cardigans!
The cardigans, I miss that, too. I’d be more than happy to. I’m fascinated to know what that’s going to be, how it’s going to manifest itself. The guy [Elgin James] who’s working with [Sutter] on the pilot did a movie that hasn’t been released yet. It’s called Lowriders, which has a similar thematic Los Angeles theme to it. I remember looking at that script at one point, and then thinking to myself that whoever wrote that, it’s got some good stuff going on.
On your wish list, be it theater or TV or a movie, what’s at the top for what you’re most interested in doing next?
Okay, so right now, Corey has left Atlanta, and he went straight to New York, where he’s going to be doing a Broadway play. He’s doing a revamp of Six Degrees of Separation, with Allison Janney. I think that that’s such a great move for him, being the young man that he is and the face of this particular franchise now, that he’s going to be in a big movie coming out, the King Kong movie [Kong: Skull Island] that’s coming out real soon. I’ve patted him on the back many times, because I think that’s a really good move for him to do in terms of keeping his instrument in tune. Having said that, I’m not going to do a play. Well, right now I’m not going to. There’s not a play coming up for me. I don’t know… 24, the way it is right now, it’s just 12 episodes. That’s the good thing about this, that it leaves a big bulk of time to do other stuff. I wouldn’t mind getting up there and pitching another series where I might be a little bit more central.
You’ve talked about how much you loved doing Cane. Do you ever think about how it was ahead of its time, and would be much more likely to thrive in the current TV climate?
Yeah, definitely. Since that time of Cane and the writer’s strike… I was in New York recently, on the subway, and people had the devices out and they were watching stuff. They were binge-watching Netflix and all that on the subway. The way we consume media is totally different. To answer your question, yeah, there are homes for a lot of different things that might not have been available during the Cane era, and yes, I want to be able to explore all that stuff.
Maybe another drama with you starring and producing, as you did with Cane?
I’m talking to peeps.
24: Legacy airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on Fox. Watch episodes free on Yahoo View.