From an immigration crackdown to the coronavirus pandemic, the first term of President Trump’s administration has had a profound — and often adverse — effect on America’s Hispanic population. And yet, Trump’s support among Latinx voters remains surprisingly strong heading into a pivotal election that pits him against former Vice President Joe Biden. Edward James Olmos, for one, isn’t shocked that the race for voters is competitive within his community. “Latinos are very conservative,” the veteran actor, director and activist tells Yahoo Entertainment during a conversation about his new film, The Devil Has a Name. “They hear the dogma that’s being thrown out by [the Republican] side that Joe Biden and the Democrats are socialists and communists. That fear that is put out there on that level is nothing more than that — it’s fear, and they’re putting it there for a reason.” (Watch Yahoo Entertainment’s video interview above.)
Olmos connects Republicans’ fear-inducing messaging to the way Trump and party officials have been fighting to undermine confidence in mail-in voting. “They say, ‘You could cheat,’” he says. “There’s been seven states in the union that have been using write-in ballots for decades, and they’ve never had any problems with it. There are going to be issues with it, and they’re going to be talking about it in a political way, and that’s why [Trump] has got a really conservative judicial system in place.”
Ultimately, though, Olmos feels that Biden is going to emerge victorious, both with Latinx voters and America at large. “I think [Trump] will be very surprised in knowing that it was just too much: Too many people are going to vote to go with Joe than to go with him. It’s not going to be close, not even close, not at all. There will be a sense of ‘stand back and stand by,’” he says, referring to the phrase Trump used in the first presidential debate when asked if he would condemn white supremacists. “I say, stand up and stand and deliver.”
For the record, the Stand and Deliver star will definitely be going with Biden and has actively been encouraging everyone else to do the same — a conscious break from his past practices. “I’ve never told people how to vote; I’ve only said, ‘Please vote,’” he explains. “But this year I’m voting for Joe Biden, period. Nothing that anyone can say can change the perspective of what we know about the two individuals that are running for president. Nothing. Just look at the truths. One side weighs heavily on humanity; the other side weighs very heavily on one person’s feeling about themselves.”
Just in case there’s any confusion about which side is which, the actor describes Trump as a narcissist who notoriously launched his presidential campaign in 2015 with a direct attack on Mexican immigrants, describing them as “rapists” and drug smugglers. “The first thing he said was about my culture, and he destroyed my culture,” says Olmos, whose father moved from Mexico to California in the 1940s. “Am I angry about that? No. What I am is sensitive and understanding that what he said, he believes. He believes in white supremacy.
“He can do that,” Olmos continues. “He can not like Mexicans; he can build the highest wall he wants to. He can keep everybody out of the United States of America and see if that makes a better America. ... He can feel that way, but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think that being part of that kind of behavior is anything but unbelievably naive and stupid. Anybody that believes that there are good people in the Ku Klux Klan, you have to realize what that means. ... What we’re having right now is an experience that allows you to have a choice of having democracy in this country or having this really strong and ugly dictatorship that would completely bury the democracies that have been here for hundreds of years and [that others have] fought and died for.”
As a longtime social activist for Hispanic causes, Olmos has been part of that fight. The Devil Has a Name, which will be available in theaters, as well as on-demand and digital services on Oct. 16, brings together his twin careers as a filmmaker and activist for a timely story of corporate malfeasance and environmental justice. Olmos directed, produced and co-starred in the movie, which features David Strathairn as a California farmer whose land is poisoned by a profit-minded oil company fronted by Kate Bosworth’s ladder-climbing executive. The Devil Has a Name takes place in the present day, but its environmental message stretches back to the 1950s when celebrated labor organizer Cesar Chavez mobilized the power of migrant farmer workers.
“Cesar was a great person who brought a voice to the voiceless,” Olmos says. “I’m giving voice to the water contamination that is happening in the central valley in Bakersfield as we speak. The movie touches on the environment, and the push and pull between protecting versus exploitation. We really have to take into consideration that there’s global warming, and we have to understand what the scientists are telling us. We have to watch our footprint and see what we’re doing.”
Another way that Olmos combines his artistic and activist pursuits is via the Youth Cinema Project, which is currently hosting a series of Latinx-focused live virtual readings in association with the Latino Film Institute. “I would tell kids today that the most important aspect of your life right now is to give more than you receive,” the actor says, addressing the next generation of socially minded storytellers. “Most of the kids right now are like sponges: They’re absorbing, but they’re not giving back. You want to feel good, and then help be part of the solution.”
Read on for Olmos’s memories about some of his best-known roles, from Jaime Escalante to William Adama.
Stand and Deliver (1988)
Olmos played East Los Angeles calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, whose celebrated life story provided the basis for this much-loved high school drama.
“Jaime was a brilliant man, who really did change the course for everyone he touched. He was also a very conservative Republican and proud of it. I wonder what he would have said about Trump! But he helped so many kids throughout the years; they struggled with self-esteem and self-respect and were changed by what he taught them.”
My Family (1995)
Gregory Nava’s generations-spanning drama about a Mexican-American family featured an all-star cast of Latinx actors that included Olmos, Jimmy Smits, Lupe Ontiveros and a young Jennifer Lopez.
“Director Gregory Nava created a really wonderful experience of what the Mexican-American experience is like in this country. He's a great storyteller. He also did the TV show American Family, which was the first broadcast television show dealing with Latino themes. I like his work.”
Olmos reunited with both Lopez and Nava for the hit biopic about the late Tejano singer. The movie launched J.Lo’s big-screen career into the stratosphere.
“I will say that’s the best performance that [Jennifer] has ever given in her life. She may feel differently, and I’m sure she does! But as far as I’m concerned, it’s the most beautifully constructed piece of artistic work she ever had. She should have gotten an Oscar nomination and won the Academy Award for that performance. She was just way ahead of her time.”
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
Olmos brought dramatic gravitas and emotional gravity to Ronald D. Moore and David Eick’s masterful reboot of the cheesy 1970s sci-fi series.
“The trajectory of that character, William Adama, was so well-constructed: He was the admiral of that ship and was completely destroyed and then had to come back from that. You never saw Kirk go on that kind of journey — you don’t see powerful men ever show their vulnerability as weakness. They’re always strong, and they stay strong, but in Adama’s case he completely lost it. The show really ended up going full circle; there were a lot of loose ends, but who cares? It was a beautiful ending that was also very tragic. It went to the max!”
The Devil Has a Name premieres Friday, Oct. 16 in theaters, on-demand and digital.
— Video produced by Gisselle Bances
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