Edward James Olmos actor talks to Dark Matter. The roar of the crowd almost drowned Edward out, so this interview is only available in text. If you want to avoid contextual chatter, Edward’s comments are in bold so you can skip straight to them.
Edward James Olmos numbered among Supanova 2012’s special guests at the Melbourne Showgrounds this April. Supanova granted me a brief interview with Edward, described in a tweet a few days earlier as ‘Supanova Actual’ as in, ‘Supanova Actual has arrived’. Most science fiction fans will be aware of Edward’s roles in Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica, as well as having more than a passing familiarity with a number of other roles he’s played, including in the long-running Miami Vice.
Sadly I missed Edward’s panel: there should be a law against putting Really Important Panels first thing on the Saturday morning while I’m getting the lay of the land. By the time I realised time had run away from me, it was 11:30 and I was kicking myself. I sighed and decided not to walk in part way through as I’d probably just get to the bit where fans were asking questions like ‘What would you rather be attacked by, a horse-sized duck or a flock of duck-sized horses?’ (I kid you not, I heard that question twice over the Supanova weekend.) The minion was looking for me around that time and, giving me more credit than I deserved, decided that I’d be in the panel that I’d said I desperately wanted to attend. He walked in to the panel around this time and said Edward was still in full flow, talking about his passions. When I heard this from him, I’m sure he could hear my teeth grinding. I refrained from literally kicking myself.
Edward was sitting at the signing table, chatting to fans and signing photos, when he was interrupted for the interview. Charming, he turned his attention to me, welcoming me with a smile. I was a bit surprised that he looked the same as he did in Battlestar Galactica although, obviously, dressed somewhat differently. I expected more difference without the makeup.
Fans were still queued to speak to Edward so this was going to be a short interview.
‘Thank you for talking to Dark Matter.’ Edward smiled and nodded graciously. ‘Earlier this year in a keynote address to the publishing industry, LeVar Burton said that seeing Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise gave him the knowledge that there was a place for him in the future. Did you have any similar experiences growing up?’
‘Experiences growing up in seeing things that motivated me and pushed me forward or in sci-fi?’ queried Edward.
‘I was thinking more about seeing role models for yourself, knowing that you’re really passionate about social issues.’
‘I think the hardest part was that I couldn’t find myself, not in the original Star Trek, not in the original Star Wars. Chewbacca might have been Latin in some way but I don’t think so. I got to say it took a while. I think that Robert Beltran ended up coming on to Star Trek [Voyager] as one of the lieutenants and then, of course, I went on to do Battlestar, which put us in the position, for the first time, as a cultural dynamic. I didn’t have that. But I do remember getting a phone call from a very close and dear – excellent writer – she’s a playwright. She called me up, crying.
I said, ‘What’s wrong?’
She was heaving sobs, trying to control herself, saying, “He called me up and said, ‘Dea, Dea, Aunty, Aunty, we’re in the future. I saw Battlestar Galactica and we’re in the future.’”
It completely tore her apart, to realise how incredibly difficult it is to travel desert without any water. That’s what it does, like LeVar Burton said, it gave him the ability to have a drink of water in the middle of the desert. It’s really emotional.’
‘During the course of your career, you’ve had many notable roles in TV and movies, including Zoot Suit, Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica. How do you feel about being the equivalent of LeVar’s Uhura to generations of Latinos?’
‘I feel that it is a door and an opportunity that I am very grateful for, but I was given the opportunity to portray these characters and to be an inspiration in that manner, where it’s needed. It’s unlike anything else. You just have to have water to survive. You must have self-esteem, self-respect, and self-worth. You get that from different things in your life. One of the things you get it from, of course, when you find you’re in right place, is the audio-visual event, because it attacks us in the mind. It goes deep inside the soul, the subconscious is attacked, and the images stay there. If you don’t have nothing but stereotypes and negative characters, you are going to be ruined. The balance that is coming out in the United States, it’s very imbalanced. The fact that the balance is non-existent is terrible. The Latino is less than 2% of all the images that are on television in motion pictures and in the theatre and we make up 17% of the population.’ Edward’s demeanour suits the seriousness of the subject material, he is soul-weary but eloquent.
‘And growing, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, yeah. It will be over 20 in the next 10 years. And then, of course, the situation has to be rectified. It’s very hard. They’re very much afraid of us in the United States: our culture is growing so quickly and so disproportionately that they are desperately afraid of us. And I don’t blame them.’
‘Speaking of being afraid, you were in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots in 1992: that must have been a really scary time.’ In 1992 police were in the process of arresting an African-American when they got him down on the ground, made sure he was unarmed, then they stood in a circle kicking and hitting him. Someone filmed this police brutality in action. There was a hearing, which I think included reviewing the film. The hearing let the police officers off. When I heard they got off – after seeing the film play repeatedly on the news – I gasped with shock. Well, a lot of people did more than gasp with incredulity about this miscarriage of justice. There were massive riots in Los Angeles. I recall hearing a phone call from an Australian band who were holed up in a motel in LA during the riots, fearing for their lives, worrying that their building would be destroyed, either with them in it or forcing them out into the open as potential targets. These riots were like a cross between the Trayvon murder case and 9/11 in a pre-9/11 world.
Edward sighed deeply. ‘It was brutal. Brutal because it just got to the point of a lot of hatred. It was a lot of crazy, crazy acting out. 54 to 57 people were killed, 6000 buildings were gutted and burned in a matter of three days, a little less than three days. It just tore the soul out of everyone. Humanity just thought ‘Oh my God, this is really happening.’ It was brutal people were killing each other. They were destroying everything. Police officers – police officers were not to be found. None of them came out. They kept them inside because they knew that they’d kill them, so they kept the men inside. The fire department and ambulances were being shot at by people. It became a real, real difficult experience for me.’ Remembering, Edward looked unhappy and stressed still.
‘A lot of people left in Los Angeles during that time, but you didn’t. You picked up a broom and help clean up. What was that like?’ Anyone who is prepared to get his hands dirty in a clean-up effort, especially in a situation like this, is a hero in my book, just like Australia’s Mud Army were all heroes after the floods in Queensland.
‘It was very emotional. People don’t realise that when I went out with a broom and started to sweep, we were under martial law. The National Guard was coming out and anyone found after daybreak on the street was going to be shot. That was the law. So I went out there about – daybreak was about 5:48, 5:50 – I got out there about five o’clock and I started sweeping with a broom. I said, ‘Okay, if they are going to shoot me, they’re going to shoot me with a broom in my hand just walking along the street. Not making any sense because I was by myself. Buildings were blowing up, it was terrible. Gunfire everywhere, all around me, and I’m walking down the middle of the street with a broom. Then a news crew saw me and filmed me. They went back and put it on the air. Within 30 minutes a truckload of kids – young kids with brooms in their hands – came driving up. The head of the community gang task force was driving the truck. He had a lot of little children of colour in the back of the truck. There were about 13 or 14 of them and they all jumped down with brooms and started sweeping with me. So now there were about 14 or 15 people with brooms, mostly kids, and that’s literally what stopped the largest rebellion, the riots, since the civil war.’
At this point I nearly went into mental overload. I was trying to reconcile Wikipedia’s brief entry on this subject with the memories that Edward’s words triggered. I had a vision – remembered from the news around this time I believe – of a small group of people on a road in the midst of the chaos, footage taken from a helicopter with commentary about ‘emerging’ from hiding and starting the clean-up efforts. Later came news reports about how this event triggered or signified the end of the riots and the beginning of the clean-up effort, and how brave they were. Worst of all the reports I suddenly remembered was one arm-chair political commentator who was, no doubt, in safety while Edward risked his life to make a difference in the world. This commentator completely discounted the risks taken by Edward and that group, stating clearly and repeatedly that they were the city’s cleaners because they are Latinos and they had been ordered by city officials to go out there and clean up. I remembered this report so vividly while Edward spoke, including the pregnant pauses in the dialogue from the journalist conducting the interview who obviously knew better although the commentator was not challenged. The weeks and months following the riots included news reports on how the police were tracking down those who caused damage, injured and killed people during the riots to press charges. I believe the verdict for the Rodney King police brutality case was also overturned and the case reconsidered.
I was practically gasping with this mental cinema going on in my head, needing time to process this sudden inrush of memories and combine it with the fact that the hero of the hour was this middle-aged man sitting before me. ‘That’s amazing.’
Pausing, desperately trying to collect myself and falling back on my question sheet, ‘You mentioned before about not having enough good role models. Wikipedia said you turned down the captaincy of the Enterprise in 1986 (Star Trek: The Next Generation) why did you do that?’
‘Because I had done Blade Runner, and I was doing other pieces of work. At that time I really had no instinctive feel for working in that genre, after doing Blade Runner. It was just too intensely different. One was character driven and the story was profoundly human. The other one was a humanity that was mixed with other kinds of living matter from other worlds. I didn’t want to do that, I didn’t want to go there. I thought that the integrity of Blade Runner was what I would remember as my term in this genre. Then Battlestar was reimagined. That was when the whole thing changed on me. They did take me very seriously when I said, ‘I would do this but the first creature I see from the black lagoon, four-eyed, dual-lipped person, I’m going to faint on camera and then I’m going to walk right off the stage. You’re going to have to write in he died, he had a heart attack, and died.’ That was in my contract.’
‘So to you, Battlestar Galactica was always going to be about people?’
‘From the beginning. Character driven. The real world of Blade Runner was like that: those machines, those replicants, were extraordinary. Just like the Cylons were extraordinary, but they were human.’
Edward’s expression was so determined, so fixed, that I guessed he is either a man of great faith or a great humanist. I wanted to ask him about that but, after being flamed by atheists, I struggled to find the right words that would not offend him either way.
When Edward said, ‘One more ,’ I felt the moment was lost. One more question? I had a hundred.
‘In Battlestar Galactica you portrayed a character whose planet was destroyed and, in the process of fleeing from a one-sided war, your fleet ran short of water. In the here-and-now you encourage your fans to take a stance against frakking and to support organisations that aim to clean up waterways. Was there an intentional seeding of these issues in Battlestar Galactica?’
‘I think everything that was in there was well thought through. Water is an essential aspect of understanding of living. The understanding of being able to deal with terrorism, water hoarding, suicide bombing, the right to choose, the right to life, reconciliation, all the things that came out – I don’t know if you saw what happened at the UN? Go to YouTube, put in Edward James Olmos at the United Nations and you see what happened. God bless you.’
With his farewell, Edward answered my question about his faith.
‘Thank you very much.’ As I collected my things and rose to go, Edward turned back to the never-ending queue of his fans, graciously chatting to them as he signed their photos.
Edward James Olmos at the United Nations, the 3 minute 40 second version
Edward James Olmos at the United Nations, the two hour version
On Blade Runner