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10:34 am
Thu October 3, 2013

Rick Najera: A Latino In Hollywood Is 'Almost White'

Originally published on Fri October 4, 2013 9:32 am

Rick Najera doesn't remember his wife Susie dialing 9-1-1. She came home six hours after Najera had taken a fall that left him bleeding on the floor of his home. The Hollywood actor/writer/producer had pneumonia and ended up in an intensive care unit in a coma.

Rick Najera told NPR's Michel Martin that his near-death experience caused him to reflect.

"I really looked at my life and I said I wanted to chronicle it. I wanted to bring it down and talk about it in a very human, honest way," he says.

Rick Najera has chronicled it all in his latest book, a memoir, titled Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood. The examination of his own career led Najera to realize something bigger.

"My life, just looking at it individually, really tells the whole story of the Latino experience in America," Najera added.

By any count Rick Najera's experience in Hollywood has been illustrious. He's worked with top talent like Sidney Poitier, Whoopi Goldberg, John Leguizamo and Jim Carey. He was a writer for cutting-edge comedy shows like In Living Color and MADtv. He wrote and acted in a successful Broadway production - Latinologues. And he's become a sought after consultant, whose eye for talent has launched the careers of countless actors.

Rick Najera acknowledges that the jobs weren't always easy. The long hours spent in writers' rooms were gruelling, and even on groundbreaking shows, the diversity was lacking.

According to Najera, "Hollywood is ... most likely a scared, white, 20-year-old boy."

This is a problem in writers' rooms, adds Najera, because he says the typical Hollywood writer doesn't have experience interacting on a regular basis with people of color. And Rick Najera adds that a lack of diversity in the writers' room isn't apparent to most audiences.

"A lot of times the writers were the guys in the back room. So no one sees us, but they don't realize we're the ones that are changing everything," he says.

Najera thinks that diversity in the writers' room matters, because it changes the way that shows and scenes are cast.

He explains, "If we write it on a page, if it says, 'An African-American male, two Asian women, and a Mexican man enter a room.' That's a writer that wrote that ... So a casting director gets that and they have to cast it that way. So the power is really in the writers."

Rick Najera says he has hope that Hollywood is changing, and that in a generation more people of color will find their way into writers' rooms and starring roles. Najera hopes that by committing his own story to paper he's doing his part to ensure a more inclusive future.

He added, "We're all slowly changing the dial, and it takes a long time for this change to happen. And it's sad because our worlds are better off with all of us included in them."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. OK, so "Breaking Bad" is over. It's still fall, and that means a new network TV season is just getting started. TV critic Eric Deggans is here, and he'll tell us about that shows you won't want to miss and maybe some you should. That's in just a few minutes. But first, what about Latinos who've made a mark on TV and elsewhere in Hollywood? What names come to mind? Rita Moreno, Desi Arnaz, Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez, John Leguizamo.

Now the name Rick Najera may not be familiar to you, but his work most certainly is. He's a jack of all trades having worked as an actor, a writer on cutting-edge television shows like "Mad TV" and "In Living Color." He's been an executive, a producer, a consultant whose work has helped many other performers get the attention they deserve. But now, following the advice of one of his mentors, he's telling his own story his way, and with that, turning a spotlight onto the experiences of other Latinos in Hollywood. It's called "Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood." And Rick Najera is with us now. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

RICK NAJERA: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Why forced confessions?

NAJERA: Well, you know, I never wanted to tell the story. So the publisher and the editors were like, well, do you really want to say this? And I go, no, not really. And I wanted to write other things. And then they said, write about your life. And I thought, who's going to really want to hear about my life? And then I realized, my life, just looking at it individually, really tells the whole story of the Latino experience in America. So that's how I approached it, was that, you know, anything happening in my life, I put in the book and it exposed what was going on with Latinos in the greater.

MARTIN: One of the things about the book that is striking is that you kind of toggle between these really funny episodes, but some really terrible experiences. You know...

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Starting with the one that opens the book, where you had this really scary account of a bad case of pneumonia that you had not had treated, and it caused you to fall and you wind up in the ICU. You have a seizure, you fall, and you land in the ICU.

NAJERA: Yeah. Yeah, way before Obamacare and anything else could have helped me. So, yeah.

MARTIN: And so that is what kind of forced you to - or encouraged you - forced is the word you used to kind of...

NAJERA: Yeah. I'm one of those writers that doesn't like to write. But I've written so much material, it's ridiculous. And so when the coma happened, basically, I went through a seizure, had hit my head, nearly bled to death and went into a coma, and my brain was swelling and all of that. I looked like I had no future. And even when my doctor had saw me they said, you know, Rick may not come back normal, which my wife was fine with that 'cause she's like, well, he was never normal in the first place. So, you know, it's not going to change a thing. He's not going to come back as an accountant. You know, then it would've been really bad.

MARTIN: I think I'm going to call her to second source that.

NAJERA: Well, I came out of the coma, and, you know, I really looked at my life and I said - I wanted to chronicle it. I wanted to bring it down and talk about it in a very human, honest way. Is that yeah, I went through a coma, a seizure, all these horrible things. I was in the ICU for nearly two weeks. And during that time, you really contemplate your life. So that's - that was the beginning of the book.

MARTIN: You talk about the fact that you said you were lucky your wife was Anglo. Why is that?

NAJERA: I said I was lucky my wife was Anglo because a Latino, when they would've discovered my body, would've got an alibi immediately afterwards. You know, 'cause she was holding my body and doing that stuff and that's all DNA evidence. She would've been so in trouble if I had died 'cause, you know, a Latino's like, no, there's no way I'm touching him. Call up my aunt. I was at your house. Remember I was there having menudo, OK. But she didn't think that way. She was holding me and crying and...

MARTIN: Well, that sounds pretty scary and I'm very glad that you made it.

NAJERA: Yeah. No, so am I. It's strange 'cause you want to remember how our lives all are miracles, you know, and that's the beauty of it. And the coma reminded me that every day was a miracle. I was so happy to do something - leave something behind.

MARTIN: But going back to the title again, "Almost White," could you just read me a passage from the book where you talk about that?

NAJERA: Sure. In every story, there's a beginning, a middle and an end. More than anywhere else in Hollywood, the story commences when you're defined and cast as a type. I was cast as the Latino. I always had to fight for my identity because when you're Latino, to a white American you're not black and you're not white. What you are is almost white. Now lying in the hospital, I was almost dead. They gave me a syringe full of sleep and I drifted into darkness, tied to the bed with IVs in my arms and a tube down my throat. I looked like a man with no future. And with no future, I dreamt of my past. Almost white.

MARTIN: Wow, you know, you - so part of what you're doing with this book is, you're giving yourself permission to kind of really talk about what that...

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Has been like. Now one of the things you talk about in the book is how the options for Latino actors and actresses are very limited or have been very limited. But you also wrote for two shows that were known for having diverse casts.

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: You've created these opportunities and for taking on race-based humor. So I'd like to play a clip from a sketch that you wrote for "In Living Color." The premise of the sketch is that the famed Latino actor Edward James Olmos is cleaning up after the LA riots. So let's take a lesson.

NAJERA: Oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IN LIVING COLOR")

JIM CARREY: (As Edward Olmos) All right people let's go. Listen to me. Come here. I want to (unintelligible). You have wallpapered, you have painted, you have saved thousands of remodeling dollars. But what lies ahead is the biggest job of all.

JAMIE FOXX: (As unidentified character) And what's is that?

CARREY: (As Edward Olmos) Fixing my face. Everybody get the putty knives. Make me look good. I want to be governor one day.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

NAJERA: Oh, no.

MARTIN: Where did you get the idea for that?

NAJERA: You know, after the riots - and I love Edward James Olmos. He's a very close friend. He's one of the biggest heroes in my life, and so that - he remembers that. He always remembers that sketch. But I got the idea of the sketches after the riots that happened in LA. And I got attacked during the riots. And I was wearing a suit, unfortunately. And I walking out during the height of the riots, and I was listening to my DVDs and wasn't listening to the radio. And I see the smoke and all the stuff, and I'm like, oh, what's going on here? Wow, check this out. Lot of smoke, lot of fire, wow. A lot of minorities running around. This is interesting. And so I get jumped. It was like five black guys and four Mexicans. First, I was happy. It's good to see Mexicans and Latinos together, I mean, and blacks together. It's just a wonderful feeling of diversity. And so they were together and basically beating me up.

And so I was like, you know - I turned all ethnic. I was like, you know, what are you saying, man, what are you saying? You know, get off of me, you know. And they were like, wow, the white guy got possessed by a Mexican. So I survived the riots. And during that, you know, Eddie said let's clean up LA. So I went with him to clean up a group of, you know, supposedly bad parts of LA. But the liberal white group that I was with, we veered off the track in Compton and ended up in a neighborhood that was just a normal neighborhood. So I remember this black woman came out holding a little one-eyed Chihuahua in her hand going, get off our lawn. There no riot here. Get of the lawn. That's my house. This my lawn. Get off of my lawn. So these Liberals were fighting for a piece of trash in her front lawn, and I just went, this is ironic and so strange and I have to write about it. And that was it. That's where the sketch came from. And Eddie would be with me, and he'd be cleaning up areas and stuff like that. He's a good man, but I've got to spoof it. You know, and so I did.

MARTIN: But you know what else is funny? That's Jim Carrey.

NAJERA: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: The voice that you heard...

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Is Jim Carrey playing Edward James Olmos.

NAJERA: Yeah. It's Jim Carrey playing Edward James Olmos and Jamie Foxx.

MARTIN: And Jamie Foxx was the other voice that you heard. OK, but you have the white guy playing one of the big Latino stars. I mean, I'm just saying...

NAJERA: I know, I know. I know. But you know something, the bigger picture was, hey, Eddie almost was getting a national recognition being spoofed 'cause I was spoofing Cher - I was spoofing a lot of big stars. And that's the way I looked at it. And to tell you the truth, Jim Carrey at that point was so hot. But it was just more, the story - the things I would do, a lot of times I would write as a writer, I'd say, a group of mariachis and four Latino men, you know, in a scene. All of a sudden, I'd look around and there's mariachis, all these Latinos and they're catering with me. And I've provided work for Latinos left and right. And my show "Latinologues" that went to Broadway did the same thing. There was over 150 actors in it. So sometimes people look at comedy and get, you know, offended, but they're not seeing the bigger picture. The bigger picture is I'm providing a showcase for Latinos all the way to Broadway, which is unheard of. It was the first real successful Latino show that ever happened after...

MARTIN: John Leguizamo's...

NAJERA: John Leguizamo's one-man show.

MARTIN: Which I can't - the title of which I cannot say. And if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Rick Najera. He's an actor, writer, director, producer. Now he's written a memoir. It's called "Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood." I do - let me just play a clip from your Broadway show, which you wrote and acted in, a wildly popular production called "Latinologues." And for those who might not be familiar, I'd like to play a clip of one of the characters, which is particularly popular, if you don't mind my saying that. It's a border agent named Buford Gomez.

NAJERA: Burford Gomez.

MARTIN: And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "LATINOLOGUES")

NAJERA: (As Buford Gomez) I put the panic to the Hispanic. I put the pepper spray to Jose. I put the baton to Juan. Deportation's my business and business is good. And I may see a strange looking car coming at me and I say, hey, you with the "I heart Puerto Vallarta" on your car, pull it on over. Hey, I smell chicharrones. That whole family, pull it over. And I knock on the trunk of the car - now no Mexican can ever resist this. You knock on the trunk, you say (knocks three times), que viva Mexico. Viva! Viva! Viva!

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And this was always one of your more popular characters...

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...both with...

NAJERA: Anglo and Latinos.

MARTIN: ...Anglo and Latino, you know, audiences.

NAJERA: Yeah...

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

NAJERA: I think because Buford says what - outlaw. He's kind of like an Archie Bunker character. He can actually say what most people are thinking, and he makes malapropisms. And his whole thing about, I put the panic to the Hispanic. He's very proud of his job. And there's a lot of Latinos that work for the government are extremely - I mean, half the border patrol's Mexican, which to me is always ironic.

And - but they're very, you know, the way they have it, there's a right way and a wrong way and this is the way we do it, and they're very conservative. So it was easy for me to pull - you know, bring that character up because I used to get stopped at the border all the time. There was a guy coming up to me that, you know, was way browner than I ever was, and looks like a, you know, John Huston extra in "The Treasure of Sierra Madre." And he'd be, you know, knocking on my trunk going, OK, anyone in there? I'd be going, come on.

MARTIN: And you'd be like, dude, I was born in California. What are you talking about?

NAJERA: I was born in - yeah, and guess where this happened? This happened in San Clemente border checkpoint. So it's almost a hundred miles inside California I'm being pulled over and checked. So to me, it's an irony. When my father fought in World War II. My uncle died in World War II in a Japanese concentration camp. My father was in Vietnam. My cousins were in Iraq, Afghanistan, places like that. And that's the whole point - as Latinos, we've fought and died for this country - have contributed majorly to this country. I say Latinos are the solution, never the problem.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting, though, that you write about the fact that - well, you say this in the book - that all people of color must, as actors, play roles normally not written by people of color. OK, more specifically, roles normally written by white males. The Hollywood writers' room, even today, is seldom diverse. It's changing, but the change is slow. I'm bringing this up because we're kind of at the beginning of a new season, so there always is talk about whether the casts are diverse or not diverse. But the writers' room, you're saying, is still not diverse?

NAJERA: It's not me saying it, it's actually the Writers Guild of America saying it. The statistics are pretty horrible. It's normally young, white males.

MARTIN: Why is that?

NAJERA: Well, it's not that Hollywood is this evil empire doing these things. Hollywood is actually most likely a scared, white, 20-year-old boy. You know, it's - their kind of thing is that they don't know other Latinos. They don't know African-Americans. They don't hang out with people. It's a very segregated world of Hollywood that you hang out - you give jobs to your friends. So if you're not part of that boys club, you're not going to get the job.

MARTIN: But why even now? I mean, it's interesting that those that notice this sort of thing focus on the diversity of casts, but nobody seems to write about the writers' room except for a few writers like yourself. And I just wonder why does that not change? Is it because people don't know? They don't see it? It's invisible?

NAJERA: People don't know. It's sad. A lot of times the writers, we're the guys in the back room, so no one sees us, but they don't realize we're the ones that are changing everything. If we write it on a page, if it says, you know - an African-American male, you know, two Asian women and, you know, a Mexican man enter a room - that's a writer that wrote that, and that means that's casting. So the casting director gets that and they have to cast it that way.

So the power's really in the writers more than ever. You know, and I work - I'm treated very well. I work for CBS. I have an office there, and they've been great with the diversity program, which I helped create with Fern Orenstein, you know, Tiffany Smith-Anoa'i and Josie Thomas and people. And I look at Nina Tassler and all those guys, they're trying, but it's not mean-spirited. They're actually saying, OK, how do we do this? What do we do? So it really starts with the writers. And until that changes - until that changes - until the Georgia National Guard marches me into a studio and says, he has to be here writing on a show, it's not going to happen. And there are Latino shows that I couldn't get on as a writer.

MARTIN: You actually tell a story about that where there were Latino performers who wouldn't hire you for their shows.

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: You talk about one in particular.

NAJERA: Yeah, that happened. You know, it was a comedy show that was on Comedy Central and it was a sketch show. And I went to the star, and I know him. He's Latino. And I don't want to say his name but...

MARTIN: But you made a point of saying it wasn't George Lopez.

NAJERA: No. George has been great.

MARTIN: And it wasn't...

NAJERA: Paul Rodriguez.

MARTIN: Please tell me - it wasn't Paul Rodriguez.

NAJERA: And it wasn't Gabriel Iglesias.

MARTIN: Was it - it wasn't John Leguizamo?

NAJERA: I wasn't John Leguizamo.

MARTIN: OK.

NAJERA: So the point was - and I don't want to out anyone because I want to be positive - is that on that show, he's like - I was told by my agent, hey, he doesn't want you on the show because you're too Mexican. You write too Latino and that was a problem. And I said, you know - and I confronted him with it later on. I said, listen, I heard this story. And he goes, yeah, it's true. He goes, I had a lot of pressure to make sure my show was whiter. And so I don't know if that was true or not, but a lot of times that's just plain Latin self-loathing when you go, I want something better, give me the white writer.

MARTIN: What do you think your career stands for? What lesson would you want people to draw from your career? Not that it's over with but, you know, just taking the pause offered by your fateful trip to the ICU, which caused you to write this book.

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: What lesson do you want people to draw?

NAJERA: I think I want people to draw that I'm inclusive not exclusive. So I think I want to be the guy that's the bridge, and, you know, not the barrier. I grew up on the border. So being a bridge is a great thing 'cause borders don't work. You know, the Great Wall of China didn't work, you know, Berlin Wall didn't work. So you need bridges between cultures and people, and that's what I want to be.

MARTIN: Do you think it will be different when your kids are adults?

NAJERA: Yeah, I've already noticed it. I mean, my little kid Julian is a Mexican. He's half white and half Mexican. People used to kid me 'cause I married a white girl - Irish, which my dad was worried. He was like, you're going to have double alcoholics, don't do it. But we had beautiful children. We're still, you know -we're still married and we have these kids. They all speak Spanish, and they live in both cultures and both worlds really quite easily. And Julian, of course - he's a great-looking kid - and I'm walking down the red carpet...

MARTIN: If you do say so yourself.

NAJERA: Yeah, I do say it. It's not me.

MARTIN: And modest, too. His dad's so modest.

NAJERA: No, I'm not good-looking. He's great-looking. I belong on radio. He's a really handsome kid. So, you know, and he's already - you know, who does he hangout with? Edward James Olmos is his godfather, you know, such-and-such is this person. That person's that. So he sees Hollywood as a family, and he's exposed to it very much so. So if he ever did choose a career in Hollywood and worked in the media, he has a much better access than I did.

So it's a generational thing. It is changing and guys like Robert Rodriguez, who have, you know El Rey - his network - and different people like that, we're all slowly changing the dial. And it takes a long time for this change to happen. And it's sad because our worlds are better off with all of us included in them.

MARTIN: Rick Najera's latest book, his new memoir is called "Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood." And he was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Rick Najera, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NAJERA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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