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

Rick Najera's name may not sound familiar, but his acting, writing and production work is famous in Hollywood. Host Michel Martin talks with Najera about his career and his memoir, Almost White: Forced Confessions of A Latino in Hollywood. This segment initially aired Oct. 3, 2013 on Tell Me More.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving - wherever you were and whatever you did. And no matter what you had on your table, we hope you took some time to tell and to hear some stories going around that table. So today, we decide to dedicate our program to notable storytellers. Later in the program, we'll hear the barbershop guys tell a few stories of their own about the people who made a lasting impression on them.

And we're going to start things off with Rick Najera. The name may not be familiar to you, but his face probably is. He's a jack of all trades, having worked as an actor, a writer on cutting-edge television shows like "MADtv" 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. Recently, following the advice of one of his mentors, he decided to tell his own story his way. And with that, he decided to turn a spotlight onto the experiences of other Latinos in Hollywood. His book is titled "Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood." And when we spoke recently, I asked why he used the phrase forced confessions.

RICK 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.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 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, and 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. And the coma reminded me that every day was a miracle. I was so happy to do something - leave something behind.

MARTIN: 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 are defined and cast as a type. I was cast as the Latino. I always had to fight for my identity because when you're a Latino, to a white American you're not black, 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: All right people, let's go. Listen to me. Come here. I want to pontificate. 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: And what's that?

CARREY: 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. 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 blacks together, 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. 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.

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. So...

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: ...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.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Rick Najera. He's an actor, writer, director, producer and author of the memoir "Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood." 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.

(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 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 and have contributed majorly to this country.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting, though, that you write about the fact 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.

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. And...

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. 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. 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, it's not going to happen.

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.

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: Rick Najera's latest book 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.

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