Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival showcases actors like Pepe Serna Edward James Olmos calls Serna the "most extraordinary improvisational actor" he's seen.

Actor Pepe Serna wasn't interested in becoming a star. He just wanted to work

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Scarface," "Car Wash," countless Westerns are just some of the films that the great actor Pepe Serna has appeared in over the last 50 years. He now stars in his own documentary, showing tonight at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has more.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: You may have seen Pepe Serna's mischievously rugged face in many films and TV shows over the years. Now you know his name. In the new documentary, "Pepe Serna: Life Is Art," showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellet says he's an inspiration.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PEPE SERNA: LIFE IS ART")

GLORIA CALDERON KELLET: He's been working consistently since the '70s, and that's a difficult task for any actor, much less a Latino actor.

DEL BARCO: Serna was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and says he began acting when he was just 3 years old, entertaining the crowd from his godfather's boxing ring.

PEPE SERNA: Just shadow boxing, and then accidentally knocking myself out on purpose. And everybody laughed and got my first applause, and I was hooked from then on.

DEL BARCO: Sitting in the lobby of LA's Biltmore Hotel, Serna recalls how his mother used to take him to watch all the classic Mexican movies, with stars Dolores Del Rio, Pedro Infante and Cantinflas. In fact, it was the comic actor Cantinflas who later helped him break into the movies as an extra.

SERNA: He introduced me to a casting director. It just went from there. It was fabulous.

DEL BARCO: In Mexico, Serna acted in a bullfighting movie, and he was in a production of the musical "Hair" before going to New York and then Hollywood in 1969.

SERNA: I mean, it's been 100 movies, 300 TV shows later. I wasn't interested in him becoming a star. I just wanted to work.

DEL BARCO: Now, at age 77, Serna shares his story in the documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PEPE SERNA: LIFE IS ART")

SERNA: My real name is Pablo Alfonso. But being from Texas, I was Pepe. So my whole life - hey, Pepe. Yeah? What? You know, I've always been Pepe. I always had all that energy.

DEL BARCO: His first big break came in a 1970 Roger Corman movie, followed by a string of Western flicks.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PEPE SERNA: LIFE IS ART")

SERNA: I was in Hollywood making movies - cowboy movies. Yahoo (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

SERNA: (As character) Bobby J, let's stick to the road.

(As character) Ain't that sweet, red?

(As Virgilio Segura) My name is Virgilio Segura. The law has been pushing me for a week clean through Texas.

DEL BARCO: In 1977, Serna worked with Richard Pryor, George Carlin and others in "Car Wash."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAR WASH")

SERNA: (As Chuco) Adios, Miss Beverly Hills.

DEL BARCO: Serna was Punk No. 1 in "The Jerk" with Steve Martin, and he played Edward James Olmos's brother on the run in "The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez." In the documentary, Olmos talks about his longtime friend, who was also in "American Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PEPE SERNA: LIFE IS ART")

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: He was the king of improv - probably the most extraordinary improvisational actor I've ever run across.

DEL BARCO: Serna has worked with everyone from Meryl Streep to Johnny Depp to Eva Longoria.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PEPE SERNA: LIFE IS ART")

EVA LONGORIA: Pepe Serna is a legend not only in our industry, but specifically to Corpus Christi, Texas, which is my hometown as well. So if you're from Corpus, you know Selena, you know Farrah Fawcett, you know Lou Diamond Phillips, and you know Pepe Serna.

DEL BARCO: In the 1984 cult classic "The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension," Serna's character, Reno Nevada, was unlike other Chicanos portrayed on film or TV, says writer Victor Payan.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PEPE SERNA: LIFE IS ART")

VICTOR PAYAN: He wasn't it from East LA. Reno Nevada - so he was from Nevada, a cowboy and in a rock band, new wave. You know, he's a hero. He's fighting aliens. And that was something that you really didn't see at that time.

DEL BARCO: Even so, Serna says especially in his early years, he had many roles where he had to kill or be killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCARFACE")

AL PACINO: (As Tony Montana) Say hello to my little friend.

DEL BARCO: In "Scarface," Serna plays Tony Montana's Cuban drug dealer buddy Angel Fernandez. Early in the movie, he's bound and gagged as his arm is cut off with a buzzsaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZSAW OPERATING)

DEL BARCO: In the documentary, Serna reminisces about the scene while holding a prop from the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PEPE SERNA: LIFE IS ART")

SERNA: I want you to say hello to my little friend, my arm from "Scarface."

LUIS REYES: Pepe had such a fascinating life, but, more than anything, dispelled stereotypes.

DEL BARCO: Luis Reyes, who has an upcoming book about the history of Latinos in Hollywood, directed Serna's documentary.

REYES: He had a very supportive family. He grew up in a segregated Texas, but he didn't let that affect them. He's more than an actor, as you can see in the documentary. I mean, he's an artist. He paints. He works with a lot of school kids in motivational classes. And he has an overwhelming sense of positivity.

DEL BARCO: Pepe Serna continues to act. He plays the grandfather in the Amazon series "With Love." Longoria cast him in her upcoming film "Flamin' Hot." And at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, his documentary is preceded by a short film he's in, "Abuelo." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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