Jimmy Smits on How He Became an Actor and Why “You’ve Got to Keep Your Instrument in Tune”

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Jimmy Smits in IN THE HEIGHTS

“This is the whole thing about the business, you’ve got to keep your instrument in tune.” – Jimmy Smits

Who knew that Jimmy Smits could carry a tune? The Emmy Award-winning actor appeared in the film In the Heights, the adaptation of Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Tony Award-winning musical. Speaking to the New York Times about his career, Smits said that he actually had extensive musical experience in his youth and details how his success in television prevented him from continuing down a musical path.

Smits reveals that he wanted to become an actor from an early age after becoming exposed to performing in school and was encouraged by his teachers:

“I knew pretty early. I went to George Gershwin Junior High School in Brooklyn, and if you did good in school, you could be part of the musical — Damn Yankees and Carousel and all of that stuff. After that, I went to Thomas Jefferson High School in a not-great neighborhood in East New York, and there happened to be this English literature teacher who I’m still very friendly with and he took us to plays. Seeing Raul Julia and James Earl Jones for the first time, they probably were the most inspirational to me, because I saw the parallels there: “That guy is from the same place Mom is from, and he speaks with an accent!

“And then there was another professor who was working at Brooklyn College, Bernie Barrow, who encouraged me. He said, ‘You’re showing this interest in the classics and you probably could go to L.A. and be the crook of the week on Hill Street Blues, but you should think about graduate school and adding some tools to the toolbox.’ So he helped me navigate applying to all these schools and I wound up at Cornell, which had a very small, almost monastic M.F.A. program. But for me, that was joy. That was the right thing to do, even when it was 6 a.m. and I was at the ballet bar, wondering if I made the right decision.”

Of course, Smits became best known for his television roles on dramas like L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, and Sons of Anarchy — but his desire to do a musical never left, and he regrets not pursuing roles in that genre more. He says, “This is the whole thing about the business, you’ve got to keep your instrument in tune. When I took all those dance and voice classes, it’s not like it went to the wayside, but I wasn’t using that as much here in L.A. because I was doing television. But I should have still been doing it. I kick myself about that now.”

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