This is part of the Creatives Series, a set of interviews comprised of the same six questions posed to different members of the Latino community who have made their careers in a creative industry.
Elliot Villar started as “a groundling.” After graduating from Vassar College, the actor began his career with small parts. Then he found himself playing a lead role in Boleros for the Disenchanted, the play written by José Rivera (who wrote the screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries).
When I spoke with him, he was trying to keep his mind sharp while caring for two small humans. (The twins are 15 months old.) Elliot and his wife—also an actor—recently went to see a play while his parents were babysitting, and they realized it was maybe the first cultural event they’d attended in…15 months. “We’re exhausted,” he says. Despite that, he’s excited about pilot season and as creative as ever.
Hip Latina: Will you tell me about your creative process?
Elliot Villar: I always start with the script…When there is a script and you have a nice, detailed character description, then you can really delve further. I like to start with, jumping from the page, to things that inspire me—searching for images of the world that this character lives in. I just went in for a project where the character was described as a rugged, good-old Southern boy, mixed-race Latino. And I went, okay, Southern, Latino—there’s a lot in there. Let’s start with Texas. You certainly have all of our notions, things that sort of jump out at us when we think of “good-old Southern boy.” What are the first things that come to mind? Matthew McConaughey. And this is just like Southern, right? Not even thinking of Latino. O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Friday Night Lights. I’m getting senses of dialect and accent and place and looking at images, and then playing with sounds and trying to mine country music. Whatever it is that’s getting me there, hooking me into this character that I’m going to have the opportunity to play around with for, like, two minutes in a room.
HL: What are you most afraid of when doing your job?
EV: Not being truthful. Especially with the camera, where it’s such a small—this imperceptible audience, right? It’s this little machine, or big machine, depending. Unlike theater, they’re not there for you. The 25 technicians working on a project, they’re not going to give you their response. Everyone’s like, Shhhh, okay, sound’s recording. This is a precious thing we’re doing. Lots and lots of money on the line with every take. So for me it’s all about having fun, for sure, but also really trying to get to the essence of character, and being as truthful to that as possible.
I think another fear for me is—I’ve done a little bit of work on camera bilingually, and we didn’t speak it all the time in the house. Growing up, it was a big thing: my mom was trying to learn English. So much of what was happening in the house was, We need to speak in English, that’s the only way I’m going to learn, for my mom. That was the default. One of my favorite things I’ve ever done was a play at Repertorio Español. It was such a wonderful moment for me, playing a lead character from beginning to end in Spanish. It was just connecting to part of myself and my roots. So now when I work on camera and I do anything in, like, my native tongue, that’s something that I’m usually very protective of. Just wanting to be truthful and representing in a good way.
HL: What project are you working on right now, and what excites you most about it?
EV: I just finished working on The Mysteries of Laura. I got to play a Cuban aide-de-camp, basically a secretary, to a Cuban politician. There was some subtitled work in that project. But it was just really fun to work on a dramedy, and it was a great cast, great ensemble. I was working with some friends of mine—this sort of New York theater crowd, folks that I had done plays with over the past 10 years. So that was really neat.
Right now it’s pilot season, so I’ve been going out for a lot of projects and hoping to find the next one.
HL: Whose work do you admire?
EV: I love the Coen brother movies. I love the folks that they work with in their films and their storytelling.
HL: Do you have a fantasy project?
EV: There were a number of pilots that I went out for this season. There was a lot of, like, cops-meets-sci-fi dramas. I’ve always been a fan of like the episodic police television, and I’m also a big fan of sci-fi. So a lot of these projects that were sort of bridging those two worlds, I was like, this would be awesome.
HL: How has your cultural heritage impacted your career, if at all?
EV: It absolutely has. I was born and raised in the Bronx, and when I got out of undergrad I came back to the city and I was just kind of doing that Well, how do I start? Where do I start? I loved the theater, and that was certainly how I was trying to get my foot in the door. Like, okay, I need to find my community. What is my community?
I started knocking on doors of theaters that I really admired. One of them was INTAR, which is a theater company in the city that does plays by Hispanic, Latino, Latina playwrights. All of the plays are done in English. And the other was Repertorio Español. I was like, okay, here are two theater companies, well-established, been around forever. One does plays in English, one does plays in Spanish. Strong ties to amazing playwrights—María Irene Fornés, Nilo Cruz. One of the theaters that I tried to get into was Labyrinth Company. That didn’t happen, but INTAR welcomed me in, and Repertorio welcomed me in. That’s sort of where it started. I found myself building these relationships with playwrights like José Rivera. Years later, I did a play of his up in Boston at the Huntington Theatre.
When I did this project, The Mysteries of Laura, I ran into Luis Moreno, who does a lot of theater, a lot of voiceover work, recordings of books in Spanish. We hadn’t seen each other in eight years, but we worked together at Columbia University doing Shakespeare and at Classic Stage Company.
You just continue to run into these folks. They support you and you support them.
Note: Since publication, Mr. Villar has written us with some very good news. In his words: “I’m thrilled to now say that I’m working on an ABC network pilot called Time After Time.”