Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Latina co-stars in NBC's Grimm

Deep, mysterious and dignified: Our interview with Bertila Damas
By Al Carlos Hernandez on May 7, 2013

     HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) – Berlita Damas is a multi-faceted actor and business woman. She is co-starring on NBC’s Grimm as a mysterious seer of the future, which I find ironic since she is also well known for her Vulcan and Borg characters in Star Trek.
     Born in Cuba, Ms. Damas grew up in NY and Miami and began acting in her youth. She won numerous awards in her junior high school years while participating in the National Forensics League Dramatic Interpretation competitions.
     Damas began her formal professional work in Miami working in Spanish-speaking theater. She worked eight shows a week for $35.00 while also attending college. With the help and grace of a college friend, she was able to attain an audition and be accepted to the Circle in the Square Professional Workshop, which she attended in NYC.
     At Circle she met Terry Hayden who took her to the Actors’ Studio. She was introduced to the work of the Actors’ Studio and to Lee Strasberg where she remained a guest at the Studio until Lee’s death. She eventually met Stella Adler and studied with her as an advanced student. She found herself in Stella’s acclaimed Script Analysis classes for two years.
     Bertila has worked in both the NYC Broadway/off-Broadway and the regional theater scene. She played “Juliet” inRomeo and Juliet for Joseph Papp’s NYSF on Broadway, directed by Estelle Parsons. She considers the job on Broadway with Joe Papp & Estelle Parsons to have been the breakthrough that got the agent/casting/producer world to notice. That breakthrough eventually would bring her to LA.
     On international Spanish television Bertila is known for her role as the villainous Marta on Angelica Mi Vida for Telemundo. She has been in dozens of commercials and voice-overs in both Spanish and English. Most notably she was the voice for Guess Jeans and starred in the award
winning Ariel commercials during the 80′s. Damas has received critical acclaim for her roles in film, television and in theater, most notably as “Rachel” in the film Mi Vida Loca (directed by Alison Anders) and in Electricidad as “Clemencia” at the Mark Taper Forum.
     Bertila has served on the SAG board of directors (2010 – 2012), on the SAG AFTRA Board (2012 -2013) and as the legacy SAG and new SAG AFTRA National co-chair of the Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee (2010 -2013).
     Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez was enchanted to spend some time with Ms. Damas:

AC: What kind of family did you come from? Did your parents encourage the arts? What kind of TV, films and music inspired you as a kid?

BD: I came from a very unconventional family in so many ways. My mother was a single parent and a very free spirit. At the time of the Cuban revolution, my mother was 21 years old with three young children and she was faced with an enormous choice: whether to leave my father in Cuba or stay and raise us in an atmosphere of fear. She courageously packed us up and left, taking us with her to exile and freedom. We first settled in NY and later on in Miami.
     My mother is an American, originally from Puerto Rico and NY. My mother’s motto growing up was, “If you do not have love, compassion and gratitude, you have nothing.” We grew as we watched her grow and watched her struggle to maintain food on the table and educate us. My mother wanted to be a flamenco dancer but unfortunately life did not offer up that opportunity.
     My favorite time growing up were the years we watched as she went from a long haired hippie beauty to a liberated lady with chic short hair and wearing suits. That memory still makes me smile and she still makes me laugh with her absolutely irreverent attitude towards all of life. I would say that my mom, Maria Damas, has lived and lives her life with the spirit of an artist.
     I also spent time growing up with my Cuban grandmother whom I am named for. She was a fanatic for movies and I saw every Spanish film and all the Mexican films from El Cine de Oro. I saw everything from Marisol, Sara Montiel to Cantinflas and oh how crazy she was for Sean Connery and the James Bond series. I think movies really helped her pass the time in the difficult first years in the USA after the revolution.

AC:  Did they encourage the arts?

BD: They were both graced with beauty and a love of dance, music, fashion, film and just life, you know? Some very spirited ladies! Both of them influenced me greatly. In addition I grew up with two very loving and supportive siblings, my sister Nancy and my brother Francisco, whom we lost when he was 22 years old. I loved to make them laugh and put on little shows for them. My family in general was supportive; aunts, uncles and cousins were all supportive.
     I’m told that I was a precocious child who early on expressed a desire to be a ballet dancer. I was quite the chatterbox from an early age (nothing has changed LOL) and I sought out all kinds of ways to express myself . My mother says that if I found a book you could not drag me away until I finished it. I do remember, even in elementary school, seeking out all the dance, drama and languages classes.
     Oh, my greatest distraction has always been anything that is adventurous, fun and involves any kind of partying. I have never lived strangled by the need to act. I live my life with the need to live fully, so if a trip to India comes up I take it. Yes, acting is for me very much like a vocation and still it is just a job – my life is made up of so much more and I intend to live it out loud and fully.

AC:  You are getting rave reviews on the character you have been playing on the series Grimm - especially the episode when you and David Barrera spoke Spanish. Tell us about Grimm, your character and some of the storylines.

BD: Oh! Well thank you! Working with David again was so delightful; he is a tremendous person. I loved working with Angela Alvarado, a beautiful human being. And Norberto Barba is fantastic as executive producer. All in all it has been such a lucky thing for me. I love (my character) Pilar! She is deep, mysterious and dignified. It was great that NBC and Norberto brought her back. I mean, where else should you go to sort yourself out than to a wise Latina? Juliette’s visits to Pilar have paid off and her memory is returning which I think will make fans very happy.
     I do hope to return in the third season. If the story pans out and they end up getting married, she will need Pilar’s consultation on a bride’s dress. On a serious note, I think Pilar is a very good fit in the show; she seems to be so spiritually wizened. I think it would be very interesting to see her interact in the Grimm world. For instance: at Rosalie’s herb shop with Monroe or meeting Nick? Well, we shall see…

AC: Because of the success of that one Grimm episode, do you think there will be more of some prime time bilingualism? How can the public be supportive of this type of effort?

BD: Yes, that Grimm episode was the highest rated show in its time slot that night and overall the second highest rating for a Grimm episode. I think if I was NBC then that would be something to note. You just cannot ignore the numbers.
     The public can express their opinion on Facebook, Twitter or write a letter to your networks and let them know that you want to see more of anything you like on TV. Each opinion does make a difference to the networks.
     I think there is a trend in the making with regard to bilingualism. There have been commercials airing that are bilingual already and I do think this is a trend that is going to catch on and continue. Bravo.

AC: What was your first acting experience like? Tell us about the awards in junior high. What were your acceptances speeches like?

BD: In the sixth grade I wrote and starred in a play all about baseball. Oh, I loved it! Particularly during rehearsals when we would hide behind the stage and play spin the bottle…so funny how one does not change…hmmm…
     Ah yes! Well, on my quest for artistic expression I met a wonderful teacher in junior high (seventh grade). Michele Warner was the debate coach and I had come to her recommended by the drama teacher Mrs. Arenas. I became part of the team as the person who did dramatic interpretations - which is basically a performance where one portrays two or more characters. Our Town and Anastasia were my favorite pieces. We had a champion team that competed with other high schools and I often placed in the top three of the competitions we participated in – so much fun! I think Ms. Warner was one of the early pioneers for Junior High School Forensics Competitions, which included ‘Dramatic Interpretation’ as one of the categories. I do not remember my acceptance speeches but I’m sure they were giddy moments. I do remember the joy of winning and I remember myself doing the work, the rehearsals with my teachers, the competition and the fun. I’m very grateful to that teacher, Ms. Warner; she greatly influenced me to pursue acting.

AC: You were on the forensic team. Are you a good debater? What was that like and why didn’t you choose law instead of acting?

BD: Well I was not a debater. I was the dramatic interpretation girl on the team, although I did consider law many years later when studying acting in NY. Looking for work as an actor was frustrating – I took a break and went to work as an assistant editor at MS Magazine. While I was there I contemplated going to law school. Fortunately for me life took a turn and there I was working in the theater. It is so much easier to play and party as an actor than going through law school.

AC: You started your professional career in Miami Spanish Theater doing eight shows for 35 dollars a week and you were going to college as well. Which is more valuable to you now as an LA actor: the acting or the college experience?

BD: Oh my, hard to split those up…BOTH. That theater taught me so much and in college I met my first husband, whom I am ever grateful to for his tremendous support of my work.

AC: Which college did you attend and was it worth the money?

BD: Back in the day when I went to college there were full grants available. I attended Miami Dade and later was accepted to the Circle in the Square Conservatory in NYC…ahh money…yes it was all worth it…back then the Conservatory was reasonable and my husband was kind and generous. I must give credit where credit is due. He was a huge part of my younger life.

AC: What led up to meeting with Lee Strasberg and the world famous Actors’ Studio? What was it like working with Lee and Stella Adler? Did having this training help you when you eventually moved to LA?

BD: A wonderful teacher, Terry Hayden, at Circle took me to the Actors’ Studio and I did not leave till Strasberg died. I spent two years there. Studying with Stella and Lee was the same; they were both tough as nails and had no room for laziness or bad work. They were also fair and full of praise when the work was good. I loved them both equally. And yes, I think that my training has made all the difference in being able to land work – wherever it has led me.

AC: Tell us about your experiences working on and off Broadway in the beginning. What are some of the pivotal things that affected your work, both good and bad?

BD: Oh my … I should just write a book! There were so many instances that were good, bad, ugly or fabulous!Everything you can imagine has been a part of my world as an actor: from sewing costumes for my first off Broadway show (in which I had the lead), to building sets. There have been beautiful and disastrous moments in acting like once forgetting the most famous speech in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway in front of 800 people. Having glamorous and not so glamorous photo shoots, glowing and not so glowing reviews, and bad agents who mess up deals or wonderful agents who then retire. Casting directors that love me or casting directors who bar me from getting a part, to producers or directors who want to sleep with me, to actors that love or hate me….oh my dear. And since I am a woman I remember most of it. Every moment I treasure deeply. It has been such a wonderful part of my life and all of it has made a difference.

AC: Where you the classic ‘starving actor?’ What jobs did you find to support yourself?

BD: Well, I have been working since I was a young person. I have had jobs since I was old enough to work: from working in a Dairy Barn store doling out milk cartons to shop girl to bartender. Growing up, it was necessary for my siblings and me to help out at home.
     When I met my husband in college things changed. There is a bit of a Cinderella story in that union. You see he was the heir to a great fortune and he only revealed this to me when he asked me to marry him after a year of dating. Of course I promptly broke up with him! Ah, the pride of youth. Eventually I allowed him back into my life and we married. Both of us went off to NY to continue to study and eventually work. That was a very magical time in my life. I lived a very different life than I did as a child. It was what some may call a very privileged lifestyle and oh so very different than anything I had ever known.

AC: I’m told you were “discovered” by an LA producer while working with Joe Papp and Estelle Parsons on Broadway and that he convinced you to come to LA. Sounds like a scene out of a movie. Is that how it played out?

BD: Oh no, no, no. Although, aren’t all our lives like beautiful epic films? However it was probably the single most important event in my young career that made people in the business want to meet me and eventually hire me. After all, if you work with Joe Papp and Estelle Parsons then people want to know what the heck makes you so special. LOL! Many of the cast members from that show went on to have very fulfilling and successful careers. Some of them still remain dear friends, including Estelle.

AC: How were things when you came to LA? What was the transition to TV like? Tell us which shows you did and some good memories.

BD: I always say that New York is the city where anonymity rules and LA is a town where you have to wake up and reinvent yourself every day. It was an interesting transition. I went from a place where straight talk abounds to a city where everyone was concerned with ‘feeling good.’ I was perplexed, to say the least. In the US market I started off in films. Actually I was cast out of NY for a movie originally called “Little Havana” that became “Fires Within.”
     While I was here filming I secured an agent and was promptly cast in two other films. It is sad when I think of that time, as I knew so little about LA and the business. I made many mistakes in choosing representation. I had some strange idea about being loyal to agents and managers. I really should have left that agency and moved on to one that was more film oriented. My move into TV was a bit by default and not something I had planned. No complaints. It has all turned as it has turned out and I have, all in all, been a fortunate soul.
     I have lovely memories from almost everything I have worked on; most recently shooting in Portland was delightful. What a fun cast and crew. I loved the city as well.
     Maybe the funniest memory is booking an episode of NYPD Blue in its first season and later finding out I would have to be completely naked and dead in a bathtub. Now that was something!

AC: Tell us about the feature film in which you co-starred with Dan Aykroyd.

BD: Actually on the it is listed as my first film and it is not, You know that is not completely accurate. Now working with Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, Demi Moore, Jon Candy and Taylor Negron was simply an opportunity of a lifetime. I was working with one of my idols: Dan Ackroyd from Saturday Night Live. They were terrific and the work environment was amazing. It was (at the time) a very expensive film so we were really treated as you would imagine movie stars are treated. From the costume fittings to the makeup and cinematography it was all first class. Now if only the film had been as coveted. It did turn out to be a bit of a cult classic and I enjoyed every bit of it – who wouldn’t?

AC: I understand you used to shuttle back and forth to the East Coast. What made you settle down in LA twenty years ago? Do you still maintain a New York state of mind?

BD: Yes I did. I was bi-coastal for a few years before moving to LA and sometimes I think of doing that again. I have done so in smaller spurts – I just got back from five weeks in NYC and I did pursue auditioning. NYC is just the most exciting city in the world although Mumbai comes pretty close.
     Years ago I had some misguided notion that LA would be an easier town to live in. It was during the time I was divorcing prince charming and my career was just taking off here in LA so I stayed. I don’t really know if it has been any easier or not. I do like LA. And yes! I am always a New Yorker at heart - hard to get that out of my blood. I’m a pretty straight shooter and do not do well with BS - typical New Yorker.

AC: Tell us about the type of TV roles you were offered. Where you typecast early on? What kinds of roles did you want to have?

BD: I was fortunate to be involved in all kinds of casting situations. Did I get typecast? Yes, everyone in this biz gets typecast. And the typecasting has varied depending the time of my life, age, look, etc.
     What I always wanted to play - no matter if it was on stage or screen - was a truly great role. Whether the lead or not, I wanted a role that really was an intricate part of the storyline; one that I could get my chops into…and play the hell out of it.

AC: You did the first telenovella produced for the US market. What was that experience like? Do you think that the Spanish networks discriminate when it comes to using American Spanish-speaking actors and/or when doing their productions?

BD: Yes, and it was an opportunity to learn what working in front of a camera was all about. This is where I learned to hit my mark and let the camera find me. We worked in Puerto Rico, which was just gorgeous, and the people were sweet, professional and dedicated. It was a non-union environment so there were many things that were difficult to deal with and I found myself fighting hard for all kinds of things, from costumes to dressing rooms.
     Actors work with devices in their ears and learning your lines is not the practice so that was a surprise. The telenovela experience was eye opening; it was definitely a love-hate relationship. I loved the place, the people, and my part but at the same time I hated the way management treated the cast and crew.
     No, I do not think that Spanish networks discriminate. They have no problem hiring American Spanish-speaking actors from all over the country to work on commercials and in soap operas. They offer them less than optimal working conditions and non-union pay with no residuals. No, unfortunately, no problem at all.

AC: You said you wouldn’t mind working in Spanish media if they would go union. What does that mean?

BD: Exactly that. If they want to produce here in the USA or anywhere and want to use professional talent then honor that talent with the wages and working conditions that they deserve and with benefits negotiated by the union. I love working in Spanish - it is my favorite language and I would love to work on Spanish TV again if they were to hire me under a union contract as a professional SAG AFTRA actor.

AC: I am of the opinion that off-shore Spanish TV ignores local talent, that they carpetbaggers when it comes to providing meaningful programming, and their programming is inane and banal. What do you think?

BD: Yes, yes and yes…although I have seen some things that are really, really good. But not often enough. They have an extraordinary talent pool that they could use more wisely and I do think they underestimate the audience.

AC: You are well known for playing characters in the Star Trek series where you have the uncanny ability to channel the stillness of Spock. Please tell us about your experiences with the Star Trek characters.

BD: It is an extraordinary thing to be part of such a huge franchise with so many fans worldwide. My oh my! What a job! We arrived at 3:30am to start make up on the Borg character. I played Marika and we knew we would be there till 10pm or later only to return again at 3:30am. It took six hours of makeup for a Borg and about four hours for the Vulcan character I played, Sakonna. I love the place I hold in Star Trek lore.
I am the only actor to have played two of the most iconic Star Trek aliens: a Vulcan and a Borg. These were the longest hours I have ever worked with the most unbelievably talented actors and crews. I loved watching the original Star Trek and Spock so I must confess that I was a fan. This was a fantasy come true! Yep. I’m a geek at heart and proud of it.

AC: Wouldn’t you agree that a Vulcan Latina could easily run the planet?

BD: Hello? Any Latina could easily run the planet.

AC: You are an advocate for fair treatment of actors. You have served on the SAG Hollywood board of directors and were the national co-chair for the Sag Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee. Tell us about your work in these areas. Are things changing for Latino actors?

BD: I have never been a Latino actor. I am an actor who happens to be Latina. I am extremely proud of my heritage but when I wanted to be an actor I never said, “Oh yeah, I am going to be a Latina actor.” No, that was not what I said. I said I wanted to be an actor, period. It was everyone else that named me a Latino actor. Everyone gets some title in this business and, as a matter of fact, in all of life. I all-too-often hear people trying to compartmentalize everyone and everything.
     Things are challenging for anyone who chooses to become an actor. And yes, Latino actors come up against unique situations but I have seen it the same, one way or another, for all actors. I think things are changing for Latino actors in many positive ways but I do wish the changes were faster and more significant. I would really like to see more Latino/as represented in the major lead roles on TV shows and in the movies.
     My work at the union involves everything from answering any member inquiries about anything they may have a question about, to dealing with the issues that come before us as a Board of Directors, to producing events that hopefully leave members inspired and a bit more enlightened about the work. Above all, I just want to serve the members and hopefully make their lives as actors a bit more rewarding. I want to help them make use of the benefits in the union to the utmost. It is a responsibility I take to heart and I pray that I am doing a good job.

AC: Why are you so pro-union when many of the new media based independent Latino film projects cannot afford to be union? Is it better to have a non-union project that tells a story that will not be told otherwise or a union project that cannot get funded?

BD: SAG AFTRA has a signatory contract that would work for almost any production at any rate. Some of our contracts have no signatory fees whatsoever. We even give producers deferred payment opportunities so they pay actors later on and only if the production makes money. Where in the world do you hear a thing like that? Try asking a plumber to come to your house, do the work and then pay him later. I don’t think so.
     Any story can be told and anyone can work with the union. It is really a matter of respect.
I loved the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild and I cringed when I saw those actors walking in all that water. And who knows what other safety hazards they faced?
     Do you really think he could not have made a signatory film. With his budget and with the amount of diversity he had, the signatory cost for him would have been almost negligible. Now the film gets nominated for an Oscar and, from what I know, he is no way bound to pay the actors any residuals or even any additional compensation further then whatever they may have received. And with all that amazing work, that pay could have been as little as a minimum hourly wage.
     If the movie ends up selling well in any market, the actors also lose out on an opportunity to join the union and, later on, they will not qualify for contributions to a health or pension plan.
     When you work any union job you are supporting something much bigger than just yourself. You are supporting an overall commitment to an environment of safety, fair treatment and compensation for all those who have ever put in an honest day’s work in any field.
     And just to clarify, this is my opinion and in no way represents what may be the opinion of SAG AFTRA - although I will say that they probably agree with me on this one.

AC: Tell us about your voice work on King of The Hill. Would you like to do more of that sort of thing? Is there a lack of Latino characters in animated programming as well?

BD: You know, my experience was lovely and I am very happy they hired me. I’m always happy to work. Now, that said, as far as I am concerned there is a lack of Latino characters in most all of the US media markets. Look, King of the Hill takes place in Texas . . . hello?! Enough said. To be fair, they do have a more diverse cast than most animated shows. The Simpsons? Family Guy? But are you going to tell me that in a working class neighborhood in Texas, Hank and Peggy do not have Latino neighbors as best friends? Really?
     I wish I knew the answer to why there is a lack of Latinos in all programming. Although now the networks are hustling it up and created entities like NBC Latino. Universal also already owns Telemundo. There is some deal going on with Univision and I-cannot-remember-what network, so at some level they are catching on to the immense purchasing power that the 16% of Americans that are Latinos have. Our presence could improve tenfold in all programming; we are an important, integral and powerful part of the American scene.

AC: You took a major break from the entertainment business. Why did you do that and what did you do while you were on sabbatical? What inspired you to return as a working actress?

BD: Earlier in this interview I said that my biggest distraction from acting work is the desire I have for adventure, fun and partying. So, I was at a party late one night/morning and, well, one cigarette after the next drink and all of a sudden some opportunities outside of acting presented themselves. So I went with it. Things were slow as an actor and a girl has got to keep herself in lingerie. I took on a new career and set off to be the sales director of a young company. I opened offices for them in Europe and I traveled the world for three years - from Switzerland to Hawaii to Mexico to India to Amsterdam and more. It was quite an extraordinary time and a lot of hard work. When I completed that job I left the company with a 2000% increase in sales. I did intermittently work as an actor. Eventually I missed acting more so I came back. So guess what? Now it has been another extraordinary time with lots of hard work and I miss the travel. Life really can be like a one big divine comedy.

AC: What kinds of things are you doing to get work? How has new media enhanced that process?

BD: What am I not doing to get work? So much of that is out of my hands. I am bustling along the best that I can. Ah . . . new media . . . well that does not affect me as much as it does the generations that are to follow. It makes things way more competitive because it has made talent way more accessible for the powers-that-be to find. I do think that if you are wise, creative and work like a banshee you can make new media an opportunity to open doors for you in ways that were not available years ago.
     One thing I like is being able to tape my audition at home and just send it in. It’s great not to have to pay a fortune for hundreds of headshots because I can just email you one. There are good and bad things about this new techno era. I do not envy the future. The younger generations may have a much more challenging road to hoe than my group had.

AC: What are you working on right now and how can people learn more about you?

BD: Oh so many union things that I wish I had more time to work on my own personal endeavors.
     I did just recently finish a project called Dependent’s Day plus a short I did with Carlos Bernard from 24 called My Father’s Daughter.
     Who knows, once we have successfully completed the SAG AFTRA participation tomorrow in the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival then I will be free to think about moi!
     Where can you learn more about me? Google? Hmmm, I am going to have to do something about that one… I should have a blog or something…ay dios… so much to be, to do, to have.

AC: What are some of the things you hope to accomplish as an artist? Any regrets?

BD: NO regrets. NO prisoners.

I still hope to write something interesting, maybe a novel, a script, something . . . I want to continue to work as actor on some worthy projects. I do like to think my life is the artwork and that I am shaping a life full of all the beauty, love and madness that I can take!

AC: When it is all said and done, what would you like your legacy to be and how would you like history to remember you?

BD: As someone who loved, was loved and lived her life fully. That I left it all here. And hopefully I’ll be remembered as someone who touched the lives of others in some meaningful way - that I made a difference. Oh! And of course that I was brilliant as an actress…hahahahahaha, oh yeah!

Edited by Susan Aceves

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