As Sons of Anarchy prepares to ride off into the sunset with tomorrow night’s series finale, veteran television actor Jimmy Smits is looking back and reflecting on a small guest role that blossomed into a major part of the show’s mythology. Introduced as a love interest for Gemma in Sons of Anarchy‘s fifth season, Smits had agreed to a 10-episode run, but found his character becoming ever more entrenched into the SAMCRO saga.
With three seasons under his belt and the end of the road in sight, Smits took a few moments to chat with journalists about his experiences on the series, the emotional toll it has taken on its viewers, and how he feels about Sons of Anarchy‘s final ride.
Nero has such an intrinsic strength, power and gravitas to him that he acts as somewhat of a balancer and grounding force to the Tellers, particularly to Gemma, but also somewhat to Jax. What are your thoughts on the context of the role that Nero plays in the family?
Jimmy Smits: When you start thinking about the fluidity of a television series, and how it evolves and changes and grows, [it’s] kind of symbiotic, not only what the writers’ vision is, but what the interaction is between the actors, the ensemble, the crew, all of those things. Going in, it was supposed to be ten episodes and out, and all of those things that you alluded to – thank you very much – are nice, and I think that it’s evolved into that. I think that all of those qualities that you cited are probably things that I have developed.
His major character tag was that he wanted this kind of exit strategy. It’s something that permeated not only his character, but I think it influenced actions of the other characters. The character served this purpose of confidant, foil, love interest, all of those little spokes in the wheel that fleshes out the show in general. With regards to the gravitas and stuff, I don’t know. It’s not just an open and close, it’s not like a film or a play in the sense that everything is spelled out and has a fluidity to it; I’m just happy that I had the respect of that group when I came in, and they were very warm and open.
Another aspect that really stands out is Nero’s sense of humor, particularly in the way he interacts with Wendy. Can you talk a little about their relationship?
Jimmy Smits: [Humor is] one of Kurt’s strong suits. I think if you look at the whole gamut of the seven seasons of the show, when he has characters that one would conceive or consider to be dark or askew – you can see it in Tig, you can see it in all of the characters, actually – that Kurt operates best when he does this kind of one-two punch to the audience and can present kind of a lighter shade, a humorous side, and then socks you with something that can be very emotionally impacting. I think that engages the audience in a lot of ways. It makes them root for these people who are on the “wrong side of the tracks,” so I like the fact that that he operates as a writer from that kind of level.
With regards to Nero and Wendy, their sobriety is something that they have in common, so I think that that’s the strong bond that they share or will continue to share. Whatever happens, that’s an element of it. I think it takes the stink off the possibility that there’s a romantic thing. It’s a more paternal, brother/sister kind. You get that vibe from the back and forth that they have, so it functions on a lot of different levels because of that.
For you, personally, do you think this role will be among the most memorable that you’ve played?
Jimmy Smits: I hope there’ll be other memorable roles down the line, but I know I’m going to have fond memories of the group and this guy. I wanted to try to do something a little bit different, and I’m glad that Kurt really gave me that kind of opportunity. If you think of a series as a wheel and there are different spokes in the wheel that support it and keep it going, you have different characters that have different functions, like a role played on a basketball team, so I knew what was needed. That was expressed to me: “you’re going to be this for Jax and that for Gemma,” but it was important for me to try to keep a couple of balls in the air when I was juggling all of that.
Kurt and I, there were conversations that we had because I just didn’t want to be that. I wanted to make sure, because it’s a show about outlaws and people on the wrong side of the tracks, that you kept that vibrant as well, so it wasn’t just a guy coming to have somebody cry on his shoulder and giving coffee out. Do you know what I mean? Because he’s got a lot going on. There are a lot of characters to serve, and if we keep that other element going, it makes everything else more believable. So I’m just glad that there was a kind of real back and forth respect and trust that we had with each other. I have a huge, huge respect for what he’s done with the show, and I hope that’s mutual.
This season has been full of heartbreaking moments, but one of the biggest was the scene between Nero and Gemma, where Nero answered his cell phone and we saw his reaction to the news that Gemma had killed Tara. Can you tell us about preparing for that scene, and some of the choices you made on the day?
Jimmy Smits: Just from a dramaturgical look at it, when we had the read-through for it, [we knew] that the scene was going to have impact, that it was going to be demanding because of the fact that it’s not a back and forth. But in the scope of that particular episode, you do have the fact that the act is repeated a number of times, and most notably in the scene between Jax and Juice in the jail cell, where they were in vivid detail and Juice has recounted what happened with Tara, and Gemma’s involvement in it. And you see that registering on both of them, so I think it was a great writer’s stroke that Kurt decided that the subsequent retelling of it would play in a different kind of way, because the audience now is engaged and they know, and it becomes more about how each of the subsequent characters are going to start relating to the news. So when I look at it in total, I think it really points to Kurt’s strength as a writer.
Now the execution of it was a little bit scary. We were at the end of the day, we were losing light. It had to be outside and Paul Maibaum, who’s been the DP for the show since its beginning – and is just wonderful – kept on telling me don’t worry about it, we can make this work. I kept on saying “we’re going to have to come back and do this, and I don’t know how I’m going to be able to get back to where I was,” but it all become a trust, a day of trust on that level. And on recounting not having the phone call actually in my ear, and just knowing that I could be emotionally full with all of the information that I’ve had about these particular characters, and knowing that when I looked in Katey’s eyes and she looked at my eyes that it would resonate emotionally.
So we had that one aspect going for us, and I think it played out. I think it has a kind of power to it and I’m happy with most of it. There’s a lot that I still kick myself about, but that’s just me. I’m never totally happy, but thanks for the good words about it.
In last week’s episode, if Nero had gone to find Gemma instead of sending Unser, do you think the scene would have played out differently?
Jimmy Smits: If Nero had gone, there would have been probably three dead bodies there.
Will we be seeing some of that guilt from Nero after he realizes what happened?
Jimmy Smits: You’ll see more than guilt.
It seems like we saw some of that guilt already toward the end of last week’s episode, in the scene where Nero goes into Gemma’s bedroom and sits down on the bed. Can you talk a little about what Nero is thinking in that moment?
Jimmy Smits: I think there’s pain. There’s guilt. There’s remorse. Did you do the right thing? And I’m sure that the scenes afterwards that are not written, or maybe you won’t get to see in between the episodes, are full of maybe anger, and trying to grapple with what’s the next move. You’ve got to remember with all of these people, that there’s this [tension] bubbling. How do they deal with the feeling of betrayal? And how do they try to go about exacting – one might term it vengeance – or making things right for them or their point of view? Hopefully all of that is full for this final chapter.
How did you feel after you read the script for the final episode?
Jimmy Smits: I’ve been continually shocked with the past maybe five scripts, in terms of like, we’re really blowing shit up here. He’s going for broke, so it was always with a little bit of trepidation on everybody’s part when that new script would come in, to make that turn of the first couple of pages to see what was next or who was going to go down next. I think that Kurt ended it really beautifully and it has all of those elements that have been the signature of the show throughout the seven seasons. I was a little surprised specifically about the way Nero ends up, but I totally get it. I totally get it. I don’t think audiences are going to be disappointed at all. I think they’re going to be very satisfied, and it’s touching in a lot of ways.
Sons of Anarchy airs Tuesday nights at 10pm, exclusively on FX.