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Edward James Olmos is a man of distinction. Throughout his more than 40-year acting career, his work has earned him nominations for numerous honors, including the Academy Award for Best Actor for Stand and Deliver, and both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Miami Vice. Olmos also has worked tirelessly as an activist, and served as an ambassador for UNICEF. Despite his many achievements, however, Olmos carries himself with humility.
He was greeted with a standing ovation Sunday afternoon at Emerald City Comicon as he sat down for a conversation with convention PR Director Joe Parrington. Fans were eager to hear the Battlestar Galactica and Blade Runner actor discuss his career in film and activism, his views on advancing technology, and where he finds the inspiration for his characters.
Parrington ran down the list of honors that have been bestowed upon the actor. Olmos, though, places the work, and the strength of a story, first.
“I think that the accolades that one receives is bonus, is the frosting on top of the cake,” he said. “The cake, the true sense of what we do, is in the work. There’s only one thing you can say when you receive any kind of accolade. It’s ‘Thank you.'”
Olmos has declined numerous roles over the years, including that of Capt. Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and major parts in Scarface and In the Line of Fire. Olmos, while commending the works themselves, has no regrets over his choices. His decision, he said, always came down to story, or the occasional conflict with other projects.
“I’ll play the doorstop to the lead, and anywhere in between, if the story’s right,” Olmos said. “If I have passion for that story, then I can do it. I’m not a good actor. I become a good actor with great story.”
Sometimes, decisions regarding roles required Olmos to make sacrifices, choosing one over another. For example, he declined a recurring role on The West Wing to work on American Family, a lesser-known series on PBS, and a milestone for U.S. television programming.
“It was just so rewarding, and so needed,” he said of the experience. “It was the very first all culturally Latino-cast and -themed project ever placed on broadcast television.”
“The Latinos are less than 2 percent of all the images we see on film and television,” he continued. “Asian and Indigenous are less than half a percent that we see. So, really, we’re off-balance.”
Olmos went on to discuss the success of Battlestar Galactica, and its impact with fans and political culture worldwide.
“[Battlestar Galactica‘s] usage of television was one of the highest I’ve ever seen on the planet,” he said. “It brings an incredible mirror to the society that’s watching it. That affects everybody. It affected Europe as much as it affected African as much as it affected the Western hemisphere and the Scandinavian countries. Everybody that saw it found themselves in it, because we represented humanity, and it was the extinction of humanity done by the technology that we had created. … We created the Cylon, we created nuclear warfare. We have more bombs than anybody in this country, but there are too many bombs on the planet, you know? What are we doing with them? What are we gonna do with them?
“We got called in to do a panel for the United Nations,” Olmos continued, “and they used Battlestar Galactica. They asked me my opinion when I was on the dais, and they ended up asking me, you know, what my feelings were and I said, ‘I really am sorry but I don’t believe that there is a Latin race, or a Caucasian race, or an African race, or an Asian race or an Indigenous race. There’s only one race, and that’s the human race.’ And the people went nuts.”
Several audience members expressed deep admiration for Olmos’ activist work, with one fan asking the actor about his views on Occupy Wall Street, and whether he’d consider joining the movement.
“Occupy Wall Street is a needed understanding in this country,” he replied. “It was just like the anti-war movement in the ‘70s. It was very much needed. Any time that the populace, us — and I include myself with this — turn around and feel like we’ve been betrayed, we must stand up and voice ourselves. And we have been betrayed in the biggest way possible.
“This government … started to really take its share of greed to the highest level. And what has happened is that they’ve stuck us with a bill that’s gonna go to our great-great-grandchildren, and as far as I’m concerned they don’t deserve to be out of jail.” The crowd broke out in raucous applause. “I think all those people should be in jail.”
Olmos choices in projects, however, have not always been so universally praised. Upon the release of Blade Runner 1982, the film was critically and commercially panned in the United States. “When that movie came out, nobody enjoyed it,” the actor recalled. “[Audiences] couldn’t get behind their action hero getting himself annihilated, and it really became an issue.”
The film was received well overseas, however, and in recent years many critics who initially dismissed Blade Runner have recanted their earlier reviews. “England loved it,” Olmos said. “They gave it everything under the sun. They gave it all their accolades, because it’s a brilliant motion picture. It’s the finest sci-fi movie ever made, and Ridley Scott should feel very proud of what he’s done. If you saw the movie today you’d swear it was made yesterday.”
Olmos finds inspiration for his roles in an unlikely place: music. “Music is the key for me, to develop characters,” he said. “I have to find my music before I can actually even start to work.”
Battlestar Galactica presented an unusual problem for Olmos, he said, because he was unable to get a grip on the story’s timeframe. He eventually found his music for Adama in a small record shop in Vancouver.
“I walked in and I saw, right as I walked in, the picture of Deva [Premal] on a blue cover,” he recalled. “I had no idea who she was. I had never heard her music, and I picked it up. I didn’t know why I picked it up, but I picked it up, and I walked it around, and then I went over and I said, ‘Can I hear this?’ They put it on and all of a sudden, I said, ‘Holy mackerel!’
“I played it from the very first day I got it, to the very last day that I worked on Battlestar Galactica. I played it every single day, seven days a week, to stay inside my character and to keep Adama alive and well.”
Before ending the conversation, Olmos announced an upcoming graphic novel with Oni Press. He’s working with Robert M. Young, director and writer of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, on the book, which depicts on conquest of the Americas. It will likely be released sometime in 2013.
Olmos concluded the panel with a succinct call to arms: “Remember that you lead by example, and that the future is in our hands. If we really want to make something happen, you do it. So say we all.”
“So say we all!” the crowd responded, erupting into applause.