From Generation Kill to This Is Us, Jon Huertas talks family, career and life in the Air Force
Jon Huertas is one of the most successful Latino actors of today. Having been a lead on shows such as Generation Kill, Castle, This Is Us, and in the military film The Objective, Huertas is well-known for the depth of his talent. Perhaps lesser known: He's an Air Force veteran. Huertas served in the Air Force before transitioning over to acting where he comes at his craft and profession from a much deeper perspective than one might recognize at a quick glance. He shares his stories here about where he has been, where he wants to go and changes he believes are necessary in the Entertainment industry.
Photo credit IMDB.com
WATM: Tell me about your family and your life growing up?
My upbringing was sometimes tough at times, although my mom and grandparents tried their best to make family life easier. You are born what you're born into, where you try to come out with a smile on your face.
WATM: What is the most distinct memory of your mother and your father?
My mother worked very hard and the best as she could for her family. I grew up with my grandparents where my grandfather was adamant about studying effectively and always being a student of life. You never really master anything and need to keep an open mind because nothing is solid and everything in life tends to be fluid. So, I always try to learn something new to be ready for life's many changes. My grandmother had a good sense of humor and she didn't take herself too seriously. She was always laughing and always having fun. Our life on this planet is super short, with how small of creatures we truly are in the universe. And in retrospect to how long the earth has been here.
WATM: What values were stressed at home?
In many ways I raised myself and made mistakes where I could have landed on a completely different path in life. I had a dream to be an actor and also a hero complex with a developing desire to also serve my country. These desires mostly kept me out of trouble growing up…"mostly," but getting in trouble a few times steered me in the right direction. My goals kept me focused and not ending up in situations where I shouldn't be. It was like I would have internal conversations with myself about my goals and which forced me to grow up.
WATM: What influenced you to join the US Air Force, what was your experience and what lessons did you take away from your service?
A lot of men in my family served, including my grandfather who was in the Navy, my uncle was in the Navy and I had several uncles that served in the Marine Corps as well. I saw pictures of them, especially the black and white picture of my grandfather in uniform, where I actually saw myself in that photo. I went to the Navy recruiter first then off to MEPS but then joined the Air Force after a conversation with a family member. I'd always loved flying, I loved airplanes and helicopters, so it was only natural that I joined the AF instead.
Serving your country is one of the last rites of passage in our country. And while I served, I identified and followed good leaders so I could aspire to one day become one myself. That's my biggest take away from my time in the AF. You can find your family anywhere and when you're in the military, you create this family around you at your duty stations. When you leave that one, you then have to find your new family at your next duty station. It's actually fairly easy for humans to adapt in a situation where you have to find "your people". I learned that I needed to surround myself with the people that were going to help me attain my goals. I got this from the AF, but I feel it can work for anyone whether the serve or not.
WATM: What values have you carried over from the USAF into acting?
The two most valuable things I took away from the AF is having a strong sense of initiative and discipline. It takes initiative to get your career started. Becoming an actor is one of the hardest careers. It is not even really a career; it is a lifestyle. So having the initiative to figure it all out was huge for me. And you have to have the discipline to stick with it and not give up. Knowing that being in constant training will keep you sharp and ready. In the military we are always improving on our training. It is the same with acting, I am constantly training. There are wonderful acting classes, books to read and films to watch. When you get the opportunity to finally go in for an audition, you should feel like you are the best that you think you can be, then show them that you are the best one for that job.
WATM: What is the most fulfilling project you have done and why?
My most fulfilling role is definitely in "Generation Kill" as Sgt. Tony Espera. This was because they had developed a wonderfully complex Latino character. It was unlike any other show that I had worked on. My character, Espera, wasn't a narco trafficker or a low-level thug, he was someone who had chosen to serve his country. Probably the most developed Latino character I have ever played. HBO, David Simon, Ed Burns and Evan Wright showed gumption by making Espera one of the leads in the show. And it was so gratifying to portray a character like him -- to tell an authentic story to the men and women who serve our country and to stay truthful to what happened during the invasion. The writer of the book, Evan Wright, was on set and would provide key advice. Evan had a micro recorder that he always had on him to where if we questioned some of the dialogue, he would pull out the recorder and we could hear our dialog being said, as it happened, by the real guys we were portraying. For advisors on the story, we had the real Rudy Reyes playing himself, with Jeff Carazales and Erick Kocher, also there but being portrayed by actors. Of course, we would them if, in these scripts, it was the way that it really happened, and they let us know it was.
The two biggest compliments I've ever received as an actor was when Tony Espera's wife saw GK at the Camp Pendleton premiere and she asked me, "How was I able to be Tony?" and the other was Tony himself telling me, "I felt like I was watching memories, not a TV show." Because of that, Generation Kill is the pinnacle of my career.
Jon Huertas, Alexander Skarsgard, and Lee Tergeson in "Generation Kill". Photo credit IMDB.com
WATM: What was your experience like in working with such talents as Nathan Fillion, Stana Katic, Rob Bowman, Alex Skarsgard, Susana White, Simon Cellan Jones, Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Dan Fogelman, and the like?
Castle is something that I had never experienced before. It is probably the most collaborative show I have ever worked on. They let me help develop Esposito, the character I played. He wasn't a veteran in the pilot. I asked the producers if I could make him an Army veteran and they let me do it. The relationship I had with Nathan Fillion and Seamus Dever, where our characters, were normally the looser part of the story when compared with the Beckett character played by Stana Katic. We could play around a little more and Stana usually played the straight woman, mirroring the audience's perspective. She was so good at portraying that character and bringing the three of us back to a more grounded place for the procedural aspect of the show. We were able to figure out how to play, what could've been repetitive tropes, differently by infusing character and humor into it that made us stick out. Rob Bowman directed our pilot and he is a mentor to me. He was my first teacher as a director, and he was so encouraging for us to bring more humor. He loved to laugh and wanted us to improve the story by having us not take ourselves too seriously which I think allowed the audience to root for us.
Jon Huertas and Seamus Dever in "Castle". Photo credit IMDB.com
I can't say enough about Seamus Dever who played my partner on the show. He is not only a loyal actor but an even more loyal friend. He was always protective of me and our work. He made my time on Castle the best time I could have had. Nathan is such a giving person and super generous. He wasn't always trying to be the center of the show, he loved highlighting what the rest of us did. The most fun I had was trying to make Nathan laugh during a take, which I reprised when I got to guest with Nathan on The Rookie last year.
Stana Katic, Nathan Fillion, and Jon Huertas in "Castle". Photo credit IMDB.com
After working on Generation Kill, it was amazing to see so many of the guys go off and do such wonderful work after the show. Alexander Skarsgard's career has been amazing, from doing True Blood to Tarzan and tons of other amazing gigs. And to think he was thinking about quitting acting right before the GK?! Brad "Iceman" Colbert, who Alexander portrayed in Generation Kill, was super proud of Alexander's work portraying him. Alex and I are still tight as well as most everyone from the show like, James Ransone, Stark Sands, Wilson Bethel, Michael Kelley, and many others. We're all like brothers now. Almost every single guy from Generation Kill was at my wedding and it was a destination wedding in Mexico, I still can't believe they all came there for me. I even flew with guys from Generation Kill to England to go to Stark Sands' wedding. There have been several destination weddings from guys on that show. Everyone on Generation Kill was such a joy to work with, they pushed me, and I pushed them and their dedication in getting the story right made me very proud.
Kellan Lutz, Sal Alvarez, Jon Huertas, Pawel Szajda, and Stefan Otto in Generation Kill.
The experience was almost like being deployed. We shot for nearly eight months in Africa in the countries of Namibia, South Africa's and in Mozambique. We were a cast made up of almost all guys and for Susana White to not only keep us all from killing each other, she did such an amazing job with the subject matter and was so open to getting the story right. She ended up nominated for Emmy for GK and, in fact, the show was nominated for eleven Emmys. Simon Kellan Jones is a blast to work with and made the set such a fun place to be. Even though we were telling a story that sometimes had us calling in an air strike on the civilian populace, Simon helped us process it so we didn't bring in too much darkness where people may not watch it.
Now, This Is Us is a family show with no guns like a lot of shows I've done in the past. It does feel like a family and all that trickles down through Dan Fogelman. He sets the tone for the show. It is rare to be part of a show that has the impact that this show has. It's another once in a lifetime experience to be on a show that has touched so many people in so many profound ways.
Jon Huertas, Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore and Wynn Everett in "This Is Us". Photo credit IMDB.com
All of the projects I've been a part of have been amazing in their own way. But working in this industry for the past 25 years, I've seen a lack of people behind the scenes that I can say have had similar experiences as an adult male Latino. Meaning…I've been working a lot of episodes of television from guest stars to series regulars to leads and I've only been directed by one adult male Latino. That is one a hole that still needs to be filled as well as TV writers, Show Runners, Producers and Executives.
After This Is Us ends, I'd like to spend more time behind the camera in the director's chair and in writing. With the lack of Latino writers in TV, so many characters and storylines featuring Latinos are in roles of a negative stereotype or in menial roles like the gardener or cook instead of as heroes, champions, romantics and role models. So, until you can get people that are writing about it, producing it, developing it, greenlighting it or directing it you are not going to see it. I feel a responsibility to be a part of pushing that message forward. I see a lack of representation at the network, studio and production level for Latinos and I hope to be a part of changing that as well.
As a little kid I had this hero complex. I watched TV and movies, but rarely did I see anyone who looked or talked like me. I watched the old "Batman" TV series with Adam West and I loved Adam West but… he didn't look like me. So in the back of my mind, I thought that I couldn't be Batman because he was white. Marvel still hasn't stepped up with Latino representation. In the TV world there was a recurring character called, Ghost Rider on Agents of Shield but for 20 plus years of doing Marvel in the cinematic universe, they've yet to have one adult male Latino as a superhero in his own title.
Erik Estrada was an influential to me while growing up as well as Esai Morales, who was another mentor of mine. I saw him for the first time in a Sean Penn movie called Bad Boys and I think that was the first time I saw someone who really looked like me. It took me seeing someone like me to have the confidence to aspire to become an actor. Latino characters need to be portrayed as the hero, the guy that gets the girl, and the wealthy guy. We have to force ourselves to tell stories that are an equal slice of life. The best bite of a stew is one with all of the pieces of the stew, not just the same three or four pieces.
WATM: What leadership lessons in life and from the USAF have helped you most in your career?
Instead of making emotional decisions allow your emotions to inspire a calculated decision. That is what shows a true leader: You are not letting your emotions speak for you are letting your emotions inspire you to make the best decision. Emotional decisions can be like gut punches where you just react. A person may not think a certain way where they lash out after being hurt.
As an actor your job is to convey an emotion so you can get an emotional response from your audience. If a director and another actor come in and they're trying to guide your personal choices to benefit them and you feel they're trying to manipulate your artistic vision for your character, you could become emotional. If you let your emotion take over, you might regret reacting the way you do and end up looking like the problem in the moment. Now there's tension between actor and director or actor and actor. If you take just a moment and think internally, "How do I get what I want?" You say, "I see where you are coming from, but does this have any value?"You may get them to see it from your perspective and you help them make your decision for you. Now that is, "if" your decision does have value. If so, how can they deny it?
Good decision-making trickles down from the top. From the president to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the Pentagon. Even on the unit level from the battalion commander to the platoon commander and on down.
WATM: As a veteran, how do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood and stage arena?
Think back to It's a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart where he was a WWII veteran. Stories are already being told that veterans like to watch but we need to encourage veterans to step up and write, direct, produce stories that speak not only to veteran audiences but also the general market. Veterans a lot of times make the focus of their stories completely from a veteran POV but instead need to create a story everyone will be into and then just happen to make the characters veterans. It's almost like when you are laying out your characters and mark one with a green dot "veteran". Back in the day, we just wouldn't watch a lot of the TV shows or films that centered on veterans because Hollywood usually got it wrong. But now that's changed. Some bars have been set high because some of the more recent military based projects, especially the higher quality ones, have hired advisors and/or worked with veterans from the inception of the projects. Just like I have to step out as a Latino and encourage others to do so, we need to encourage veterans to step out as well to write the stories.
Just like what I shared about training, not only when serving, when starting out as an actor but also veterans who want to tell their stories need to study creative writing and learn how to write a, treatments, out lines, pitches, log-lines and eventually an amazing screenplay. You have to write something that is not only a great story, but that is produce-able. The hope is that you can sell it somewhere and it's given a proper budget so the integrity and authenticity can be upheld. As a veteran that wants to write a series about a veteran you may have to work as a staff writer on a show that is not about veterans, so you have to have an open mind. You have to have the skills to write a good script and then after a season or so you can talk to the producers about trying to introduce a character that is a veteran. You have to get into that writer's room and win hearts and minds. Invest in the writer's room and then move to the director's chair and the executive's chair at the studio, be in charge of what is getting made. You might be able to get into a position to inspire every project created at the studio level, who knows.
WATM: What are you most proud of in life and your career?
I'm proud to have been a working actor who happens to be Latino and also proud to be veterans who has represented veterans truthfully on screen. Portraying veteran and Latino characters positively has hopefully affected someone out there positively as well.