Bertila Damas Interview Excerpt
By Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez
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 New York 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 at 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.
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.
Al Carlos: 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?
Bertila Damas: 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 New York and later on in Miami.
My mother is an American, originally from Puerto Rico and New York. 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. 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: [My mother and grandmother] 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.
AC: You are getting rave reviews on the character you have been playing on NBC’s series Grimm – especially the episode when you and David Barrera speak 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 prime time bilingualism?
BD: Yes, this Grimm episode was the highest rated show in its time slot that night and overall the second highest rating for a Grimm episode. 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: Were 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 New York 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: 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 Los Angeles 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 New York 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.
AC: You did the first telenovela 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: 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.
Source: Herald de Paris Excerpt
Excerpt edited by Elia Esparza