Pepe Serna: Breaking Barriers for Latinos in Film and TV
with Pepe Serna
Mexican American actor Pepe Serna has appeared in more than 100 feature films and 300 television shows since the ‘70s. Serna reflects on his journey including dispelling stereotypes, inspiring future generations, and advocating for better representation of Latinos in Hollywood.
September 01, 2022
Henao Holmes: If you have seen "Scarface," "The Jerk," or the documentary "Pepe Serna: Life Is Art," you'll know his work. Chicano film, television, and theatrical actor Pepe Serna has appeared in more than 100 films and 300 television shows since the '70s. Perhaps best known for playing Tony Montana's sidekick, Angel, in the film "Scarface," Serna has been an inspiration to generations of actors. More than 50 years following his first onscreen debut, Pepe Serna continues to work on both the big and small screens dispelling stereotypes, inspiring future generations, and advocating for better representation of Latinos in Hollywood. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Liliana Henao Holmes. We are honored to have a much admired and respected veteran of Latino Hollywood joining us today. Welcome, bienvenido, Pepe Serna.
Serna: Muchísimas gracias, Liliana. It's my pleasure being here on Comcast today.
Henao Holmes: Pepe, you must be so proud of your accomplishments in your career and your life -- Hollywood actor, painter, writer, director, producer, and motivational speaker to name a few of your titles. Tell us about your journey to Hollywood and the toughest challenges you had to overcome to find your place there.
Serna: It's been an incredible ride because it started off as so good for me knowing that I was an actor since I was three because my mother would take me to all of those películas, the cine de oro, the golden age of cinema of Mexico, with Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Dolores del Río, María Félix, where just thinking back, that the women's parts were just as powerful as the men's parts. All these different characters that I would come to find out growing up they were gonna be -- that we didn't see growing up in Texas here in America that much, of seeing a Mexican-American doctor a Mexican-American professional of any kind. My father was, which is a whole other story, but that ingrained in me that positivity.
Henao Holmes: In the documentary "Pepe Serna: Life Is Art," another famous Chicano actor, Edward James Olmos, talks about how you would call him to audition for the same role you were after in a movie. And he says, "We say, 'Who does that?' Who does that in Hollywood?'" It cannot be very common that you invite your competition. And we can't help but wonder if that attitude and that spirit has been part of your successful career, steady work for a Latino actor since the '70s.
Serna: I came from improv, and the way I was taught by Del Close from Second City, one of the greatest teachers of all time -- improvisational teachers -- is to give the other person the character that you want to be. Instead of making myself that, you know, the guy in the black-leather outfit and the whip and the silver-plated guns, I make you that person. Always give it away. Give it away, and it comes back like a roaring river.
Henao Holmes: Pepe, you started your career in Hollywood as the Chicano Movement was in full swing. And at the same time, actors like you were being cast in the very stereotypical roles of gang members, criminals, and the likes. How did these two parallels impact your advocacy work in film?
Serna: The fact that we had to play cholos, either killing or being killed, was not a good feeling. But those are the opportunities that I had, so I played them with glee. One of my first movies with Gregory Peck, the character's name was Andy Luke, but they gave me the part and changed it -- my character named Pepe and made me half Mexican and half Native American. So I was straight from Texas, so I played it just like that. [ Southern accent ] "Golly, Bobby Joe. Why'd you do that?" [ Normal voice ] It was a character I had done for "No Time for Sergeants" that Andy Griffith had done. So it was like being able to play a part like -- and give it colors and give it a different dimension than the writers in Hollywood were writing about was big time. But we realized later that we were saying, "I want to play the white guy." I said, "No, I just want to play me as a professional who has a brain and can speak intelligently and is of the world."
Henao Holmes: You are 78 years young. In looking back, what would you say to your 20-year-old self who borrowed $100 from his mother in Corpus Christi, Texas, to move to L.A. and pursue the art he loved? And what is next for Pepe Serna? And are you going to kick butt in your 80s?
Serna: Oh, it's only just beginning. Now that I've become the star of my documentary, I've become a star of every little bit part I've ever had. I went back to my hometown in Corpus Christi to show my documentary. And my friends that I've known my whole life, even my family members, saw me in a different light, because in your own backyard, as you well know, you're not respected as much as you are throughout the world. And the thing is, is they say, "What is the legacy that I want to leave behind?" And my legacy with my documentary, with all the work that I've done, with my memoir that will be coming out soon, the legacy is it's not -- it's about you, the viewer out there. What is your dream? What is it that that you haven't done? Whatever it is -- if you're a mechanic, if you're a gardener -- don't say you're gonna be a writer. You're already a writer, and we're all actors. Everybody's an actor because we have to stand up and represent ourselves in the very best way that we can.
Henao Holmes: What do you feel is your greatest contribution to your craft? And what is your message today for Latinos who aspire to find a place in the very competitive world of film, television, and the arts?
Serna: The best thing that I can say -- I've been teaching Improvisational workshops for over 50 years, and I go to schools and they say, "If you can reach one child." No, I want to reach everybody. And I do reach everybody when I do workshops because I'm from the playground, and I love people and they sense it.
Serna: Wow. Hollywood actor and artist Pepe Serna, what a joy talking to you today. Gracias. Thank you so much for making time for us.
Serna: Thank you very much for having me on. It's been incredible.
Henao Holmes: And thank you for joining us as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Liliana Henao Holmes.