Ramón Rodríguez as Will Trent with Betty
It's hard to believe, but Ramón Rodríguez, who plays talented but tortured investigator Will Trent on the ABC series of the same name, almost didn't take the part.
The biggest role of his career — ABC's top-rated freshman drama of the 2022–23 season, renewed for a second season, lauded by critics and watched by millions — almost didn't happen.
"I wasn't even sure if I was right for it," Rodríguez says, speaking in early July, weeks before the SAG-AFTRA strike. After nearly twenty years onscreen, including his breakout role as the boyfriend of fan favorite Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) on The Wire, Rodríguez knew what it takes to commit to a show. "You do a series, you get in bed for potentially a very long time," he says. "You need to make sure you align with the creators and writers. My goal was to make something unique and different, because there's a lot of cop shows out there. I wanted to make sure we're trying to push the envelope. I needed it to be meaningful."
Mission accomplished. Based on Karin Slaughter's bestselling crime novels, Will Trent features Rodríguez as an Atlanta-based special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Orphaned as a baby, he still wrestles with childhood traumas and suffocating self-consciousness related to dyslexia. Yet he possesses uncanny gifts that enable him to spot what other law enforcement experts miss.
Will Trent is meaningful for another reason. In Slaughter's books, Will is white; on the show, Will, like Rodríguez, is Puerto Rican. "That was one of the reasons I wasn't sure I was right for it," he says. "People who read the books, I imagined them having a tough time, sort of going, 'Wait — that's not the Will Trent I imagined. He doesn't look like the guy I thought of at all.'"
Though this reimagining of a lead character is a big win for inclusion in a landscape where Latino faces and voices are rare, it comes in a way that some may find unexpected. Only in the last few installments of the thirteen-episode first season do viewers learn anything about Will's ethnicity. Having grown up in foster care, he knows nothing about his background — until a whopper of a reveal in the season finale. This disconnect gave the proud Puerto Rican an opportunity to dive into a complicated character who knows no ethnic identity.
"We all have the stereotypes and clichés [about Latinos] that are put out there," says Rodríguez, who's played his share of street toughs. "But what was interesting was, if he doesn't know who he is, there wouldn't be any signs of him being Latino. There's no salsa music playing, there's no Puerto Rican flag. It became interesting in the sense of being able to remove ethnicity. It's not about that but just, 'How can I become this character as honestly as possible?' We don't have to play the tropes of what it is to be Puerto Rican. We don't have to see ourselves in the way we've always been shown."
There's a noticeable difference between the dashing, grown-up Ramón Rodríguez on Will Trent and the lad viewers might recognize from The Wire and other characters of his youth: his hair.
In his early roles, Rodríguez wore cornrows, the braided, traditionally Black hairstyle that in Rodríguez's hometown of New York City at least, is also common among Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other Latinos — a symbol of cross-cultural kinship. Cornrows also conjure up cultural implications that Rodríguez now realizes affected the roles he was offered.
He wears cornrows in his two-episode arc as a street kid on Rescue Me (2005, FX), again as gangster Damien Ortiz on Day Break (2006–07, ABC) and again on The Wire (2006–08, HBO) as Renaldo, Omar's partner in crime. "Often, I would walk into a room for roles, and they'd go, 'Great, he's the guy,'" he says, speaking of a tendency to see his braid-wearing self as a drug dealer, a gangbanger and other stereotypes. "It was interesting. When I cut my hair and went in to audition for [2009's] Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, that changed a lot of things for me."
Discovering that a simple haircut can advance your career is the kind of invisible rule young people of color often learn only through experience. That's especially true in Hollywood, where image matters most. Nobody could fault Rodríguez for being oblivious to professional codes; he came of age on Manhattan's Lower East Side when it was a low-income, almost entirely Black and brown barrio. Inside the cramped apartment he shared with his mom and three sisters, Rodríguez would watch I Love Lucy, enamored with Ricky Ricardo , one of the few positive Latino characters he saw onscreen. (He was estranged from his father, a musician with whom he's since mended fences.) The neighborhood wasn't teeming with role models, either. "This was during the crack epidemic. Seeing drug dealing and gang fights was not out of the ordinary," he recalls. "I escaped some very precarious and dangerous situations growing up. Sometimes it was luck. Sometimes I made the right choice."
One night, he was hanging out in a pool hall when a friend invited him to shoot hoops, a choice that changed his life. He says basketball gave him a focus he lacked. "I know that had I not gone that night, I would be in a very different place today." He won a scholarship to the Leelanau School, a prep school in Northern Michigan, where he was one of two Latinos. Apart from trips to Puerto Rico to see family, he'd never left Manhattan before.
"Going to the gym at night was terrifying," he recalls of Michigan. "I did not understand what it was to be surrounded by trees and animals; I understood the concrete jungle. Being able to leave New York, I gained a lot of perspective."
After two years playing point guard for Wheeling University in small-town West Virginia, Rodríguez transferred to NYU, where he earned a sports marketing degree. A chance audition for a Nike commercial became the bridge between his first love and acting. "I went because they were giving away sneakers," he says. He performed a trick he'd perfected — keeping a ball spinning, even atop a pen in his mouth — and got cast. That led to more commercials, which led to TV roles.
On Fox's 2014 crime drama Gang Related, Rodríguez played Ryan Lopez, a mole in the LAPD's Gang Task Force. He was acting as a criminal again, albeit one whose double life made the character more complicated. But it marked a turning point; Rodríguez has since resisted playing street guys. "I've been lucky enough that, after getting work for a while, I can go, 'You know, that's not for me right now,'" he says. "I don't have anything against [those parts], but I also feel like there should be other, positive figures we get to play. How many Latino roles are doctors, versus how many are in a criminal world of some sort?"
In its 2022 "Latinos in Media" report, the nonprofit think tank Latino Donor Collaborative said that only thirty-eight out of 1,462 primetime and streaming shows (2.6 percent) featured a Latino in a lead role that year. Of those, eighteen "portrayed Latinos negatively or perpetuated false stereotypes about the U.S. Latino community."
Maid, drug dealer, gangbanger, downtrodden immigrant: nearly seventy years after Ricky Ricardo, one-dimensional portrayals of Latinos remain pervasive, which is why it's not an overstatement to see Will Trent as a watershed moment.
Charles Ramírez Berg, who focuses on cinema and Latino imagery as senior professor in media studies at University of Texas at Austin, says characters like Will are refreshing. "Too often when a Latino shows up, that character has the burden of an entire ethnic group. We're close to 20 percent of the population, so that means one-fifth of American life is Latino. That means the person that delivered your paper this morning, your doctor, your teacher, is Latino. Because that's life. For too long, it was like [casting directors] can't hire a Latino or Latina unless they're playing Selena or something."
To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE.
This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10 under the title, "Role Remodel."
The interview for this story was completed before the start of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.