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August 05, 2019

Coming Home

Jacob Vargas returns to comedy after a distinguished career in TV drama.

Hillary Atkin
  • Netflix
  • Brandon Moningka
  • Netflix
  • Netflix
  • Brandon Moningka
  • Netflix

It's an origin story that is one-of-a-kind.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, dreams of Hollywood seemed much further away than the actual mileage between the two locales. That is, until a 12-year-old Jacob Vargas was discovered breakdancing in a schoolyard. His talents led to his first job - on Diff'rent Strokes – and started a multifaceted career.

The latest chapter is his role as Tony Medina on Netflix's new sitcom Mr. Iglesias, in which he plays a high school teacher alongside the show's star, Gabriel Iglesias, with whom he goes back for many years.

The 10-episode series was released June 21, 2019 and is set at Iglesias' actual alma mater, Long Beach, California's Woodrow Wilson High, from which he graduated in 1994.

Iglesias plays a history teacher who takes a comedic yet very effective approach to teaching his students while going the extra mile for them, especially if they are considered underperformers by the school's administrators.

Vargas' character is one of Iglesias's close friends, always supportive of his methods while providing even more comic relief in some of the serious situations that develop in the classroom. Other cast members include Sherri Shepherd, Oscar Nunez, Maggie Geha and Richard Gant.

Vargas is well known for his roles in dramas like Luke Cage, Mosaic and Sons of Anarchy and his turns in films including Jarhead, Selena and 2000's Traffic, for which he took home a SAG Award for outstanding performance of a cast in a theatrical motion picture

Yet the actor is no stranger to comedy, although it's been a while since he evoked laughter instead of the fear that some of his recent on-screen characters have inspired.

The last time he appeared in a sitcom was in Greetings from Tucson, a comedy that ran on CW precursor the WB network during the 2002-2003 season. Also going back a couple decades, Vargas toured with Iglesias on the standup circuit.

You might even say that Vargas has completed a comedy round trip, being that his very first on-screen appearance was on the popular network sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, which ran for eight seasons beginning in 1978 on NBC and finishing off its run with its final season on ABC

We spoke with Vargas by phone a few days after Netflix held a premiere event for Mr. Iglesias in downtown Los Angeles. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

How was the premiere for Mr. Iglesias?

It was great seeing the cast and crew. You forget how much fun everyone was. We wrapped at the end of December, but in January, the cast watched Gabe do his standup in Las Vegas and we all hung out there together. We also connect on social media.

One of the things that was so cool at the premiere is they had a mariachi band serenading the audience as they took their seats. There were some kind words and after the first episode, Gabe dedicated it to one of his teachers who was in the audience. Everyone cheered, and it was a beautiful moment.

How did this role of Tony Medina come about for you and how does it feel to go back to the sitcom world?

I worked with Peter Murietta 17 years ago on Greetings from Tucson on the WB and he told me he was working on a new show with Gabriel, and I had to audition and win the role. Sandi Logan, the casting director, believed in me - but Netflix wasn't sure. I wasn't a standup, I didn't have a show and I wasn't a comedian so I had to do a chemistry read with Gabe.

We go back 20 years to Latino Logs, when he was doing small clubs and touring. Honestly, it was like time had not passed and it felt right.

So even though I had done comedy before, movies like Traffic, Jarhead and Selena all served to get me the reputation for being a dramatic actor. I owe my thanks to Peter, Sandi and Gabe for pushing it. I remember sending old tapes, digging through archives to show I could be funny.

I forgot how much I enjoy doing comedy. It felt like I was in my element. My mouth would hurt from laughing so much with great actors. You take the work home with. Playing bad guys, you come home feeling exhausted. So this was a big shift. I felt energized.

What are some of your favorite elements of playing Tony and working with Gabe and the other cast members?

I really enjoy Tony. He has no filter. There is a fine line between being inappropriate, but at the same time he means well and is super charming, especially with Abby. He's kind of clueless but at the end of the day is a loyal friend. You really see the chemistry Gabe and I have on screen. The thing I love most is working in front of a studio audience. I had forgotten how much fun that was.

How would you compare working on a network TV show to working on a streaming platform?

The difference between Netflix and network television is you are always on edge about being canceled – and the ratings. There's a lot of pressure. With Netflix's 10 episodes, you are not worried about being cancelled mid-season, and there is something relaxing about that. Now, the challenge was make it best show we can.

Gabe always said, "I don't know everything, and a sitcom is new to me, so let's try everything." That was freeing. There is a sense of freedom to ride that line and push it. Gabe said just because we can cuss we don't have to, that it doesn't bring anything. The approach was to make it family-friendly while dealing with real issues, but it's all about being funny first.

At times we push the envelope slightly. Someone said the show is adult, disguised as a teen show with a lot of heart with good lessons. Adults can watch and not feel like it's dumbing down.

Not many, or most likely no other actors can say they were discovered breakdancing at the age of 12 and then got a job on a network TV show. Can you fill in the details?

In junior high, [San Fernando Junior High School in Pacoima] I got suspended for breakdancing. So I was home, and my parents had me pick up my little sister at her kindergarten. A woman who was a teacher at the school, Andrea Jones, approached me and said she could represent me. She sat with my parents and said that I had talent and should give it a shot, so they let me.

The first audition I had was for Diff'rent Strokes, and they asked me if I could start that day. In one moment, I went from being a junior high school student to being on the Universal lot working with Gary Coleman.

We would go on auditions after school. In the early years, it was a lot of auditions for commercials.

Jumping forward, you were in some groundbreaking films and met some people you'll always remember. I'd love to hear about some of those experiences.

On Little Nikita, I met Loretta Devine and River Phoenix, who seemed hungry to hang out. [The 1988 film also starred Sidney Poitier and Richard Jenkins.] I really had no idea what I was doing except to hit the mark and say the words. I didn't have a real approach to acting and was kind of like a parrot.

Edward James Olmos and I became great friends. With American Me, I was told the role of playing his brother was cast. Next thing I knew I was flying to Folsom Prison—and being eye candy for those guys [inmates] - to shoot some scenes in the film with him.

On Mi Familia, I originally read for the role of the young Edward James Olmos and then read for a young father opposite Jennifer Lopez. It was directed by Gregory Nava, who later directed Selena. A lot of actors who were in that film knew it was going to be iconic. I still today get comments from people watching it. It is one of those movies that gets passed down.

She has such a rich life, yet hard to capture in a two-hour film, although it allows audiences to see how her story came about.

You've done a couple of very high-profile television dramas recently. I'm thinking of Luke Cage and Sons of Anarchy.

With Sons of Anarchy, I hadn't watched it until my audition. Why? I had kids, and I knew I would get to it. They were adding a new character, Montez. I got the part, and then I got to binge the entire show through the first five seasons. It was an intense experience.

I didn't ride motorcycles, but you never say no - so I learned how to ride, keeping in mind these guys had been riding for five seasons and were professional, while I'm still really shaky on a bike. There was a lot of pressure not to drop the bike, and luckily I came out in one piece. It was challenging.

For an actor, it's tough to come to a family that's been together for five years. There was some interesting tension on set because no one was "safe," and we all knew our characters could be killed off at any time during the filming of the season. I kept my head down and did my job. Toward the end when the main characters started getting killed off, at the table read, you feel heartbreak, loss and tension.

For Luke Cage, Marvel doesn't want any info out, so everything is super-cryptic. In the beginning, I never got the script, just sides, just my dialog, so I had to memorize lines without any real context. That was challenging but Alfre Woodard and Mahershala Ali made it easy to work with. I got to be in New York and Brooklyn.

I enjoyed that character. Domingo was larger than life. Now there's nowhere you can't go with these guys. I got killed, but there's a chance…maybe not. It was left a little open, so maybe I could come back? I don't know. But I was nice and dead.

You're very active in the Latinx community and have hosted galas and fundraisers. Tell me more about what that means to you.

Those events, like the Hispanic 100, along with mentorship programs and scholarships - it's very important. Especially because growing up, I never saw myself on TV or in movies. In the community when people of power and influence come back it gives them hope. Just being on TV gives people permission to dream and that makes it more attainable.

Have you noticed changes in the industry with the recent increased efforts on diversity and inclusion?

It's moving in the right direction, but the way to make real change is to cast people. There are a lot of great producers who give back. When they ask me what I think, I say cast someone on your show of color in a non-stereotypical role and let them shine. Give them visibility and make them shine. Write human beings and let actors bring their passions and experience to it.

That's what I love about Mr. Iglesias. The characters are not stereotypes, they're real diverse people, and no matter what, they are the kind of characters you can relate to.

What else would you like audiences to take away from Mr. Iglesias?

Most importantly, I hope they're laughing. But it's about a teacher who cares for his students and believes that no student should be left behind, especially those labeled misfits who are intelligent in their own way. It just takes one person to care and show them they matter.

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