When it comes to character actors, Manuel Uriza ranks high up on the list.
The in-demand Mexican-American actor can be seen pulling double duty on Netflix this month, starring in two hit series, simultaneously. Scoring a coveted recurring role in Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico, Manuel portrays the non-fictional Mexican businessman/politician as well as drug trafficker and money launderer ‘Carlos Hank Gonzalez.’
You can also catch Manuel Uriza in the new season of Netflix’s Gentefied, in which he stars as Ernesto Morales. In the new season, Ernesto returns to Boyle Heights to help his family after having left to live the American Dream in Idaho.
These two roles are just the latest in his impressive body of work. Born and raised in Mexico City, Manuel moved to Miami, Florida in his twenties to pursue his love for acting. His first break came with a guest spot on the hit series, Burn Notice. He also appeared in FX Network’s The Bridge, Fox’s Lethal Weapon series. He also booked a recurring role in AMC’s award-winning series Better Call Saul as well as a role in Lionsgate’s Rambo: Last Blood.
This year, Manuel adds to his repertoire with two impressive roles in both Narcos: Mexico and Gentefied. In this interview he discusses the challenges on switching roles, bringing life to a real character and his future plans in acting.
Going forth between roles is a difficult task. But how difficult was it for you working on both Narcos: Mexico and Gentefield virtually back-to-back?
It was a challenge, for sure. A very welcomed one, but a challenge, nonetheless. They are such different characters, that as humans, operate from very different places. Also the pace on story is wildly different, thus making it hard at times having to step out from one skin and into the other. Truth be told, hair, makeup and wardrobe help so much during this process. All I had to do sometimes, when I was feeling like I was free falling in a scene, was just to catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror or window and realize that they already did 80% of the job for me, so I can simply focus on not bumping into any furniture.
As an actor was it difficult transitioning between both roles?
It was. All tough characters need to operate from a place of truth. You’d be surprised how sometimes you carry certain opinions and feelings with you from one character and into the next, or simply into your own life. I need some time to cleanse all that sometimes.
How was it portraying Carlos Hank Gonzales, who was a real person, and what particular trait or personality of the character you wanted to flesh out on camera?
Intimidating at times. He was a major player in politics, but I was too young to really remember any of it. However I did meet him once when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I can’t remember the context that well, but I remember sitting at a table at the Del Mar racetrack in California with him. All I remember was a very gentle, soft spoken man, that could’ve been the typical favourite uncle; encouraging me to get another ice cream sundae, despite whoever was in charge of telling me otherwise.
That’s really all I had to pull from. The rest was what was presented to me on script, and anecdotes I could get from former employees of his, that I was able to come across. And the common denominator always was his gentle nature, charisma, and impeccable manners. So, and I speak for myself as an actor, I always need to take my opinions and ego out of the equation of every scene and justify at all costs every word or action that the script calls for.
That leaves me with nothing but the human context of truth that’s found, and has been found, for thousands of years in humans. Language, style, places can change, but human context remains. Thus my truth in every scene will always be the character’s as well and vice versa.
Did it feel surreal in anyway playing someone that you have actually met?
It did. Without a doubt. And if not careful, can lead to reaching too much into certain traits or mannerisms that could or could not exist at all, because memory is really not very reliable specially after so much time has gone by. It was a great exercise for me, in the sense that it kept me always checking myself to return to truth and story, and not a preconceived and somehow selfish notion of the character. That’s when it turns to parody.
Tell us more about your role in Gentefield.
Ernesto Morales is Pop’s oldest son that left Boyle Heights. He is seen as the outcast. The outsider. The one that bailed out on the family. Now he returns in season 2. In season 1 he was nothing more than a voice on the phone.
Was it a role easier to slip into as Ernesto, as the character, like yourself, also lives within the confines of both cultures?
It was. I see a lot of Ernesto in myself — I was born and raised in Mexico City, but always had deep roots in the US because of my mother who grew up in New York and my grandparents that lived in Los Angeles. I am 100% Mexican and 100% American. It’s even hard for me to hyphen Mexican-American to describe myself, because I wouldn’t make justice to that term. And that was such an important part of me that helped me dive into Ernesto’s shoes.
Fully understanding the needs, the wants, the fears, the attributes and shortcomings of both cultures, ties into Ernesto’s lonely place, that is that peripheral vision he has of both sides, and is seen as a glass half empty by both. This is something I’ve lived with for as long as I remember, that made me identify with this character so deeply.
Your on screen father (Joaquin Cosio) in Gentefield also appears in Narcos: Mexico. Did you also share scenes in Narcos by any chance?
No I did not get to share scenes with him. We actually met on the Gentefield set, literally 30 seconds before the director called “action” on a scene where Pops and Ernesto share a very intimate moment that’s charged with emotional baggage that runs deep between father and son. But…it’s Joaquin Cosio. He can have profound chemistry with a broom stick, so thank God he carried us both thru that.
Do you feel that there are ample roles for Mexican American actors in Hollywood at the moment?
We’re getting there. Slowly but we are. I forever will be an advocate for this. I think we’ve transcended from that box we’ve been put into for decades. That stereotypical character that always had the same traits. The victim, the criminal, or the servant. We are far away from that now because we are a big part of this society, and therefore of the story telling process that defines this industry. We have so much to offer to everyday stories, we just happen to be Latinx.
What have you lined up next on your plate production wise?
I just wrapped a movie last month in Oklahoma. It’s called Deadland and it’s a very timely, timeless, and coming of age sorry that touches on so many important issues, from a bicultural point of entry. Roberto Urbina, a brilliant Colombian actor, takes us thru this journey. It’s very dear to my heart. It’s directed by Lance Larson…remember his name.
Catch Manuel Uriza in Narcos: Mexico and Gentefied, streaming now on Netflix.
(Photos by Becca Murray)