Not everyone gets to Hollywood the same way. After spending time in the Air Force and while still working with the New York City Police Department, David Zayas began his acting career when he signed up for acting classes after hours. His talent was quickly realized, and he soon began teaming with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman in plays. From there, television and movie roles came knocking on his door.
We recently sat down with Zayas to talk about being best friends with a serial killer, working with some of the biggest names in the business and what it’s like to get paid to kick the crap out of Matt Damon and Ed Norton.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
I was born in Puerto Rico. I was raised in New York.
How exactly did you get into acting, and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
I’ve always been interested in acting. When I was a kid, I was a big movie buff. I always wanted to be involved somehow in show business, mostly movies. This was in the Bronx, so we didn’t really go to the theatre that much. I’ve always been interested in it. It was always something that really sparked my interest.
Then life happened. I got married young, had two kids and I joined the Air Force. When I got out of the Air Force – after five years – I had a wife and child, so I joined the New York City police department. I was a cop and about halfway into that career, in about 1990, I got divorced. And I had to file for bankruptcy. It was kind of a low point. But it was a good time because I said, “Now I’m going to do what I want to do.”
And I started taking acting classes. I started doing a lot of theatre while I was a cop as well. One thing led to another, I started getting a lot of theatre work, a lot of plays. I joined this theatre company called LAByrinth with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Calderon and John Ortiz, all them guys. I started doing a lot of plays with them and started working in the local shows in New York, Law and Order, NYPD Blue, New York Undercover. And then I got this show, The Beat, with Tom Fontana, I got a good part in it. Then that show got cancelled and he wrote this part for me on Oz, which I did for three years.
It was at that time that I basically said I’m going to leave the police department and concentrate on acting and I did that, retired early and just focused on the acting. So far, knock on wood, it’s worked out pretty good for me.
What was your job in the Air Force?
I was a security policeman. When I went in, it was ’80-85, so it was kind of a downtime, there wasn’t much happening. So it was mostly training exercises. It was a good experience for me. I was assigned in Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico and Bentwaters, England. I was stationed in England for like three and a half years.
You got all of the good assignments.
Yeah, it was a pretty good gig for me. It was a good thing. Other people have a college experience, this was my experience.
Working as a police officer and acting on the side, how tough was it to break into the business? How many auditions did you go to before you landed a role?
You know, it’s funny; I really approached it in a different way. I approached it in a way that I did not have any expectations. I approached it in a way that in my mind I had a job, I was a police officer, and now I was doing something that I loved doing and I was just going to dive into it, work hard at it and just see where it takes me. I didn’t really have any expectations and I didn’t have any goals or anything. It was just, “Let me see what happens.”
And so, I went to school for like two or three years while I was doing showcases in New York. I started doing a lot of theatre then I started going to day play auditions and Law and Order and I started booking a good percentage of them. So I just started accumulating credits. Not really leveraging what it is that’s going to take me to the next level, I didn’t think about that. I just take it one day at a time and one job at a time. I don’t really have expectations in this business. I think that’s what’s kept me sane, you know?
If this was to stop tomorrow, I could get a good job in security somewhere. It doesn’t matter to me. To me, it’s something that I love doing, it’s something that I want to do for the rest of my life. If there’s a hiatus there somewhere because of this business or because of luck, then I’ll take that and do something else until I can get back on track. That’s how I look at it. That’s the only way to really look at it and stay sane.
You’ve played five different roles on Law and Order. How do you go into each of those different roles, and do fans notice that you are on the show playing a bunch of different guys?
Well, Law and Order has been around for like 18 years and an average New York actor has been on it a handful of times. So it just recycles itself. I’ve been in five Law and Orders in the past, I would say, 15 years. So it’s really a different character each time. People say, “Oh, I remember that guy,” but they know the same actors are coming on over and over again because they’ve done almost 400 shows. I just take every individual character differently.
You mentioned Oz, a show in which you played a character named Enrique Morales. What was it like working on that show?
Oz was a lot of fun because the writing was great. Nobody ever messed with the show, it was HBO and basically you can do whatever you want in it. So there was really no censorship when it came to Oz. So the storylines were what they were. The actors were great, some of the best New York actors appeared on there. It was a great, great family atmosphere. And even though what you saw on Sunday nights was kind of dark and violent, while we were shooting it, we were pretty tight. It was a lot of fun.
You were in a wonderful flick called Rounders. Talk to us a little bit about what it was like working on that movie with so many talented actors. And be honest, how great was it to film the scene where all the cops kicked the crap out of Matt Damon and Ed Norton?
(Laughs.) Well, you know, I was only in that scene with the state troopers. It took about a week and a half to shoot because there were so many things that they needed to shoot. It was one of my first movies, so it was great watching these guys, Matt Damon and Ed Norton, working. It was a lot of fun to work with them and just to see how a movie is shot. It was literally one of the first movies I had a nice little part in. I’ve got to say, that director of that movie, John Dahl, is now shooting an episode of Dexter right now, which is so ironic. It was pretty cool. I love that movie. To me, it’s a great movie. I got into poker doing that movie.
Are you any good?
I’m pretty good. I’m not bad. I’d be dead money in the World Series of Poker, but I could hold my own in a lot of other places.
Let’s talk about 16 Blocks, where you played Det. Robert Torres. That movie probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves, so if you could, please tell us a little bit about what it was like to be a part of.
Let me just say, first of all, that my praise and my credit to Dick Donner, who directed it, because he really created an atmosphere of people just doing good work and having fun doing it. So it was great to work on it – Bruce Willis, David Morse, Mos Def, a lot of new actors that I met there because we shot it in New York and Toronto. It was a great experience.
But let me just tell you a little thing about that movie that’s really good – right before I did that movie, I auditioned for it, I got the movie; there was a lot of running in this movie, me chasing Bruce Willis and Mos Def throughout New York City, mostly on foot. So it was going to be one of those movies where it’s a lot of physical activity. And right before that movie, I was running and I tore a calf muscle. So immediately I said, “Well, I’m probably going to be replaced.” I called them up and I said, “Guys, I tore a calf muscle. I popped a calf muscle.”
They asked all of these questions like, “Well, how is it?” “I can’t run; I can barely walk right now.” We were supposed to start shooting in I think two or three weeks. And basically, instead of firing me, they said, “Well, if you can somehow get the physical therapy in, and in two or three weeks are able to walk, then we’ll switch your scenes around.” They put me in a car, they had other people run. To their credit, I was like, “Wow, that’s really a cool thing that they did.” Because they could have easily replaced me. Instead, they worked it around it and I really have a lot of respect for both Bruce Willis and Richard Donner and all of those guys too to have faith in me and coordinate it around my injury and I was able to do this great movie, which was a lot of fun to do and I was very happy to do it. So whenever you see them talk about these Hollywood directors, they are good people and they do the right thing most of the time and they did the right thing by me here. It turned out to be a really great experience for me.
What kind of a guy is Mos Def? You see him in interviews and he seems to go to a different beat. What’s he like?
He is so funny. He’s very talented. He’s a sweet guy and I liked working with him. And I know him from New York, from the public theatre, and I’ve hung out with him a few times before the movies. He’s just a good guy. Very talented, very artistic, poetic guy. He’s got a lot of deep thoughts in his songs and his raps and everything.
Another enjoyable movie on your resume is the award-winning hit, Michael Clayton, where you played Detective Dalberto. What was it like working with one of the biggest names in Hollywood, in George Clooney, and what do you try to take away from an experience like that?
I learned a lot in that movie. First of all, I auditioned for that movie and I don’t think I got it, I think someone else got it. And I think the person that got it wound up getting another project that they took instead of this. So then I think the week before, if I’m not mistaken, or a few days before they were actually going to shoot the scene, they called me back and asked me if I would do it and I said, “Of course.” And the scenes that I did with Clooney, he’s a great professional and wonderful to work with and a really down to earth guy. I really learned a lot about his simplicity and how he focuses and it was really great to work with him.
But, you know, I just want to mention about Michael Clayton – because he just passed away – was Sydney Pollack, who also gave me a break and cast me in The Interpreter, which he directed. And then he was also acting in Michael Clayton and I’ve got to say that it was an honor to even be involved, number one, with him as a director in The Interpreter and then just being in the same cast as him in Michael Clayton because he’s one of the icons and one of the guys that really helped me out with my career in movies. So my respect to Sydney Pollack, who was also in Michael Clayton. That was another great experience as well as working with Ken Howard and Tilda Swinton, they were all really great people to work with.
Speaking of your resume, it’s practically a TV Guide – with you appearing on such shows as Numb3rs, Without A Trace, Shark, The Closer and the previously mentioned Law and Order. Out of all of those, which experience sticks out as your favorite?
Well, except for Dexter, which I feel is the fullest character they’ve ever written for me, I’ve got to say there’s certain small parts like this great part in The Closer that I played kind of a nerdy ballistics guy, which is something different that I’ve never played before, which I always find interesting. He’s just a nerd ballistics fanatic and there were only two scenes in one episode of The Closer, but it was really enjoyable just playing against type and it was really great. I’ve got to say Dexter is definitely the character that they’ve rounded out to the fullest with all kinds of characteristics and all kinds of emotional background that I can really sink my teeth in. The writers of Dexter have done a fantastic job in giving me that opportunity.
Those roles aside, you’re probably best known as nice-guy detective Angel Batista on Showtime’s hit show Dexter. For those who don’t know anything about the show, please tell us what the show is about and a little bit about your character Angel.
Well, the show is based in Miami and is about a forensic detective named Dexter Morgan, who also happens to be a serial killer. He kills other criminals who the courts let go or that got away with whatever crime they did. Dexter finds them and kills them. Angel Batista is a homicide detective who works alongside Dexter, is one of his friends and has no idea what Dexter does. He’s a smart, honest cop. He’s not a tough guy. He’s got a lot of layers to him and a lot of interesting qualities to him that I really enjoy playing.
In season one, Angel ran into marital problems with his wife and in season two he tried to hook up with a psychopath named Lila. Is it safe to say that Angel Batista has a way of ending up in dysfunctional relationships?
(Laughs.) I’m almost scared to see what happens in season three. I have a way of ending up in dysfunctional circumstances. I mean, his best friend happens to be a serial killer and he doesn’t even know it. He’s an interesting character. He gets himself into these crazy situations and how he handles it is what makes the character so interesting. How he maintains his love for loyalty and honesty, and finding good and positive aspects in everything. It’s probably the best character I’ve ever played.
What is your favorite episode so far, and why do you like that one so much?
In season one, I had an episode where Sergeant Doakes shot somebody and I had a dilemma about whether to go to internal affairs or to protect Doakes. That episode gave me things to bite on, dealing with my conscience, doing the right thing and confronting people about telling the truth. “Father Knows Best,” that’s got to be one of my favorite episodes. In season two, there’s an episode where he’s involved with Lila, a crazy psycho-woman who makes his life miserable, and that’s an interesting episode too.
We know you can’t say much about season three, but what can you tell us?
The only thing I can tell you about season three, because honestly, I really don’t know much because they don’t give us the whole storyline beforehand, is that Jimmy Smits is on it now. He plays an assistant district attorney, and that’s going to bring on some very interesting plot twists. I’m looking forward to it because I’ve worked with Jimmy before on Broadway, and he’s one of the best professionals in the business. It’s going to be fun.
CBS was showing episodes of Dexter, which prompts us to ask – what exactly were they showing? Did you see any of the episodes while they were airing on network TV, and if so, how much of the good stuff was being edited out?
CBS aired the first season on Sundays because of the writer’s strike. They didn’t have much programming, so they just showed our first season. They edited it down and added commercials, but believe it or not, I honestly believe there’s more violence on 24 or CSI than there is on Dexter.
This is more of a psychological thriller, and it’s more about this journey of this man – you’re in his head and can hear why he’s going to kill these people. I really didn’t watch too much of it, but I don’t think there was too much edited out. The few episodes I did watch, you could still get the storyline and we picked up some new fans because of it. Hopefully these fans will subscribe to Showtime, get the second season On Demand, and watch the third season coming up. We’re still on Showtime, this was just a one-time thing.
You have a knack for playing law enforcement roles. Is that by design, or is that just how things work out?
I guess it’s a combination of me having the confidence of a law enforcement person because I have that background, so it comes naturally to me, and I have that look. I’m a big, stocky guy, and have a look that works when playing either cops or bad guys. Every once in a while, particularly in theater, I play something else. Because I have a blue-collar look to me, that’s what I usually end up doing. That’s not to say I can’t do something else, because I can. I just think a majority of the time those are the qualities that they see in me, which is fine. I really don’t care how many cops or bad guys I play. The only thing I care about is the quality of each character. I’ll play a hundred different cops if they have a hundred different and interesting qualities about them.
What kind of role that you haven’t played yet would you like to one day play?
I really don’t plan that far ahead. This winter I just played a bass player in a rock band with Billy Ray Cyrus for a movie out in San Diego. That’s something I’ve never done before. I’d never even touched a bass guitar before. But I learned how to play a little bit and that was a lot of fun. Whenever something new and interesting comes along, I just go for it. I don’t really have a list of things to do. I take it, read the script and if it’s something interesting to me, I’ll do it.
So you learned how to play poker on Rounders and how to play the bass with this movie. With this economy being so bad now, maybe you should learn how to become a Wall Street broker and make millions.
(Laughs.) Or maybe I should go on a medical show and learn how to be a doctor.
You’ve already worked with a ton of big names. Who else in Hollywood would you like to work with some day?
I’d love to one day work with someone like Morgan Freeman. He’s one of my favorite actors. Benicio del Toro, Holly Hunter and Glenn Close are a couple others. And the thing is, I’m doing it. I’m working with all these great people, so I’m getting that experience and I’m learning from each one of them. I’m just keeping things open because if I see an opportunity to work with an actor who I respect and love their work, then I’m going to jump on it.
What advice would you have for someone trying to break into the business today?
Humility, humility, humility. Being humble keeps you open to observe opportunities that you will then be smart enough to go for. I’d advise a young actor to stay humble and work hard, because in order to achieve longevity in this business, you have to work hard. It doesn’t always guarantee that you’ll be successful in this business, but it helps. If you come in with a great attitude, work hard and are prepared, then people are going to want to work with you. It’s good to come in with confidence, but don’t come in with an attitude. Learn from the people around you who have been doing it a lot longer than you.
Tell us something not many people know about you.
There are five things that I’m fanatical about – poker, UFC, boxing, football and baseball. Kimbo Slice is one of my favorites. He’s entertaining, and I think if he could focus, he could be a great fighter. In boxing, I love any time Rafael Marquez and Israel Vasquez fight. Any of their fights are better than anything else I’ve ever seen. And the Jets, the Mets and the Knicks are my favorite teams. I’m diehard about those three teams.
What does the future hold for you?
Hopefully I’ll just continue working on good shows like Dexter for as long as it goes, and then just continue working on TV, film, theatre and staying open to doing as much as I can. I love working. I don’t plan on retiring at all because it’s too much fun.
Interviewed by Brian Murphy, July 2008. Season three of Dexter will air this fall on Showtime.