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The Fusion Man : Edward James Olmos blends Pacific cultures to create a hybrid American

March 19, 1989|VICTOR VALLE

What the hell are we? De-Mexicanized Mexicans, pre-Chicanos, cholo-punks, Mexi - Americans, or something that still has no name?

--Guillermo Gomez-Pena, from The Broken Line/Linea Quebrada.

Years before Edward James Olmos earned his Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance in "Stand and Deliver," the ruddy-faced actor with a piercing gaze was known to millions of TV viewers as "Miami Vice's" Lt. Martin Castillo.

For just as long, Olmos' ability to steal a scene with wounded silences had made Castillo something of a mystery. Whenever it came to time read about the 42-year-old actor, however, it was generally the same story: Olmos as underdog, as son of immigrants and of the barrio preaching his bootstrap message of hard work and self-responsibility.

But this reading of Olmos as ethnic artist moving into the movie mainstream through sheer will is too conventional, say close friends and associates. There's another side to the artist, they say, a studied "otherness" that implies new notions of American identity.

Olmos agrees. He sees himself as a kind of prototypal Pacific Rim man who fuses Latino, Asian and rock 'n' roll strains into a new hybrid of American culture. Said another way, Olmos has tried to expand the meaning of his mestizo (mixed race, mixed culture) Mexican roots by seeking unexpected points of resonance in the new and old worlds.

"We (Mexicans) are Asian," Olmos abruptly pronounced during one of a series of recent interviews. "We come from the first people who came over (the Bering Strait) to this continent." He said his family, natives of Mexico City, "go back five generations to Spain on my father's side. My father's mother was Aztec. So I'm mestizo all the way."

He does not, however, restrict the meaning of his mestizo roots to a Latino world:

"I never stop knowing that I'm Latino," he began. "I'm very much a part of the Latin experience. But I don't limit to one form or theory of being. I've been exposed to Russian culture, Asian culture, to Indian and Mexican cultures. I draw from all of them. I understand . . . that the future involves a tremendous awareness of the world."

It's this mestizaje-- blending of culture and races--that Olmos draws upon to postulate a distant family connection with his present character in "Triumph of the Spirit," a film now shooting in Poland. Olmos plays a Hungarian Gypsy capo and part-time magician inside Poland's Auschwitz concentration camp who helps a Greek boxer played by Willem Dafoe survive to-the-death matches inside the ring.

"I'd been searching to see how many Gypsies there were in my own family just before I started this film," he said. "Really, because the name Olmos, which means elm tree in Spanish, is a prominent name in Hungary. It means lead, or people who work with lead."

Screenwriter, director, playwright Luis Valdez--author of the 1978 play "Zoot Suit" and the director of the cross-over hit film "La Bamba"--said Olmos represents a new breed of artist expanding the envelope of Latino cultural possibilities.

"In Eddie's case, I guess his uniqueness comes from the fact that he grew up in East L.A.," said Valdez. "There's a lot of Asian-Chicano fusion, even though it's not acknowledged. But it should be. I think fusion is it, man. You can fuse Asian and Chicano or Latino qualities and come up with some very interesting abilities."

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Flashes of Olmos' chameleon "abilities" have surfaced throughout his career.

By retaining creative control of his Castillo, Olmos said he has tried to offset "Miami Vice's" high fashion, hyper-reality by creating a character of stark moral dualities: The chivalrous samurai locked inside a disillusioned big-city vice cop who stubbornly clings to his own personal code of honor and ethics.

More than a decade earlier, Olmos became the conscience of "Zoot Suit" and a Chicano cult hero, binding the thinly veiled hostility of the pachuco ("street tough") with defiant stoicism of an Aztec warrior and rock 'n' roll rebellion; performances that won Olmos an L.A. Drama Critics Award, a Tony nomination and vaulted him to the big screen.

Olmos has also played a Mohawk high-rise rivet-pounder with shamanic powers in "Wolfen," a wrongly accused Mexican rancher turned outlaw in "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," even an Italian fisherman in an NBC-TV movie, "Fortunate Pilgrim."

But it was his performance in "Stand and Deliver" and the subsequent Oscar nomination that has increased his acting options, acknowledged producer Arnold Kopelson, who has cast Olmos in "Triumph of the Spirit," now shooting in Poland. He plays a hardened, but compassionate, death camp trustee.

"Eddie not only looks right, he has the acting skills we need," Kopelson said. "It's a very pivotal role, and he's just a very exciting actor."

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