(Photo by Rocco Spaziani/Archivio Spaziani/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Morales at the Rome premiere of the film Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning part one. (Photo by Rocco Spaziani/Archivio Spaziani/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Puerto Rican actor and Mission Impossible star Esai Morales talks Latino Representation in Film

The veteran actor spoke to BET about breaking the mold in Hollywood, making a name for himself as a Latino actor, and the new upcoming Mission Impossible film.


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While some of the biggest projects in film and television in 2022 and 2023 included some established Latino names as well as introduced us to some new up-and-comers to be excited about for the future, there is still work to be done in regards to underrepresentation in Hollywood. 

From Jenna Ortega, the star of Netflix’s hit Wednesday, to Xolo Maridueña joining the DC universe in Blue Beetle later this summer, these are just a few of the many Latino faces we are now starting to see in our favorite media, highlighting the continuing and growing process of growth in Latino representation.

But someone had to first break the mold to make way for some of the new stars to be given the opportunities they have been recently. 

Esai Morales, a veteran Latino actor of over three decades, has made a name for himself throughout his career and has navigated the complex Hollywood system, all the while bringing an important cultural perspective to his many diverse roles which include 1987’s “La Bamba.”  

Some of Morales’ most well known roles include films Bad Boys with Sean Penn and La Bamba with Lou Diamond Phillips. His television credits include the PBS 2002 drama series American Family, the Showtime series Resurrection Blvd., portraying Lt. Tony Rodriguez on NYPD Blue , Joseph Adama in the science fiction series Caprica, Camino del Rio in the Netflix original series Ozark and as the DC Comics villain Deathstroke / Slade Wilson in the superhero series Titans. 

Most recently, he has appeared as Gabriel, the main antagonist character in the 2023 spy action film Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One opposite Tom Cruise, a role which he is reprising in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two in 2024.

In an interview with BET, Morales talked about Latino representation in Hollywood at a time when the topic has never been more important. 

Born to Puerto Rican parents, Morales was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, to Esai Morales Sr., a welder, and Iris Margarita, a union activist involved with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Morales’s pursuit of film began by attending the School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. 

He’s always had an awareness of his heritage and as a result has gone after roles that defy the stereotype of Latinos. 

Morales’ breakout role came in the 1983 film Bad Boys opposite a young and up and coming Sean Penn. Years later, he was cast in La Bamba and delivered a critically acclaimed performance as Bob Morales, a troubled yet profoundly human character. 

The success of the film proved to be an early but important credit in Morales' career but also for Latino representation in film, as it centered on the life and career of Ritchie Valens, a Mexican-American rock 'n roll pioneer.

He continued his chase of defiant roles with his parts in various television series like NYPD Blue and Criminal Minds, where he played complex, authoritative characters historically not portrayed by Latino actors. 

Morales pushed the boundaries later by playing the President of the United States in The Expanse series. 

While there has been an increased demand as of late for diversity in film and television, the talk regarding representation has been flipped as opponents say it messes with creative freedom and integrity. 

Morales discussed that idea with BET. 

"Do you know, I'm saying it's one thing to legislate and tell people you should do this, this and that, then it overlaps with creative integrity and freedom. Some people say, 'Well, he's not Mexican,' or, you know, like James Bond shouldn't be Irish, because he's English, you know, it gets in the woods."

Morales was cast in one of the more high profile roles of his career in 2023, starring as Gabriel in Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One starring Tom Cruise as super spy Ethan Hunt. The veteran actor rejoined the already stacked cast for part 2 by playing an important role that adds some spice to the film's plot. 

His casting in the first Mission Impossible marked a significant point in his career and Latino representation in Hollywood as it is a high-profile franchise. Morales talked more about his role and overall representation with BET. 

"One of the things I would say is supporting someone, like myself in this film, coming out in numbers, breaking records and saying that was a good choice,” he said. “Not because I'm Latino. But because I'm in this film, and hopefully, I will have done a good enough job. That it bodes well."

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One will be in theaters on July 12.


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