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Yul Vazquez tells us how his mom inspired Seinfeld’s “favorite villain”

Yul Vazquez tells us how his mom inspired <i>Seinfeld’</i>s “favorite villain”
Photo: Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan (Getty Images)
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The actor: A musician and Tony-nominated actor, Yul Vazquez still readily describes himself as a fan of the projects in which he’s thrived. When asked about his breakout role on Seinfeld as a most aggressive admirer of armoires, Vazquez segues into giving kudos to the sitcom’s other memorable characters and performers. A discussion about his repeat ventures with directors Steven Soderbergh and Brad Furman prompts Vazquez to shout out the other talented Latinx actors he’s regularly crossed paths with, including John Leguizamo and Benjamin Bratt. Get Vazquez to dish on his latest role, Yunis Sablo of HBO’s The Outsider, and he’ll wax on about Igor Martinović’s gorgeous cinematography in The Night Of. But the actor’s entertaining anecdotes reflect as deep a passion for this industry as a knowledge of it. Vazquez has garnered an understanding of how productions grand and intimate get off the ground. The secret is as plain as the ribbon he once sported on Seinfeld: It’s the spirit of collaboration.

The Mambo Kings (1992)—“Flaco”

The A.V. Club: The Mambo Kings was one of your earliest roles, and one of Antonio Banderas’s first film roles in the U.S. What do you remember about working together?

Yul Vazquez: That’s the role that shifted my artistic journey, which began in music. I had acted as a little kid, but that was the first film I did when I formally went into acting and I was studying acting. As you know, it was set in the ’50s. At the time, I was still playing in a band, like a heavy rock band, and I had very, very long hair. [Laughs.] And I started to go on auditions, and I remember Billy Hopkins, a very influential casting director, liked me, and is the guy who basically gives me my first job. Even though I had this crazy long hair, there’s something he recognized that would be good in this film set in the ’50s. [Laughs.] After seven auditions or something, I wound up in the film. I believe at one point I was reading for Antonio’s part; it was a crazy journey.

AVC: The movie was full of music legends like Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. Did you get to spend some with them?  

YV: I had some time on that film with Celia Cruz. In fact, there’s a picture that’s in my apartment in Miami of me and Celia that my mother treasured her whole life—that her son had actually worked with Celia. Celia was huge for my mom and for me. I mean, she was a force of nature on stage. It was incredible.

Seinfeld (1995–1998)—“Bob”

AVC: What was your comedy background at that time when you took on the role of Bob?

YV: Well, I can’t say I had a comedy background per se. My artistic life starts as a drummer, as a musician, and a guitar player. I still am—I have been my whole life. So I had an understanding of time, and timing, and I think that helped me with comedy. To be perfectly honest with you, the character in Seinfeld is an imitation of my mother, or it’s an impersonation of my mother.

AVC: Really?

YV: Yeah. Because my mother was a very intense lady, very intense Cuban lady. A little Cuban lady who I was terrified of my whole life, and most people [Laughs.] who dared cross her realized they had made a catastrophic mistake.

It was interesting, I went to read for Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld at CBS Radford, which is where most of that was shot. And the part is written as “Bob, the intimidating gay guy.” That was the name of the character, the way it was written, and it didn’t say anything in there about being Latin. I literally went in there and thought, “What am I going to do with this?” And I realized, well, my mother’s a very intimidating person and I think that could be an interesting thing to do. So I basically did that. And I remember they went, “What the fuck was that?” And I said, “It’s basically an impersonation of my mom.” And they’re like, “Could you do it again?” So I did, and they hired me. And then it became a very famous Seinfeld villain. In fact, I have a script signed by Jerry [Seinfeld] and Michael Richards that says “To our favorite Seinfeld villain ever.” [Laughs.]

AVC: Do you still get a lot of people on the street asking you about armoires or yelling at you about putting on the ribbon?

YV: Yes. The crazy thing about this—I’ve been very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work a great deal. But everybody inevitably wants to talk about Seinfeld. That’s the power of that show. The power of television, the reach of television. The reach of that show, what that show did, it’s crazy. Not that long ago, Rolling Stone published the top 100 Seinfeld characters. I think [Bob] was number 21.

It was kind of crazy. There’s a guy on the show that plays my boyfriend. His name is John Paragon. When I get hired and I go to the fitting, I meet John Paragon. I was freaked out because I was a huge John Paragon fan, because he was Jambi The Genie on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. I’m like, “Dude! You’re Jambi The Genie!” And he was like, “This dude is insane.” I said, “Dude, you don’t understand. I was a huge Pee Wee’s Playhouse fan.” I had all the stickers and… I’m completely nerding out right now.

Runaway Bride (1999)—“Dead Head Gill Chavez”

AVC: What was the pitch here when the studio or your agent approached you? Was it just like, “Hey, in this movie you get dumped by Julia Roberts?

YV: [Laughs.] Listen, if you get dumped, that’s about as good as it gets right there. I think part of the angle of this was that the agent knew I was a guitar player, and the character in the film is a musician. In fact, he has like a Grateful Dead cover band, which I found fantastic. I heard at one point that Jon Bon Jovi wanted the part—I mean, who doesn’t want a part opposite Julia Roberts? I don’t quite know what happened with that. But I wound up getting the part and wound up with two things: a great friendship with Julia that I have to this day.

And Garry Marshall—working for Garry Marshall was like working for your favorite grandpa. In fact, I’ll tell you something. After we finished the film, I remember I was in L.A., and I called Garry and I said, “Hey, I’d love to have coffee.” And he said [adopts Bronx accent.], “Come to the office—come over here and we’ll have coffee.” I remember he gave me a copy of his book, which is called Wake Me Up When It’s Funny. [Laughs.] But he said something to me that was incredible. Because I had spent some time with him making the movie. And he said, “You know, I’m going to tell you something about you. You only respond to love. Any director that tries to come at you any other way is going to fail. You only respond to love.” And I’m like, “Wow, what a beautiful thing to say.”

Traffic (2000)—“Tigrillo / Obregón Assassin”
Che, Parts 1 & 2 (2008)—“Alejandro Ramirez”

AVC: Traffic was the first of multiple films you made with Steven Soderbergh. What is it about his approach as a director that you respond to?

YV: Steve Soderbergh’s approach is just very quiet. I mean, he’s a very nice guy, a very hands-off director. Steven doesn’t say much. Steven organizes situations so his actors can do what he hired them to do, and he basically stays out of the way. If he has to corral you in any way, he’ll just say, hey, you know? But that’s it. There’s very little talk. He doesn’t say a lot, which—on Traffic, it was an all-American cast—actors in the U.S. are used to directors not saying a lot to them sometimes.

But when we did Che, which was shot in Spain—what I mean by not talking to them a lot: You get used to directors not going, “Hey, man, that was great.” Because there’s no time for that; you’ve got to make the movie. You just have to know you’re good and, if they don’t like what you’re doing, they’ll tell you and you’ll do it a different way. But in Spain, the Spanish actors were used to, like, doing a take and then having 10 minutes of compliments or something. When that didn’t happen, it freaked them out. Spanish is my first language, I’m fluent in Spanish—so we’d do a take and then Steven would walk away, and the guy turns to me and goes, “What happened?” I go, “No, man, nothing’s wrong.” He’s like, “Yeah, but he didn’t say anything.” “I know, but he’s good. He’ll tell you if he didn’t like it. He’s a quiet fellow.”

Magic City (2012-2013)—“Victor Lazaro”
Bad Boys II (2003)— “Detective Mateo Reyes”

AVC: In looking at your career, your Cuban history, your Cuban culture is definitely the background of a few of these productions. Do you look for a way to bring that into your work, or are we just seeing how interconnected the history is between Cuba and the U.S.?

YV: In the case of Magic City, when [show creator] Mitch Glazer cast me, he had no idea that I had grown up in Miami or that I was even Cuban. Mitch is from Miami; [Magic City] is basically about Mitch’s childhood in Miami. He had no idea. Bad Boys II was set in Miami with the Cuban cops. Are you asking, “Does Yul deliberately try and find a way to bring in his own culture into parts?”

AVC: Because several of these roles—Mambo Kings and Che, even Magic City, they’re all kind of adjacent to the Cuban Revolution. It feels like a piece of your history that’s worked its way into your career.

YV: Well, yes. They are adjacent to the Revolution—that’s actually a very interesting way to put it. Here’s the thing: I think that who I am, or who you are, or whatever other things came together to make the person you are—whatever that is, your childhood, your influences, whatever astrological angle you come in on or whatever you come in with from another time, which is another conversation we can have one day, but that’s a world that I am very much into—all that stuff. When I do a part, even when it’s very different from me, it’s always me. You cannot become someone else. People are all, “He became that character.” No, he didn’t become anything. He created the illusion. Because it’s him.

AVC: You’re right that it’s not the only thing that informs the person or the role. It might just kind of speak to Hollywood engaging with these stories a bit more that they naturally pop up in someone’s resume.

YV: Yes.

AVC: Which is a good thing.

YV: Well, I mean, the other way to look at it is like this: If you’re shopping for the Cuban guy, you’re probably going to come shop at my store. You know what I mean? [Laughs.] And that’s fine, too. I’m many things. I’m Cuban, but I’m not a Cuban actor. I’m an actor who happens to be Cuban. And I’ve fortunately been allowed to play many things. I love my Cuban-ness. I love where I come from. I love the things that my culture—the layers I have as a very Anglicized Cuban-American that are deeply rooted in Cuba. Because when I went to Cuba, I realized where I came from. That was a very heavy, heavy experience. When I went, “Oh, Jesus. That makes perfect sense that I’m from here. I get it.”

The Infiltrator (2016)—“Javier Ospina”
The Take (2007)—“Marco Ruiz”

AVC: You’ve also worked with Brad Furman multiple times, including on The Infiltrator, a movie that also starred Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo, two actors you’ve worked with a number of times. What do you look for in a collaborator, whether it’s a director or your scene partner?

YV: These things start with one. It’s, like, you buy one and then you realize you bought a dozen. Brad Furman is a guy that I’ve known for many, many years. In fact, I remember Brad was Julia Roberts’ assistant, okay? I think he was around 19 years old. And he’s a kid from Philly, and he goes, “I’m a filmmaker, man” and I said, “Bro, that’s awesome.” He tells me, “I made a short.” I saw his short or something. This is a true story: He said, “One day, I’m going to make my first feature, and you’re going to be in it.” And I looked at him, and I went, “You call me up, and I’ll fucking be there.” Because I loved the kid: I loved his tenacity, I loved his passion, I’d seen his short, and I thought he was talented.

Cut to a few years later, he’s literally making his first film. And he calls me. I remember I was on vacation. My phone rings, and it’s Brad. He goes, “Hey, I’m making a movie and I want you to be in it.” I go, “Great!” I hadn’t even read it. I didn’t care. I was, like, “Let’s go!”

And that was The Take. Great movie. John [Leguizamo] and I had worked together before—I knew him here in New York. John and I were friends, I’ve known him for many years.

I love Brad’s sensibility, he’s extremely talented. He’s just sent me a pilot he’s written for me and John and Benjamin Bratt. Brad loves to work with the same people again. He’s loyal that way; he likes to use people over and over again. And he likes people that he likes and he writes for them.

I love working with my friends because you can just get rid of all the bullshit. We’re already friends, so we just go and do it, you know? There’s no getting to know each other, there’s no nonsense. Like, we know we like each other; we hang out. That’s very comfortable. I think a lot of great things can come out of that.

Bloodline (2016-2017)—“White Shirt Man”

YV: I was a huge fan of the Kessler brothers [Glenn and Todd] after Damages, I thought they were great. I was in London doing a play and I remember watching Bloodline with my wife and thinking, “Man, they really got this right.” They got the weather. The thing about it—if you’re shooting down there [in Florida], you don’t get the weather right, you don’t have anything. And Bloodline did that. I mean, you could feel it in the show. It was drenched with humidity, and that made the show—it’s like reading Tennessee Williams—when you read Tennessee, he’s giving you the weather. It’s the south, man. And that’s the thing they got. They got it great. And that’s the only place you can get like that. In Florida. You cannot cheat that.

The Outsider (2020)—“Yunis Sablo”

AVC: Stephen King adaptations are all the rage right now, but was there one particular element that sold you on The Outsider?

YV: Well, there were two things that I would walk into the fire to work with: Jason Bateman and Ben Mendelsohn. This was like unwrapping a present and, as you opened it, it kept getting better and better and better. First of all, I had read the first two eps, and I was like, “This is amazing. Stephen King? Great. Who’s playing that?” “Oh, that’s Ben Mendelsohn.” I went, “Wait. What?” And then, “Who’s that?” “Oh, that’s Jason Bateman.” And then I find out that Bill Camp and Julianne Nicholson are in it. I looked at it like, “Wait a minute. Am I being punked here?” Is somebody going to come out here and go, “I was just kidding, man. We’re just kidding”? Richard Price is writing it; it just went on and on. The guy shooting it is Igor Martinović, who had shot The Night Of. I watched The Night Of thinking, “My god, this looks like an oil painting.”

You know when you’re afraid that somebody is going to come and take all the toys away from you? [Laughs.] I’m such a fan of all of those people. I always thought you could not be a great artist without first being a fan. You had to be a real fan and know something, know it inside out, know that person’s work. I’d been watching Ben since Animal Kingdom. Bill Camp could write volumes about acting. That’s how good Bill Camp is. That’s the kind of mileage he has under his belt, man. That’s who you want to be with, with those kind of titans. All the people I’ve really admired are people like that, who have earned their stripes from the ground up.

AVC: Yunis Sablo is one of the few characters who encourages everyone else to keep an open mind about what’s happening. As part of a different interview format, we used to ask people if they believed in the supernatural, whether it’s ghosts or something else. Do you?

YV: Well, this is a very, very interesting question that you’re asking. May I ask what your background is?

AVC: I’m Mexican.

YV: Okay. Well, you know that I am Cuban. And Sablo the character is Spanish. So in discussions on set with Jason, Ben, Andrew Bernstein, and Richard Price, I said you guys, I’m Cuban—I come from a home where there was a lot of alternative ideas about religion and spirituality. Ghosts and other stuff were talked about in my house like you talked about eating ice cream, you know what I mean? And spirits and stuff like that. My mother would say stuff like, “Oh, I saw my grandmother the other night. She was in the corner there.” And I’d be, like, “Oh, cool.” And I grew up with a lot of Afro-Caribbean ideas. My mother was very heavy duty into Santeria and it’s something I grew up with. So I’m explaining to these guys, and they’re kind of, like, “Well, what do you mean?” I’m like, “Culturally, this character has to question that this might be real.” And they couldn’t sort of understand what I was saying. And I’m saying, “It might be hard for you guys to understand this because you don’t have the cultural background. So, when I was a little kid, we thought the boogeyman was real.”

AVC: This is coming up a lot more in pop culture; we’re even seeing the different iterations. In The Outsider, the bogeyman is called El Cuco, but growing up, I heard him called El Cucuy.  

YV: Cucuy, right, yeah. Cucuy. In Cuba, I think they called him, sometimes I think El Coco. Sometimes my grandmother would say “ten cuidado que te llevan”—which is an amazing thing to say to a kid. “Be careful or they’ll take you.” Who’s taking me? Who? [Laughs.] But the little kid is not asking who, the kid is like, “Oh, shit, I better not misbehave; if not, they’re going to take me.” And I’m trying to explain to Ben, who’s Australian, and Jason–it’s interesting, because it’s very cultural. And, again, it almost even circles back to one of your earlier questions, which was like, so there’s a part of Yul that could be there. That could actually believe and listen to this thing and go, “Oh, maybe she is right. Maybe she’s onto fucking something, man.” And then that presents a problem for the character, because he’s an investigator. Sablo’s going, “I have to question things, because these facts I have in front of me, they don’t add up. How could he be in two places? How is this possible? What is it? How do we end this? What do we do?”

That’s part of my life all the time. I grew up with that. It’s very hard to wrench that part out of you. And it’s not even a superstition, it’s just a spiritual sort of idea. Santeria is a religion, a religion of the earth. People think it’s this or that, but I’m, like, “Listen, you don’t know what it is. Before you start talking out of your ass, you should know what the hell you’re talking about. And you don’t.” That was in my house, man, and to this day. I’m developing a film that deals with that. It doesn’t have a title yet. But it’s based on a true story of this Cuban guy. That’s all I can really say—we’re waiting for the first draft of the script. But it’s a very, very, very dark story. And it deals with exactly what we’re talking about.

Russian Doll (2019)—“John Reyes”

Natasha Lyonne and Yul Vazquez
Natasha Lyonne and Yul Vazquez
Photo: Netflix

AVC: You were already friends with Natasha Lyonne before you started working together.

YV: Yeah, we were friends from New York, we had done readings together. We had always talked about wanting to do something. I was shooting I Am The Night, I was in L.A., when Natasha texted me, “I want you do to my show.” I didn’t know what she was talking about, I didn’t know anything about it. And then she sent me the first two scripts, and you know, it’s not a part I get the chance to play a lot, to kind of play the romantic lead in a way. I loved the complexity of this guy. He was a single dad, and it was interesting, the way that he kept coming back to her and she keeps rejecting him, and he’s so in love with her. I loved that dynamic, I loved the construct of it. At the time, I only had the first two episodes, but I called her back and I did a conference call with her and Leslye Headland, who I absolutely adore. Leslye Headland is brilliant, and the cast is brilliant, just the whole team. Again, what we were talking about earlier: working with your friends. I knew I liked Natasha. So I already had that going into it. People responded to what I was doing in that in a very interesting way. I got to improvise a lot of stuff in there that I generally don’t get to do. But I had a great time doing that with her. I would work with her in a second again.

AVC: That idea of working with friends, it kind of speaks to the show’s approach of how we kind of get through things in this life—with the help of other people.

YV: Yeah, I think that becomes more as one gets older, and you also have less patience for stuff. When you’re a young actor, there’s a lot of stuff you’ll put up with that an actor in his 50s will not. Now you’re like, “No, we’re not going to fucking do that.” [Laughs.] You know, we need each other. Particularly in a collaborative environment. Films, TV shows, they’re not made in a vacuum. People go, “This guy is responsible.” Yeah, he may have been responsible for the idea, but it took these other 250 people to make this stuff. We could take any one of these movies that we’ve talked about today and break it down, and say, “What are the components? What are the elements? Who brings what to the table that adds to this?” You want to talk about Bloodline—well, the guy who shot Bloodline, Jaime Reynoso, is a brilliant Mexican D.P. And he was responsible for how that looked. And the look of that show was a very important thing.

I think you should look at life as a collaborative endeavor. We need each other. We really do. But some people? Some people think they don’t. I know some people who are, like, “Fuck it, man, I don’t need anybody. I’m super successful. I don’t need anything.” And that’s not true. But it’s all right—they find out. [Laughs.]