If you’re not among the 6 million people who regularly tune in to “Sons of Anarchy” or its 8.2 million Facebook fans, you may possibly be excused for not knowing that Tuesday night, Dec. 9, 2014, marks the end of its twisting, turning, ultraviolent and dark humor-infused seven-season-long road on FX.
Otherwise, you are probably waiting with bated breath for the finale of creator Kurt Sutter’s motorcycle gang saga that stars Charlie Hunnam alongside an ensemble including Katey Sagal, Theo Rossi, Dayton Callie, Drea de Matteo, Tommy Flanagan, Kim Coates and Jimmy Smits.
Without naming specific names, and there is no delicate way to put this, but last week’s penultimate episode titled “Red Rose” saw not one, not two, but three — three! — major characters summarily offed at the hands of another.
Some of these murders may have been predictable — although not any less painful to watch and absorb — but at least one came as a complete shock.
Among those left standing is Nero Padilla, the powerful character played by Smits. He’s fairly new to the cast, having come in during Season 5, when he quickly integrated himself into the SAMCRO sphere as a force to be reckoned with as a savvy businessman — and as a love interest for Sagal’s Gemma Teller Morrow.
Yet as the violence has escalated in recent episodes, he’s been focused on his exit strategy, which involves taking Gemma and his disabled son away from the fictional town of Charming, California, to a ranch in another part of the state.
With Nero poised to become one of the few “Sons of Anarchy” characters who might yet see a happy ending as the show writes its final chapter with the closing episode “Papa’s Bones,” Smits sat down with television reporters to discuss the unfolding events — on-screen and of f– that have led him to this place. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation:
Q: Looking back now, what would you say not only as an actor you took away or learned from doing “Sons of Anarchy,” but as a person, as a man, being a part of the “SOA” family?
Jimmy Smits: The whole thing about the strength of family through thick and thin, and even though the whole thing about family is questionable with this particular family, how the family kind of like sticks together. That was just like a running theme and to see that group from being a fan and watching them on television to partaking with them on the performance level, I think that that bond was really, really strong, so that’s something that I’ll always remember about that particular group and about what they conveyed not only in the writing, but on a performance level as well.
Q: And as an actor, did you take anything away from playing Nero, did he teach you anything new?
Jimmy Smits: It just kind of reinforced for me what we need to do as performing—this might be boring for the audience, but just as performers how you really need to stay focused on any given day, so that when it’s your turn to be up at bat, you try your best to bring your A game. And when I get stuck in terms of how to play something or how to approach it or I start thinking too much, I always just go back to the basics of what does my guy want in this particular scene and what is his major objective in terms of life, that would be in his case the exit strategy, what are the people saying about him and just trying to keep that as fluid as possible while I’m putting my tattoos on, so that when it’s my turn that I make the most of those two or three scenes every episode that I get to do.
Q: I just loved the “Red Rose” episode and I feel like with Nero, there’s such an intrinsic strength, power and gravitas to him that he acts as somewhat of a balancer and grounding force to the Tellers, particularly to Gemma, but also somewhat to Jax. What are your thoughts on the context of the role that Nero plays in the family?
Jimmy Smits: I think that when you start thinking about the fluidity of a television series and how it evolves and changes and grows and is kind of like symbiotic with not only what the writers’ vision is, but what the interaction is between the actors, the ensemble, the crew, all of those things, how the writers respond to when they see their particular scene that they’ve written in the writers’ room come to life on the stage and then in film, I think about that character. And of course going in, it was supposed to be ten episodes and out, and all of those things that you alluded to, thank you very much, are nice, and I think that it’s evolved into that.
I remember having a conversation with Kurt at the end of the second season that I was on, which was Season 6, and he expressed interest in me thinking about the way he framed it, the Nero character becoming part of the mythology of the show. And that’s the way it was framed, so I think that all of those qualities that you cited are probably are things that I have developed. So for the character besides that ongoing super objective that he came in with and was what his major character tag or pillar was that he wanted this kind of exit strategy, it’s something that permeated not only his character, but I think it influenced actions of the other characters.
The character served this purpose of confidante, foil, love interest, all of those little spokes in the wheel that fleshes out the show in general. The whole fluidity again of television and the character and the performer because it’s not just an open and close, it’s not like a film or a play in the sense that everything is spelled out and has a fluidity to it; I’m just happy that I had the respect of that group when I came in and they were very kind of like warm and open. And they are a very close knit group and that kind of respect and had to do probably with the prior work, the fact that I had worked with Paris [Barclay] before, all of that and I think that bleeds over into the character as well.
Q: Another element that comes out is the humor displayed with Wendy and particularly some of the lines in the latest episode, like, “Hey, Junkie, I’ll put you in the trunk.” Talk a little bit about that aspect of the character and also his relationship with Wendy.
Jimmy Smits: It’s one of Kurt’s strong suits I think if you look at the whole gamut of the seven seasons of the show when he has characters that one would conceive or consider to be dark or askew, you can see it in Tig, you can see it in all of the characters actually that Kurt operates best when he does this kind of one-two punch to the audience and can present kind of like a lighter shade, humorous side and then socks you with something that can be very emotionally impacting.
I think that engages the audience in a lot of ways. It makes them root for these people who are on the “wrong side of the tracks,” so I like the fact that that he operates as a writer from that kind of level. And with regards to Nero and Wendy, they both have the similarities that they have is that their sobriety is something that they have in common, so I think that that’s the strong bond that they share or will continue to share. Whatever happens that’s an element of it. I think it takes kind of the stink off the possibility that there’s a romantic thing. It’s a more paternal, brother/sister kind. You get that vibe from the back and forth that they have, so it functions on a lot of different levels because of that.
Q: What was your feeling when you read that final script?
immy Smits: I’ve been continually shocked with the past maybe five scripts in terms of like we’re really blowing sh** up here. He’s going for broke, so it was always with a little bit of trepidation on everybody’s part when that new script would come in in your email or whether you would get it in page form to make that turn of the first couple of pages to see what was next or who was going to go down next.
I don’t think audiences are going to be disappointed at all. I think they’re going to be very satisfied and it’s touching in a lot of ways. It’s sad, but it’s also it’s grim, too.
Q: You’ve played some roles in your career that were beyond memorable, like your performance in “Dexter.” Here you take this role of Nero Padilla and every time he’s on screen he just seems larger than life. He just sort of commands attention, and he’s become this character that everybody wants to see and admires in a lot of ways. Will this be one of your personal most memorable roles that you’ve played?
Jimmy Smits: I hope there’ll be other memorable roles down the line, but I know I’m going to have fond memories of the group and this guy. When I first was jotting down little things in my little composition high school composition notebook, which I always buy for each of the characters that I have, I wrote down Jimmy S. and a slash and Jimmy “Mi Familia”/Nero Padilla. That character that I played in “Mi Familia” was kind of like a little sprouting seed of maybe where this guy wound up being. It was just a stream of consciousness kind of thing of what kind of attributes you want to give to a character. It’s like putting little strokes onto a canvas like if you were painting something.
I wanted to try to do something a little bit different and I’m glad that Kurt really gave me that kind of opportunity to do something that was kind of like more guy/guy thing. You realize where a character falls in terms of the different, if you think of a series as a wheel and there are different spokes in the wheel that support it and keep it going. You have different characters that have different functions, so I knew what was needed. That was expressed to me and you’re going to be this for Jax and that for Gemma and that’s where he’s going to. It was important for me to try to keep a couple of balls in the air when I was juggling all of that.
I wanted to make sure because it’s a show about outlaws and people on the wrong side of the tracks that you kept that vibrant as well, so it wasn’t just a guy coming to have somebody cry on his shoulder and giving coffee out. There are a lot of characters to serve and you have to find ways—if we keep that other element going, it makes everything else more believable, so I’m just glad that there was a kind of real back and forth, respect and trust that we had with each other.
And our conversations like in Season 5 actually started getting less, not more. You would think that it would be as the character flourishes, you would have much more, but they were less, less frequent, but when they happened, they were more intense. But there’s a realization on my part that he’s spinning a lot of plates, so you have to be very succinct in terms of getting what points you need or what you think needed to be looked at in a particular scene, because you want to try to do that before you get on set.
Q: He’s a bad guy in one respect. He’s a father. He’s a father figure, but he also can be very tender and understanding and the voice of reason. How much do you personally relate to Nero Padilla?
Jimmy Smits: The whole thing with him about how religion is part of his life or some kind of spirituality was just like a simple little kind of brush stroke on the writers’ part I think and that became very important to me. I don’t want to say I embellished it, but I gave it a lot more weight and I think because of that they wrote then subsequently they added more and that’s satisfying to me because I like the fact that this guy that seemingly has a spiritual side to him, too, that’s intense. And it made sense to me because of the fact that he’s sober and higher power and all that stuff, so Jimmy relates to that, so that was a nice little flare that the character had that I like and can relate to.
Q: The end of “Red Rose,” when he’s on the bed, he figured out that Gemma presumably and Unser are gone, what was going through your mind at that moment, like what could Nero possibly could do next?
Jimmy I think there’s pain. There’s guilt. There’s remorse. Did you do the right thing? And I’m sure that the scenes afterwards that are not written or maybe you won’t get to see in between the episodes are full of maybe anger and trying to grapple with what’s the next move. You got to remember with all of these people that there’s this bubbling kind of how do they deal with the feeling of betrayal and how they try to go about exacting one might term it vengeance or making things right for them or their point of view. Hopefully all of that is full for this final chapter.
Q: One of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful scenes took place about two episodes ago between Nero and Jax when they’re just sitting together in the chairs. Can you talk about that connection a little bit?
Jimmy Smits: I think it was the culmination of what the relationship has been between these two characters over three seasons and certainly the weight of what the Jax character has been carrying or feeling for the past seven seasons. Because of that relationship between Jax and Nero, there was the availability of a kind of vulnerability, those words that Kurt wrote that came out of Jax’s mouth there about the bottom line no matter what’s happened, she’s my mom, have to really resonate in a huge way.
I’m kind of happy that the way that turned out and just like on a performance level that we were able to have enough trust between us as actors; and that Peter Weller who directed that particular episode that you’re talking about just said minimal stuff and just let it happen, but was very supportive, so I think it resonates and has the power that Kurt intended when he wrote it.
Q: One of the best moments that really pulled at the heart strings the most was the scene with you and Gemma where you’re on a cell phone with Jax and we know that Jax is explaining to Nero what he has learned. Can you talk about how you decided to play that scene, since the audience didn’t get Jax’s side of the conversation and that you had to convey everything just through facial expressions and emotions.
Jimmy Smits: We knew that it was just from a dramaturgical look at it when we had the read-through for it, that the scene was going to have impact, but that it was going to be demanding because of the fact that it’s not a back and forth. But in the scope of that particular episode, you do have the fact that the act is repeated a number of times and most notably in the scene between Jax and Juice in the jail cell where they were in vivid detail Juice has recounted what happened with Tara and Gemma’s involvement in it. And you see that registering on both of them, so I think it was a great writer stroke that Kurt decided that the subsequent retelling of it would play in a different kind of way. I think because the audience now is engaged and they know and it becomes more about how each of the subsequent characters are going to start relating to the news. So when I look at it in total I think it really points to Kurt’s strength as a writer.
Now the execution of it was a little bit scary and what I alluded before about learning, somebody asked me about what I took away from the show about trying to stay focused as a performer in the environment of television, which can be very quick. That particular day was a little scary because we were like at the end of the day. We were losing light. It had to be outside and Paul Maibaum who’s been the DP for the show since its beginning is just wonderful and kept on telling me don’t worry about it. We can make this work.
My thing is I kept on saying we’re going to have to come back and do this and I don’t know how I’m going to be able to get back to where I was, but it all become a trust, a day of trust on that level. And on recounting not having the phone call actually in my ear and just knowing that I could be emotionally full with all of the information that I’ve had about these particular characters and knowing that when I looked in Katey’s eyes and she looked at my eyes that it would resonate emotionally. So we had that one aspect going for us and I think it played out. I think it has a kind of power to it and I’m happy with most of it. There’s a lot that I still kick myself about, but that’s just me. I’m never totally happy, but thanks for the good words about it.
Q: You’ve been a part of some pretty iconic roles in “NYPD Blue” and “The West Wing.” But when you look at the final episode and your final arc as Nero, would you say that you think this is a satisfying ending both for the show and for you personally?
Jimmy Smits: As far as the last season is concerned, I think that Kurt ended it really beautifully and it has all of those elements that the show has been the signature of the show throughout the seven seasons. I was a little surprised specifically about the way Nero ends up, but I totally get it. I totally get it.
Q: One of the most memorable lines is from “Red Rose” was when Nero tells Unser that this is not about saving Gemma, it’s about saving Jax. What do you think has changed in Nero that he seemed more concerned with saving Jax than Gemma?
Jimmy Smits: I think that that particular line I tried to give it a little bit of weight, so that it really means both because we all know that in the episode prior to that when Nero starts talking about you know what you’re thinking about doing is one of the biggest sins that you could impose upon yourself and the weight that that’s going to put on you. So knowing that that was a possibility, that was part of where that line was coming from and I tried to imbue it with all of that, but I don’t think that he meant discard Gemma or there wasn’t that thing going on; and I hope that didn’t read like that because the love that he has—you did see him in the next subsequent scenes in the bedroom. And I think that reinforced that even though the events that have transpired, that he still has a profound kind of love and emotional connection with the Gemma character. So it’s like everything that Kurt writes, it’s not just one thing. It’s layered in many, many, many different ways.
Q: Do you have a favorite scene or maybe a scene that was harder for you to film during the series?
Jimmy Smits: The two scenes in Episode 10 and 11 of this season were both very difficult because it had to do with focus, I alluded to that and just the head space of where I am in my life, so those were kind of difficult. But you got to know that in Season 5 when my partner in life was playing a character and that character had to go down, that was a very tough day because you’re looking at a character who is supposed to be your sister, but in real life it’s the person that you live with and love with. That was a difficult; memorable, difficult day as performer and character as well.
Q: If Nero had gone to find Gemma instead of Unser, do you think he would have chosen her over Jax? They had gotten close over these past few episodes, but would his love for Gemma have overpowered that bond, and would he have gone after Jax if he tried to hurt Gemma?
Jimmy Smits: If Nero had gone, there would have been probably three dead bodies there. All of them would have gone down in some way. I think that was his big fear that he didn’t want to try to have to make that particular choice, but I don’t think that the Nero character understood how profound and deep the relationship that Unser has with them also. I guess he thinks that because of the police element or line in Unser’s character thread was there that he would be able to exact some kind of calm out of the situation.
Q: Why do you think a show like this, dark as it is, about a motorcycle gang, why does it resonate with viewers so much?
Jimmy Smits: Since we’re in this time in television where we have all of these channels and niches and I think the great thing about it is this kind of golden age of TV, because the canvas is much broader, and you can go into much more specifics. I think that audiences want to relate or want to know about different worlds that they might not get on a network TV; your typical doctor, lawyer, police type show. So it affords the opportunity to get a professor who’s dying who runs a meth lab, or how it was in New York and New Jersey in the ‘20s; those types of things and really become engaged with those characters, and in this case with a world that you think you might know something about, but don’t really know about.
And then layer that or texturize it with all of those things in that world and what they learn about that world and the things that every particular family has; the family dynamics, the codes that a family has, the hierarchy and that’s what engages it. I think Kurt was really successful with the writers in terms of like presenting this kind of like Shakespearian story in a lot of ways that has a lot of emotionality and humor and tragedy and all of that violence, but at the same time has this thread of family and brotherhood, so those are the things that I think really engage audiences with the show specifically.
Q: What was it like working with FX on the show?
Jimmy So it’s my first time working on the network, but not my first time dealing specifically with John Landgraf and that crew there, who I have a lot of respect for. In my years of having deals with different networks and having to interface and pitch to different studio people, I’ve not met a group that is more supportive to the creative side keeping the business thing in perspective, but really supportive of the creative side. I say this not from the actor perspective, but I saw from the outside how supportive John Landgraf and that team the creative executives are with Kurt and how they allowed him I think to really blossom into not just a television writer, but a creator of a series and somebody who has weight and a voice. I think that they were intricate in that dynamic of having Kurt develop into that.
They just get it. They’re just very supportive and my interactions with them have been very not the norm, unusual. I always come away even if the pitch didn’t go or I didn’t get a particular job, that’s happened with them, but my interfacing with them has always been very positive and I come away like changed in a lot of ways about my respect of what TV can be. They’re really into literature and they just get it. I can’t say enough good things about those guys and I hope we get to work down the line.
Q: What can you say about the fallout from all of the devastating deaths that just happened in the last episode?
Jimmy Smits: I can say that the audience is going to be satisfied with the way the show ends up and that it continues to deliver its one-two punch that I talked about before. And as much as it is exciting and sad and funny, it’s got that grim quality to it as well.
Q: How was it to like physically film that very last episode?
Jimmy Smits: Your investment has not only been with the characters and the story, but the crew that you spent, in Katey’s case seven years with, that crew has been very cohesive. There haven’t been a lot of changes and the crew really loves the show. There are a lot of tattoos on that crew, let me just say that, so I guess in that way there were a lot of tears.
There’s a sadness in that the family unit that you develop because you do work for so many hours is going to disperse and we kept on reaffirming that we know we have great memories and that we’ll see each other again hopefully down the line, because this business is all kind of circled, but it was sad. I finished up I think it was halfway into the shoot, so there was that particular eight days. And I came back for a couple of hours every day until we wrapped because I wanted to be there for Charlie’s last scene or the last scene of particular characters and a lot of people did that, so it was very emotional.
Q: Do you plan on keeping in touch with the other cast members?
Jimmy Smits: I will and we all say that, but we probably won’t. That’s what happens in our business, and I think that makes it sad, too, because that’s the gypsy aspect of the business that we all kind of acknowledge that you’re going into something and it has to be a certain level of trust, particularly with the performers and you get to share parts of your life to gain that kind of trust that the characters are going to have. And then the reality is you move on to the next thing, but when we see each other again, the true mark of it is like it’s like you never skipped a day.
Q: Since Nero never rode motorcycle, have the guys finally gotten you on a motorcycle?
Jimmy Smits: Yes, I’ve been on motorcycles. When I first knew that I was going to be working with the show, Kurt and I were just having meetings and I didn’t know where it was going to go, so the first thing I did besides watching, rewatching all the at that point it was five seasons over a weekend I went out there and I got my motorcycle license. And there’s this great group of people in southern California and a lot of them are women that have this motorcycle training facility; and I got my license and did a crash course and I was pretty happy.
And then I found out that it wasn’t going to happen and then I toyed and we keep in contact and also my stand-in, we’ve been together for like 20 years now, he’s a motorcycle rider, so we rode a lot together. I would always through the past three seasons, I always keep myself in tune hoping that one day I’m going to open up the script and it’s going to say, “and then Nero jumps on Jax’s motorcycle and goes away.”
Q: There’s always the finale. You never know.
Jimmy Smits: That would be a spoiler, let’s put that one out there, “Nero jumps on the motorcycle and rides off—”
Q: Someone mentioned that it’s still in the boiler that there might be a “West Wing” sequel that your character might come back. Have you heard anything about that?
Jimmy Smits: I was working on something else when they did the “LA Law” reunion that they had. Sometimes it’s better to just leave things alone. It depends, but with the right people writing certainly with “The West Wing,”, there could be a lot of resonance to having that group to see where that group has all landed up, because you knew it was, and I’m not just talking about the presidency, but there were staffers, so to see where those particular staffers are now in their careers, I would be very interested in that.
Q: You talk about keeping notebooks for each of your characters, will you ever publish them one day?
Jimmy Smits: I don’t think so. There’s a storage room I have that has back to my days at Cornell in summer stock and all that stuff, so there are lot of composition books out there. Don’t even put that in my head. They’re just ramblings.
Q: I can only imagine what you would subtitle the final one on “Sons of Anarchy.” It’d be an incredible little volume to read.
Jimmy Smits: Yes, yes. There’s a lot of cursing in there.
(The “Sons of Anarchy” series finale airs on FX Tuesday, Dec. 9, at 10 p.m. ET/PT followed by “Anarchy Afterword” with Kurt Sutter and Charlie Hunnam.)