News Column

Dexter's David Zayas: From Police Work to Police Dramas and Beyond

Aug. 26, 2008


David Zayas, Dexter' showtime, angel batista, Police Dramas

You may have seen David Zayas guest starring on episodes of today's most popular police procedural shows, like Law & Order, N.Y. Undercover, and NYPD Blue. If he seems a natural on those types of programs, it's because Mr. Zayas spent 15 years with the New York Police Department before transitioning into a full-time actor.

But Mr. Zayas has stood out in every role of his career, splitting screen time with George Clooney in Michael Clayton and Sean Penn in The Interpreter. He exuded a menacing, cool confidence on the prison drama Oz, alongside respected actors like J.K. Simmons, Ernie Hudson, and many more.

Currently, Mr. Zayas can be seen as Detective Angel Batista on Showtime's hit drama Dexter. The show, which will launch its third season on Oct. 1, 2008, stars Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, a serial killer who concentrates his unsavory efforts on other serial killers. By day, Dexter is a blood spatter specialist for the Miami Police Department. Detective Batista is Dexter's best friend and co-worker, and is unaware of Dexter's extracurricular activities.

While the role of Detective Batista may represent a return to Zayas' familiar cop territory, it also represents a creative challenge. As Detective Batista, Zayas provides a breath of fresh air in what is a very dark and intriguing, if frequently disturbing, drama. He's a fallible character, or as Mr. Zayas puts it, Batista is "very human, very complicated, and very flawed."

Mr. Zayas sat down to talk with about his background as a police officer, and his life and influences as an actor.

HB: You transitioned from policeman to actor. How did you get into police work in the first place?

DZ: I would say that I'm a guy who always wanted to be an actor and became a cop. I was always interested in movies, and just wanted to be involved in them. But where I grew up is a very blue-collar environment and acting was an unrealistic thing to do. I grew up in the Bronx -- the Hunts Point section.

Life takes over, things happen, and you put dreams like that to the side. So I went to the Airforce, and then I got out. I had a family--I got married when I was young -- so I joined the Police Department. It was a steady job, you get benefits, and I needed it for my family . . . and that's what I wanted to do.

HB: You grew up in the Bronx -- but when we see you on Dexter, you seem to epitomize a sort of Miami/Cuban "cool." Did you spend time there, or should we chalk it up to good acting?

DZ: No, until I filmed there, for the Dexter pilot, I had never been to Miami.

But, being in the acting world, you run into every ethnicity from everywhere, so I had a lot of friends I could call and just talk about the experience of being a Cuban in Miami. And I was able to create something from there. A little bit of cultural research and how that would affect my character in any way . . . and then the rest of it is my imagination. [he laughs]. I try to do as much as I can.

HB: How did you make the transition into a full-time actor?

DZ: I had done a number of guest spots on television shows and was involved heavily in off-Broadway theater with this company called Labyrinth Theater Company. That's with guys like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, and John Ortiz. Lauren Vélez [ed: who is currently on Dexter and was formerly on Oz with Zayas] was also one of the actors in that company. We did a lot of plays at that company. Eventually, I auditioned for this pilot called The Beat that was from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson. I was lucky enough to get a part that recurred throughout the whole season. So I got to know Tom Fontana; once "The Beat" was cancelled, he brought me into Oz during the fourth season. I was there during the fourth, fifth, and sixth (final) seasons.

It was one of those few times when you're so lucky. When somebody so talented as Tom Fontana actually writers a character for you. And it worked out; it became a really interesting character to play.

HB: Many of the Oz alumni have gone on to do amazing projects. Erik King, Lauren Vélez and you from Dexter; a lot of the cast popped up on HBO's The Wire . . .

DZ: On the Wire; on Lost, J.K. [Simmons] is in The Closer; Lee Tergesen is now on Generation Kill . . . The one thing that was great about Oz was that the writing was fantastic, but the actors that they got were amazing. I learned so much in those three years, just from these fabulous actors, a lot of them with a very strong theater background. Some were not very well known at the time, but just some really solid actors. We went in there, and did our thing, and it was really a lot of fun.

HB: Did it help prepare you for roles like Batista in Dexter, or even your role with George Clooney in Michael Clayton? Were they intimidating?

DZ: I shared some screen time with George Clooney. He was great. You can easily see why these guys are so successful, with great work habits and just a great personality, and very respectful. The good work ethic really comes out; it was great to work with him.

But, no, acting doesn't intimidate me. It challenges me. If something makes me a little nervous, I usually pursue it. I try to take chances.

Intimidation is not a good word -- I really don't get intimidated by much. Not knowing if you can do something is attractive to me -- that's why I quit the police department to take a risk to be an actor, because it was a challenge for me. It was in my heart.

I get excited, certainly. Working with George Clooney, guys like Sean Penn and Bruce Willis, like I have? It's an exciting opportunity to get into the world of people that are so on top of their craft. But it's like the opposite of intimidation. It's excitement.

HB: Is there anyone in your acting career who has served a sort of mentor role for you?

DZ: I had this one wonderful acting teacher. He not only encouraged me to do this, but also motivated me to put in all the hard work. He still teaches occasionally now; his name is Ernie Martin. He's been a great teacher in New York since the 1970s. I started learning from him back in '89 or '90 -- taking a few classes. He really gave me a philosophy on how to approach acting that goes beyond the business. He's just a great teacher and a great person to listen to. To this day in tough situations, what he taught me in acting class is the catalyst behind how I make decisions.

Then I've had a few people, like Tom Fontana, like Clyde Phillips from Dexter; actors like Bruce Willis and Sean Penn; Jimmy Smits, who I worked with on Broadway. Just watching them, I saw examples of how to work to earn any success you have, also how to act when you get to a certain status and how to treat people. They are great example of how to do that

HB: Let's switch to Dexter: How do you see your character Angel Batista?

DZ: This guy is just an honest cop trying to find love in Miami. He's very human, very competent, and very flawed. They've shown aspects of all of that. And you know, who isn't? It's a great character to play. It's been wonderful, and hopefully Angel will be around for a while.

HB: Is there anything you're aware of in the upcoming season three that you feel comfortable teasing?

DZ: Well, the only thing I'll say is that Angel will have a lot more responsibility this year on Dexter, when it comes to the police aspect of things.

HB: Is there anything about your life as an actor that you think may surprise our readers? Business decisions you have to make that may surprise those of in non-creative fields?

DZ: Not much aside from practicing "less is more." I have two kids in college. I've been able to live comfortably; I'm on an Emmy-nominated TV show, but I still drive a Jetta. I don't splurge; I'm careful with what I do and I like to take care of my family. I don't really go overboard with things.

I've always been like that, to balance that part of my life. Business savvy I am not [ed. note: we'll politely dissent; it sounds like an excellent philosophy to us].

I just try to be responsible and do what I can.

HB: Do you have any projects you'd like to direct or produce?

DZ: I would love to get involved in directing. It's something I want to start learning about and getting involved in. TV, films, and theater. It's hard, but it's something I'd love to do, and look forward to doing.

HB: Are there any projects coming up that you think our readers should know about?

DZ: I did a small film with Billy Ray Cyrus, where I play a bass player in a band. It's called "Flying By"; I did that over the winter. I'm not sure when it's coming out. We'll see what happens after 'Dexter,' I stay active with my theater company. I just did a play with Ellen Burstyn that Philip Seymour Hoffman directed. My wife was in it as well; it's called "Little Flower of East Orange." We did it at the Public Theater in New York.

I try to stay involved in everything, and look for what challenges come next.

Source: (c) 2008. All rights reserved.

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