“I want to be able to tell stories that represent communities that are normally misrepresented."
Prior to watching Ava DuVernay’s new miniseries When They See Us on Netflix, I’d never heard anything about the Central Park jogger case, but Freddy Miyares, who plays Raymond Santana in the series, reassures me that I wasn’t alone. “I learned about the case when I got the audition,” he says. “It was the first time I’ve gotten an audition where I felt so passionately [about the role]. I knew I had to find a way to get it.”
In 1990, Santana and four other men—Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam were wrongfully convicted for the 1989 assault and rape of a woman known as the Central Park jogger. The five of them served between five and fifteen years in prison, losing out on years of their childhoods and enduring lengthy separations from their families. DuVernay’s series sheds new light on the injustice and racial profiling involved in the case, and paints a full picture of what the boys and their families experienced both before and after the trial.
“There’s a lot of information on the case while [the trial] was occurring, but there’s no information on what these men had to go through while they were in prison and after prison,” says Miyares. “That’s something you can’t really look up.” To get a better sense of the role, DuVernay made it possible for Miyares to meet Santana, who was 14 years old when he went to prison. “He showed me where he grew up,” says Miyares. “He introduced me to his family, and [shared] details of his time in prison, out of prison, the struggles that his family had to go through while he was in prison, and what caused him to be rearrested.”
Santana also opened up to Miyares about the lack of support he got from his own neighborhood and community at the time of his arrest. “Raymond said something that I thought was very interesting—the Latino community ostracized him, they didn’t accept him,” says Miyares. “They rushed to believe that he was the monster the media portrayed him as. It was really the Black community that stuck by his side. That had an impact on him and on the way that he saw himself in the perception of the Latino community.”
Born to a Honduran mother and a Cuban father, the Miami native says preparing for his performance as the Puerto-Rican and African-American Santana was a lengthy process. “I had to take a speech class, and I had a dialect coach that worked with me [so] that I could understand his voice,” says Miyares. “I did physical training so I could grow into his size. I had to put on about 10 pounds of muscle within two months of training.”
It wasn’t all hard work, though—Miyares was thrilled at the opportunity to work alongside John Leguizamo, an actor he’s admired since childhood. “The representation that he has in our community and the way that he holds himself in the public eye is exceptional,” says Miyares. “And once I got to work with him, I saw this guy [who] is so humble, so kind, so generous, so humorous, and he’s always willing to give. He would call me to run lines and stuff, he would call me to prepare for the scenes that we had to do, which told me that he doesn’t see himself to be above the work.” Miyares also loved working with Dascha Polanco, who plays Elena, Santana’s stepmother in the film. “She’s obviously super mean to Raymond in the show, but in person she is an absolute sweetheart,” says Miyares. “Very sweet, very encouraging, extremely supportive. She found out that this was my first big role and she always had encouraging words of wisdom and advice.”
So what’s next for Miyares? He assured me we’ll see him again in the fall, but he also plans to use his newfound platform to raise awareness for issues like the ones faced by the Central Park Five, who were exonerated in 2002. “I plan to become an ambassador for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that is intended to create awareness for people who have been wrongfully convicted, and hopefully help them be reintegrated into society,” says Miyares, who hopes to tell stories with meaning in his work as an actor as well.
When They See Us, which has become one of Netflix’s most watched shows ever, is a good start. “[Reliving these events] brings back the pain; it brings back the memories,” Santana told The New York Times. “But it’s necessary…You want to change the culture, you’ve got to be engaged.” Miyares, who says he’s still in contact with Santana agrees. “I want to be able to tell stories that represent communities that are normally misrepresented,” he explains. “That includes a large part of people of color. I am fully proud to be a Latino man, and there are not enough stories that are told about us. We are more than what the industry is allowing us to be.”