Jacob Vargas on Breaking Away From Latin Stereotypes and His Role on Mr. Iglesias
"When Latinos see themselves on the screen, it gives them permission to dream.."
Jacob Vargas knows the exact moment in his middle-school improv class that encouraged him to pursue acting. There, as he pretended to feel the shock of a loved one falling down and having no idea what was wrong, he connected with his role in a way that he compares to an “out-of-body experience.” “I got so emotionally involved,” the 47-year-old actor tells People CHICA. “I was crying and it felt so real me to me. All these emotions came out and I couldn't stop crying. Once he finished, he knew he wanted to feel that rush all the time.
After getting cast as a dancer on Diff'rent Strokes and in several commercials, the Mexican actor pursued acting once he realized the “the break dancing craze was dying out.” Best known for his roles in Selena, Next Friday and Jarhead, Vargas currently stars as Tony, a witty teacher on Netflix's new show Mr. Iglesias, starring Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias in the title role. Following the cancellation of One Day at a Time, Mr. Iglesias is a warm-hearted series that Latinx of all ages can enjoy. “That's the beauty of the show,” says Vargas. “It's made for everyone, and though it's funny, it also has heart. [Gabriel] plays a teacher that really cares, and you have a diverse cast of kids who aren't boxed in.”
The show's ability to cater to all ages is a major plus, especially for the father of an eight-year-old who's binge-watched the show numerous times. “A lot of jokes can go over the kids' heads,” says Vargas. Behind-the-scenes representation was important, too, and Vargas notes that the “writer's room was super-diverse.” Made up of Latinx, African American and white writers, the team worked together to make the show reflective of discussions that happen within diverse communities. For example, in one scene, the Cuban American principal reminds a non-Cuban student that a Che Guevara poster doesn't mean the same thing to everyone.
Vargas and Iglesias play buddies at the school, throwing jabs and inside jokes at each other when working together in a scene. Iglesias plays the teacher that goes above and beyond for his students, while Vargas plays a character that's not quite as helpful. “He's not the best teacher in the world,” explains Vargas. “He can be a bit lazy. He's got some issues, he's not perfect.” Still, Vargas understands that occupational representation on TV matters. During a slow period in his career, Vargas worked as a teacher's assistant, and recalls that students were inspired just by seeing what he wore to work. “The kids had never seen somebody that looked like them [wearing] a tie before,” he says. “That's why I chose for my character to always wear a tie. When Latinos see themselves on the screen, it gives them permission to dream.”
It's something Vargas learned firsthand throughout his many years in Hollywood. When he first approached his parents about acting, they were concerned about the struggle he would face in an industry where very little black and brown inclusivity is available. “When I said I wanted to be an actor, they were pretty worried for me, because they never saw people that looked like us on TV,” he says. “In my younger days, I honestly took whatever roles were available.” He also recalls taking a headshot in a bandana, so casting directors would see him as a fit for stereotypical “tough kid” roles. Legendary actor Edward James Olmos changed his mindset about taking those parts, though, telling him that “the images Hollywood projects out to the world are so powerful. Television goes out to the world, and this is how the world sees us.”
The conversation motivated Vargas to make wiser decisions about his career. “I held out and wouldn't take offers,” he says, noting that he might have made more money if he'd continued taking those same stereotypical parts. Most recently, he turned down a role as a cartel boss for this reason, but he still feels extremely grateful for the longevity of his career. “I feel truly blessed to do what I love.”