pepe serna

Big on Small Parts

How optimism, patience, and generosity propelled Pepe Serna into the leading role.

Kent Black Arts & Entertainment, Current PSL

pepe serna

Pepe Serna

Editor's Note: The 2022 Palm Springs International Film Festival has been canceled effective Dec. 29 and will return with an -in-person event in 2023. A documentary on Pepe Serna was originally scheduled to be shown during the festival.

Pepe Serna is your favorite actor, and you didn’t even know it.

Did you grow up in the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s? Are you a millennial or a Gen X? Doesn’t matter. When you went to the movies or turned on the TV, he was right there in front of you. No, not the star. The guy to his or her left. The one who makes the scene work and the star shine.

Serna has a half dozen lines or maybe only one, but it’s the one you remember. Like when he says to Montoya Santana in American Me, “You have a lot of heart, carnal, maybe too much,” and a minute later, Edward James Olmos takes flight. Or you might remember that time he had no lines at all. He couldn’t speak. There was tape on his mouth and he was hanging from a shower head. But you remember his eyes from when a chainsaw spiked in RPMs and then cut through his shoulder while his friend, Tony Montana, watched.

Oh, that Pepe Serna, you say. You’ve loved everything he’s done, and you’d know him at a glance, but still, you also may be thinking, “Pepe who?”

It’s OK. Great character actors are seldom household names. For every Harry Dean Stanton, Linda Hunt, Strother Martin, Anne Ramsey, Ronny Cox, or Amanda Plummer, there are hundreds of names that barely ring a bill: Dorothy Dandridge, Amy Wright, Ed Lauter, Anthony Zerbe, Lynne Thigpen, Brion James, Kathy Baker, Timothy Carey. And Pepe Serna. Great character actors are chameleons. They wear a hundred masks, none alike. Writers may throw the weight of their stories on the backs on their principal characters, but the supporting cast distributes the weight. Rosalind’s escapades in As You Like It dazzle and delight, but malcontent Jacques is the soul of Shakespeare’s play. Michael Caine knew what he was doing when he took on the role of Batman’s butler. He was so riveting in every scene that it’s hard to remember which actor was playing the Caped Crusader that time. For the most part, though, the art of the character actor is as a fleeting but pivotal presence: the Japanese gardener who complains to Jake about the brackish water in Chinatown or the moment Marie Dressler stumbles when Jean Harlow admits to having read a book in Dinner at Eight.

The actor at home in Rancho Mirage.

Many of his colleagues and admirers point to Serna’s dedicated work in the Los Angeles-based theater group Synergy Trust as the origin of his remarkable improvisational talents. Serna says it goes back much further. “I believe I’ve been doing improv since I was about 3,” says Serna, dapper and relaxed in a pink linen sport coat as he sits back on a couch in the guest quarters of his bright Rancho Mirage home. From the street, the house appears indistinguishable from its tightly wedged neighbors, but inside, it’s like stepping through a portal that lands you in a lush and colorful oasis in Coyoacán or Teotitlán del Valle. Every vibrantly hued room — designed and decorated by Serna’s wife, Diane — is filled with Mexican folk art and Serna’s own paintings, all of which tell a story. “My grandfather built a boxing ring across from our house on the corner. One day I was up in the ring and I was playing around like I was fighting and fell. Everyone laughed. I liked it. I did the exact same thing again. This time no one laughed. And, so, I learned my first important lesson about acting.”

The site of this precocious performance was the small gulf town of Corpus Cristi, Texas, across the border from Laredo, Mexico. Corpus’ gift to the arts is not insignificant. Natives include Selina, Farrah Fawcett, Lou Diamond Phillips, Eva Longoria, and, of course, Alfonso Serna, aka, Pepe. He credits his father, a translator for Latin American pilots at the aviation training facility, with gifting him his love of language. Though Corpus was sharply divided with Anglos on one side and Chicanos on the other, Serna went about his childhood blithely ignoring the prejudices. At W.B. Ray High School, he excelled at theatrical productions, represented his school in the National Forensics League, and was enthralled by classic Mexican movies from the 1930s that screened at downtown theaters. Though he knew some of the Anglo parents didn’t like him dating their daughters, he didn’t come face to face with prejudice until one night in high school. He and some friends and their dates went to a new dance club. He wasn’t allowed in. “I was shocked,” he says, “but there it was.”

Nothing, it seemed, could dampen his spirit or desire to entertain.

A filmmaker came to town looking to cast a Mexican American actor in the lead role as a young bullfighter in a movie called Jacket of Blood and Gold. Though the only print of the film was later lost in a gulf hurricane, the director got Serna a gig as a barker at the Moroccan Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Besides refining his burgeoning improv talents, he awarded himself a major theatrical success. “I had a small hotel room on Broadway, so I leaned out the window and read [Eugene O’Neil’s] The Hairy Ape out loud. That way, I could say that I performed The Hairy Ape on Broadway.”

Pepe Serna as Angelo in Scarface.
Even a stint in the Marine Reserves could not deter his quest. After a few months pretending he’d been cast in a movie about a young man entering the Marine Corps, where the drill instructors were his directors, he found that he could earn exemption from active duty by studying abroad. He left for Mexico City, enrolled in school, lived on 80 cents and one meal a day, and hung around film studios hoping to break into the business. “I was doing what I loved,” he says. “I didn’t care whether they paid me or not.”
Serna as Montoya Santana in American Me.

Incongruously, he was cast in a half Mexican, half American production of Hair. Serna says the daughter of the president of Mexico ordered the production closed after one performance because of the scandalous nudity, but it inspired him to travel north and try his luck in Hollywood. Borrowing $100 from his hairdresser mother in Corpus, he headed west to the city of his dreams.

PEPE SERNA ARRIVED in Hollywood in 1969. He was determined to be discovered. He wanted the chance to perform and was not going to be denied. Though broke and homeless at times, he still gave his all to his improv group, Synergy Trust, and the first few roles began trickling in, starting with Roger Corman’s The Student Nurses (1970).

However, in 1971, a pattern emerged that would be unbroken for the next five decades.  That year, he played small roles in Red Sky at Morning, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, and Shootout with Gregory Peck. Today, Serna’s entry in the IMDb (Internet Movie Database) would literally take up several pages (in double columns) of this magazine. Every year, he managed a combination of both walk-on and talking roles. The TV list reads like prime time’s greatest hits: Mannix, Kung Fu, Adam-12, Cannon, Rockford Files, Baretta, Kojak, Lou Grant, Barney Miller, Miami Vice, TJ Hooker, Hill Street Blues … It’s endless.


On one of these early TV shows, Medical Center, Serna met a young Chicano rock ‘n’ roller from East L.A. named Edward James Olmos. “It was a pilot episode called ‘If Wishes Were Horses’ and Gene Reynolds was the director. I meet this guy on the set and he has this rock ‘n’ roll group called Eddie James and the Pacific Ocean. He said that Jim Morrison used to come over all the time from the Whisky [a Go Go] and steal all his moves,” Serna recalls. “And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this guy thinks highly of himself.’ He just had a walk-on role, no lines. All he was supposed to do was go to the wall. But he asked if he could say, ‘Excuse me, could you give me some cardboard boxes?’ I immediately coined a phrase, ‘Eddie almost had a line,’ though the way he heard it was, ‘Eddie Olmos had a line.’ It was six months [later], the next one we do. Judd Hirsch [was] the lead in Delvecchio. There were four of us. I would get everybody in the trailer to work the dialogue … and I don’t know how it happened because they don’t let you give your lines away, but I gave Eddie eight of my lines. I come from improv, so it was about how to make the scene work better.”

“No one does that. No actor gives away their lines,” Olmos says. “Except Pepe. Just think how secure you must be as an actor and a person to give another actor the right of way, to give another actor one of your lines so he can take another step forward in his art.”

Olmos says that Serna’s generosity seems limitless. He recalls that on several occasions he would get a call from Serna about auditions. “If he auditioned for something, he’d call me up and say ‘I just auditioned for this role, but you’d be good for it, too. You should try out for it. Who does that? Who recommends his friends for roles? And it wasn’t just me, it was everyone he knew. It was because he knew if he didn’t get it, one of us would.”

Serna’s wife, Diane, filled every room of their house with Mexican folk art and Serna’s own paintings.

During the Delvecchio production, Olmos approached Serna about a film he wanted to make. “One of the things you get used to on a set are other actors coming up to you and saying ‘Hey, I have something I’ve been working on and you’d be really great in a part. It was mostly talk, but you’d still say, ‘Yeah? Great, let me know,” Olmos says. “I had something I’d been working on since ’73 and I told Pepe about it. I could see that look in his eyes, but he said sure.”

It was a few years before Olmos was in a position to offer Serna a part. In the meantime, Serna seemed to be everywhere. Television made him one of the most familiar (if nameless) actors in the business, but he was also getting better roles in films. He played a lowrider in The Jerk; Olmos’s murdered brother in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez; Pacino’s gruesomely murdered friend, Angel, in Scarface; a bearded cowboy named Scruffy in Silverado; the scene-stealing Reno Nevada in The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension (a film packed with scene-stealers), and Raoul in Postcards from the Edge.

All of Serna’s vibrant paintings tell a story about the people and places in his life.

It took 18 years and winning an Academy Award for Stand and Deliver, but in 1991, Olmos had the juice to launch his dream project. American Me is the multigenerational story about Montoya Santana, a young man from East L.A. who grows up in the prison system and founds the Mexican Mafia, an infamous prison gang. Eventually, Santana’s eyes open to a better life on the outside, but a mishap sends him back to prison, where he receives the ultimate punishment meted out by his former lieutenant, Mundo, played by Serna. “Once [Olmos] got the greenlight for American Me, he called me up every single night for eight months,” says Serna, laughing at the memory. “Eddie was constantly rewriting and changing dialogue.”

THE ’90s WERE ESPECIALLY GOOD to Serna. He found himself in recurring roles, including the patriarch in the TV series Hotel Malibu. Once again, Serna’s generosity manifested, as he spread the word about a talented young actress in the series who he felt would be a star in the future. The ingenue’s name was Jennifer Lopez.

The actor enjoys spending time in his lush garden.
“The auditions were almost as fun as getting the part.”

Though he’s been frustrated at times that his hundreds of auditions did not land him leading roles (he and Steven Bauer were neck and neck for the role of Manny Ray, Pacino’s best friend in Scarface) that could have given him the kind of break-out performance that changes careers, he’s not at all bitter. “For me, the auditions were almost as fun as getting the part,” he says, waving off the idea that he’s been disappointed. In fact, in Serna’s view, he’s always been a star; it’s just taken everyone else a little longer to wake up to the fact. “When I was 6 years old, we moved to our first Anglo neighborhood. The doctor next door was having a birthday party for his daughter and he shot [an] 8-millimeter film. [Later,] I got to see it [and] could see that the movie star was born at 6 years old.”

Sometimes, it only takes a little inspired casting by a director to showcase the talent obscured by a lack of lines or screen time. Robert Altmann certainly saw promise in Fred Ward when he cast him in Short Cuts and Tarantino did the same for Robert Forster (and many others) in Jackie Brown. Phillip Baker Hall may not have achieved the recognition he received late in his career if it weren’t for Paul Thomas Anderson. In Luis Reyes’s documentary, Life Is Art: Pepe Serna, director Dave Boyle talks about how impressed he was watching Serna’s acting over the years.

Pepe Serna as Paul Del Moral in The Man From Reno

“I was star-struck. I called him up and I basically told him, ‘Hey, I want to write a lead role for you. I want to make a movie with you in the lead.’ Eight years later, we actually did it. The movie we made together was The Man From Reno.”

In the 2014 neo-noir mystery, Serna plays Paul Del Moral, a sheriff from a small town not far from San Francisco who teams up with a Japanese detective fiction writer named Aki (Ayako Fujitani) to solve the disappearance of a man.


Serna as Reno Nevada in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

The film garnered many awards, including one from the Los Angeles Film Festival, largely on the strength of Serna’s performance. For an actor who was waiting all his career for the chance to carry a movie, it’s remarkable for his restraint. Serna is completely immersed in the low-key, laid back character of the sheriff. It is such a subtle, effortless performance that it doesn’t seem like acting at all — which is the mark, of course, of great acting.

Olmos recalls telling his friend many years ago, “In our 30s and 40s, we’ll be gaining strength. In our 50s and 60s is when we’ll really get going, and in our 70s, forget it. That’s really turned out to be true for Pepe.”

Serna turned 70 during the filming of The Man From Reno and since then he’s turned in extraordinary performances in The Planters, Lowriders, Downsizing, and almost two dozen other roles. He has two more films coming out soon and was recently cast in another. At age 77, he looks like he’ll do Olmos’ prediction one better: He’ll really kick some ass in his 80s.

He recalls during the auditions for Scarface telling his wife, Diane, “If don’t get this [lead role] I’m going to be surprised.” When the part went to Steven Bauer, Serna says, “I didn’t dwell on it. They called me up and asked, ‘You want to read for the part of Angel?’ And I said, ‘Who’s Angel?’ He had two lines. I’ve been up for the lead and now I’m going to do this little part? OK. That’s what’s gotten me through my whole life. There are no small parts.”

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