MIAMI—On the night during Hurricane Andrew when palm trees were falling all around Shalim Ortiz’s ears, he wished with all his might for superpowers.
Fifteen years later, he’s finally got them—on “Heroes,” NBC’s hit science fiction drama about genetic mutants trying to save the world from nuclear war.
“Alejandro can’t fly or time-travel, but he does his part,” says Ortiz of his secretive and stoic character, a newcomer to the show this season. “And we don’t know everything about him yet.”
Ortiz, 27, who lived in the Miami area as a teenager and returned to launch a successful Latin pop career before heading to Hollywood last year to scratch an acting itch, means it quite literally when he says “we” don’t know. He makes it a point to not learn anything about where the show or his character is headed—in fact, he doesn’t even read scenes from new scripts unless he’s in them.
“I learn it week by week, just like the viewers do,” he explained in an interview conducted before a key plot development occurred in this week’s episode (spoiler alert: it’s at the end of this story). “I like the story to take me by surprise. I think it’s the same case with most of the actors in the cast. You have an idea where everything might go, but you don’t get the full picture. They want to keep the show’s spontaneity. An actor knows what he’s supposed to know, nothing more.”
That means the characters of Alejandro Herrera and his twin sister Maya (played by Dominican actress Dania Ramirez) remain just as cryptic to Ortiz as they do to the rest of us. With little explanation or background, they turned up this season trying to slip across the border from Mexico into the United States looking for medical help.
What is clear is that, like everybody else in “Heroes,” they have some extraordinary abilities. The easily angered Maya literally delivers looks that can kill (in a really yucky way, too—greasy black stuff drips out of their eyes and ears). And only the gentle Alejandro can stop her.
It was Alejandro’s character, rather than “Heroes” itself—which, he admits, he had rarely seen—that made Ortiz desperate to land the job.
“I loved the character more than the show,” he says. “I loved what a tender human being he is. I was mesmerized by how he loved his sister so much that he would leave everything behind to help her through life. I loved the character before I loved the show ... though after I started working, I caught up and I became a fan.
“What’s interesting about Alejandro is the fact that he can neutralize his sister’s ability. He can take in the pain that she has inside. Twin connectivity is one of the things the producers wanted to portray. This is a show about genetics, after all. It’s not only about having cool superpowers. It portrays how genetic factors can be something bad, something uncontrollable.”
One of the most intriguing things about Alejandro is that, so far, his character has only spoken in Spanish—not so unusual, perhaps, for an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic (one of the few things we know about Alejandro’s background) but very unusual for a series regular on American television. Ortiz says the matter of language is more than a stylistic tic.
“That is one of the dynamics of Alejandro,” he notes. “He speaks Spanish only. The language barrier plays a role in our story line. `Heroes’ is the type of show where everything that happens has such a specific task in the development of the plot. The language Alejandro speaks will be important, like everything else in the show is.”
And, Ortiz adds—perhaps dropping a hint, perhaps just passing on playful disinformation—just because Alejandro hasn’t spoken English doesn’t mean that he won’t.
“There was a very interesting episode a couple of weeks ago, where (“Heroes” archvillain) Syler speaks to him in English,” Ortiz says. “Alejandro had this funny expression on his face. It could have meant, `I know what you’re saying,’ or it could have been complete cluelessness. It’s a show that likes to leave people with those kind of questions.”
Oddly enough, though Ortiz speaks fluent Spanish (the son of Puerto Rican entertainer Elin Ortiz and Dominican singer Charytin Goyco, he was a child star on Puerto Rican TV), he’s been assigned a dialect coach for the show. Both he and co-star Ramirez were painfully aware that often Hispanic characters on English-language TV speak with accents at odds with their supposed national origins, because producers don’t know or care that Cubans, Puerto Rican and Mexicans don’t sound alike to one another.
“I guarantee you that Dania and I care,” Ortiz says. “What we decided to do is work on a common, neutral accent, in order for all of Latin America to identify with it. Our characters are supposed to be from the Dominican Republic, but they’ve also lived part of the time in Central America—they have this mix of countries that they’ve visited.
“So we decided to neutralize our accents. And I think we did a pretty good job, not to blow smoke up my own butt. I think our Spanish is understandable to everybody, and we justified the lack of an accent.”
That they write their own Spanish dialogue makes it easier.
“We partly translate the scripts, which is pretty huge. It also helps make the dialogue our own. At the end of the day, it’s all about making the story believable. Not just being a Latin guy playing a Latin character, but making him real.”
Between learning a new accent, working on “Heroes” and shooting an independent film, “The Art of Travel,” that’s scheduled for release in the coming months, Ortiz hasn’t had time for what most of his fans know him for: singing. After recording two hit albums in Miami under the tutelage of Emilio Estefan, his decision to pursue acting left him without a label or any immediate prospect of another album.
“When I left Miami for L.A., I was all confident about a new album—`In four months, it’ll be on the streets,’” he laughs. “It didn’t quite work out that way ... I’ve got two hands and they’re pretty busy right now. I wish I could do both (acting and recording). I’m pretty close to finding a new fusion and a new sound for the third album. It’ll be my first in English, and I’m really looking forward to it.
“But at the same time, I know I have to wait till the right time comes. Acting is 24/7 right now. I definitely have not retired from music, I definitely see it as happening pretty soon. But I’m taking it as it comes, without making false promises.”
Even his character getting killed wouldn’t necessarily free up much time for Ortiz.
“That’s the nature of the show, it’s true,” he agrees. “Every time I open a script, I wonder if I’m going to be breathing at the end of it. But also the nature of the show is that the normal rules don’t apply. “Heroes” has substantial characters who stay on the show even after they die. We have a character named Isaac who died nine or 10 episodes ago and it’s almost as if he’s still alive, he’s around so much. So I’m not really worried.”
We’re glad we got our interview when we did.
Ortiz only made it through 10 episodes—in Monday night’s chapter, “Truth & Consequences,” Alejandro indeed was killed by the most evil Hero, Sylar.
Ortiz mentioned that he wanted to get back to his Latin pop-singing roots. He should have more time for that now. But don’t count him out entirely. With the series’ staples of time travel, regeneration and superpowers, the dead rise all the time.