New York Minute, Hollywood Moment: An Interview with Actor David Labiosa

"In 1980, I was a Hispanic in a lead role on television. It was a big deal." The veteran of the acting business for 40 years relates a wealth of memories working in the Hollywood industry.

Wildly energetic and explosively charismatic, Labiosa’s dramatic methods are tempered with a serious education in theatre and drama, having studied under some of the best in the business.

Before there was Benjamin Bratt and John Leguizamo, there was David Labiosa. If the name registers a blank, you’ll be forgiven. You see, Labiosa is a “should-have-been”, an almost star whose due course was sidetracked by a series of unfortunate events. It’s a story as common as a penny in the tarnished pantheons of Hollywood legacy. But his story of his remarkable grapples with the industry remains a compelling and insightful observation on the trials and tribulations of fame.

Born to a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx, the actor had cornered the market on Latin film stars before it became widely successful. Slated to become a Hollywood “it” boy when he first arrived onscreen at the dawn of the ’80s, Labiosa landed roles alongside some of the most esteemed actors, quickly gaining exposure on film and television. His strikingly handsome features (he’s gifted with an ageless face) and offhanded charm have earned him some of the more interesting moments onscreen; you might have seen him brawl with invisible sexual predators on film or curse in Spanish on prime time television. Perhaps you’ve caught some of the more mitigated efforts, the kinds which have caught him in his best, if little-seen, light. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, he was in just about everything. So why haven’t you heard his name?

“My attitude back then — I really had a bad attitude,” Labiosa laughs over the phone from his home in Hollywood. “I wasn’t by any means a terrible person, but I thought I was so talented that everything was just going to fall into my lap. I was a very peculiar person in my youth and I just thought, ‘I expect to be working with Al Pacino next year!’ I really thought that this would just be the dressing, that this would be the beginning. Little did I know that it was going to be the end. So I learned my lesson. You have to learn your lessons and that was one of mine.”

Growing up in the Bronx during the ’70s meant you didn’t have too many options when it came to a career in showbiz. Mired in crime and street violence, the New York City borough saw a steady increase in drug trafficking and gang activity, brought upon by the riots and arson attacks which obliterated the quality of living for many of the residents. Not exactly an ideal starting point for your first forays into the entertainment industry. But it was the first rung in a strange and twisty ladder which the actor would climb in his equally strange and capricious career.

“I always hated it because the Bronx then was very, very burnt out,” Labiosa recalls of his childhood years. “It had just gone through a horrible period in the ’60s where all the landlords were burning everything. So everything was burned out and hollow. I felt like I was living in WWII, Germany: everything was destroyed and my playground was nothing but garbage. I just wanted to get the hell out of there, it was so horrible.”

Labiosa spent his childhood hanging about the crumbling playgrounds of his neighbourhoods and dreaming in front of the TV set. Years of auditioning and schooling would land him in some of the most prestigious reaches of New York’s thespian education. Wildly energetic and explosively charismatic, Labiosa’s dramatic methods are tempered with a serious education in theatre and drama, having studied under some of the best and most renown acting coaches in the business, including Uta Hagen, Herbert Berghof and Alice Spivack.

“I was in the eighth grade… I was talking to my vocal teacher and I told her I wanted to be an actor and she told me about the High School of Performing Arts,” says the actor. “I wanted to go to that school and I wanted to get an agency. I didn’t know what to do. I was a kid in the Bronx and I had no idea how to go about this. I’d seen somebody mention the William Morris agency on a TV show and I said, ‘Okay, maybe that’s what I need to do.’ So I called them and said I want an agent. They said to send them a resume and a picture. I didn’t even know what a resume was! So I went to Woolworths and I got one of those pictures you get in those photobooths and I sent it off — and that’s how it all started.

“Acting school in New York was such a change. I went to Performing Arts and everything was clean and Manhattan was like a different world to me. And by the time I had enough money to move out, I moved out completely. And then I got a place on Broadway and 88th Street. But yeah, that was the Bronx. It’s much better now. But there was a lot of fighting [back then]. Most of the blacks and Puerto Ricans against each other, a lot of drugs. All my brothers were gang members; two brothers on heroin, one died of an overdose. It was just really bad.”

After a number of meetings with agents and managers, while still attending the High School of Performing Arts, Labiosa booked an acting job after faking a resume (“you do that when you’re young,” he maintains) for an afterschool special. Pretty soon, the young teen had managed to work his way up to a leading role in a TV movie, starring opposite the late Colleen Dewhurst, famed for her Tony award-winning stage work and, later, her two-time Emmy-winning work on Murphy Brown.

Death Penalty (1980), a prison drama about a young boy on trial for the murder of two teens, finally allowed Labiosa an open moment in a spotlight broadcast to a million homes. Playing Carlos, the incarcerated teen up on murder charges, the actor shared most of his scenes with Dewhurst, who plays the psychologist trying to rescue him from death row. As a fresh-faced 16-year-old, Labiosa turned in a blazing, critically-acclaimed performance that rivaled his veteran co-star, exchanging rage and lava for Dewhurst’s chilly and clipped tough love.

“I went to this hotel and I was very nervous,” he says of meeting the renowned actress for the first time. “There’s this old lady and I don’t know who she is, I’ve never heard of this woman, Colleen Dewhurst. I noticed her deep voice, she sounded like a man! I go into the room and I’ve never even done a movie before. So I worked with Colleen, I didn’t know who she was, I didn’t know who Ted Ross was, I didn’t know who Joe Morton was.

“Overall, after I did this film, I started watching all their work and I found out that Colleen was one of the greatest actresses of all time. She was very quiet; at first I was just like, ‘This woman is just whispering all of her lines!’ — I thought the same thing of Barbara Hershey, when I later worked with her. Then I found out that’s what you have to do to perform: you have to really be very, very small because the camera magnifies everything.”

An impulsive and ambitious move resulted in Labiosa’s face on the front page of Variety magazine, following the airing of Death Penalty, in a bid to gain wider exposure. Looking back, the actor now marvels at the daring strategy, which he thinks might have earned him his role in his next film. “It was the stupidest thing!” he laughs. “I took every penny that I made on that movie and I put a big ad in Variety on the front page for thousands of dollars. [My Agent] said, ‘You asshole! Why didn’t you tell me? I could’ve hired you a publicity agent!’ I didn’t have a penny to my name, I was broke. That was the first big money that I had ever made and instead of doing something with it, I took it and spent it on Variety!”

No matter how rash it seemed, that move proved somewhat auspicious when, soon after, Labiosa received a call with an offer for a feature film. “I don’t know if this is true or not, but the thing is, after that ad came out, a director called me in for The Entity,” he says. “I don’t know if the ad had anything to do with it or not.”

The Entity, an eerie horror-shocker about a young woman who is sexually attacked by an unseen supernatural force, was released to little fanfare in 1983 (slated for release in 1981 but shelved for two years). Starring Barbara Hershey, who was then making a comeback after a hitting a dry spell for a few years in Hollywood, the movie has since built up a large cult following these last three decades. Labiosa, who played Hershey’s son in the film, believes director Sidney J. Furie (best known for The IPCRESS File, 1965) may have seen his cover on Variety. The actor was flown out to meet with both the director and Hershey.

“I read with Barbara,” he remembers. “It was a very simple scene and the director turned to her and said, ‘Well, I like him — do you want him?’ She said, ‘I want him.’ And [the director] said, ‘Okay kid, go to wardrobe, we start shooting tomorrow!'” Labiosa was hired on the spot and work on the film began the next day.

The contentious on-set atmosphere for The Entity proved to be a trying experience for the young actor. An on-set injury, arguments between the cast and crew, and some allegedly real-life spooky happenings took place, and Labiosa found himself in the middle of some unusual drama that was even weirder than the story he was filming. A particularly disturbing dream sequence in the film in which Hershey’s character becomes sexually intimate with her son was reportedly (by some accounts) filmed but ultimately dropped in the final cut. “They cut it out of the movie because they thought it was too much,” the actor says. “And I was so pissed, I yelled at the director.”

Further problems on set plagued both the production crew and Labiosa, which saw the actor negotiating his way through some difficult exchanges during filming. “I broke my arm,” he says. “They cut me out of a whole bunch of scenes because I couldn’t be filmed with a broken arm — I twisted my back, too.” One planned stunt fell through when the actor had second thoughts about his safety, and that only heightening the tension on-set that had been mounting throughout production. “I was supposed to be electrocuted,” he says. “They wanted me to stand on some boards with my bare feet and put some stuff on my fingers [so they could] shoot electricity through my body. I’m like, ‘Alright, no problem.’

“So, later, I’m talking to this cab driver and he’s like ‘Dude, if you do that, you can get leukemia!’ And I didn’t know, I was like, ‘Really?’ And then I was just like, ‘I don’t want leukemia, I’m not doing it!’ And he [the director] was like ‘We were going to show your face and everything! Now we’ve gotta use a stunt double!’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s your problem.’ And he goes: ‘We’ll give you an extra five thousand dollars!’ I said ‘No!’ Anyway, they were so pissed with me. Everybody started giving me an attitude. They had the stunt guy do it — and he was fine [afterwards]. He was never nice to me again, that director — he was so pissed. That’s how I overrated myself with people!” he laughs.

Regarding the mystique surrounding the film, it’s now common knowledge that Hershey wants nothing to do with the film, having almost never spoken of it since it premiered more than 30 years back. “I ran into her again when they were doing a 30-year anniversary for The Stuntman,” Labiosa says. “Barbara Hershey was going to appear. So I decided I was going to see Barbara after 30 years. So I sit in the audience, and there she is, she’s going to answer questions. And I went up to her and said, ‘Barbara, what’s up?’ She’s goes, ‘Hi’ and I said ‘Don’t you remember me?’ and she goes ‘Who are you?’ and I said ‘I’m your son from The Entity!‘ She goes, ‘Oh David! How are you?’ And she rolled her eyes at [the mention of] The Entity and said ‘Oh, no. I don’t want to talk about that one!’

“I just think she doesn’t think it’s a very good film. I know during the making of it, she would make fun of the script and the stuff that she had to do. I don’t think she holds it in very high regard.” The Entity, however, has gone down in history as one of the most controversial horror films ever made, with notables like Martin Scorsese giving the film high praise. Requests from journalists for Labiosa to discuss the film continue to this day.

The Entity, when it was finally released, didn’t catapult Labiosa into stardom as he had hoped and he soon transitioned into smaller roles on the small screen, appearing in TV staples like Hill Street Blues, Hunter and T.J. Hooker. It would be a strange and arduous struggle for the actor, navigating the television industry for the better part of the ’80s. Throughout the decade, Labiosa managed to land a number of parts that would edge him closer to a breakthrough — but not quite.

In the plethora of Latin stereotypes he played, one role which addressed sensitively the issues within the Latino community earned him a healthy amount of face-time. Labiosa’s moodily affecting turn in the 1988 Emmy-nominated special Gangs provided him the platform to demonstrate his ability to hit his emotional marks with subtle, nuanced precision. That same year, in the sports drama Split Decisions, starring Gene Hackman, he landed a supporting role. Playing the wayward best friend of the leading man Craig Sheffer, Labiosa dealt with on-set disharmony for much of the production (he was alienated by much of the cast and crew). In 1989, in the cult-trash comedy A Sinful Life, starring the late stage veteran Anita Morris, Labiosa’s Spanish-speaking part amounted to a mere few seconds.

The early ’90s was another set of narrow misses. The actor started the decade with what has now become, amongst fans, one of the best-loved guest-spots on Seinfeld, Antonio the busboy. What was initially supposed to be a recurring role, never furthered beyond a one-time appearance. An integral role in the two-time Emmy-nominated TV film, An American Story (1992), garnered favourable reviews and even more face-time for the actor.

Now into his early 30s, Labiosa delivered his most restrained and thoughtful performance, bereft of the emotional fireworks that got the actor attention in the first place. Playing a veteran from the Second World War, Labiosa was given a role which allowed him to move beyond a Latin stereotype, which he did with remarkable poise and sensitivity. It remains his favourite work to this day. “I have a tendency to do too much [in my acting],” he says. “But I was very subtle in that one — plus I had a big part.” He followed that up with a juicy and hammy role in the sleazy B-film Jailbait, playing a lethal Lothario.

Labiosa’s on and off struggles as an actor are all too common in an industry known for reeling them in and then spitting them out. A particularly arid stretch during the 2000’s yielded little fruit, including a recurring role on 24 and a few guest spots on some TV dramas.

“I don’t know what happened,” he reflects. “I had a great manager who died. And I was in a great agency that was much older and they all closed their offices. So I thought, ‘Okay, this is a piece of cake. I’ve done so much, it will be easy to get an agent.’ I put a massive mail-out. I got horrible responses from horrible agents — they all had terrible offices. I’m like, ‘what the fuck?’ Without doing a mail-out, agents won’t see you unless they know you or you have a referral.”

It’s also no surprise that the actor’s struggles in the business growing up were due, in part, to matters of race. Rampant tokenism in Hollywood, particularly during the ’70s and ’80s, has claimed the careers of many working actors of ethnic minority backgrounds. “If it’s going to be a romantic lead Hispanic, then they wanna go for a guy that’s almost white-looking,” he reasons. “If it’s going to be a gang member or a hood, then you can be as dark as you want to be.

“In 1980, I was a Hispanic in a lead role on television. It was a big deal, there were only four channels [back then]. And then The Entity was the only real part, besides another movie, where I didn’t play Hispanic, per se, even though they wrote it into the script as Hispanic. It was the only time I didn’t play Hispanic. I have a very Hispanic-looking face, so that limited me. But, you know, I grew up with Esai Morales and he did better than I did — we grew up the same age, we went to the same classes and seminars.” The inference that can be made here is that Hollywood still divides by colour and gradations of colour; Labiosa, after 40 years in the business, still finds himself working that difficult continuum.

With timing being everything that it is in Hollywood, the saying “you’re only good as your last performance” is especially pertinent. Long stretches can be deadly for an actor and Labiosa is fairly pragmatic in this respect, making no pains to hide the difficulties in dealing with these aspects of the business, particularly with castings and auditions. “Even if your work is good, no one, if it’s an agent or a manager, wants to see it if it’s way too old,” he reveals. “They only want to see work that’s about two or three years old. They want to see stuff [in which] you look the way you look like now.

“I’ve been in this long enough to know that it just takes one job. It just takes one good job, really, to turn things around. I know that sounds like magical thinking, but I’ve seen it happen. The hopes are that if you get something good, things will change… So everything’s like a ticking time bomb in Hollywood.”

Very recently, Labiosa landed a role on the USA Network series Queen of the South, a pulpy thriller about a young woman on the run from a nefarious drug cartel. He plays a quietly menacing racketeer whom leading star Alice Braga appeals to for help. It’s yet another notch for the actor who has now reached a new plateau in his life, having just turned 55. At this age, he’s still possessed with disarming looks and cuts a suave figure. When given the right material, the kind which responds to the erudition from which he was born and cultivated as an actor, he can perform wondrously.

The film and television business is a precarious landscape, littered with a thousand stories from the trenches. Labiosa maintains a wealth of experience — good and bad — which has seen him through the many dynamic changes in the industry. With all this emotional turbulence, it must feel like a New York minute in a Hollywood moment.

“I’m still a member of the Actors Studio, I’m doing plays, I’m trying to go to auditions as much as I can,” he says. “Eventually I’ll be one of those older actors, you know, maybe in their ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, who work when they’re older. I’ll be a grandfather on a sitcom or a show or something… get grey hair and be old.” And then he laughs: “I’m shooting for that, basically!”