Bertila Damas: No Nonsense, All Class
Someone whose face you already know and whose name you ought to remember
Originally published at Se Fija!
Published on LatinoLA: November 2, 2012
We sat down with this frank, funny, and dynamic "working actor" shortly before she began work on the episode of "Grimm" that premiered October 26 (and is still available for viewing online). With more than twenty years of impressive work on stage, in film, and on TV, she's back from a short break and already gaining speed–someone whose face you already know and whose name you ought to remember.
There's a straight-up, no-crap kind of energy that radiates from Bertila Damas, visible–and unavoidable–from the moment you meet her. It's the kind of bold, in-your-face feeling you get from New Yorkers even in the soft light of L.A., and Bertila is proud of it. "I've been in L.A. for almost twenty years," she'll tell you, "but I'm an East Coast person and I'm not giving it up."
And she shouldn't; it's part of her undeniable charm…and why you remember her, even if you can't quite recall how. It happens to her all the time. "People come up to me all the time and say, 'Hey, didn't we go to high school together?' or 'Weren't you at so-and-so's party?' And I'm not the type who says, 'Were you watching TV last night?' or 'Do you have cable?' But that's what happens."
Classically trained in theater, and with a rich voice that fills the room, Bertila has had consistent success in live performance, on film, and on TV, with appearances on a wide range of sitcoms and hour-long dramas, from "Love and Marriage" to "NYPD Blue;" from "King of the Hill" to "Star Trek." And now–just this week–she was a major part of the highly successful "La Llorona" episode of NBC's "Grimm," playing Pilar, the formidable "woman who knows."
"Fair treatment of actors, opportunities for Latinos, and union politics are a major part of Bertila's professional life…"
All that broadcast work–as well as working with the likes of Dan Aykroyd, John Larroquette and Stephen Spielberg were interspersed with years of theatrical work as well. Which does she prefer? "I like them all equally," she says with typical frankness–and sarcasm. "As long as they pay me well." Seriously, she says, her preference is the theater first and then film. "I find they have something very much in common. There's something about film and theater that comes right into you; I think it's the bigness of the screen and the aliveness of the theater. There's something about them that's similar. I've been fortunate to work with some wonderful people in theater: Joe Papp, Estelle Parsons, Jose Rivera, Luis Alfaro, Ed Machado on Broadway, at the Arena, at the Mark Taper Forum. I've been very, very fortunate."
As the "Grimm" episode illustrates, Bertila is as fluent in Spanish as English (in fact, the episode distinguishes itself in having almost as much Spanish as English dialogue; both Bertila and co-star David Barrera speak only Spanish during the entire episode.) And Bertila was in the first telenovela produced for the U.S. Market. "I'd gladly work in Spanish," she told us, flat out, "if they would gladly go union, and if they would start to treat actors with the dignity we merit. Some are going union; I'd like to see what NBC Latino, ABC Latino, and MundoFox end up doing--and where's CBS? Are they going to continue to do canned programming, or are they going to bring in new programming, that will provide employment for Hispanic actors. I'm very grateful to have done telenovelas in español, but now they're producing them in Miami at an alarming rate--and again, non-union. So there you go."
Fair treatment of actors, opportunities for Latinos, and union politics are a major part of Bertila's professional life, and have been for a while. Her IMDb bio reports that she's served on the SAG Hollywood Board of Directors, as the National Co-Chair for the SAG Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee, and as a member of the National SAG Spanish Language Media Task Force, not to mention the SAG National Women's Committee and the SAG Governance Committee. She's been a key member of the "legacy" SAG Board that now is SAG AFTRA after they finally merged earlier this year. "Once we completed the merger," she told us, "we merged our boards, so I'm still there for another year. I'm really happy to do so. I'm happy to serve actors."
And protection is what the unions provide, she says. "No matter which way you look at it, there's really no one else that will protect us. If it were up to the studios and producers, they would not pay you, or pay you a hundred dollars a day and use your product over and over. They wouldn't care if they burned you out on a commercial where fifty million people have seen you, and no one's going to book you for anything else." The power of the labor movement has been a major issue for Bertila for a long time; she speaks with intensity and enthusiasm about its value and history. "The studios wanted to "own" actors back in the day," she said. "They were lobbying Congress in the 1930s to pay actors a set fee no matter what they did–like a hundred dollars a day. The movie stars of the thirties saw they were going to get ripped off, and that's when SAG was formed; around the same time, so was AFTRA." Her work with the new merged union is likely to continue, even as her acting commitments continue to grow.
In the last decade alone, Bertila Damas has been in more memorable–even iconic–series than she can count. Chief among them, she appeared in two of the "Star Trek" programs–great assignment for a self-described ST fan and geek. "I think that's why I got the first job: I loved "Star Trek;" I knew what a Vulcan was… and I had really great diction. You know, there were a lot of classically trained actors on the show, and I'm classically trained."
"Not only was I a Vulcan," she said. "that was on "Deep Space Nine." Then I was also a Borg on Voyager. The first time I was a Vulcan gunrunner who unfortunately went to prison–I don't know if she's out yet. The second time I played a Bajoran who had been assimilated by the Borg, as part of a little group that included Jeri Ryan's 7 of 9, the Swedish goddess. We all escaped the Collective at the same time--3, 4, 7 and 9, whatever. We crashed into this planet and we began remembering who we were. Then 7 of 9 hooked us up together and "she" escaped! Of course, we tracked her down." She smiles even now, remembering her "Star Trek" adventures. "It was a lot of fun," she says. "I made a lot of money with "Star Trek," and the people I worked with were outstanding–everybody: directors, make-up artists, everybody."
Bertila's voice alone is almost as impressive as the total package, and she's done a fair amount of voice-over and cartoon work. Among the best known are her three appearances on Mike Judge's "King of the Hill" as "Maria Montalvo." "Great name, huh?" she says. "Sounds like a Mexican movie star form the Golden Age of Cinema. Unfortunately–sorry, Mr. Judge–even though King did take place in Texas…how many Latinos were on there? They had an Asian neighbor–which is fine, good-good-good, but where were the Latinos on that show? I only appeared three times. I mean, they had Ruth Livier, and there was a prominent Mexican character actor, too–a cool guy, very hip…but I thought Maria could have been on "King of the Hill" a bit more."
You'll notice, too, a short gap in Bertila's credits, and that was a conscious decision on her part. "I got tired," she told "Se Fija!" "Not of acting, but of the 'business.' But I've gotten inspired again, and now I've declared myself a working actress." She grinned as she said it, as full of mischief as ever: "I'm doing all the things you need to do to get work: bugging my agent, sleeping with anyone I can to get a part, exposing myself to the right people--the right body parts to the right people, so maybe I could get a television job. Edit that out–no, wait. Leave it in."
Whatever Bertila's been doing recently, it seems to be working. Her prominent role in the October 26 "Grimm" made a big impression, and the script leaves the door wide open for the return of both her mysterious and wise character and the obsessed detective played by Kate del Castillo. Given the great reception–this particular episode of "Grimm" is one of the highest rated episodes of the entire series–there may very well be more to come. As fans, we need to call the producers for more.
Meanwhile, Bertila Damas surges forward. She's working on her Internet site, as well as her Facebook and Twitter pages. She's developing a project of her own that she's very excited about, and thinking about developing a YouTube channel. And all that work shares a single goal: to build a reputation at least half as big as her talent. "There's a lot of me out there already," she says. "I do want to be known. I mean, you don't want to be known for real; you just want to be known for your work. I mean, I have enough friends, thank you very much." And then she thinks about it…
"Okay," she admits. "A 'few' more would be all right."