Interview: ‘Godfather of Harlem’ star, Elvis Nolasco
Actor, director, and producer Elvis Nolasco has appeared in dozens of television productions, plays, and films over a career spanning 30 years. The New York native currently stars on the MGM+ original series “Godfather of Harlem” as Jacob “Nat” Pettigrew– the best friend of notorious gangster Bumpy Johnson, played by Forest Whitaker. Nolasco also lent his talents in the memory of Jorge Ramirez, Jr., a 34-year-old, unarmed, father of five who was shot and killed by Bakersfield, California police in September 2013. This tragedy was recently depicted in the three-part documentary “Killing County,” streaming now on Hulu. In an exclusive interview, Nolasco discussed these compelling series, passion, injustice, and more.
LIFE ENTERTAINMENT: What are some things that growing up in New York taught you?
ELVIS NOLASCO: I think that growing up in New York and just being inducted into the mainstream… just knowing that you’re growing up in a fast-paced city.
What New York has taught me is to be someone whose spirit is fed by interactions with other people, with other cultures. The diversity in New York really lends itself for any child growing up in what we like to call a “concrete jungle.” Especially someone like myself– I always say that the five boroughs were my playground. I just didn’t stay or wasn’t just raised in the Upper West Side or Washington Heights, Manhattan, but it was okay for us to travel out to Brooklyn or to the Bronx, and it was just always a train ride away.
New York has taught me to be someone who has always been in close interactions with people, and it just gives you this sense of fearlessness. There’s a certain attitude and behavior that goes with being a native New Yorker– there’s plenty of songs that describe that. It’s like, “If you could make it in New York, you could make it anywhere; the city that never sleeps.”
I remember a blackout that happened in 1977. I was fairly young when that blackout happened. I remember aside from all the insanity and mayhem that was going on, there was also a sense of community in Washington Heights during this blackout. Neighbors came together with the Blacks and the Latinos, and just either had lanterns or helped give out candles. I remember a gentleman who was Irish who was in the middle of the intersection and helping traffic throughout this mayhem.
LE: You co-star on a wildly successful and very New York television show, “Godfather of Harlem.” How did you feel when you found out that the show was a hit?
EN: It’s hard to tell a lot of times when I first walk into a television series, a movie, or a play, but there’s always something that starts on the page. From the very beginning, reading the pilot for “Godfather of Harlem,” I quickly identified with a legend [for whom] the name is synonymous when you talk about Harlem and when you talk about a certain time in our history, especially when it comes to that time in history in New York City. The name Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson was a name that you always heard of or you knew someone that knew someone that was related to that world.
I grew up on the Upper West Side and I grew up in Washington Heights. I do remember a really good friend of mine who happens to be Puerto Rican/African American. His grandfather was one of these folks in Harlem that was really in that world like Ellsworth “Bumpy Johnson,” so you always heard the name.
From the very beginning, the script written by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, introduced to them by Markuann Smith– who was an insider because his godmother is the young lady [Bumpy’s granddaughter, Margaret] in the show, “Godfather of Harlem”… You just knew that it was a story that was coming from a place where the information that was being given to you was information that made sense. Plus it’s a vibrant time but also a tumultuous time in our history when we talk about the ’60s.
LE: Are there any hints on what we can expect in the remaining episodes of season three?
EN: I don’t know if I want to give away a hint, but I do know that the story and the episodes as we continue to move forward, are just really well-matched together. You really get a sense from episode one to episode two that the stories and the characters continue to evolve, and that you continue to see the presence of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson being the person that he was. A person that, although he was living in this underworld, he was a very well-read human being. He read philosophy, history, a very informed and knowledgeable person who was an amazing chess player.
We will continue to see Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson just continue to navigate through dealing with the Italians or dealing with the French Mafia, or now in season three, dealing with the Cuban mafia. You will see a storyline that will continue to unfold and continue to entertain, and just keep the viewers on the edge of their seats.
LE: How does having different directors impact the show?
EN: That’s a good question. You have one or two directors, especially Joe Chappelle, who are also executive producers on the show. You have a team that really works well together– from the [Director of Photography], to the directors, the gaffers and the grip, but also a team that at the helm of it is Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, Forest Whitaker as executive producer, and Nina Yang Bongiovi. It just trickles down.
I feel like we have a certain formula as far as shots are concerned. We do a lot of close-ups and tight shots. Very rarely do we have moving cameras. Everything is established so that we can really gauge and get into the actor’s dialogue and what’s happening in the scene. There’s a mold that has been set, a tone that has been set, and it’s a recipe that continues to work. Every other director that comes on board, whether it’s Rob Greenlea or Carl Seaton, it doesn’t matter. These directors know what to bring, but also know what’s been working. As they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it” type of mentality. All of the directors are just wonderful to work with and bring a wonderful energy to the set. I love every episode and every different director that has come on board. Guillermo Navarro is another director that has directed a lot of the episodes. Between Joe Chapelle and Guillermo, it’s a pretty good totem pole that has been set.
LE: You also narrated the role of Jorge Ramirez Jr. in the “Killing County” docuseries– such a heavy and tragic case. How did you approach the role or what did you hope to bring to it?
EN: “Killing County” is produced by Colin Kaepernick and it’s for ABC News Studios. As you mentioned, it’s heavy because we’re dealing with stories and we’re dealing with families that have experienced their loved ones wrongfully killed by police in our United States of America. I think my approach to it was just to honor the family because they are the ones who are missing and who have lost either their sons or their husbands, their sisters, their wives. They’re the ones that have lost their family members to these injustices. My approach is really just, honor the family.
My responsibility was to reenact a lot of the letters and conversations that were going on either with Jorge Ramirez, Jr. and the police, or Jorge Ramirez, Jr. writing letters to his daughter, mother, or father. Just being able to interpret these letters and just be able to give them that emotional balance that’s true to his words. They were real words that came out of his mouth, and to be able to utilize that and to be part of this– it’s just an amazing way of being in the creative realm, but at the same time, being able to be informative and to be able to give a voice to the voiceless. Even though they’re not here with us, we would like to continue to speak out on these injustices that continue to go on in our communities.
Recently, we’ve all heard of Tyre Nichols. What happened to this young man who clearly was an artist, a really great skateboarder. He’s, again, just falling victim to these injustices. I feel like we need to really put some focus on the system and figure out ways to make things better.
LE: We’ve unfortunately seen so many cases of police brutality and murders and cover-ups by police departments. What is your take on how the media has handled those cases and how do you think it will continue to affect media productions in the future?
EN: That’s a good question. The best way for me to answer that is that by no means am I the poster child for injustices. At the end of the day, I’m an artist, I’m a creative human being. I do love to create my art and not judge it. Whatever I can participate in helping, I’ll be more than happy to do that.
As far as the media is concerned, everyone has a job. I have a job and a responsibility. The media has a job and a responsibility. I am not one to dictate what should be or how it should be said or done. I do know that as a human being and as a father, a brother, an uncle, and as an Afro-Latino, as a Black man, I know that my community has suffered, and continues to suffer. I know that a lot of work has to be done, whether it’s dismantling the police system and rebuilding it.
I think education and fear are two big elements that play a major part in it. Fear of not knowing or not understanding a community or people. Therefore, the lack of education plays a big part in it. Again, as an artist and as a person, I feel that through my art, I can be a voice. I would like to be able to continue to stay in that realm.
As a human being and as a person that grew up in a city where, at times, I did feel and experience that racism or those injustices, I know that there’s other communities– whether it’s the LGBTQ community, whether it’s the Asian community, whatever community– that feel that they are not a part, or not understood, or not given that chance or that place to just be who they are, [and they] deserve a voice.
LE: What are some things that inform your choices when you’re deciding whether or not to take on a role?
EN: Number one: I like to be challenged. I want a challenge. That’s been my experience from the very beginning when I’m choosing to do a project or to do a role. “American Crime” season one and season two were great challenges for me. Working with [creator] John Ridley on all of these emotional levels that the character, Carter Nix, was experiencing was quite a journey for me as an actor. Whether I’m doing that or whether I’m taking a bestselling novel like “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz, a novel that is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that has been raised and held in such esteem– but me taking that and transferring that into a one-man show for one hour and 25 minutes with 20 different characters, and telling the story of this amazing [character], Oscar de León and his union with Yunior in college.
Challenge. I want to be challenged and I also want to have fun. I like all different genres, whether it’s comedy, drama, dramedy… but I also like to find the flawed-ness of a character. I like to find out, what is that thing that the character needs? Does that character have an unfulfilled need? Can I, as an actor, tap into that unfulfilled need and bring whatever emotional levels, or awareness, or joy, or laughter? Whatever it is, I like to always ask myself those questions.
LE: What’s next for you?
EN: Talk about being challenged or challenging myself. Last year, I memorized six-and-a-half minutes of the amazing Speech of Fourth of July by Frederick Douglass. I conceptualized my own short film– which I already shot– and I’m doing an ode to Frederick reminiscing on that amazing day, July 5, , when he (in Rochester at Corinthian Hall) shared with the world this oration, famously known as the Speech of Fourth of July. That’s where Frederick Douglass is explaining to the public why July Fourth means what it means to you, but why it’s not something that we, as Blacks, necessarily need to celebrate. You’re celebrating your independence. We’re not independent. We’re still slaves; we’re still not free, so don’t expect us to celebrate and jump for joy in jubilee, every time July Fourth comes around. Even still today, it resonates. That’s what I’m working on right now, and I’m hoping to release this short film pretty soon.
And then just producing different works. I work closely with Eunice Levis, who’s an amazing writer and director, also Afro-Latina, Dominicana. We’ve been collaborating on a few wonderful projects and the latest one is “Ro & the Stardust.” It’s a very beautiful film about three generations of Dominican women, and the film has been having an amazing run throughout film festivals. We’re gearing it up through a campaign to continue to put this wonderful, amazing story forward so that we can get it to as many people as possible. We have a few festivals coming up– one in New York, May 5, for the Female Voices Rock Film Festival, and then the Boston Film Festival in July.
Producing, creating my own content– whether it’s a television series, writing a book… these are all projects that I want to get out there to the masses and be able to continue to tell stories that speak our truth, but also tell stories that can help from a real and sincere place.
LE: Do you have a message for your fans?
EN: Sometimes I’m asked, do I have a message? Do I have any advice? I would like to give a suggestion, if I may. Whatever you’re passionate about– whether you want to be a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, an athlete, a musician, a painter… whatever it is in life that you want do– just continue to keep in mind what I like to call the three P’s. They’re very important, and that’s passion, patience, and perseverance.
I like to say things not from what I know, but from what I’ve experienced. I know that having a passion, and that passion being very lit and bright, and really something you can see and you could attain… it’s very important. Being able to be patient, to nourish it, it’s also a good follow-up. And learn how to persevere. Understanding that your dreams are attainable. You can dream it; you can be it.
“Godfather of Harlem” season three is airing now on MGM+ and other streaming services. Follow Elvis Nolasco on Instagram @ElvisNasco, Twitter @EONolasco, and Facebook.