Modesto Lacen is the 32-year-old Puerto Rican actor currently playing Pedro Knight, the husband of departed salsa queen Celia Cruz, in Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz at the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center. This is the show’s first stop since a huge run in New York, and after this it’s on to the Canary Islands, and then Spain, and then maybe Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, and everywhere else.
This is maybe the most booked Lacen’s ever been: Celia is very, very loved. For the moment, however, he’s trying to make the most of Miami before he leaves it next week: running in the mornings, seeing the sights downtown. This is his second time in the city as an adult — he briefly visited from Puerto Rico to see Madonna perform on her Reinvention tour. It was a good show, he tells me, and he felt flattered when Madonna came to see Celia in New York. By the end, he tells me, she was dancing in the isle.
New Times: People dance at the show?
Modesto Lacen: Yeah! The music is so amazing, and also the musicians we have in the show — there’s seven musicians, and four of them actually worked with Celia. So the music is really authentic, and people really dance — by the end of the show, everyone is at least dancing in their seats.
That’s pretty odd in American theater. You were in your late 20s when you moved Stateside?
I moved to LA in 2005. I was there for a year and a half, auditioning. I just wanted to see what was in it for me. I did some theater, some commercials. Then I got the opportunity to do the play, and I went to New York.
But you had such a huge resume in Puerto Rico — so many movies, so many plays. I’m surprised you didn’t take off more easily in LA.
It’s a whole different business. For me, I think my challenge is to work in projects that, as an actor, I can stick. And let me explain that: I’m definitely a black person, but I’m a Latino as well. For some people in the business, it’s hard for them to put me into a, like, a typecast of what black or Latin people are. People say, “Oh, I know you’re a good actor, you have a great look, but you look like an African American and then you have your accent in English, so I don’t know where you fit.” That was my challenge in LA.
Did you know this would be an issue before you went to LA?
I know it was going to be tricky. It was a big, big change for me — in Puerto Rico I was constantly working in theater, I had my own theater company, I was constantly working in film, TV, radio, everything. To go from that to start from scratch in LA was hard, but it was a good lesson for me — to understand how this business works.
Like anybody who moves to LA, I’d imagine you were thinking about it for a long while. What made you decide, in 2005, that this was gonna be the year?
2004 was a big year for me. I produced a play called Salsa Gorda, which was named best production of the year, and the other actor and me were named best actors of the year. I did a whole bunch of stuff that year that was really important to me, so it was like, “Hmm, 2005 will be the year to go.”
With Celia, you do shows in alternating languages — one night in English, another night in Spanish. But, you know, if you read literature in translation, it totally changes the whole feel and vibe of the material — is it the same way with Celia?
Yes. It changes, but it still has the same content. Obviously the music is all in Spanish. But for us — or, speaking for me — Spanish is my first language, so when we do it in Spanish I can do the Cuban accent. And in real life, you know, Celia and Pedro didn’t speak much English. With the English shows, for some reason, it does seem to have the same resonance. We’ve been surprised with that — we didn’t know how English audiences would respond. But we’ve gotten the same response at the end, people clapping, dancing in their seats.
In a city as Cuban as Miami, and so crazy about Celia, do you find that the audience changes — that it becomes more or less critical than it was in New York?
Here, people obviously know Celia’s life, and it really is a different response. They’re more looking for story, for how we, as a cast and as a production, treat those characters. The response we’ve gotten, they’re very thankful. I think the people in New York reacted more at some points in the show — I think people in New York were more expressive during the show. Here they’re more respectful in the way that they just want to hear the story, just want to relate to the story, relate to the performances.
When you talk about actors you’d like to emulate, a few names come up often — mostly film actors, like Raul Julia, Javier Bardem. Does that mean you want to switch primarily to film, or…?
Well, definitely I’d love to work in film and theater, going back and forth. Definitely, Javier Bardem is a person I look up to, because of the way he respects his craft a lot, and that’s the kind of actor I’d love to be — someone who’s working at his craft, always honing his craft. But I’d certainly always want to go back and forth from theater to film. One of my favorite actresses of all time is Meryl Streep. She always does a very good job with film, and I’ve seen her twice onstage — and I can tell you that she is still working on her craft as an actress. That’s always overwhelmed me, that this accomplished woman still works, is still working on her stuff.
That’s noble. Do you know what kind of roles you want to concentrate on to do this — say, before you exit your 30s?
Yes. In Puerto Rico, they’ve been trying to put together for some years about Roberto Clemente, the Puerto Rican baseball player. That’s definitely one of the roles I would love to play — and I’ve actually been in contact with them, they know about my work and my interest in playing Robeto. It’s early in the project, they’re still working on the script, but that’s a role that I could give my best.
And the odds are looking good that you’ll get it?
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SHOW ME HOW
Yes. From the actors in Puetro Rico, I don’t know all of them but I know most of them, and I’m the one who resembles him most.
So—the very look that was a problem in LA is turning out to be a bonus here, huh?
Yes. There’s an advantage to everything.
- Brandon K. Thorp