By Mandi Bierly
Updated June 25, 2013 at 09:07 PM EDT
Credit: Prashant Gupta/FX
  • TV Show
  • FX

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to submit nomination ballots, will feature interviews with some of the actors and actresses whose names we hope to hear when nominations are announced on July 18.

Sons of Anarchy has never earned an acting Emmy nomination, but with a dozen career nods to his credit, including one win for L.A. Law, and a character as layered as sensitive ex-addict/OG gangster Nero Padilla, Jimmy Smits might be the man to change that. After meeting Smits at a Directors Guild of America function honoring Paris Barclay, an executive producer and director of Sons of Anarchy with whom Smits feels he did some of his best work at the end of his NYPD Blue run, SOA creator Kurt Sutter began talks for Smits to join the FX drama’s fifth season as the escort service-operating “companionator.”

“I was in Las Vegas the other day introducing [Vice President Joe] Biden at this function, and he comes walking in, and there’s this long receiving line, and he clocks me at the end of the line — because I’m the tallest, I always go to the end — and he says, ‘Smits, you’re breaking my heart. You go from a politician, to a policeman, to a judge, to now you’re with these guys,'” Smits tells EW, laughing at the ribbing. Here, we asked Smits to talk about the episode (“To Thine Own Self”) in which nice-guy Nero, who wanted to leave the life behind him, was sucked back in.

And yes, Barclay directed it.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What excited you about the role when you first started talking to Kurt?

JIMMY SMITS: Kurt weaves these dark, gritty story lines, and I wanted to be able to challenge myself and do something different. He writes a lot of gray — everything’s not black or white on this show — so where are the little chinks in [Nero’s] armor? Is there an ounce of vulnerability anywhere? [Laughs]

I think fans were surprised by how vulnerable, decent, and likable Nero was. We were all waiting for the turn, which finally came when he thought his old crew, the Byz-Lats, had taken Jax (Charlie Hunnam), and he burst through a door to shake them down and ended up killing two of them.

Well, Kurt kept on saying, “It’s comin’. It’s comin’. It’s comin’.” So there we were in the read-through. From the loss of Opie [Ryan Hurst], which is very traumatic for that group, everybody in the show basically knows that at some point you can get the bullet. Kurt Caceres [the actor who played crew leader Renaldo, who traded words with Nero] is somebody that I’ve worked with before and I’ve known for a long time. He’s involved with a foundation that I’m involved with. He knew that this particular episode he was gonna get it. We were sad about that, but I was very thankful that it was him because the trust factor, in terms of being able to go for dark stuff, was easy to achieve because we’ve broken the ice in our lives and in our artistic lives. [Laughs]

Did that scene take a lot of takes?

Well, the first little fight scene that we had [earlier in the episode], that was kind of like a clusterf—, really. The first couple of takes that we did were not so choreographed because they were wide shots. And as they started going in, our stunt coordinator, Eric Norris, who’s Chuck Norris’ son and does some great work on the show, got much more involved. He had a lot to do that particular episode. If you remember, there were chase scenes and cars going over. This seemed like it was a little fight and no big deal, but it was a big deal emotionally. We wound up all bruised that day on our chests. [Laughs] Paris was really great in that turning scene where Nero busts in on the crew and does in a couple of guys. He was really good about what kind of emotional [arc] Nero was going to have there, and again later in that episode when Nero came into the scene with Clay [Ron Perlman] and Gemma [Katey Sagal], there are like five different things going on: With Ron’s character, a new energy coming in and all that macho, testosterone stuff. Am I in love with this woman that I’m involved with? I just killed somebody who’s part of my crew. I’m back in this world now again full hog. That was a day that took a lot of massaging.

And how does that happen?

This show really does move fast. It’s very cinematic, and sometimes we only have seven days to shoot, so there’s not a lot of time for artistic discussion about how things are gonna go. Kurt says that. Sometimes during a read-through, he would say, “If we’re gonna talk about stuff, let’s talk about stuff after this read-through and get everybody on the same page.” He’s really good about having these tone meetings with the directors where they plot through every single little line, and all those questions are answered about what’s in your head, what are you thinking tonally. So the directors are able to bring that on the set with them. That’s why I have this thing with Paris — [not] every director has the [same] facility to be able to do that because there’s so much information: what they want to shoot, the time [they have to shoot it]. TV moves like a bullet train. That day was one of the days where I needed to yak a little bit [Laughs] and talk about all that’s going on and then try to, in some way, relate it to something physical that the camera could hopefully pick up.

Nero shows up at Gemma’s house to ask if she heard anything about Jax and is greeted by Clay, who tells him it’d been a misunderstanding — Jax is fine. So Nero learns he killed members of his crew for nothing. Gemma takes Nero aside, and he splashes water on his face. She wants to know what happened to him, and he says, “Ghosts, babe. Ghosts. Some very familiar ones.”

The choice of going to the water — he’s gonna throw up at some point because he realized what he did. You don’t know what you’re gonna do — you start talking, you start rehearsing, you’re moving around. You need a little time and to not feel like the crew is on overtime. [Laughs] It doesn’t always happen in television.

Nero goes to leave but turns around to ask if Clay is really back with Gemma. Gemma touches Nero’s face and says, “No,” and viewers aren’t sure if he wants to cry or scream or both. He tries to leave again, and Gemma grabs him and says, “I can’t explain all this. Not yet. But please don’t go away. Please. I love you.” Then she kisses him. To me, that kiss has to say so much. She’s trying to convince him that he has a reason to hold on and not hurt himself. Was there much discussion about the kiss?

That we didn’t talk about so much, because once you start getting on a roll in terms of what the core is of the scene, you’re just peeling back stuff and you hope you feel enough freedom to still be able to explore things on camera. Like, we had this thing because both the characters have cuts in their hearts, literally. The touch to the chest that she does, she put her hand on me. It’s like, What the f— is going on here? That particular scene was fun to do.

There was also that episode earlier in the season in which Nero and Gemma go to the cemetery to bury the ashes of Carla (Wanda De Jesus), Nero’s half-sister who’d killed herself in front of them after trying to force them to get physical in front of her. I loved how you and Katey made that scene oddly romantic.

Two people who have a lot of baggage, how do they start building a relationship that’s kind of fresh and young, in a way? But all this other kind of — who’s that Peanuts character that’s always walking around with the cloud of dirt around him? [Laughs]

You mean Pig-Pen?

Yeah. Like Pig-Pen! You got all this sh-t, like, swirling around you, which is your past life. And they’re trying to find something pure, in a way. So you’re sitting in a mausoleum, and you say, “Why don’t we make it like a first date?” [Laughs] And people are looking at you like, What? What are you talking about? Having the freedom to be able to have a voice for that — that’s what it’s all about.

What are you looking forward to about season 6?

Nero’s really much more integrated into the fabric of this odd family. So that’s different. I just have to keep in my head this whole thing about him starting out with this “exit strategy.” I have to keep that alive for me so that when we have these little brushes, there’s this idea that he really wants to get out — or does he?

In the season 5 finale, Jax gave him the chance to get out, and he didn’t take it.

Right. TV is fluid. It’s like [NYPD creator David] Milch used to say: A TV show’s like an organism. It moves around. What does Kurt really ultimately want to say? When you’re so thick in it, sometimes you can’t get out? I don’t know. I have to be open and available to what that message eventually is gonna be.

I know you got your motorcycle license when you joined the show. Will you get to ride in season 6?

[Laughs] I’m patiently waiting. Even if it’s a Vespa. There was actually a Vespa joke that was in one of the episodes last season and it didn’t make air. I think I’m gonna be in my truck for a while. There’s always hope though, Mandi. There’s always hope. We can start an online campaign, like Sutter’s gonna listen. Have you ever seen Sutter when he gets an itch and he starts talkin’ about stuff online? I’m not gonna cross him that way.

Yeah, don’t poke the bear.

Don’t poke the bear. Exactly. [Laughs] “Put him on a motorcycle!”

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Sons of Anarchy

Kurt Sutter’s original series, starring Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, and Katey Sagal.

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