Former NYPD Blue actor Esai Morales is set to star in the UP Premiere Movie Saving Westbrook High, premiering Sunday, October 20th at 7 p.m. EST on UP. The father-of-one, plays Manny Cortez, a man who unites his community together to keep their beloved Westbrook High School from closing down.
Esai chats with Celebrity Baby Scoop about how Saving Westbrook High is “definitely pertinent” to him as a dad, his daughter Mariana, 3, who is “this sponge of knowledge, emotions, and perspectives,” what it was like working with Salli Richardson-Whitfield on the movie. He also reveals that he is “not a one-issue person.”
CBS: You are set to star as Manny Cortez in the UP Premiere Movie Saving Westbrook High. Could you tell us about the movie and your role?
EM: “The movie is an inspirational tale of people who unite together when their beloved school is on the verge of being closed. They realize that if they don’t stand up and fight, they are not going to get what they need or what they want. It’s a lovely tale on UP Television, which is a new cable channel dedicated to uplifting and inspirational content. I think I’ve had enough mainstream. Sometimes, I look at my kid and worry what she is going to see and what’s being planted in her mind. With UP Television, you can go to the kitchen without worrying about what will pop up on the TV screen while your child is watching it. Also, just like how families sit together at the dinner table to recap the day and connect with each other, we have that with UP TV. It is a channel that the family can watch together.
Saving Westbrook High is a great story that I can’t say enough about right now. It is inundating the media that might have inspired people to do this, that, ‘twerking’ or whatever the profane retention is. In the movie, we are standing up and defending the quality of our education and the quality of our community. Without good schools, you really don’t have great communities. I am a new dad, so the movie’s story was definitely pertinent to me.”
CBS: In the movie, the Westbrook High community unites to save their school. What are the greatest lessons viewers can take away from watching the movie?
EM: “Without giving away any spoilers, I think the film is basically about how we are each other’s keeper. Market forces will always be there to push the closures of important things like the arts, schools, and sports programs. We live in a society where education is getting harder and harder to come by, especially free education. Unless you stand up, get involved, and fight for what is valuable to you and the people around you, you might lose it. I think that is the biggest thing.”
CBS: What was it like working with Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Loretta Devine on the movie? Have you ever worked with them before?
EM: “It was a ‘divine experience,’ pun intended. [laughs] Loretta and Salli are beautiful in their own ways and they are very different types of heartfelt performers. It’s painful to watch Salli Richardson and know that I will never be her boyfriend. [laughs] I’ve had a crush on her for many years. Loretta is salt to the earth and is beautifully passionate. She has this down-home, ‘I’ve got your back’ quality that is really amazing. She’s not afraid to tell it like it is, which is nice! I can’t stand it when I go home sometimes and see something on my jacket or in my hair, because I think, ‘Nobody told me?’ I am the type of person who would get that little thing off your shoulder or out of your hair, because I care.
I haven’t worked with them before. The only other cast member I worked with before was Clare Carey, as I worked with her on Jericho, and she’s wonderful. In Saving Westbrook High, she plays an ‘Earth Child,’ hippie type of teacher. I also made a new friend in Coby McClaughlin, who plays English literature teacher Elijah Bennett in the movie. He’s wonderful as well. It was a great experience, because I got to make new friends and see an older friend. We shot the movie in a school that was closed down and bought, so now it is a Christian-based school.
Again, we shot this piece in a school that couldn’t stay open as a public school. The reality is that in 1930, we had a quarter of a million public schools in the United States. Do you know what that number is today? You would think that the number would grow, but it’s now under 100,000. What is going on when our public schools are closing, but private prisons are booming everywhere? I think there is a direct correlation. If you don’t have good schools in good communities, you don’t produce good citizens that can contribute back, which leads to more crime and therefore more people to put in the prisons.
As a country of the free, America has 5% of the world’s population, yet we incarcerate 25% of the world’s prisoners. It’s very, very scary. We have more people in prison in this country than China does per capita, which is a great cause for concern. That’s why I am grateful for UP Television. We want to show people that there are two kinds of things in this world: to be organized or be not so organized. With a few organized people, you can do a lot to give back to the community. Even if you are not an organized person, just know where to go, who to go with, and who to stay strong with. If people don’t protect each other, nobody will.”
CBS: You are a self-described “actorvist” and a co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation For The Arts. Could you tell us about the organization? What inspired its founding?
EM: “Jimmy Smits, several others, and myself started the organization in 1997. We all got together and said, you know, this Latin historian thing comes and goes. With Obama, we thought things would change. We wanted Latino people in the industry who weren’t just tokens. Sometimes, producers might hire a Latino name and say, ‘What the hell do you want?’ We wanted to support Latino actors who are doing well in their Ivy League schools and give them a little more in terms of scholarships to help them finish their theses and, more importantly, help them with connectivity. Who you know goes a long way in this industry; a devil you know will be hired quicker than an angel you don’t. We wanted to make sure that our top talent had access to good people in the industry. Our job is to increase the quality and quantity of representation that we have in the media.”
CBS: What other causes are you involved in?
EM: “Oh my gosh! I get that question almost daily. I care a lot about labor issues, educational issues, arts issues…sometimes I get a little overwhelmed. If you really want to make change happen, it’s necessary to focus. It is your duty to focus and also be a jack-of-all-trades. I also focus on immigration reform. I’ve worked with as many causes as I can, because I am not a one-issue person. I think that if we condition ourselves to juggle more than one issue, we can actually do it without hurting them.
Right now, I think that our biggest problem is genetically-modified organisms in our food. They are creating pesticides in corn and in foods that kill insects, but what does it do to us? No proper long-term studies have been done. The studies that have been done were conducted by the makers of baby products, and lab rats are coming out with tumors. We are being told a lot of things that aren’t true, because people want to make money. Before you make dollars, you need to make sense. [laughs] Things have to make sense before you put it in your body. Who knows what can happen to us?
Without an educated society of people who not only know things, but also critically think for themselves, you are just a market just waiting to be penetrated in the worst of ways.”
CBS: Tell us about your daughter, Mariana! How old is she and what does she like to do for fun?
EM: “She is three years old and she is the boss of us. [laughs] She will say ‘Daddy, daddy, come here, NOW!’ At three years old, she is this sponge of knowledge, emotions, and perspectives. Her mom is the most indulgent mom. [laughs] I will say to her, ‘ Would you give her one thing you are not giving her?’ and when she asks what it is, and I say, ‘Lack! Maybe she doesn’t need to have a play date every day or this and that.’ When I was a kid, we had two cans and a string and we were like, ‘Wow, we can talk on the phone!’ I think that we have a lot of technology. Yes, she has her iPad and all that stuff. However, nothing can replace the creative ingenuity of a child who doesn’t know exactly what to do. I don’t make stuff up! I want to make sure that we give our child the challenge of what to do with herself when there isn’t something planned.
Mariana also loves to draw, and I am blessed with a child who, like myself, is drawn to books. I knew how to read at five years old, and I read everything. If it weren’t for my interest in words, I don’t think I would be an actor. I couldn’t have been an actor. I had a confidence about words and I loved the challenge of taking words that were just some scribbles and bringing them to life in more than one way. That’s what I love. My daughter is a little performer as well, and she’s this little bundle of knowledge. Everybody loves their kids, but until you have your own child, you have no idea just how deep that well runs.”
CBS: How do you bond with your daughter? What do you two like to do together?
EM: “One of my favorite memories was when she first started walking. We would walk up this hill to a little bench overlooking this park. She would get on the bench and then walk around picking flowers. She loves bringing mommy flowers. For her, mommy is 90 percent of everything, so it is wonderful when she says, ‘No, mommy, it’s going to be daddy and I,’ to which I say, ‘Aww, thank you!’ The distant third becomes a little less distant third. [laughs] Those two are on a whole other level, so I am playing catch-up.
As a new father, I had no idea what it was like. You always imagine that you will be the best father in the world, but until you have a woman telling you how you aren’t necessarily that, you don’t realize the challenges. It took me a while to realize that you can bond with a vegetable! [laughs] I say that jokingly, because when your child is an infant, it’s like, what do you do? How do you bond?! Women know much better that there is ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing,’ cooing, and just spending time with them. Even if it isn’t verbal, they bond with you in ways that are intangible. I am getting better.”
CBS: What are the greatest rewards of being a father? Are there any challenges?
EM: “The greatest reward of being a father, honestly, is that it ennobles your daily existence. It’s one thing to get out of bed when you’re a single guy, wondering who the next love or lover will be, but it’s another when you know that all your efforts and everything you’ve worked for are for someone other than you who is also so much like you. The reward is having a partner who is the opposite, yet, a partner. In other words, my lady’s strengths are my weaknesses and my weaknesses are her strengths. She is much more organized and disciplined than I am…errands-wise, she will get more things done by ten in the morning than I will get done all week. [laughs] It’s crazy, because I am creative and I get lost in the moment. She provides our child with the structure that I didn’t have as a child.
I grew up with a single mom who was working, so I was a latchkey kid without a father around. We get into our battles when we are down and she will say, ‘You know, you should spend more time with your daughter,’ to which I will say, ‘Okay, hang on a second. I don’t have a role model, so work with me.’ Everything is good as long as we come at each other in kindness and not in frustration. I talk to so many guys, and we all say, ‘You’re not alone, we all go through this. None of us know how to interact correctly. It’s rare, so don’t feel so bad.’ It helps to know that our kids will be fine. What our kids need to know is that we have them first and foremost in our concern.
The greatest challenge is knowing when to not give them everything. Knowing how to not make little entitled brats. You want to give them everything, but, at the same time, if you give them everything, you’ve robbed them of necessity.”
CBS: What do you all plan on doing for Halloween? Are there any costumes picked out?
EM: “I don’t know. I think my daughter wants to be Sofia the First. She is obsessed with Sofia and being a princess. I have my political views on that, but they are not a concern right now. It’s too early! I have been shown a different perspective on the whole prince, princess, and royalty concept. Yet, we teach our own kids this. The biggest welfare families in the world are the royal families that live off of other people, but we won’t get into that. Right now, we will let her enjoy her fantasies.
My challenge as a parent is figuring out how to filer out the things that are meant to brainwash them early. How do you keep advertisements from affecting them in a detrimental sense? These are the things that concern me.”
CBS: What is up next for you?
EM: “I just made my debut as the new section chief on Criminal Minds, which is a popular series on CBS. I have a three-episode arc and we will see if that continues. The response so far has been very positive, so I am very grateful for that. I just did a very emotional and dramatic episode on Criminal Minds, and I also just did this great movie called Saving Westbrook High! [laughs] I am very excited about promoting that. It’s kind of an oasis for the whole family to sit down together and commune. I do work here and there whenever I can, but I am also looking at other opportunities musically. If they turn out well, you’ll hear about tem. There are all these ideas and things. I’d like to direct one day, but now I am being directed by my three-year-old.” [laughs]