You’ve seen Yul Vázquez onscreen in movies such as American Gangster, Traffic and The A-Team, and he’s a charter member of off-Broadway's LAByrinth Theater Company, which he playfully describes as “insane bikers with scripts.” Now Vázquez is a 2011 Tony nominee for his arresting portrayal of Bobby Cannavale’s flamboyant Cousin Julio in The Motherf**ker With the Hat. In a performance that’s hard to describe but impossible to forget, Vázquez invokes action star Jean-Claude Van Damme as he offers to defend Cannavale, while sharing health food recipes and dredging up family secrets. Broadway.com recently chatted with the easygoing actor about the attention he’s getting for his long-awaited Broadway debut.
What does the Tony Award mean to you?
It’s the pinnacle, the seal from the theater world. The gates have opened, and they’ve said, “Come in, young man!” I feel so honored, I can’t even tell you. Honestly, I am floored.
Six Tony nominations must feel like fantastic vindication for the play, which had some rocky pre-opening buzz.
People were gunning for this play—it’s a play with a sketchy title, a word you can’t say. All the guns were pointing at us. But now it’s like, “Hey, maybe we were supposed to be up here in midtown!” It’s just unbelievable.
Would you agree that the Times review and awards buzz helped pave the way for audiences to enjoy the play?
Oh, the audience is getting on board big-time. They go bananas for this show! They get on that train with us and they come out on the other end and don’t even know what happened to them.
Every character in Motherf**ker has unusual qualities. For instance, Julio threatens others by using “Van Damme” as a noun and a verb.
I know: “Believe me, Van Damme with happen.” “I will punish him like Van Damme.” [Laughs.] If Jean-Claude Van Damme knew he was getting so much attention on Broadway right now, I think he would be very happy.
Is it hard not to crack up onstage?
It can get a little dangerous. When you’re onstage with Chris Rock, anything can happen. He is one of the greatest comic geniuses we’ve ever seen. That's a fact. There are a handful of guys, and he's one of them.
Are you aware that when Chris Rock listed the cast members on Good Morning America, he called you “the great Yul Vázquez”?
Somebody told me that! It was very, very kind of him. He’s been incredibly complimentary and generous with me. I met his family recently—his uncles and his cousins came to the show—and that tells you a lot about somebody. He really is quite a special guy.
As co-artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Company, you must be so excited by this Broadway debut production.
Yeah, we started out on the B space at the INTAR Theatre on 52nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues; there were rats in there. We started with eight or 10 people, including Sam Rockwell, who was the best man at my wedding. And Sam's dressing room for Behanding at Spokane is the dressing room I’m in for this show! I describe [LAByrinth] as like a motorcycle gang with scripts.
You’ve been in all kinds of movies. What’s the most interesting role you’ve played onscreen?
One of the wildest was a priest in Amigo, a John Sayles movie that’s going to come out in August. It’s a period piece set in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, and I speak four languages in it—English, Spanish, Latin and Tagalog, the Filipino native language. I’ve also been working on the first feature with my production company, Mechanized Mules, with Juliet Rylance and Josh Hamilton and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Oh lord! And I have a wife and two dogs. My wife and I volunteer for the Guide Dog Foundation, and we have two giant labs. [On Tony nomination morning] the dogs were going crazy.
Are you ready for all the awards season events?
I’m game! Bring it! I just try to keep things in perspective and go out there every night and do the show. That’s why I don’t even read reviews, because I can’t let anything crowd my head. I try to keep things as simple as possible.