Yes, John Ortiz says with a quick and easy laugh, Othello is his first Moor.
Considering where he's coming from — from Brooklyn as well as from Puerto Rican stock — he considers this Shakespearean beachhead quite an accomplishment, a kind of breakthrough given the types of roles usually available to Latino actors.
After recognizing this trend and wanting to hone his own art, Ortiz formed the Latino Actors Base (LAB) in 1991 with 13 other actors, providing a place to work and turning into a tightly knit ensemble. Soon, Sam Rockwell and Philip Seymour Hoffman wanted in, and the group has since grown 100-strong, becoming the LAByrinth Theater. "We kept the first three letters and decided to make a crazy maze of it all," Ortiz explains.
"All the reasons why we started the company were shared by actors who weren't Latino so it just didn't make sense that somebody who shared the same passion and the same values be excluded. In fact, by including them, we might become stronger." Which is what happened: The company has been much applauded for its visceral ensemble work during the dozen years that Ortiz and Hoffman have been co-artistic directors. Last May, the two stepped down and left the leadership of the company to a triumvirate of original LAB members: playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, costume designer Mimi O'Donnell and actor Yul Vazquez. Guirgis started out as an actor but, at the urging of Ortiz and Hoffman, turned playwright and supplied the company with five hits, all of them directed by Hoffman and some starring Ortiz.
Next for this dynamic duo is Othello, jointly presented by LAByrinth and the Public Theater, now at NYU's Skirball Center in Manhattan. They recently wrapped their latest stage outing — Bob Glaudini's 2007 comedy, Jack Goes Boating — as a movie, with Hoffman directing, and now there's talk of filming this Othello.
The bright idea of pairing them in this particular Shakespeare belongs to the man who brought them together in the first place — Peter Sellars, the controversial and innovative director of opera and theatre. He and Ortiz met right after Ortiz's dynamic film debut as Al Pacino's short-lived cousin in 1993's "Carlito's Way." "[I] had offers to do three other movies back-to-back-to-back, but I turned them down to work with Peter in Europe," says Ortiz. "He truly has been one of the most significant people in my life. He's passionate and deep — deep in the best way. He goes into layers and layers of what the text is and makes it personal — makes it mean more to me than just acting."
Doing The Persians for Sellars got Ortiz to the Salzburg Festival, and both bounded back the next year with The Merchant of Venice. "That's how I met Phil. I actually remember Peter telling me he had cast an amazing actor he'd just met as Lancelot Gobbo. It's typically the clown character, but Phil made him the most tragic clown I've ever seen. He realized, after doing that show, how much he missed theatre and said he was thinking about moving back to New York. I told him if he did, I had a little theatre group and he was more than welcome to hang out with us."
Hoffman officially entered the fold co-starring with Ortiz in a two-week run of Paul Calderon's Divine Horsemen, and they were off to the races as co-artistic directors. "In 12 years we never had a fight or even an argument. We saw eye to eye on everything. That kind of trust and respect has helped the company grow."
It was also helpful to have those qualities on stage in June when their Othello lifted off at the Vienna Festival. "It was very scary and intimidating, given that we'd only had three and a half weeks of rehearsal, but being with each other on stage just put us at ease. Nothing else mattered or existed but what was going on between us."
Ortiz remembers how startled he was when Sellars first pitched the part to him, "but, after the initial shock, I thought, 'Alright, I can see that — especially if he wants Phil for Iago.' Given our history of working together, it made a lot of sense, so the idea started to get intriguing and, as time went on, exciting. Growing up, I always imagined myself playing Iago before Othello — even though I had seen Raul Julia play him in the park, with Christopher Walken as Iago. That was my first experience of watching Othello. It definitely inspired me and expanded my horizons."
Those horizons continue to expand. Recently he branched out and got away with playing a Sicilian — Frank "The Enforcer" Niffi to Johnny Depp's John Dillinger — in "Public Enemies," so you'd better believe there's more than a Moor to come.