He plays a Barbie-buying, ass-grabbing thug on Orange is the New Black, but today he’s just playing father of two. He puts me on hold to have a conversation with his two daughters. “Can you please chill? I’m gonna lock myself in a room to talk important stuff.” This man has some serious work ethic.
Berto Colón is an intense dude. Sometimes he sounds like he’s on Adderall, but he’s not – he just loves working. “Everything I’ve done has been to get work.” He wants to keep working. That’s all. In a weird and refreshing way, it’s the hustle that gives him life.
Born and raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Berto Colón moved to New York as a teenager. Fordham gave him a football scholarship. He blew his ACL out and took a film elective. “The only A I got in college was in film class.” He wrote, directed, and acted in a short film titled Final Scene on Friday. “I remember the way I felt when the professor saw it. That awoke the sleeping giant.” That was the start of the hustle.
“I’m Latino, but not Latino enough or Caucasian enough. I just don’t fit the mold.”
In 2008, he was the winner of VH1’s reality show ¡Viva Hollywood!, hosted by fellow Boricua Carlos Ponce. He won a telenovela contract. But the real prize was getting a personal astrological reading from Tinder threat Walter Mercado. “Eso fue una locura. I was very excited. It’s like burping and farting at the same time, like losing control of your bodily functions. It’s almost like he floated. He wasn’t walking; he was floating.” That’s exactly how we imagine it would be. The show also taught him a lot about the industry he was getting into.
If you’re a no-name actor, getting a part boils down to whether or not your look fits into a box. Berto has an ethnically ambiguous face, at least in industry terms. Which means he can half-check off a couple of boxes. “I’m Latino, but not Latino enough or Caucasian enough. I just don’t fit the mold.” He chooses to concentrate on what he can control – an actor telling the truth. “I don’t let myself dwell on why I’m not getting the role. If people haven’t given me an opportunity based on my race, they haven’t told me to my face. The hustle is so crazy. You have to put blinders on and do what you need to do to keep working.” There’s that work ethic again.
“Surviving in this industry – you gotta keep yourself two steps ahead. What’s next? What’s next?”
He’s been working a lot – basically on every network. But he doesn’t allow himself to think about that. “Surviving in this industry – you gotta keep yourself two steps ahead. What’s next? What’s next?” He’s appeared on The Good Wife, Nurse Jackie, Madame Secretary and of course OITNB. I asked him if he had noticed that all of these shows have strong female characters at their core. He hadn’t. “It’s been a privilege, of course. But growing up the way I did, it’s normal. I don’t find it that strange. I’ve been around strong women all my life. My mother is my hero. To me, it’s nothing new. This shouldn’t be something people see as outside of the norm.” True dat, sir.
One of those strong women is his wife, who he credits for being the stabilizing factor in his life. “Everything else can disappear. Family stays.” He’s acutely aware – to the point that it’s hard for him to take a compliment – that his career can be here today and gone tomorrow. “I don’t know if I’m coming back next season. I’m talking to you about my career and I’m grateful for that. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘I hope Cesar comes back.’” We hope so, too. Who else can tell Aleida that she looks like a perra en celo? No one.
“There had to be something that gets this man, who’s obviously a thug, in the door. He has to establish trust.”
When he speaks about Cesar, his voice changes timbre. I hear a tinge of pride in his voice. The audition scene was set after Aleida is imprisoned and Cesar goes to speak with Daya for the first time. Daya opens the door slightly, holding a cane as a weapon while Cesar stands in front of her holding groceries. The scene didn’t make it to the show, but it was his in for the character. “There had to be something that gets this man, who’s obviously a thug, in the door. He has to establish trust.” That’s Cesar: a gun-toting drug dealer who finds time to get groceries. He cares deeply about the Diaz girls, but he just has his own way of showing it, like offering to rape Bennett with a glass bottle. “That is his truth. That is what he knows. In his mind, he’s really doing her a huge favor.” I tried to give him my ex-boyfriend’s address, but quickly reminded myself that the man on the phone only plays Cesar.
He was sitting in a hotel room once with his father, when an episode of Gotham he was on aired. He was back home, working for HBO, watching himself when it finally hit him: “I’m actually doing this shit. I’m working.” Amen. His next professional step is a small role in the HBO’s miniseries Show Me a Hero. Written by David Simon (The Wire) and directed by two-time Oscar-winner Paul Haggis (Crash and Million Dollar Baby), I’d say Mr. Colón is keeping good company.
Show Me a Hero premieres on August 16 at 8 p.m. on HBO.