Whether you know Rubén Blades as an actor in films like The Milagro Beanfield War, All the Pretty Horses and Hands of Stone, or as the legendary salsa and Latin jazz musician of albums like Siembra, Buscando América and Escenas, the Panamanian star, who once ran to be President of Panama in 1994 (and received 17% of the vote!) is always going to bring a memorable performance to audiences.
Over the last six years—in between winning Grammys, shooting celebrity editions of Antiques Roadshow, raising money for charities, renovating his historic townhouse in Chelsea, going on a farewell tour and recording new albums—Blades, 72, has been delivering a solid performance in five out of the first six seasons of the post-apocalyptic zombie TV series Fear the Walking Dead on AMC.
On the show, Blades, who isn’t featured in Season 4 after his character is blown up on a dam in the previous season and disappears for 16 episodes, plays Daniel Salazar, a former secret agent of the Salvadoran Junta whose survival skills and military training have kept him alive heading into the final episode of Season 6, which airs May 16.
Where Blades finds the time and energy not only to fight off the undead but to release his newest album, Salswing, which combines salsa music and jazz, is anyone’s guess, but the Latin music icon seems to continue to have every facet of his sprawling and successful career in order after more than half a century in the spotlight.
During a recent interview with Remezcla, Blades talked about the evolution of his character over the first six seasons and what it’s like working on a show as unpredictable as Fear the Walking Dead. He also spoke about the zombie genre, why he believes it’s as popular as ever today and how a severe winter storm in Texas in February reminded him of a zombie apocalypse.
This interview has been lightly edited & condensed for clarity purposes.
What have you liked about the growth of your character over the first few seasons to where he is today?
I think that given the difficulty of sharing time with so many other interesting characters, the one thing I feel about Salazar’s evolution at this point is that he seems to have become more open to people’s feelings. He has become more disposed to let some people in. I think [his pet cat] Skidmark helped him a lot. It’s been reported that some people with pets tend to develop more affection than others. They live longer. They care for someone else. I think all the time Skidmark and Salazar spend together brought that out.
Of course, with each new season comes new surprises. What is it like as an actor not knowing if your character will be killed off before you finish reading a script for a new episode?
Yeah, you never know what’s going to happen on the show. The thing is, I try not to read every script. If I’m not in it, I feel like there’s information that I shouldn’t know. I don’t want to have my reaction to a situation be tainted by information that I wasn’t supposed to have. But as a fan, it kills me because I wanna know what’s going on.
Would you be disappointed if you found out the writers were going to kill Salazar?
It’s par for the course. You really can’t take it personally because there’s a storyline. The thing is, I don’t know how they’re going to kill Salazar. He’s been hit by lightning. He’s been shot in the face. He’s been stabbed. He’s almost drowned. He’s been hit in the head. They better do something drastic. I like that about him and that he’s an older guy, so he defies the whole stereotype about the little old man who can’t take care of himself.
There’s so much zombie content these days in TV and movies. The Walking Dead franchise has three TV series alone. Why do you think the zombie narrative has been so evergreen for so long?
I think it’s because people are reminded every day of how suddenly things can change. You have the pandemic as an example. I mean, two years ago, who would’ve thought? I mean, you’ve seen Contagion, right? Thank God this thing doesn’t kill like that one did.
He defies the whole stereotype about the little old man who can’t take care of himself.
It was like, suddenly… boom. Things can change and people are continuously concerned and interested and curious about how we would react if all of a sudden the satellites that control the internet fall down and there’s no more internet or no electricity. I think they live vicariously by watching shows like Fear the Walking Dead. It’s a way of releasing the worst-case scenarios by watching people who are dealing with them. I think it brings peace to that part of our minds. I think it’ll be worthwhile when they’re visited by aliens.
I’m based in Texas, so we experienced a little of that when we got hit by a snowstorm a couple of months ago, which never happens, and lost power for a few days.
I was there! I almost killed myself trying to walk on the sidewalk. I don’t drive, and I had to go to the supermarket. I was like a contortionist moving back and forth. I was in Austin. I was in a hotel. I think they had a generator. But there were people with no water or heat or electricity for two weeks. But it’s that kind of scenario where you take things for granted. It’s like, “Oh, I’m gonna take a shower.” No, you’re not.
If you do end up getting bit on the series, who do you give permission to take you out at the end? Or do you want to live your life as a zombie?
Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey). We have a history. I would like Alicia to be the one to do it if I were to go.