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Actor Pepe Serna wasn't interested in becoming a star. He just wanted to work

Character actor Pepe Serna has appeared in dozens of films and hundreds of TV shows since the 70s.
Pepe Serna: Life is Art
Character actor Pepe Serna has appeared in dozens of films and hundreds of TV shows since the 70s.

You may have seen Pepe Serna's mischievously rugged face in many films and TV shows over the last 50 years.

In Scarface, Serna played Tony Montana's Cuban drug dealer buddy, who met his demise by a rival's chainsaw. In Car Wash, he acted with George Carlin and Richard Pryor. He was Punk #1 in The Jerk with Steve Martin and Edward James Olmos' brother on the run in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. Now he's the star of a documentary about his life and career, Pepe Serna: Life is Art.

"He's been working consistently since the '70s and that's a difficult task for any actor, much less a Latino actor," said showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellet.

In more than 100 movies and 300 TV shows, Serna's been a character actor known for his improvisations. "I wasn't interested in becoming a star," he told NPR, "I just wanted to work."

Before its showing at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, Serna sat in the lobby of L.A.'s Biltmore Hotel to reminisce. He talked about growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he began acting at age 3, entertaining the crowds at his godfather's boxing ring. He studied in Mexico, where one of his idols from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, Cantinflas, helped him break into the movies as an extra. After acting in a bullfighting movie and a production of the musical Hair, Serna made his way to Hollywood in 1969.

During our interview, Serna shared several stories, often breaking into character and changing his voice from humble farmworker to a rootin- tootin Tex Mex, to a poetic pachuco. He recited monologues from his one-man show, which he's turning into a film, and he improvised other characters on the spot.

Actor and director Eva Longoria calls Pepe Serna a legend in the entertainment industry.
/ Pepe Serna: Life is Art
Pepe Serna: Life is Art
Actor and director Eva Longoria calls Pepe Serna a legend in the entertainment industry.

Over the years, Serna has worked with everyone from Meryl Streep to Johnny Depp, and Latino artists such as Cheech Marin. In the documentary, Eva Longoria refers to Serna as a hometown hero. "If you're from Corpus, you know Selena, you know Farrah Fawcett, you know Lou Diamond Phillips, you know Pepe Serna."

At 77, Serna is still the energizer bunny he always was. He'll be featured in Longoria's upcoming film Flamin' Hot, and he's starring in a short film, Abuelo, which is showing before his documentary at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.

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