For 'Dexter' Star David Zayas, Acting Was A Long Shot Away

Mar 29, 2015
Originally published on July 25, 2015 9:54 pm

As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

David Zayas used to dream of being an actor. And he made it: he played Enrique Morales, the infamous inmate on HBO's Oz, as well as his most notable role, Sergeant Angel Batista on the Showtime drama Dexter.

But the path from childhood dream to career wasn't a smooth one: Zayas spent years in one uniform or another, before he finally decided to start taking a stab at auditions.

The dream was born when Zayas was 13. He went to the movies with his cousins to watch Al Pacino in the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon.

That's where it all began.

"I sat in the front row and [my cousins] all went to the back and they had their girlfriends and I was by myself in the front row," Zayas says. "I was fascinated. This was the art that was attractive to me."

But it's like he says: It was just a childhood dream.

"I grew up in the Bronx, my dad was a sanitation man — it was a very blue-collar type of family," he says.

He remembers the time he told his dad he wanted to become an actor.

"He looked at me like I was thinking outside of the reality of where we were at," Zayas says. "And I respected my father. He was a good man, he was a good father, so I kind of like, really just put it in the back of my head. I really didn't pursue it much."

Instead, Zayas joined the Air Force when he was 19. He later became a police officer with the New York City Police Department.

"The crack epidemic was pretty high," he says. "It was a time where there was a lot of violence in New York. It was pretty intense back then."

While his job was exciting, Zayas admits he didn't love it. By his late 20s, he was burnt out.

"Then I unfortunately got a divorce from my first wife," he says. "I had to file for bankruptcy ... It was a rough time, but I always felt that that was a good opportunity to change things."

So Zayas thought he would finally try acting.

"I went to an acting school while I was a cop still," Zayas says. "The moment I was involved in that world, it electrified me and I realized that it was something that I wanted to do."

Zayas kept it under wraps at the station, but his partner knew what he was up to.

"I remember riding in the cars with him during the midnight shifts and he would run lines with me for my audition the next day," Zayas says. "And he was a pretty good actor so it was a good time."

Zayas landed a role in a small theater production in New York City. Coincidentally, there were casting directors sitting in the audience the night of his performance.

"The next day I went to audition for a small part in this [television] pilot called The Beat," Zayas says. "And when I walked in, they told me that they had seen me in the play the night before."

Impressed with his performance, they offered him a bigger part in The Beat — a policeman.

"From there I created a relationship with Tom Fontana who was writing and producing Oz on HBO," Zayas says.

Fontana would later give Zayas the part of Enrique Morales.

He says that was his big break.

"When you're 13, you don't think of the challenges that come with [acting], the sacrifices you have to make, the cesspools you might have to swim through to get there," Zayas says. "And it's all worth it. I wouldn't have it any other way."

We want to hear about your big break. Send us an email at mybigbreak@npr.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Time now for the latest installment of our series My Big Break about career triumphs big and small. Actor David Zayas played Enrique Morales, the menacing prison kingpin on HBO's "Oz," and more notably, Sergeant Angel Batista on the show "Dexter." Zayas says acting was just a childhood dream. It started when he first saw Al Pacino on the big screen.

DAVID ZAYAS: When I was 13 years old, I went to the movies with my cousins. And I sat in the front row, and they all went to the back. And they, you know - they had their girlfriends, and I was by myself in the front row. And I saw "Dog Day Afternoon."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOG DAY AFTERNOON")

AL PACINO: (As Sonny Wortzik ) I'm robbing a bank 'cause they got money here. That's why I'm robbing it.

WILLIAM BOGERT: (As TV Anchorman) Couldn't you get a job?

PACINO: (As Sonny Wortzik ) Like what?

ZAYAS: That was directed by Sidney Lumet, you know, with Al Pacino. I was fascinated. You know, I was like this was the art that was attractive to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOG DAY AFTERNOON")

PACINO: (As Sonny Wortzik) I got a wife and a couple of kids. How am I going to live on that?

ZAYAS: But I grew up in the Bronx. My dad was a sanitation man. It was a very blue-collar type of family. I remember mentioning to my dad one time hey, you know, I want to be an actor. And he looked at me like, you know, I was a little bit thinking outside of the reality of where we were at, you know?

And I respected my father. He was a good man. He was a good father. So I kind of like really just put it in the back of my head. I really didn't pursue it much.

I joined the military when I was 19 years old. I joined the Air Force. And when I came out, I joined the New York City Police Department and became a police officer. The crack epidemic was pretty high. It was a time where there was a lot of violence in New York. It was pretty intense back then.

In my late 20s - and I had already had about six, seven, eight years on the job. And I was like, you know, this is not fulfilling me. And then, I unfortunately - I got a divorce from my first wife. And it was not a great time. I had to file for bankruptcy, I remember. It was a rough time, but it was - I always felt that that was a good opportunity to change things.

And so when I was like 29, I said, you know, I'm going to try acting. And I went to an acting school while I was a cop still. The moment I was involved in that world - yeah, it electrified me, and I realized that, you know, it was something that I wanted to do.

I got along great with a lot of my coworkers as police officers. And I had a partner who I worked with for many years. And I remember riding in cars with him during the midnight shifts. And, you know, he would run lines with me for my audition the next day. And he was a pretty good actor (laughter). You know, so it was - it was a good time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZAYAS: I had a performance in this small theater on 21st Street, I remember. And the next day, I went in to audition for a small part in this pilot called "The Beat." And when I walked in, they told me that they had seen me in the play the night before. And she gave me another part. And it was a bigger part as a cop, you know? And I played this character.

From there, I created a relationship with Tom Fontana, who was writing and producing "Oz" on HBO. And so because of that, I was fortunate enough to get a part of Enrique Morales on "Oz." And so that - I really feel that's - that was a big break for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZAYAS: It's really interesting to look back at what I wanted back when I was 13 - what I imagined this to be. When you're 13, you don't think of the challenges that come with it - the sacrifices you have to make, the cesspools you might have to swim through to get there. And it's all worth it. I wouldn't have it any other way.

RATH: Actor David Zayas - you don't need to be a police officer turned actor to have a big break. Send us your story - mybigbreak@NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.