Written by Connor Cheney
What does it take to get ahead in Hollywood? Is it luck or acting ability? According to actor Hemky Madera, it requires a good helping of both, but the most important thing is to never stop trying. Life doesn’t always go the way you expect it to, but when it gives you an opportunity you need to be in the right place to take it.
Born in New York, Hemky spent a lot of his childhood in both Queens and the Dominican Republic. As a kid, he always knew that he wanted to be an actor, but it wasn’t until later in life that he realized that he should pursue that life long dream. Hemky has starred in roles on both stage and screen, with his most recognizable roles as the sicario Pote in USA’s “Queen of the South” or as the loveable and vulgar Pedro Uribe on IFC’s “Brockmire”.
Currently, he has a role in the new HBO series “Perry Mason” set in California in the 1920s. My conversation with Hemky covered a wide variety of topics, from how to stay serious on set to the strangeness of the 2020 baseball season to the joys of learning how to fly.
You had an interesting upbringing, being born in Queens and growing up in the Dominican Republic. How often do you get to go back to the DR and visit family?
The last time I was there was last September. I had surgery in December so I was recouping from that, and then obviously the coronavirus hit. I used to try to go there at least once a year to do a film there, but I haven’t done that in a few years because of scheduling conflicts. I used to go there all the time because my parents are still there.
Did you go to college in the Dominican Republic or did you stay in New York?
I started college in the Dominican Republic, but I never finished a full semester. *laughs* I changed majors four times before I told my parents that I wanted to pursue what I told them when I was 5 years old, that I wanted to act. My father responded well to it, saying “Finally you tell me something that I always knew.” So I’m like “Why didn’t you tell me that?” And he says “If I told you something you probably wouldn’t have done it.” And he was probably right at the time.
I did multiple semesters of college, I dropped out every semester and changed my major four times. I started with physical therapy but decided that wasn’t for me and I dropped out. Then I don’t know what I was thinking, but I decided “I’m gonna be a doctor!”, so I switched to medicine. Then from there I switched to business administration, and then from that to marketing, and then I finally realized that this is not for me.
I’m surprised that none of those are arts-related majors, business and physical therapy are so different from acting.
It’s because the university in the Dominican Republic did not have an art department.
This leads to my next question, do you feel like you’re a hands-on learner then?
Yes, I am definitely a hands-on learner. I can only learn stuff by doing it. I’m a visual learner too. But actually doing it is definitely the best way I learn.
I read in an interview that watching “On The Waterfront” as a child made you decide that you wanted to be an actor. I watched the movie, what about the performances in the film made you want to pursue acting, especially at such a young age?
It was the famous scene when she accidentally drops her glove and Marlon Brando tries to put it on. For whatever reason, it clicked in me and I said “Wait a second, she cannot leave without her glove. She cannot leave without her glove and he does not want her to leave.” And I was just moved by that, I want to do what he does. I want to do what they’re doing right there, I want to be an actor. I didn’t even know what the word “actor” was, but I knew I wanted to do that.
I also see that you’re into flying airplanes, how did you get into learning that? That seems like a very nerve-wracking thing to do hands-on for the first time.
It is, but I have to continue. I had to stop because of scheduling and then of course because of the coronavirus. I always wanted to fly. When I was a teenager I wanted to be a pilot as any kid does, like how every kid wants to be a firefighter. I went to military school in high school, and then I decided that military life and being told what to do is not my thing. *laughing* But I’ve always been intrigued about flying, so I took lessons. When I did my first solo flight it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. When you’re all by yourself up there it’s pretty cool.
I want to talk about some of your roles. I’m a big fan of IFC’s “Brockmire”, and your character Pedro Uribe is so entertaining on that show. You can really see the love and the passion for both baseball and comedy on that show. Are you feeling a little empty in the summer with no baseball?
Oh yeah, it was definitely weird not seeing my Yankees play. And now that it’s back it’s going to be a short season and so different. And no fans, which is so weird! They’re using the video game sound from MLB: The Show, which is kind of cool I guess. It is strange to hear cheering and then look and say “Hey there’s nobody there!” It’s a good way to get people to think of something else, ya know? Baseball is America’s pastime and it always will be. I know people who say it’s boring at times but it doesn’t matter how long it is, it always makes me smile.
I’ve always been curious about acting in a comedy. How hard is it to keep a straight face during some of the more ridiculous scenes during that show or any comedy?
Oh my God, it’s extremely hard, especially with Hank Azaria! He’s hilarious. It’s just joke after joke after joke after joke with him. I think you have to just do it. It’s the same way I take a dramatic role that is not a nice guy, I don’t judge it. It’s the same thing when I’m doing a comedy, I’m just there having fun. You have to have fun and not think “I can’t laugh” because that’s the worst thing you can do. When you get a laugh attack you can’t stop it. If you’re thinking “Don’t laugh, don’t laugh”, you will laugh! Trust me, there are a lot of times where we crack up and we have to do another take and go on. I love doing comedy, it’s liberating.
You said before that it’s similar to getting into a dramatic role. You seem like a very nice guy, but your character in “Queen of the South” is a much more violent character than Pedro Uribe in “Brockmire”. What drew you to the complex role of Pote?
Well, I saw the soap opera when it came out, and then I read the book. It was great, and then it became a hit show. But when I started reading the book itself, I always saw him as darker and quieter. I always call him a killer with a heart. He’s a psychopath, he isn’t a nice guy, he happens to be nice in the ring of that world because he cares. It’s always fun to play bad guys, it’s always fun to do stuff that you would never do in real life. I learn from that. I have no desire to hurt anybody. *laughs* It’s just fun to play, and I have fun, I joke around. You see that seriousness in front of the camera but you can’t see me when they aren’t rolling the camera and I’m pulling a prank and telling jokes or acting goofy. But as soon as they say “Action” you see Pote come out. If you don’t have fun doing what you do then what’s the point of doing it?
You can tell that you’re having a good time playing these roles regardless if they’re serious or more comedic.
I feel very blessed to do what I do. You think about how many people auditioned for those roles and how many people would love to be in that position. I’ve always said that acting isn’t my job, it’s my vocation. I enjoy acting and I have fun doing what I do. I’m blessed and I never take for granted where I am and where I’ve been.
I’ve heard that being an actor is constantly being told no. You’re auditioning constantly and not getting parts, but every once in a while there will be that one part that will come through that really means something.
It’s true in part that you’re going to get a lot of no’s. But I think for me the way that I see this is that I’ve always bet on me. I am the house of this casino, and I always bet on myself. Yes, I’ve gotten a bunch of no’s but I never let those no’s affect me in a bad way. It pushed me to go forward, but it was never “Oh I’m going to show them!” You just keep on going. Someone told me that you just have to keep on going because at some point, they’re going to give you your shot.
It’s hard to do what we do, and I always tell young actors to do it for the right reasons. Don’t become an actor to become famous. Be persistent and be patient, but don’t slack. Give it your all. It might take 100 auditions before you get your first shot. It took me 15 years to get my first regular character on a series, but I was working before that! I kept on working. You never know, some people get lucky, and luck has a lot to do with it, but you have to give it your all and be in the right place at the right time.
You can’t give up halfway through your dream.
You can’t. You have to keep learning and be ready for those moments. Be ready for when those times come. Take lessons and give it your all. For example, when I auditioned for “Queen of the South” I had to put myself on tape. In the script, it said that Pote was wearing an XXL Taylor Swift T-shirt. I don’t have a Taylor Swift t-shirt! So I went to Hollywood Boulevard and I went to every shirt store I could try and find one, and they didn’t sell it. They looked at me kind of weird because there was this old man looking for a Taylor Swift shirt for himself. Someone told me about a place that would print shirts, so I went and got the t-shirt printed to put myself on tape. It really helped! You do everything you can to get the job done. Wear the clothes you need to, get the right props, and don’t do things halfway.
You’re now in the new HBO show “Perry Mason” which is set in the 1920s. Compared to your other roles, how different is it to work in a setting nearly 100 years ago?
It’s fun! That’s the first thing I can say. You do your research by watching documentaries and pictures and start reading about how people were back then. And then when they put the wardrobe on you that’s when the character takes life. I stand differently, I walk differently, I even talk differently. It’s fun to do period pieces. I want to go even further back! I want to be a conquistador or something, I want to go all the way back there. That would definitely be fun.
Can you speak more about your experience working on an HBO show?
Oh HBO is amazing to work with, but working with Matthew Rhys? He is a lovely person and a given actor. He welcomed me on that set like he and I had been working together for years. I didn’t work with her directly, but it was good to see Veronica Falcón from “Queen”. It was great to see her again. The showrunners were writers and producers on “Weeds” when I was on it, so it was great to see them again. It was lovely, I’m telling you. I was just so blessed to be a part of it and that they asked me to be a part of it. I’m glad I did it because it was such a great show.
When you see people that you’ve worked with previously, is it almost like a high school reunion?
Pretty much, yeah. I try to stay in touch as much as possible with everyone that I work with. But there are some people that you haven’t seen in a while, so when you finally see them it’s just like you said, like a highschool reunion.
Outside of your acting work, you do a lot of charity work with organizations that help people with Down Syndrome and people with other disabilities. What got you into that line of work, and what makes it so important?
I don’t have anyone in my family that has down syndrome or anything like that. My mother owned a clothing store and I remember seeing some of her clients whose kids had down syndrome. They were just normal kids, but I saw the way that people were treating them. I always ask this question: Have you ever seen a person with down syndrome who wasn’t smiling? No matter what is happening at that moment, they are smiling. They’re pure at heart. They’re funny, they’re smart, they’re human! People tend to only see one thing. Disability discrimination as a whole should stop. Period. I will do anything and everything in my power to help anybody that I can for all this to stop. The name of the charity I work within the Dominican Republic is “Quiéreme Como Soy”, which means “Love Me How I Am”. Now that I’m okay, I want to go back and start doing more in the states.