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Interview: ‘Gotham’s David Zayas Talks ‘Body Cam’

May 28, 2020Ben MK

Perhaps best known as the good-hearted Sgt. Angel Batista on Dexter, David Zayas has played many memorable characters over the years. From Enrique Morales on Oz to Governor Martin Mendez on Blue Bloods, Zayas hasn't been shy about playing both good guys and bad guys. More recently, the New York native made an impact with a recurring role as crime boss Sal Maroni on Gotham. And now, in the supernatural crime-thriller Body Cam, Zayas returns to the right side of the law as the head of a police force besieged by a ghostly killer.

I caught up with David Zayas to chat about Body Cam, working with co-star Mary J. Blige, and his extensive body of work, as well as to find out how he's been surviving the quarantine.

First off, how have you been adjusting to the new normal and how have you been keeping busy during the quarantine?

Zayas: I'm being as creative as I possibly can — a lot of Zoom meetings, a lot of readings, a lot of creative writing that I'm enjoying. And then watching all the films that I haven't been able to have the time to watch, since there's so much content out there. I'm really filling my time the best I could. Definitely a challenge, but doing the best I could.

I'm a movie buff, so I watch everything. TCM is one of my favorite channels cuz I get to see all the movies. The other night I saw the first Oscar-winner for Best Picture, called Wings. It was a silent film, and I'm like, "Do I wanna watch this?" But I put it on and I was fascinated. I kept thinking how they made some of these things in 1927, which maybe today would look amateurish, but in the context that I saw it in was really interesting. I loved watching it and watching a young Gary Cooper.

But I love to watch everything. My favorite is movies from the 1970s cuz I feel that they had the freedom — the naturalism — to tell how things were. Particularly in urban areas like where I grew up, like in the Bronx. Conflicts and conscience and loyalty, those were all themes in these great 1970s films that speak to me.

Of course, the news is almost wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic nowadays, but it wasn't too long ago that police shootings were making headlines. Body Cam puts a unique twist on the subject matter of police shootings — what drew you to the film?

Zayas: What drew me to the film was my conversation with the director, Malik [Vitthal]. He just knew how to articulate what he was trying to do, and articulate how my presence in the film and my character could help him reach the goal of what he was trying to say in the film. And so that is what got me really interested, and that's why I chose to do it.

Before you became an actor you were a New York City police officer for a decade and a half. How did you draw on that experience for your role as Sergeant Kesper in the film?

Zayas: The only thing I draw from that experience, in comparison to this film, is just the work that cops do. The technical aspect of law enforcement kind of comes natural to me in a role, but it doesn't take away from how difficult it is to portray a character like that. The fact that he's a cop is really just consequential, and it's just a job. This character would probably be the same — maybe with a little different choices — if he was a fireman or if he was, you know, a sanitation man. I don't look at it as, "Oh, I gotta play another cop role." I look at it as, "This is an interesting character who happens to be a cop." And that's ok, I'll play a bunch of them if they're interesting.

You acted opposite Mary J. Blige in all of your scenes. What was it like working with her, and was there a scene that was the most memorable for you to work on?

Zayas: [Mary's] a professional. She comes in prepared. You can tell she cares about what she's doing. I really enjoyed working with her because she's someone that has a work ethic. She wouldn't be where she's at if she didn't have an amazing work ethic, whether in music or in acting. So I loved working with her and just watching her. And I learned a lot from her and how she handles certain situations, how she saves her energy for the shoot while we're actually doing it. She has a wonderful, minimal energy type of effective acting that I saw in Mudbound, and she's brought it to this one. I loved working with her.

I don't wanna give away the movie, but [the scene that was the most memorable to work on] is the confrontation between [Mary and I] towards the end of the movie. That was a difficult night, but it was an enjoyable night. It was difficult only because you're working all night long and you're in a really remote place in New Orleans, where we shot this — that part was difficult. The actual work was refreshing, and that got me through the night. It was fun.

Speaking of that scene, Kesper is definitely somewhat of a conflicted character. And throughout your career you've played characters on both sides of the law. What do you enjoy more — playing the hero or playing the villain?

Zayas: I don't really have [a preference]. I think that when you play a certain character, let's say it's a villain, there is an opportunity to explore different ways of doing it. When it's playing somebody who is in law enforcement or somebody of authority or somebody business-like, then you have to now coordinate how you wanna give this performance. So I really don't have a favorite. I enjoy both, and I try to do both as much as I can.

On Oz, I played a homicidal, drug-dealing maniac. [laughs] And on Dexter, I played an average Joe kind of cop who was honest, and he had a good heart and he expressed it. And in certain movies I play the bad guy, and in certain movies I play good people. So either way, I just look at it as, "How can I tell this story? How can I portray this character that's interesting?" That's how I look at things.

Is there a particular role in your filmography that stands out for you as the highlight of your career?

Zayas: Yes. My favorite role, without a doubt, is Angel Batista on Dexter. It was a wonderful eight years of working with professionals and working with family that was really a highlight of what I've done; working on this show where everyone cared about it — the writers, the producers, the actors, the crew, the directors. Everybody was just involved and wanting to do the work as best as possible. That was a wonderful experience.

Looking ahead, what are you working on next and what are you looking forward to, personally, in terms of life kind of getting back to normal?

Zayas: I try not to worry too much about what I cannot control. The only thing I can control is for me to stay safe and to keep my family and my friends safe. And to keep the people out on the street safe by doing what I'm supposed to do.

I have another film called Force of Nature that comes out on streaming on June 30th. And then later on in the year I have another independent film called R#J, which is an eccentric look at Romeo and Juliet in the urban world; that's gonna be something that's interesting. I'm also on a show on Fox that's coming out in September called NeXt, with a bunch of great people. And then hopefully, at least by the summer maybe, things can come back to normal. I love to work; so whatever's available, I'm in.

Body Cam is available now on on all digital platforms.

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