INTERVIEW: Belita not “Benny” Moreno

By Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez on September 13, 2010

One of the most recognizable women in the history of Network TV

HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) – Actress/acting coach Belita Moreno is one of the most recognizable comedic actress on television and probably the most recognizable Latinas in the history of network TV. She can be seen on televisions around the world and is best known for her television roles as George Lopez’s mother on “The George Lopez Show” now in syndication. She also starred and had a long network run as Lydia Markham on “Perfect Strangers.”

Belita was born in Plano, Texas after her parents came to the U.S. from Mexico. They raised her in Dallas where she majored in theatre at Southern Methodist University. She continued her acting studies at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, California where she appeared on stage in the play Once Upon A Mattress.

Soon after Moreno arrived in Los Angeles to pursue her acting career, she met director Robert Altman and landed roles in three of his films: 3 Women, A Wedding, and A Perfect Couple. She has also appeared in many other films including Mommy Dearest, Swing Shift, Oh God! You Devil, Nobody’s Fool, Men Don’t Leave, Clear and Present Danger, and Grosse Pointe Blank.

Belita became an American Icon by playing the wise and wise cracking Benita “Benny” Lopez on George Lopez from 2002 to 2007. The character of “Benny” is the mother of the character played by comedian George Lopez, although off-screen Moreno is actually only 11 years older than Lopez (but looks younger than El Chingon). Belita was a regular on the long-running ABC sitcom Perfect Strangers from 1986 to 1992 and then in a regular role for five seasons as advice columnist Lydia Markham. Her work on television includes appearances in television movies such as Crazy From the Heart and Death Benefit, the mini-series Tales of the City, and in numerous sitcoms and dramatic series including The Golden Girls, Family Ties, Valerie, and Melrose Place.

In theatre, Moreno had roles in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley’s, The Miss Firecracker Contest and The Lucky Spot, both Off-Broadway, as well as in the Broadway premiere of The Wake of Jamey Foster.

For years Belita Moreno has been known as one of the entertainment industry’s most prominent acting coaches. She has coached many top stars and consulted with some of the major filmmakers in the movie business, working on such films as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Crossroads, Blade II, Rush Hour 2, Family Man, A Time to Kill, The Client, Parent Trap, and 17 Again.  Her coaching clients have included Rene Zellweger, Kate Hudson, Aaron Eckhart, Zac Efron, Nikki Blonsky, Lindsay Lohan, Diane Keaton, Chris Tucker, Eminem, Britney Spears, and Usher, among others.

Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez had the honor to make Belitas acquaintance though mutual friend, writer and producer Luisa Leschin Ms. Moreno and I have been playing phone, text, IM and email tag for two months. Now it’s time to tell a true American success story:

AC: What was the first experience when you decided that you wanted to be an actor? How did your parents feel about your choice of vocation and were they supportive of you? How was growing up in Texas?

BM: I was a very shy, introverted child at school, happy and loved and silly at home and very quiet in the world. My wonderful mother suggested I take a “speech” class at school and that’s what started it all.

My father was a singer and performer with a radio show in Spanish when he was young. He was also a gifted painter. My mother was a born performer – witty, vibrant and full of adventure and ideas.

So did anyone expect I would be an actress? It wasn’t really a profession one dreamed of in Dallas, Texas in the 1950’s. Was my family surprised? They had watched me grow up impassioned with this desperate need to express myself, to search for my individual “voice.” They were unbelievably supportive and proud.

The day I announced I was leaving for California, though, my father and I had quite a heated discussion in a restaurant. My folks had saved diligently to gift me with a new car upon my college graduation. Dad threatened to take it away from me if I persisted in my “California dreaming.” I remember saying “I’ll get there anyway Dad.”

I ultimately left with my family’s blessing. I didn’t really realize at the time how final that trip was for me. I think Texas is beautiful and there is a part of the Lone Star State that I will always carry with me. I am very proud of being Tex/Mex. The difficult part for me was being a very aware child while growing up in Texas in the ’50’s and ’60’s. Racism was prevalent. I felt it and saw it in big ugly ways and I felt it and saw it in subtle, painful injustices that affect me to this day.

Attending Southern Methodist University on a full theater scholarship gave me a completely different experience. I found acceptance with other “misfits” who were drawn to the same accepting world of the theater.

AC: Was it harder for a Latina to get where you are today? Are Latinos stereotyped or systematically excluded from Hollywood projects? Would things have been easier, given your incredible level of training and talent, if you were not a Latina?

BM: It was very interesting to me that at Southern Methodist I was never cast as a Latina. And the first actual acting job I had, at the amazing Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, California, I played everything but Latinas. At that time I had never been introduced to or aware of Latino/a theater companies.

When I arrived in Los Angeles and began going on auditions, I was never considered for Latina roles. I was “ethnic” but not decidedly Latina looking. If they were hiring a Latina to play a Latina, they wanted her to “look like a Latina” – high cheek bones, dark skin and a mane of black hair. Well, I just couldn’t get arrested by casting directors as a Latina. I think this led to the realization that I was going to have to blaze a trail for myself because I didn’t fit into one particular “type.”

I am thankful and proud to be Latina. I feel that everything about me has made me who I am and I have a great life.

AC: How was it growing up around your dad who was a school teacher? Was he rough on you? Was it because of him that you, in essence, teach acting as a drama coach?

BM:  It was actually my mom who was the teacher. In fact, she was the Spanish teacher at the very high school my sister Elsie and I attended. I think Elsie and I have always been highly influenced by our parents. As I mentioned, our father was very artistic and our mother lived her life and shaped our lives in a very creative way. I think we both innately have the ability to translate and break down an experience in order to explain it (teach it) to others.

Teaching, good teaching, is a remarkable gift which I highly revere. One of the saddest things that has happened to education, I feel, is the loss of respect and honor once given to educators as professionals. But, yes, my ability to teach or “facilitate,” which is what I feel I do, is directly related to my upbringing. It was a natural communication tool in our home.

AC: Why did you decide to go to Southern Methodist and study there? Who was your role model and what was your ultimate dream for your chosen vocation? Have you achieved it yet?

BM: At the time I attended, SMU was distinguishing itself as a university with a much respected theatre department. The new facilities, the Bob Hope Theatre, the Margo Jones Experimental Theatre and the dedicated, passionate professors seemed to be magnets for actors all over the country. My remarkable, unbelievably supportive theatre teacher set up an audition for me with a professor at SMU. I received a full tuition scholarship and consider my time there as remarkably formative. Those four years changed, enlightened and focused me, both as an artist and a person. The respect, indeed the need, to seek my creative individuality bloomed in those years. Also, many of my dearest friends to this day are SMU graduates from those years. There is a group/extended family in Los Angeles, as well as one in New York, and we continue to participate in each others’ lives to this day – some thirty years later.

Um, role models… well, my family was full of “firsts.” My maternal grandfather was one of the first Spanish-speaking Presbyterian ministers in Dallas. My uncle was the first Latino student body president at SMU, and my mom was the first Latina to graduate from SMU (at least that is what we have been led to understand). My sister was the first woman of any color to become an Athletic Director of a high school in Dallas. So pushing the glass ceiling was not new to my life experience, and I have been unbelievably fortunate to have that as part of my legacy.

In terms of acting, one of my early role models was the remarkable actress Ruth Gordon. She was physically tiny, but always made a gigantic impact. Her work intrigued me, because she was my introduction to the world of female character actors, and in my opinion, she will always stand out as one of the greats. She was intelligent, well spoken, feisty, fierce, clever and gifted.

One of my other great role models was the brilliant Guilietta Messina, the muse/wife of the famous Italian director, Federico Fellini, whose films expanded my world-view. Guilietta’s work dealt very much in the realm of pathos, which is my favorite emotional arena to work in as an actress. She was often a clown or a misfit, with the ability to play both comedy and tragedy at the same moment.

AC: You started off in the theatre. Which artistic platform do you prefer to work in and if you have a preference would it be stage, screen or TV? Why? Which is your least favorite?

BM: I have thought about this quite a bit. As a coach, my clients seem to be interested in this topic as they explore their own paths. Clearly, theatre is the actor’s medium. After all, once we’re on stage, no editing, no channel changing, and my favorite part – an exchange of energy between the actors and the audience. The ability to feel an audience; to feel setting the audience up for a discovery, for the build, the hold, the energy you feel telling a fine story, and telling this one time, this one way, to this one group of people, never to be seen in this exact way again. People in a darkened room allowing themselves to be led on a journey. When well done, that is thrilling to me. I’ve realized that is my addiction and my truest joy – the exchange of energy. I think that’s why I love situation comedy so much. There’s usually a live audience and it’s like doing a play a week.

My introduction into film was working with the esteemed Robert Altman. I filmed four movies under his tutelage in two years. This was such a complete experience, because he had us all in a camp together. It was like being a member of a troupe or a circus, and that feels very natural to me. I think I’m just now understanding, intellectually and emotionally, what the challenges are for me doing guest starring roles in television or film roles, where you come in, do your job, and leave. There is no time to create the sense of ensemble or group.

AC: Speaking of Robert Altman, how did you meet him and what did he see in you? Which is your favorite Altman project that you have worked in and why? Isn’t he hard to get along with?

BM: One of the most talented artists I have ever known was a great friend of mine, Alan Highfill. He was doing costume work for Altman’s company and heard about an upcoming film and set up a meeting for me with Robert Altman. We met in his big office on Westwood Boulevard. He just talked about all kinds of different things and asked a few questions. How did it go? I have no idea. I just remember being in awe, and at the end of the meeting they asked for my shoe size. And that’s how I realized I had a job. Or at least that’s my version of it now.

I don’t know what he saw in me that first meeting, honestly. Once we began work on Three Women, he became intrigued by my gut instincts to respond as a character would respond without direction. I think he appreciated that I was “in the moment” in film, and could tell stories with my eyes without speaking. I was a good observer of the events unfolding. I have never enjoyed film as much as I did with the amazing Mr. Altman.

Each of the three films he directed me in, and one that he produced, were my favorite for completely different reasons. They were such distinct journeys and an enduring education. I never personally experienced him as “hard to get along with.” He was passionate about life and art, and he took giant gulps of both; I found him fascinating and inspiring.

AC: Switching to TV now, how did you land the role in Perfect Strangers? They liked you so much you became a regular and were not playing a Latina so how did you avoid being type-cast? What was that experience like?

BM: It was a regular audition, except for the fact that I met two fantastic producers, Bob Boyette and Tom Miller. They produced a whole string of hits during in the ’80’s and ’90’s, Perfect Strangers being one of them. I was initially cast as the boys’ boss’s wife, Mrs. Twinkacetti.

In the second season audiences wanted to see the leads change jobs to a newspaper office. They fired the Twinkacettis but re-hired me as Lydia Markham, an anxious, camera-phobic, man-hungry gossip columnist. I played Lydia for three or four seasons. They wanted someone who could carry her own with these three wonderful actors, and that was that. It was a lot of fun being Lydia and I was pregnant and had my baby girl during that show.

AC: Since the early ’90’s you have served as an acting coach and have advised some legendary A list films. How did you become an acting coach and what does that entail?

BM: My Dear friend and agent, Jeanne St. Calbre, asked me if I could help some actors from New York in adapting their theatre style to camera work. She said she felt I was qualified because I auditioned well, and she told me to charge them…I did and have ever since.

I’ve always coached privately one on one, or worked on films with amazing directors and actors. I try to work with what the actor brings in, support the good and then introduce other tools where I may sense there are gaps in the actor’s personal process.

It’s advantageous that I work in front of the camera as well. That makes me a spy who comes back to warn the troops of what’s going on in the front trenches. Making a living as a coach may make more sense if one hangs out a shingle, rents a space and teaches classes.

I love working one on one and because of my other commitments I don’t want to leave a class hanging. Hopefully some day I will have a chance to teach classes regularly. Yes, I still coach and I still love it.

AC: Are there horror stories about trying to teach some famous music person how to act and they just don’t get it?

BM: Not necessarily a horror story on a musician, but a horror story as a coach. I had someone come to me to prepare for an audition. This young person was not trained as an actor, so we worked the three scenes for the audition to death. He got through one rung of auditions, moved up to the next rung. There were at least four sets of callbacks.

Finally he was auditioning for the producers and director. Someone in the room suggested he try a new scene. Well, it was a scene we hadn’t worked on and he was not familiar with it. Needless to say it didn’t go very well. Most trained actors can pick up a scene and give it a good sturdy first read, but a few coaching sessions does not a trained actor make – a lesson which has stayed with me ever since.

AC: How long have you known George Lopez? How did you get the job as his mother when you are only a few years older than he is?

BM: I met George when I came in to audition for the show in 2001. There were some wonderful casting friends of mine at Warner Brothers who kept encouraging me to come in and read. As I mentioned before, I had seldom been cast as a Latina or the mom of an adult. My husband tricked me into reading the script; I was intrigued, and then I was hooked. The challenges of playing Benny spoke to me. It was, I think, a very difficult role to cast, and for whatever reasons, they believed I could bring something special to Benny.

AC: Who was the character of George’s mother modeled after? What was the best thing and the worst thing about playing that role?

BM: The whole series was based very much on George’s life, at least many of the initial characters. Benny was actually based on George’s grandmother, who pretty much raised him. I met her after we shot the pilot and she was a great source of information. Benny was tough because she was a survivor, through thick or thin, and she adored George in her own inimitable fashion. Best thing: you always knew where you stood with Benny, she called it like she saw it. Worst thing: people thought, and some still think, that I am Benny.

AC: It was incredible how you were able to hold your own comically with George. Do you have any comedic training because your timing is impeccable?

BM: Well, thank you! I think I see the world in a humorous way. “Joy” is a huge part of my life. I strive to experience it and, luckily for me, humor feeds joy. So, I’m always ready to laugh at myself or a situation, to entertain myself, and, hopefully, entertain others. Part of my training was studying technique, but I have been told that I also have a natural gift for comedic timing. I think that comedic timing requires a bit of both.

AC: How does it feel to be one of the most recognizable actors on TV especially now that Lopez in syndication?

BM: It has been so gradual, this recognition on George. We had fans from the beginning. People who came to stand in line to be audience members really let us know how hard the show was hitting. But we were moved around quite a bit, then canceled, then picked up for syndication where we have become a huge hit. It’s a real trip. If I’m recognized, my voice is usually what gives me away.

AC: I understand you’ve just accepted an opportunity to work in a one hour drama for TV. Can you tell us about your project?

BM: It’s actually a recurring small role in a one hour drama called Facing Kate. Good writing, wonderful actors. Its shoots in the beautiful city of Vancouver, which isn’t too far from L.A. Mostly I just loved being cast. That’s always a wonderful feeling: getting a job.

AC: How do your husband and your two kids feel about what you’ve accomplished?

BM: I was acting before I got married and had kids. My work has always been a part of our lives. My husband became an agent soon after we were married and has always been my de-facto manager and agent, in addition to being my partner in life.

Our son was three when he traveled to New York with me to work on an off-Broadway play. Our daughter spent a lot of time with me on the set of George and is now studying film at NYU. As adults they encourage me to keep auditioning. They are very proud of my work, and very aware of its role in who I am as a person. Truly, they believe in me more than I believe in myself.

AC: What are some of the things you still hope to accomplish?

BM: I want to keep learning and changing, both as a person and as an artist. I want to be able to give back.

AC: How would you like history to remember you? What would you like your legacy to be?

BM: I think it would be great to be remembered at all. My family is the best legacy I could ever dream of.

Edited by Susan Aceves

Johnny Hernandez September 13, 2010

Loved the article! What a great role model Belita Moreno is both as an actor and a person. I appreciate and respect her even more from reading your article Dr. Hernandez.

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