Actor Tony Plana is quickly becoming the key chess piece and player to watch closely in FX’s Mayans M.C..
Quiet, lethal and enmeshed firmly with the Galindo Cartel, his Devante Cano is a villain like no other.
Devante is dressed sharply, not in a biker’s cut, but a three-piece suit and armed, but not with traditional weapons.
He possesses a calculating Machiavellian mind as he guides Miguel Galindo (Danny Pino) through the treacherous waters of drug deals, above all else trying to protect the Galindo’s place as an upper echelon family business.
In real life Plana is a lucky kid who escaped Cuba at the right time, was nurtured educationally by the Catholic Church and who has made incredible philanthropic and mentoring contributions to Hispanic communities, especially in Los Angeles where he came of age.
Now a New Yorker, he and his wife Ada Maris each are starring as the fearsome Devante Cano and Dita Galindo, the string pullers behind the scenes.
Plana has most famously made his mark as a loving dad on TV with prominent roles in the hit series Ugly Betty and Super Store. He also voiced the classic Grim Fandango game character Manny Calavera.
He has directed two feature film comedies, A Million to Juan starring Paul Rodriguez and The Princess and the Barrio Boy, with Showtime, starring his Mayans M.C. peer and Academy Award nominee Edward James Olmos and actress Maria Conchita Alonso.
Theater, film and TV are all his mediums, as Plana not only acts but can be found advocating for civic engagement and furthering education for at-risk Latinx youth. Tony Plana is highly educated, having matriculated at Loyola Marymount College before attending London’s Royal Academy.
He has earned many awards and accolades, as a child-immigrant mastered his second language, English, to perfection, and uses his fame and platform to inspire and guide youth towards education and civic involvement to create better lives.
We spoke to him at length about Devante, his juicy new role on Mayans M.C. and more:
Monsters and Critics: We are loving Devante Cano on Mayans M.C….
Tony Plana: Not as much as I am, April.
M&C: You’re often cast as this patriarch or leader of some sort in your roles. How much fun is it to play a masterful manipulator, this villainous shot-caller?
Tony Plana: As you know, I’ve played a whole variety of characters. I think, for example, if you compare the IQ of El Jefe in Three Amigos with Devante…there’s a tremendous gap.
I really do enjoy having been able to play that range, but I particularly enjoy playing smart guys and also guys that have strong leadership qualities, even if they’re utilized for the wrong purposes.
It’s fun, because I think it engages all of me, both intellectually and also more emotional control, which I enjoy.
It doesn’t mean that he [Devante] doesn’t feel. Because of his situation, circumstances, and because of his particular function with the Galindo cartel and the history he has with them, he feels at the same time great love, deep love and loyalty to the widow, to the son, and of course he’s learning to have a relationship with the new wife [Emily].
It’s been fascinating to navigate those waters, and also brokering the relationship with Mayans M.C. through what’s I think very clearly implied is a strong history and relationship with Emilio Rivera’s character [Alvarez], so the Oakland Mayans.
I’ve been fascinated in a sense to be plopped into this world and to basically learn the rules, learn what the arrangements are, what the relationships are — and especially him, who’s crafty and needs to in a sense be in control — to really go out of my way to understand my relationship to each character and what I have to do in a sense to control that character.
M&C: How much of his backstory can you tell me?
Tony Plana: So you see that I have a very strong affinity to the widow [Dita], because the father [Jose] passed away, and the son [Miguel] has taken over the business. It’s very clearly stated that we want to legitimize and get out of the drug business.
There’s a strong focus on that, and so I feel very protective towards the widow, the mother of Danny Pino’s Miguel. I also feel a great responsibility.
I feel like I’m the surrogate father to him and the mentor to him, and I think that comes across pretty effectively in the first few episodes, and then I’m trying to broker a relationship with this wife [Emily], with the child in crisis [Cristobal] and all that with the child, because I feel that I need to have a relationship with her that works for me and therefore works for the family and works for the business.
So there are some interesting dynamics going on within that family, those relationships that I find fascinating as an actor to navigate in terms of navigating and manipulating as subtly as possible without showing my hand too much as to what I’m up to.
I think that made the character, as you can tell, quite laconic. He speaks only when he has to, and he’s very careful about what he says when he says it, and he tries to in a sense avoid the limelight of that world and try and forecast for Miguel decisions that will have to be made that I feel are going to be strategically correct and productive.
I’m immersed. I am part of this world, and I’m trying to figure it out at the same time, I think, as the writers are as we go forward, you know?
We’re getting surprises. Every episode reveals a little something different that you have to factor into your context, your character, and situational context, and then you have to say, “Okay, how does that inform what I’m going to do and what I’m going to say?”
M&C: I’m fascinated by your relationship with Dita, who is played by your real-life wife, Ada [Maris].
Tony Plana: Can you believe that, April? Hey listen, this is not orchestrated at all. She auditioned independently, and I did too, and we got cast. It was like some sort of miraculous synchronicity, and they didn’t even know we were married until after we were cast.
But what’s wonderful is that, certainly, I have no trouble generating protective feelings or even amorous, romantic feelings towards her, although they’re very suppressed, certainly not the protective ones, or the relational ones, I think in terms of the romantic ones. That’s how I’m playing it.
As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always been in love with her, even though she was somebody else’s wife, and I’ve been so close to the family, so when he dies, it’s almost like with the son, I feel like I have to take on the mantle of the husband-protector that’s no longer there, and you see I’m not.
M&C: Yet on episode 3 [Búho/Muwan] Dita throws you a bit under the bus with Emily in the marketplace scene, blaming you.
Tony Plana: Correct, correct. Yes.
M&C: And so you guys have a very interesting relationship, unrequited love and a little bit of a deviousness on Dita’s part?
Tony Plana: Well, I think Dita is a survivor in that world, and even though she comes across as maybe gentle and motherly and maternal, she’s a survivor, and I’m sure that she does it her own way.
But she’s not, I don’t think, beyond being manipulative and controlling and really looking out for her own interests and those of her son. I have a grandson, too.
M&C: Right. When you’re in scene with Alvarez, aka El Padrino, your body language says one thing. It says you two guys genuinely like each other, yet when the Mayans en masse are around you, your character, your body language appears uncomfortable, like you’re tolerating them. Can you discuss that?
Tony Plana: I think that Devante is guilty of some sort of superiority complex towards them…and he feels that they’re a little bit, from my perspective, immature in places, maybe somewhat unreliable.
They lack discipline, and so he is concerned about that, and sometimes he, unfortunately, isn’t able to control his impatience with them, and you’re perfectly right in picking it up, because that’s exactly what I was playing.
I’m [Devante] older, I’m wiser, I’m more experienced and more educated, and I feel smarter. Even though I respect Obispo, [Michael Irby], I fear for the unpredictable nature of those dynamics and especially those other characters that I don’t feel are as responsible, savvy, maybe even as smart as Obispo and as Emilio, you know?
That in many ways they don’t understand certain norms and traditions that keep this bond working, functioning. It’s almost like I want to do a re-education program. I need to do a seminar. I need to do a seminar with the Mayans. So a weekend retreat, April. A weekend retreat.
M&C: I picked it up. There’s a class issue here…that remark about the greasy peasants that set EZ [JD Pardo] off.
Tony Plana: Correct. Yes, I think, there is a class divide, especially between us and the Los Olvidados, but also I think that class divide exists between us and the Mayans.
Look at the way we dress, and look at the way we speak. I think that we’re written differently. We’re much more literate. Even our language is a little more elevated, more complex.
M&C: It seemed like the one that was offended was EZ…
Tony Plana: Yes, that’s right. And undermined by his own world. His own culture and that of his father pulled him down, especially with some of the things that have happened to him. Some you know, some you don’t know, but yeah, his world has interfered, and it’s interesting, but the dynamic is similar on the Galindo side.
There are two sides of the same coin because Galindo is Ivy League and he could be on to an amazing career that’s legit in the regular world, and all of a sudden he finds himself mired in this world, this underworld of drug smuggling and really unstable relationships and partnerships and then assaulted by Los Olvidados, which is a rebellion of the poor, of the disadvantaged, the marginalized, which even, I think, accentuates the class struggle even more.
Look at the house we live in compared to how most of Los Olvidados live, or even how the Mayans live. The father’s a butcher, maybe a high-school education, if that. Yes, I think that class distinction exists, and I’ve certainly been very aware of them in terms of how I play my character and how I relate to them.
And I think that’s one of the fascinating aspects of this series, that as it begins to explore this world, which is complex and multi-faceted, multi-dimensional in almost crass terms, but in other terms as well. Cultural, too, of the Mexican culture and the Mexican-American culture, and then the American culture, the Southwest American culture there, because it’s all represented.
I think those dynamics come into play in how business is conducted and the different cultural factions, class factions, cultural factions, legal versus government and legal versus illegal or underground forces.
I just think it’s a fascinating, very absorbing world or worlds that are colliding that Kurt [Sutter] has created, along with Elgin [James] and the other writers that I think it’s fascinating to watch how these different electrons bounce off each other. And have to keep adjusting to each other and to the intricacies of each culture, class, situation, right?
M&C: Devante and the pew. How dirty does Devante get? There’s a sadistic side to your character?
Tony Plana: No question, but again, sadistic, certainly you can characterize it like that, but again, it’s practical. It’s like we’re at war all the time. There are no scruples allowed in war. There’s only survival, and I’m either going to win or I’m going to lose, and I think that’s exactly where Devante stands with this whole kidnapping.
You’ve got to strike back and strike back harder and scare the s**t out of them. Swallow your fear and think clearly and think decisively and act from a position of strength.
I think a lot of those moves, he doesn’t get his hands dirty, but he is implicated, and I think as you’ve seen, he basically gives me certain okays to move or not to move, and that dynamic is interesting, because in many ways I’m trying to get everything to be his idea.
He’s the boss. It’s got to be your decision. I want you to understand what it is and understand it fully, but ultimately it’s up to you, but this is my very strong recommendation. I think everybody in that world and that situation has to become callous and insensitive in order to survive, in order to win.
M&C: And yet do you really want the Galindos to be legit?
Tony Plana: I do, I do, but the Los Olvidados have complicated the situation, and so we need to eliminate that threat before…and we’re starting to do it. We’re already doing it. You’ll see.
It becomes more apparent, but these complications, in a sense, keep dragging us back into the mud, and again, I see it as we’re paying for the sins of the past and maybe not doing what Pablo Escobar did in Medellin, which was win the mind and hearts of the people by spreading some of the wealth around.
M&C: The Galindos really the opposite of that. Switching gears. How much fun was it to grow up in Miami in the 60s?
Tony Plana: It was a lot of fun. To me, it was like a brand new world, and fascinating, and also learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, learning a whole different cuisine outside of the home, and still maintaining those ties to my culture and my family inside the walls of the home. And living in a sense that kind of duality, bilingual, bi-cultural identity that comes with being an immigrant.
I have maintained my Spanish quite well. I can still read, write, and I can speak very fluently in that language. I don’t have the facility of vocabulary that I do in English, but I think that certainly I can hold a conversation with anybody in Spanish and feel good about it. But living in Miami, just so you know, we only stayed there a couple of years. And then we moved to California.
I got to Los Angeles when I was 10, and I left Cuba when I was eight, and I’ll tell you why we ended up in California, because there was no work in Miami. Miami was a small town with a very fragile infrastructure, and it was having a hard time…like in Europe with hundreds of thousands of refugees needing home, shelter, clothing, food, and work, and so they were literally paying Cubans for their one-way tickets to get out of town and go anywhere, just not stay here [Miami].
My father had a friend who was also a banker with him in Cuba, and he opted to go to California. He told him, called him, he said, “Look, there’s work out here. You should come out,” so my father came out by himself, stayed with him, with his friend in his home with his family, until he got a job, and found a place to live. And then we opted for those one-way tickets, and we came and we landed in Culver City, Venice area.
I went to Saint Augustine’s Elementary, right there by what used to be MGM, which is now Sony. I went to Loyola High School, Catholic high school down the street in Venice…then went to Loyola Marymount University, and then I went to the Royal Academy to study acting in London.
And then came back to Los Angeles and started to work hard at developing a career here in Los Angeles, But now I’ve been living in New York for ten years because [TV series] Ugly Betty took us to New York, and my wife and I both love New York, and we bought a place here, and we’re living there.
The irony is that I’m spending more time in L.A. because of Mayans than I am in New York. I haven’t been back home since April. I love the bi-coastal life. I like coming to L.A., because I really see it as home, and, believe it or not, I go to Miami a lot to see my family.
I spend a lot of time down there whenever I can…so anywhere we go, in terms of L.A., New York, or Miami, there’s lots of family there, because we’ve brought a lot of immediate family here to L.A., and they have lived here and prospered.
I spend a lot of time in New York doing theater, working on TV shows or movies, and so I feel like New York is my second home in many ways. We love New York, and I like it because I get to do theater. I work on new plays. Once in a while, I’ll do a production and get on stage and kick it a little bit, and I love that. I love the discipline that it requires.
M&C: Given your history that you just shared with me, and you came as an immigrant child, what would you say to President Trump about the children right now that are being detained, what would you say to him?
Tony Plana: Are you aware of the Peter Pan crusade?
Tony Plana: The Peter Pan crusade is when they allowed children of Cubans to leave Cuba and leave the parents behind, because a lot of parents just wanted to get their kids out of there, so they wouldn’t be educated under the Communist, socialist, atheistic system. One of the main reasons why my parents left is because they were devout Catholics who wanted me educated in the Catholic Church.
And as a matter of fact, we were able to survive and eventually thrive because of the Catholic Church. They give us free education. They found us a place to live, clothing, books, uniforms, free lunch. It was incredible. We owe so much to the Catholic Church and Catholic charities. I don’t even know where to begin.
So they came here. Their decision to leave was political, because they disagreed with the Communist system and the totalitarian, repressive regime, but also because they declared that all children belonged to the state, and not to the parents and that the state would educate, basically, quote-un-quote, indoctrinate those children as they pleased, and my parents just found that untenable. That’s when they started making plans to leave.
We left with my mother in December and we went to Miami as tourists, and eventually applied for political asylum. My father stayed because he worked in the national bank, and he had to present his resignation to Che Guevara, whose nickname at the time was “The Butcher” because he was killing a lot of people indiscriminately without due process.
And so he was very concerned about his own safety, and didn’t want this danger to spill over on to us. So he got us out of the country. He was able to leave. They gave him permission, and we were fine, but I remember, the fact that we were together as a family was so important for our survival, our mental health, our ability.
All my brothers are doing very well. I’ve done very well as an actor. The three of us have done very well. We have stable marriages and children, and I think that comes from the fact that when we basically exiled, we were together. And that family unit gave us strength and confidence and a powerful self-esteem because of that family, that allowed us to thrive in the world and make our way in it.
When you have children like the Peter Pan crusade, a lot of those children suffered significantly in many different ways: physically, financially, and certainly psychologically, because they were separated from their parents.
So I don’t think that [President Donald] Trump understands the consequences, the repercussions of what he’s doing in separating for the sake of this horrible deterrent. He is really ruining the lives of children going into the future…because we saw that with many of the Peter Pan children.
I have a first-hand experience of what can happen when you separate children from their nuclear family, and so my message to him would be to try and put himself in their shoes.
What would have happened to him if he didn’t have the succor and the support of his father, who was extremely successful?
And that’s family, a nutritional, multidimensional, nutritional support of the family in his life, and I’m not sure if he’s capable of that kind of empathy…I don’t think he’s capable of that.
I think he’s just about winning or whatever. I don’t think he really thinks about the terrible, drastic consequences that are going to happen from the separation of children, especially the younger they are, I think the more traumatic that becomes.
So that would be my message to him, to rethink this with a little more empathy, more compassion, and not go there with these families with children. Find a different way to discourage people from coming here.
Actually, the best solution to all these immigration problems is to do what we can to develop the economies and the economic and social situations in these other countries so there’s no incentive to come here. Why would you want to leave if you’re getting what you need?
Really, if we get serious about helping those economies thrive instead of always wanting to win against those economies, I think that’s the best solution to immigration — to improve the lot, the conditions that exist that make people want to leave. That’s my answer.
M&C: Incredible answer
Tony Plana: I’m a refugee. I’m an exile. Really when you think it through, and this has become a cliché, but we are all immigrants, every one of us, and for me, I’m not just a descendant of one. I am an immigrant, so if anything, I need to be more compassionate, and whenever you look at the contributions of Cubans, Mexicans, all immigrants in this country, even the ones that are being maligned at this moment in history, those aspersions are inaccurate and unfair. Immigrants commit fewer crimes than American citizens.
Mayans M.C. airs Tuesdays on FX. The next episode, Murciélago/Zotz, will air September 25, 2018.