By Gustavo Buenrostro
East Los Angeles College alumnus Peter Mendoza went from understudy of another person to a role of his own in the revival of the stage play “Zoot suit,” where he portrayed Sergeant Smith.
The play “Zoot suit” ran from January 31 through April 2 at the Mark Taper Forum, in downtown Los Angeles.
Mendoza was the understudy for the character of Henry Reyna, played by Jeremy Ray Valdez.
Toward the end of the play run, Mendoza got to play the role of Sgt. Smith because the original actor, Bradford Tatum, “bowed out.” “Bowed out” is when an actor leaves a role he doesn’t feel is right for them.
Mendoza said he was given little time, but took the lines and choreography for Sgt. Smith seriously. Mendoza said while playing the role of Sergeant Smith, he added a different tone and inflection to the character that was not present before, as Mendoza is of Latino origin, and Sgt. Smith is traditionally a white character.
He said the role challenged him because it took him a while to understand the character.
At first he was scared but the second time he felt more confident. “It was definitely out of my comfort zone in a good way. It was a challenge for me. I prepare to perform but when I’m performing the energy is different and the atmosphere is so different. But it was fun once I got out there,”Mendoza said.
He said Smith, as he played him, thought of himself, and above the Latino culture, above wearing zoot suits. The character took pride in who he was as a person. Mendoza said that while Sgt. Smith was all about the establishment, the character of Henry Reyna was anti establishment.
He said he related to that character more and it came easier for him to understand Henry because he sees a lot of Henry in himself. “He (Henry) is the everyman. He doesn’t just speak for the latinos but speaks for everyone.
It is especially prevalent right now in this political climate. It’s a story about a man who wants to survive in a world that doesn’t want him, that is out to get him,” said Mendoza.
Mendoza grew up in East Los Angeles and attended ELAC, where he started as an English major. He said he always wanted to be an actor and his influence to do so was Jean-Claude Van Damme.
When he came to ELAC, he decided to take a few classes in acting and he fell in love with the dynamics of characters. “Not everything is black and white. Each character has motivation behind them.
There is a gray area that characters fall into,” said Mendoza. He said the theater department is helpful and is on par with a lot of other schools that he attended.
It prepared him for when he moved on from ELAC and started pursuing acting professionally. Mendoza’s first theater professor was ELAC theater arts professor Tom Atha.
“He was happy-go-lucky, and I thought he had some talent and pushed him to become better. Every semester he got better, until I told him to start auditioning professionally. It scared him at first, but he became stronger and tougher in his auditions and began to get some good roles,” said Atha.
According to Atha. Mendoza was always self improving and wanted to challenge himself. He would tell himself he can make it in the business. Mendoza said during the production of “Zoot suit,” he learned about being patient.
This production reinvigorated his passion for acting, learning about the characters he plays reminded him why he loves doing it. Mendoza said “Zoot suit” opened doors for him.
After he appeared in the show, he got a manager and auditioned for Independent Shakespeare, a company that does free Shakespeare plays at Griffith Park, and he got a call back. He also auditioned for a pilot episode for Verizon’s new streaming service on Go90, as well as for the show “The Shooter.”
He said he will also have a role in the upcoming FX series “Snowfall.” He is also in a film called “Dead Bullet” and “Parasites.” Mendoza’s brother Kevin Reyes said of his brother’s new found fame, “I was shocked and thrilled for him. I was bragging about it to the family. I told my father and he was excited for him.
He told me he had actually gone to the ‘Zoot suit’ play when Edward James Olmos played Henry Reyna and it all came full circle.”