Berto Colon Talks About His Career in Film, Sports, Personal Life and More

Best known for playing Cesar in “Orange Is the New Black” and currently appearing in “Power Book II: Ghost,” Berto Colon has quite a successful—and wide-ranging—career. As we enter a new year, the actor has quite some new stories to share, along with insight into his journey so far.

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DAMAN: Hi, Berto! Thank you for your time to chat with us today. How have you been?
Berto Colon: I have been very good … honestly never better! I thank God that my family is healthy and that I’m riding a great wave of momentum in my career with the response to the work on “Ghost.” I’m very blessed.

DAMAN: If we could start at the very beginning, you’ve famously held a variety of jobs before going into acting full time. Can you tell us a bit about your journey and how you eventually got your start as an actor?
Berto Colon: I bartended in NYC for many years, got very lucky to work in some prominent nightlife venues where the money was good enough for me to sustain myself and eventually my family. All the while I was beating the pavement: Studying acting, auditioning, doing plays, student films and slowly grinding through the journey most actors have to grind through.

I started my career with some work in soaps, then I broke into TV and then a film here and there, slowly building my résumé. I got to know casting directors and agents, and eventually landed some episodic TV work which then led me to acquire representation! Fast forward a few years to when I landed the role of Cesar on “Orange Is the New Black” … that was when things started to come together. It’s been a very long process and I’m grateful for it all, because that’s what this work is all about: process.

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DAMAN: You’ve been part in quite a lot of titles over the years, but today’s hot-button topic is surely “Power Book II: Ghost.” Can you tell us a little about your character from that show?
Berto Colon: I play Lorenzo Tejada, husband to Monet Tejada played by Mary J. Blige, who, alongside their three children—Cane (Woody McLane), Dru (Lovell Adams Gary) and Diana(LaToya Tonodeo)—run a drug empire, the biggest in Queens, New York. In season one, we find Lorenzo calling the shots from behind bars while Monet runs things her way on the outside. There’s a lot of conflict between them. Mainly in that they each struggle and compete for control of their business and influence over their kids.

Lorenzo must find the way to maintain his power and control from behind bars … which is very tricky, because he is not present to exert that his wishes are followed. He relies on Monet to make sure his wishes are fulfilled. In season two, we find Lorenzo still in jail for the first half of the season, but his daughter devises a plan and he finds his way out of jail. Now, he must reclaim his place with his family and within the empire that he built before he went to prison … and he’s not asking permission to do so. This won’t be easy. Monet has her own ideas of how things should run and how their kids should be raised in the game. Sacrifices will have to be made to keep the family together, and the stakes will be life or death.

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DAMAN: Does Lorenzo go through any notable character development as the series went on?
Berto Colon: Yes, Lorenzo’s character has developed throughout the series, mainly because he is the influential factor for how the Tejada’s run their business. And in season two, his presence through the series increases particularly after episode five, when he is let out of jail. Now that he is out, the power struggle between he and his wife Monet will be critical for not only their survival, but for the survival of their children. The influence that both Monet and Lorenzo have not only over their children, but also on their business partners Mecca (Daniel Sunjata) and Tariq (Michael Rainey Jr.) will be critical to the story as well.

DAMAN: The show also has quite a lot of interesting guest stars, such as Curtis Jackson aka 50 Cent. Did you get to work with him directly?
Berto Colon: Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure of working directly with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson on the show. I’m well versed on his work, both theatrically and musically, and he is a force. As a producer I can tell you that his presence and influence are a huge component of the series, and the Power Universe as a whole. I know who and what he is as an artist, and it motivates and compels me to deliver the very best performance I can. I have the utmost respect for him. It’s an honor to be part of anything 50 does.

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DAMAN: Actors often have their own way of preparing for a role and some are famously known for going over the top. How did you prepare to play Lorenzo?
Berto Colon: I try to bring as much truth to this role as I possibly can. First, growing up in the Bronx New York, I’ve lived through and witnessed enough experiences to properly inform the life of a character like Lorenzo. As an actor, it’s important to borrow not just from personal but from the experiences of others, in order to find the humanity of a role. I do a lot of homework, on my own or with a fellow actor or scene partner, to workshop and find the most specific behavior possible that intelligently conveys the goals and the mission of my character. Then, I rep it and try to arrive at that specific performance, organically and sometimes by accident, letting the work go where it may go.

DAMAN: What was it like to work with the cast of the show?
Berto Colon: Simply put, working doesn’t feel like work at all. It’s cliche, but it truly feels like we are all just playing a fun game that we are all very good at. Everyone is extremely generous; we are all breathing life into these characters in a world created by very talented people, and that is something that on of us ever takes for granted. We are all just grateful to be in this position, and the sentiment is very evident in everyone’s approach to this work.

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DAMAN: So far, what has been your favorite part—or alternatively, your favorite moment— of being on the show?
Berto Colon: My favorite moments have been working directly with the actors portraying members of the Tejada family. Family is a very strong theme in this show, and for me personally, summoning the raw feelings and emotions that have to be present in those relationships is something that’s very fluid for all of us. I love recreating those moments of high intensity with the ones we love … that is something I feel I can do well.

DAMAN: On to other projects, you’re a cast member or the critically-acclaimed show “Orange Is the new Black.” can you please share a little bit about your experience working on that show?
Berto Colon: Working on “Orange Is the New Black” was very gratifying. The show was groundbreaking! It was also an inclusive show that gave proper representation to the less represented. It aired on a new platform—at the time—so it was part of the first three shows that launched Netflix. My work in it truly evolved from one year to the next. I was never hired as a series regular which meant that I earned a “callback” after every episode that I worked on, and I’m particularly proud how the writers kept on writing my role into almost every season of that show. The show became a global sensation and my character was well received; it basically launched my career.

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DAMAN: How did you approach your role in “Orange Is the new Black”? Especially compared to how you prepared for “Power Book II: Ghost”…
Berto Colon: Every role is different, but preparation for me is always the same. I try to bring a logical truth to the role. These two roles in particular are very similar in that they are both portrayals of criminal-minded individuals. However, Lorenzo unlike Cesar, is more influential to the story. He is much more methodical and cunning. There is a whole lot more at stake in Lorenzo’s world. He doesn’t only take his own life in his hands but the life of each of his kids and his wife. He’s on a mission to create a legacy for himself and his family. Cesar wasn’t thinking quite that far; his goals were much more immediate and he doesn’t necessarily have the vision that Lorenzo has.

DAMAN: They say that with every role, you learn something as an actor and maybe something about yourself. What was it that you took with you from your experience on “Power Book II: Ghost”?
Berto Colon: I can’t escape the physicality of my instrument. I’m 220 lbs. and 6’1 tall. So, the challenge for me with this role was to rely more on the power of my stillness and trust that sometimes less is more. Force is not necessarily more effective when it is amplified, but it’s more efficient when it is properly applied. It’s
life or death for Lorenzo, so every move has be methodical; too much noise and brute force don’t always apply.

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DAMAN: Which film or TV show was it that convinced you that you were definitely meant to be an actor?
Berto Colon: While I feel “Orange Is the New Black” put my career on the map, working on these two other shows—David Simon’s “Show Me A Hero” and Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us”—solidified the belief in my abilities to do this work.

Spending time in Puerto Rico shooting with David Simon and Paul Haggis was beyond rewarding. It wasn’t only because I worked in my homeland, but I got to do it under the direction of two of the very best in the business.

Every actor wants their work to mean something and I feel like my work on “When They See Us” was literally a dream come true. The show is a powerful expression of racial tensions in our society. Ava did an amazing job of depicting the true events that happened at a time that very heavily shaped my own life. I had just moved to NYC from Puerto Rico in the mid ’80s, and I remember vividly the case against the Central Park Five. My role of Simon was the security guard who both befriended and tortured Kory Wise, the youngest of the five boys wrongfully accused.

Both roles thought me to dive deep into the nuances of both of these characters, and to peel back a lot of layers to uncover what motivated these people to do what they do. At times it was very uncomfortable to dive into this work, but confronting these feelings convinced me that I was meant to do this.

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DAMAN: What would your dream role and film look like?
Berto Colon: My dream role would ideally be something that pays homage to a great explorer, like Christopher Columbus embarking on a mission and by accident finding a whole new world. Or perhaps a role that depicts a man pitted against insurmountable odds, who sacrifices his own life in order to save the earth and all of its habitants. Some type of superhero but not fictional.

DAMAN: In regards to your work in “Power Book II: Ghost”, what do you hope audiences take with them after they’ve watched the show?
Berto Colon: I’d hope that audiences are fully entertained with the story and the performances. But, most importantly, I hope they could fully immerse themselves in the idea of what each of these characters represent … what their goals are and if they ultimately achieve them. I think that’s what’s most interesting about this work: The ability for the audiences to introspect about their own lives while life is playing out in front of them. I also hope they walk away feeling that as a society, we all have more in common and that should drive us together, rather than keep us apart.

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DAMAN: What’s the best piece of acting or career advice that you’ve ever heard from someone in the business?
Berto Colon: I’ve always felt weird about giving advice, especially since this career path is so unpredictable. I would only say that you really have to know yourself completely to do this work. There is a certain type of emotional integrity needed, and being honest with yourself eventually defines the truthfulness of your work. Obviously, you have to study, you have to read, and spend time developing your craft. My late acting teacher, Robert Patterson, taught me to spend time developing my craft through all forms of art: Listening to music, looking at paintings and sculpture, and learning a new dance. I actually enrolled in a modern dance class at Martha Graham once! Expanding your horizons and developing a wide range of tastes will make you a better actor. Also, don’t spend too much time dwelling on failures. Process them fast, no more than 24 hours, and then move on to the next task. Keep moving forward. Onward!

DAMAN: On to personal matters, outside of your increasingly busy schedule, what do you do to unwind after a long week?
Berto Colon: I don’t feel that I unwind much … I do that maybe once a month or so. A nice bottle of wine usually does the trick. But I’m literally non-stop, and that’s what I like. I’m thankful to be around my family quite a bit now, so I can dedicate most of my time off the set, to being a full-time dad and husband. It’s a blessing to be able to make breakfast in the morning, drive the kids to school, and the wife to her daily ferry commute into NYC. Then, I like reading and working out every day or, alternatively, working on some type of home improvement. I’m a big grease monkey and I love working on my car. In the evenings, I go over the kids’ homework, chauffeur them to either basketball or gymnastics practice, and take turns prepping dinner. I love my routine.

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DAMAN: Being an actor must have put on quite a lot of stress on you. Do you ever feel like it’s too much to handle at times?
Berto Colon: Being an actor is never stressful for me. I dreamed to be in this very spot for a long time; so now that I’m here, I’ve yet to feel like it’s burden. I’m not jaded by any aspect of this work, and I don’t think I will ever be.

DAMAN: You were also a football player once. Do you still enjoy sports? Would you mind telling us what sports you have been into lately?
Berto Colon: I still love the game, although I can’t play it anymore. I blew out my knees and now my body is paying the price for all the abuse I inflicted all those years playing high school and college ball. Now, I CrossFit almost every day and I surf on occasion. I wish I could surf more, though. I think that’s going to be one of my new year resolutions.

DAMAN: last question: If a new actor came up to you and asked you for advice on how to make it in today’s entertainment scene, what would you tell them?
Berto Colon: Stay hungry and don’t sell yourself short. Failure is not an option and enjoy the ride, but be flexible. There are no limits to what you can do when you are truly committed to a goal. Also, don’t develop nasty habits to cope with rejection. Stay in shape, not just physically but mentally. Keep your body and mind sharp and ready. Have outlets: Work out, ride a bike, learn to surf! For me it’s all about staying physically active, and allowing my mind to escape the realities and hardships of this work. It’s easier to fall into a rut when you allow bad thoughts to bogle you down.

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