Sesame Street kicked off its new season this week, and it's putting a special focus on Hispanic heritage. There's also a new character on the block: Armando (also known as Mando). He's played by actor Ismael Cruz Cordova, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He earned a bachelor's in fine arts from New York University and has appeared in several films and the CBS drama The Good Wife. He's currently performing off-Broadway.
Cordova spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about his new role on Sesame Street and what he's doing for Hispanic Heritage Month.
On going from shy and reserved to the center of attention
I saw my club fair, and the tiniest of the tables was for the drama club, and it was literally like a black hole. It just drew me there. I went to the first meeting and we had to do what I learned was an audition. And the attention and the impact that my words had in just that little room to just the few people gave me this feeling of being accounted for — for the first time in that way. I was focused on becoming a medical doctor. But that [acting] made so much sense to me in terms of who I am and where I come from, and that just became my life from then on.
On his parents' reaction to his career shift and winning them over
Screeching halt! At that moment, it was traumatic because I am the first generation to go to college in my family. And there is this notion that is still very regular or common: that becoming an actor or a person of the creative field is still seen as a hobby. So for a moment, my parents — not being exposed to that world — saw it is a waste of talent, as a waste of hard work on my behalf.
I had to secretly go to auditions and enroll in classes. ... And I was cast in my first film when I was 15. ... They had to be on set with me because I was a minor. And my mom wasn't available, so my dad had to get involved, and they saw how professional I was. And they also saw the backstage area of it all. It was a craft. It was much more than the common notion of what a TV show is or a movie is. Slowly they began to respect me as a professional.
On winning the role of Armando for Sesame Street
It was like American Idol but for Sesame Street — the amount of people that were there!
They were looking for a bilingual person to begin with — so it was open to males and females — that had good comedic skills and charisma, that could sing. We were able to interact with the puppets. ... You know, they were seeing who would surrender to that and just enjoy it, and live in it, and just be able to interact with these puppets as equals as well. That's the other thing: We embrace children as equals.
On what Armando adds to the mix
I think what Mando brings is this pride for being so many things and for liking so many things. He likes written word as much as he likes technology. He embraces advances as much as he likes to go back to classics. So I think he offers a space for kids to be OK with being unique, and that uniqueness to not be a difference but something that we have in common.
On watching Sesame Street while growing up
My mother would sit me and my siblings down every day to watch it on this tiny black-and-white TV that we had to hold the dial between the six and the seven to be able to see it. It was just a beautiful experience. ... I've always told people, 'If you want to learn the language, watch Sesame Street. And also if you just want to feel accounted for. Because I remember just seeing all these kids that just looked like me. I saw myself there. Ernie and Bert looking at the screen and talking to me — I felt so important. And that just made the learning and the teaching and the didactic aspect it — just before I knew it, I was speaking English.
On celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month
I'm celebrating myself! I am Hispanic, and that's my heritage, and I'm working. So for me that's a reason to celebrate!