(NBC News) — Jon Huertas has played a multitude of roles in his nearly 30-year acting career, but there’s something about his current one that makes him nervous.
Both a veteran actor and an actual veteran — he enlisted in the Air Force in 1987 and served as an aircraft nuclear/conventional weapons specialist for eight years — Huertas portrays Miguel Rivas, the late Jack Pearson’s best friend on the NBC show “This Is Us.” After Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) dies, Miguel gets romantically involved with Jack’s widow, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), and this is where fans’ beef with the character begins.
“It’s always tough to play a character that’s considered unlikeable,” Huertas, 50, tells NBC News. “And I worry about being unlikeable on a show like this where I’m the only Latino.”
Miguel wasn’t necessarily written as a Latino character at first. When Huertas auditioned for the role, the character was named Michael.
“When they first changed the character’s name, I was a little surprised and didn’t have a completely positive reaction,” Huertas said. “Latinos can be named Mike; they don’t have to be named stereotypical names like Juan or Miguel. My best friend’s named Daniel and he’s Mexican.”
Miguel does subvert stereotypes by being a wealthy, successful character. But Huertas knows that there are limited opportunities to “change viewers’ hearts and minds” when it comes to humanizing Latinos on television. Though he has acted in more than 350 television episodes, he said only one of these episodes had a Latino director, and many roles tend to lack nuance.
Latinos and Latinas generally play a few archetypes, according to Huertas. “We play low-wage workers like cops and firemen, overly sexualized characters or criminals,” says the actor, who is of Puerto Rican descent.
Though Huertas doesn’t know the full trajectory of Miguel’s story arc, he says he trusts the writers and viewers to flip negative perceptions of his character.
“Miguel’s tried to help Jack at certain times by encouraging him not to drink so much and encouraging him to be present for his family, but some fans are acting like Miguel murdered Jack,” Huertas said. “And the idea of the only Latino character on the show being a murderer is dangerous.”
The role of Miguel has proved challenging in other ways. It’s the first time Huertas has played a grandfather, so, in addition to the extensive makeup he wears to age onscreen, he’s had to embody an unfamiliar life stage.
Huertas credits his time in the Air Force with instilling in him the discipline to pursue a career in acting. He saved up his vacation time throughout his enlistment so that he could leave early and move to Los Angeles to begin his career in show business. When he didn’t get hired for certain jobs, he kept on pushing, reminding himself that those weren’t his opportunities and that his time would come.
The determination he cultivated in the military is also helping him approach the character of Miguel.
“I often think about what the legacy of this character will be and how he may educate others,” Huertas said. “It’s been a gradual and slow transition to getting fans to embrace Miguel, but he’ll have his moment.”
Season Four of “This Is Us,” which is currently airing, explores how Miguel helps the Pearson family as they navigate Jack’s death as well as his role with baby Jack, the child of Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Toby (Chris Sullivan), who was born with retinopathy and can only see light and shapes.