HBO’s latest foray into politics comes in the form of White House Plumbers. A limited series based on the true story of the Watergate scandal. If you’ve seen the first episode and came away thinking it’s got a Veep and Succession vibe. It would be a fair assessment given that the producers behind these hits are at the helm of White House Plumbers.
What is not so readily apparent is the role a group of Cuban exiles had in the real-life scandal and their storied history prior to their mission in Washington D.C. To portray these operatives HBO cast some of the best Cuban and Cuban American actors in Hollywood and beyond! Veteran actor Tony Plana plays Rolando “Musculito” Martinez, newcomer to the American market Alexis Valdés plays Felipe De Diego, and Severance and Succession favorite Yul Vasquez plays Bernard ‘Macho’ Barker.
‘LLERO had the pleasure of interviewing Tony, Yul and Alexis. During our interview, the actors shared their personal experiences working on the show, thoughts on the historical significance of the Watergate affair, and the tremendous, yet little shared back story of the real life figures they portray.
‘LL: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us today. The show is laugh out loud funny, if you didn’t know it was based on real life events, you’d think its pure fiction. What drew you to the material?
Yul Vazquez: I always love playing historical characters. And if it’s a Cuban historical character, I’m all in. Then to work with these fellas here, and Justin and Woody it’s kind of a no brainer. There’s probably many reasons to have not done it, but there were many reasons to have done it. The reasons to do it outweighed the reasons to not do it. So here we are.
Tony Plana: Amen. Just reading the scripts I was fascinated. They tried to do it in 2020 and it got delayed because of COVID. I kept asking my agent what’s happening with the Watergate thing. So, I was super happy it was revived. We did it with this enormous amount of COVID protocols and it took us six months to do it.
I was fascinated because of the personal connection. My father was in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. We were exiles, political refugees just like you see today, and we ended up in California. In California I was in college during the time of the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s unprecedented resignation, and I followed it avidly.
But when reading the script, I was struck by how many things surprised me that I didn’t now. For the first time you see it from the perspective of the little guys involved. The G. Gordon Liddy’s, the Howard Hunt and these gullible Cubans who were passionate about the revolution, following along blindly, passionately and without question. And accepting guilt without even a trial and going to jail for this. It exists at a level of absurdity that it was almost beyond comprehension. I just got it touch with that aspect of it.
Then on top of that to be working with people from Veep and Curb Your Enthusiasm, who put this comedic magnifying lens on it, that made it fascinating and the same time surprising and super entertaining and super fun to do with these locos right here. [Yul and Alexis laugh]
We’re missing Nelson but it was fun to work with four crazy Cubans, including myself [Laughs]
It was just so fun; it’s been one of the most memorable and satisfying experiences I’ve ever had, and this is my 48th year as an actor.
Yul: Wow…that’s amazing brother congratulations. There are people that don’t last 48 days in this business. They quit after 48 days.
Tony: I went to drama school with some of them. [Laughs]
Alexis Valdés: For me it was a total adventure because it is my first American project. My entire career I worked in Spanish; this is my first English project. I’ve been blessed to work with these guys that were helpful. I felt very embraced from these great actors with a lot of experience in the cinema and great professionals. I feel blessed to start in this market with these types of Godfathers.
‘LL: There is very little public information available on these figures and they have since passed on. How did you prepare for the roles?
Yul: There’s not a lot of information out there. For Barker there’s one interview out there where you can hear him speaking. I know he spoke with unaccented English. Barker was actually born in Tampa. He was a Cuban Jew who served in a Nazi concentration camp.
So, these were the things we knew. He had been very involved with Hunt in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. So, his history with American intelligence starts way before the Bay of Pigs obviously.
He died, as janitor in a public school in Miami, and died alone in Little Havana. Unbelievably uneventful death for a guy…you know what they say I guy doesn’t die with a bang…he dies with a whimper, and I think that’s Barker’s story.
Tony: Look even the nick names of these guys make you laugh. Barker was called “Macho”, my guy was called “Musculito”. They called him that because he had these weights in his apartment in Miami and he would lift every day, but his muscles never got bigger. He was a skinny guy.
You start there it becomes more and more in terms of comedy. I just find this approach to this. Even though it doesn’t really feature much about us. You don’t get into our backgrounds that much. It was a wonderful revelation in a way that is more digestible than another documentary or docu-drama about Nixon and the Watergate scandal.
Yul: After six months of shooting the show and the press we’ve done it becomes apparent that HBO needs to do a sequel to White House Plumbers. It might be an even richer story. The Cuban Plumber’s!
‘LL: What would you like audiences to come away with from the show and these men?
Yul: There’s a lot of history there. These guys were heroes in Miami, they would hold court in Versailles.
Tony: Yul, it’s so true. Muscalito was the last to die, at 90 I believe. And he would still dress up every night and go to Versailles to have dinner, take photos and hold court. Not only was he famous for Watergate, but he also pulled off over 350 smuggling missions into and out of Cuba. He had balls bigger than the universe and he was just incredible. It was an honor to interpret him.
After spending time with Tony, Yul and Alexis their chemistry and comradery is undeniable. Upon hearing them share tales about Martinez, De Diego and Barker, it’s also clear the full stories of these men need to be told. And Tony, Yul and Alexis are just the men for the job.
Memo to HBO…get Cuban Plumbers into development…ASAP!
Until then, check out White House Plumbers airing Mondays on HBO and see the trailer here.