Jimmy Smits Previews 'Bluff City Law's Father-Daughter Tension

Ileane Rudolph
Fall Preview Jake Giles Netter/NBC

In the 1980s, Jimmy Smits broke new ground as L.A. Law's principled attorney Victor Sifuentes and won an Emmy for his efforts. Since then, he's played heroes (NYPD Blue's Bobby Simone), villains (Dexter's murderous lawyer Miguel Prado), and all the complex characters in between (Sons of Anarchy's gangbanger turned brothel owner Nero).

Now Smits returns to the moral high ground as civil rights titan Elijah Strait in this powerful legal drama. A pillar of the Memphis community, Elijah has dedicated his professional life to cases that have social impact. But privately, he's also a flawed man, having been unfaithful to his wife and become estranged from his daughter, Sydney (Caitlin McGee). As Bluff City Law opens, she returns to work at her dad's law firm after her mother's sudden death.

Smits fills us in.    

What is Elijah's relationship like with Sydney?

Jimmy Smits: There's tension finding their way back to each other, not only on an emotional, personal level but also in the way they deal with the law. She made a conscious choice to work with big corporate firms that handle what one may call the other side, and she's become very good at it. When she comes back to the firm, she has to grapple with that.

'Bluff City Law' Sneak Peek: Stars Tease Complicated Father-Daughter Relationship (VIDEO)

'Bluff City Law' Sneak Peek: Stars Tease Complicated Father-Daughter Relationship (VIDEO)

Plus, find out what else Jimmy Smits and Caitlin McGee are saying about the new NBC title.

Does her arrival cause disruption?

It does cause bumps, because there are people [fellow attorneys played by Jayne Atkinson and Michael Luwoye, and MaameYaa Boafo as a private investigator] who were [at the firm] and remember the rift between them when she left. There are new colleagues [a lawyer played by Barry Sloane and a legal researcher played by Stony Blyden] who want to position themselves a certain way in the structure of the firm and now have to deal with this family member who is a great lawyer.

Her return creates a lot of good stuff and a lot of tension, and it keeps the relationships between the characters very messy as they continue to do cases that matter. So you have this great juxtaposition of character complication and aspirational topics that the show deals with.

(Jake Giles Netter/NBC)

You've been in the business for 35 years and starred in many series, including The West Wing and 24: Legacy. Do you still get nervous when you start a new role? How are you feeling now?

I emailed the creators saying I'm nervous-tingly inside, but in a great way, because the writing is solid and I really got a sense of who each of these characters were in the pilot. Plus, the vibe among the cast is wonderful, maybe because they all have strong theater backgrounds.

The show is filmed on location in Memphis. How does Bluff City become a part of the story?

With regard to the show's social cases, this city has a civil rights history with both the beauty and tragedy of it. I'm actually looking out at the strong currents of the Mississippi [River] as the barges go up and down. The murals everywhere — it's not like they're forgetting these things. Does the city have problems? Yes, that they grapple with to this day. That's all going to be fodder for storylines. The city becomes more than just a backdrop.

What do you enjoy most about working in Memphis?

The food and the music. After a five-minute conversation, you'll get the question "Which barbecue do you go to?" That's your Memphis cred. As for music, whether you're talking about Stax Records, the blues, rock 'n' roll, or Elvis, the history is everywhere.

You recently wrapped work on the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway hit, In the Heights, about upper Manhattan's Latinx community. So we'll hear Jimmy Smits sing in theaters come June 26, 2020?

I blow a couple of notes, and I don't mean blow like f--k them up. I'm in there! I had a blast. It was like being in boot camp, doing the music and dance choreography stuff. I felt like I was back at grad school when I was at the ballet barres at 6:30 in the morning. I'm very tired, but you know what? Rest is overrated.

(NBC)

Bluff City Law, Series Premiere, Monday, September 23, 10/9c, NBC