There’s a certain sense of true dystopia attached to shows that were meant to be dystopian fantasy but turn out to be uncomfortably close to reality instead. HBO Max’s series DMZ is such a show, where a demilitarized zone in the middle of Manhattan forms the backdrop to an intriguing story about family, survival, and politics.
Freddy Miyares, one of the main cast members of the series, thinks it only speaks to the universality of the project. “It couldn’t be more timely,” he shares. “People are probably going to watch this and think oh, wow, they just chose to do this because of what’s going on. But in reality, we wrote this and were working on this way before all this happened.”
Indeed, while the series is incredibly poignant, it stems from a 2005 DC Comics novel. At the time, they were meant to critically reflect on the US’s post-9/11 military operations. What if the US border politics were suddenly inflicted upon US citizens themselves? In 2019, when Ava DuVernay announced she was directing an adaptation, the treatment of “alien” citizens and marginalized communities by the US state had once again become a pressing issue. And so, the idea of creating a series based on the DMZ was born.
DuVernay is not only responsible for the pilot itself, but also for Miyares’s involvement. They previously worked together on the acclaimed When They See Us, after which they kept in touch. “I read an article that came out that said Ava DuVernay was directing a new series based on a DC comic novel called DMZ,” he says. “Having worked with her in the past, I thought it was a good idea to just take a look at the at the comic and see what it was about. And immediately I fell in love with the premise of the series and the world that it imagined. I reached out to Ava, and I said, ‘Hey, Ava, I just read the comic, I fell in love with it, and I would love to be a part of it in any way, shape, or form.’ And funnily enough, she responded and said to give her a call. During that phone call, she said, ‘It’s so serendipitous that the day prior, I was speaking to Robert Patino, who’s the creator, and he brought you up to play the role of Skel.’ And from then on, I was gearing up to play this part.”
He had to get into shape — both physically and emotionally — to portray the young man who’s stuck in the DMZ, shackled to a life and role he did not necessarily choose. “You have to imagine a world where there’s a second American civil war going on, and Manhattan has become this island, a neutral territory, where the Free States of America and the United States of America have agreed to cease any war activities in that terrain,” he says of the show’s premise. “What that entails is that no one who lives in the DMZ can come out, and conversely, no one from the outside can come in.” And while demilitarized or neutral might sound like safe territory, more often than not the opposite is true. So is the case in the DMZ, where in the absence of any sort of governance, various factions have taken over power in a quest for survival.
Miyares’s character Skel answers to one of those leaders, Parco Delgado (played by Benjamin Bratt). “Skel is essentially constructed to be the boogeyman, this ruthless assassin that Delgado uses to enforce his power over the people in the DMZ,” Miyares shares. “And, you know, in doing so, he creates an idea of this person that instills fear around the community. But at the core of it, he’s really just a victim of his environment. He has been trained to survive through military power and force.” One of the things that drew him to Skel’s character was the fact that there is great complexity and layers to him. “The beauty of his character is that there is a bit of hypocrisy to him, where he is caught in the past or he has, better yet, preserved the essence of the past. He is an artist,” he says.
He is mysterious and deadly, not because these are inherently who Skel is, but because he’s had no other choice. It’s the other side of Skel that Miyares also identifies with on a personal level. “As a fellow artist, I think we are great preservers of history and culture,” he says. “And at the same time, we idealize another future that is yet to be. I think that there is a lot more humanity to Skel than meets the eye at first. And as the story unfolds, we see, how he’s been manipulated to become this idea and where he can find that freedom to see his way out.”
In a way, it’s reflective of how war and trauma shape societies and how it demands resilience. In this microcosm of perceived safety — a demilitarized zone that’s essentially frozen in time — we see how people adapt to the lack of choice and abundance of circumstance. In Skel’s case, it’s led him to brute force and made him give up on the parts that are perhaps closer to his nature — his artistry.
In turn, for Miyares, this meant tons of intense physical training, especially since he was set on doing all of his own stunt work. However, while they started filming the pilot in 2019, they soon had to halt their work on episodes two through four when the pandemic hit them in full force the next year. “The physical demands of this character that I’m playing required that I train heavily,” he says. “And so when the pandemic hit, and we were put on pause for about a year and a half, I didn’t know when we were starting again.”
And while it’s hard to imagine Miyares as anything but in the best shape ever, he too fell victim to pandemic patterns. “The pandemic had a way of providing me with sourdough bread and pasta, and so, when I finally got word that we were getting back to it, um, with about a two month build up, I had to cut some of the bread weight I’d acquired along the way,” he says with a smile before turning serious once more. “To cut the jokes aside, what it also did for me, living in the pandemic I mean, it provided me a greater sense of, you know, reality, as it pertains to this series in particular. Because what seemed like an unlikely probability became a lot more possible. And living in isolation, my character is a recluse. I got to internalize that and what that meant, and what that would do, psychologically to an individual. So it was an incredibly unique experience in that my reference to this character became a lot more personal.”
It’s also one of the interesting elements to Skel’s character, given that the show consistently highlights the importance of community in survival. Miyares agrees that the idea of family or community is a red thread throughout the episodes. “There’s the literal family, but you also have the factions and political stakes that they represent,” he says. “Each side has their own sort of argument that they pose as it pertains to this world you want. For one that is military power, military control, and what that can do to a community, you know, enforcing their power and reclaiming that land for themselves. Or you have the idea of freedom and a new way of life, separate from the world of past. But then you also have the familial love, the preservation of that, which is what is at stake when Alma enters the DMZ, and the quest to find her son. The lengths to which she will go to reclaim her son are pretty extraordinary.”
And despite the extreme circumstances in which Alma (portrayed by Rosario Dawson) has to navigate this journey, Miyares is hopeful that people will be able to recognize that there is a shared humanity in the underlying themes of hope and love. “Even though these characters might seem a bit far-fetched, really, at the core of all of them is a very human aspect that we can all relate to.”
Funnily enough, Miyares’s own mother is also named Alma. And while his family wasn’t with him on set, the cast ended up becoming its own familial unit instead. “I think it is a very rare and unique thing in this industry,” he says. “A lot of times we enter projects and leave it as a fleeting moment. But each of these individuals involved holds a special place in my heart.”
The cast of DMZ is incredibly talented, indeed. Aside from Miyares himself, the show stars Dawson, Bratt, Hoon Lee, and Jade Wu, to name just a few. As both individual and communal identities are central to the storyline, it’s no surprise to see such a diverse cast. “We’ve got Latinos and Asians as leading roles — principal protagonists to this narrative that we’re telling,” Miyares says proudly. “I just hope that Hollywood wakes up and realizes that we have a space in this industry, and are voices that are just as poignant as any other. We can tell universal tales without our ethnicity or culture having to be acknowledged. It just is what it is, because we are humans who love and struggle just the same as anyone else.”
In fact, being of Honduran and Cuban descent himself, the diversity was one of the things he loved about the premise of the show. “It’s the beauty of this series, with such a huge Latin American cast involved in it,” he says. “Getting to hit all the spots internationally as well is important to me,” he adds belatedly, after telling me his brain’s still needing some time to switch to English after a full day of Spanish interviews.
What’s incredibly clear is that Miyares relishes in the opportunity to do so, and he’s grateful to be in the position that he’s in so early in his career — to lend his voice and visibility to a bigger purpose. “It’s something that I definitely abide by, I want to play roles, or be involved in series, where the marginalized are no longer that,” he says. “Where we put voice to the voiceless, where we tell tales of people who haven’t been seen. And the DMZ is exactly that. I mean, the people in the DMZ have either chosen to stay or were abandoned. And it just speaks to the resilience of these people in this world, because everyone in it has survived. I just think it’s so important as actors, to have a purpose for why we do what we do beyond ourselves.”
Working with people like Patino and DuVernay has also been reaffirming for him. They are paving the way forward for Miyares’s generation, and he intends to build on what they’re doing already. He laughs when I ask him if he’d ever see himself producing as well, though he doesn’t deny his ambitions. “I mean, it’s one of my long-term goals,” he says. “But obviously right now, I’m still student of the craft. I’ve been acting my whole life. I’m getting to see the inner workings of this industry and in doing so, I’m informing myself, the world around me and conjuring up ideas that I want to later tell. But I’m just enjoying my moments right now as an actor and learning as much as I can while I do so.”
Playing Skel was one big learning curve for Miyares, who readily admits that preparing for such a complex character required both physical and emotional challenges. “To have a character that’s physically imposing but also has these fractures of emotion that bleed through at times, it’s definitely the kind of role I want to be playing, but I’m actually happy that I had the extra time to really marinate in this role,” he shares.
One of the things he took away from working with the cast, is that you can and should still leave your own fingerprint on how you’re shaping your take on a character. After sitting down with DuVernay and Patino for the pilot and going over the details of the backstory, Miyares was able to see how Bratt and Dawson approached the preparation process. “I was fortunate enough to listen to them internalize it and really question the plot points and their intentions, their characters’ intentions, which brought me insight as to how they think,” he says. “They were really questioning the minutiae of why they’re doing this, why would they do that, you know, like, every little thing counts. Plus, getting to work with Robert was great. It was a huge privilege, because there were times where I would be messaging him about a scene and discussing moments that weren’t quite sitting well with me, or I couldn’t find my way into it. So we would then refine those moments. I realized as an actor and an artist, I have influence in the things that I create, not just my character, but in the overall narrative that we’re telling.”
Miyares’s desire to create isn’t just limited to acting and baking in isolation. In fact, to a certain extent, this is the one thing that he and his character Skel have in common: painting. Whereas Skel paints on exterior walls, Miyares has gotten quite skilled with interior walls. He makes sure to show me around his house, pointing out the Venetian plaster and interior design that he’s done himself. While he jokes that that’s also the extent of his artistic capabilities, it’s hardly the truth. Throughout the interview, there’s been a guitar resting next to him on the couch, and his description of the various pasta and pizza dishes he’s made are truly mouth-watering. “I just am very tactile; I like seeing the process all the way through and because you really never know whatever else it is that you end up creating,” he realizes.
The drawback of always wanting to learn new things and to challenge yourself, is that it’s hard to ever feel accomplished or like you’ve fully succeeded. But Miyares is pragmatic, insisting that success is relative. “I really do believe in this career, you can’t have an end destination, you have to cherish the process as you’re going on about it,” he shares. “Life just has an interesting way of surprising you, we could have never imagined the world in its state today and what that would entail. But with that I’ve come about it with a new sense of self, and a new perspective on life and priorities in life. I mean, there will be success in my lifetime, there will be failures in my lifetime, and you just got to take them all in stride, and just enjoy the moment.”
Similarly, DMZ highlights how crises in particular have a way of making people show their truest selves. “When you’re put in an environment where it’s life or death, you have no other option than to just strip all of the masks that we carry on a day-to-day basis, and just survive,” Miyares argues. “What survival does to humans, and how that prioritizing yourself manifests in one another is very, very interesting to sort of dissect. Because we all wear masks, you know? Depending on who we’re interacting with, we have different responses or behaviors, and we can see that in Skel as well in the DMZ. He’s different things and ideas to so many different people.”
There’s both sacrifice and guilt in survival, and the human condition is that we sometimes have trouble squaring the two together. But nice people can do atrocious things, and sometimes bad people can surprise you. That’s the beauty of DMZ, though, it’s a double-edged sword — it’s tragic too, that this fight for survival is the reality for many people in the world right now.
“We can all speculate what people will take away from the series,” Miyares starts, “but it’s important that we don’t shy away from the reality of the world that we live in. We can’t close ourselves off to it, because the only way we can move forward is asking these hard questions, that hopefully the DMZ episodes will make you think about. Who are we? Why are we the way we are? Where do we want to be? And how will we get there? Those are important questions we need to be asking, so that we have hope for a better future. So that we have something to look forward to. And I really do think there is more good in this world than there is hatred. I really do believe that. It’s just a matter of leading with love and compassion, and not getting bogged down by the fear mongering and not letting that be the narrative in our history.”