Not all actors known for playing assorted street thugs would jump at the chance to audition for the role of a gay nurse. Guillermo Diaz jumped. 'I was starting to feel like I was just playing the bad guy,' says the 35-year-old actor. 'I was ready to queen out a bit.'
On NBC's new medical drama Mercy, Diaz provides quips and compassion as Angel Garcia, a nurse at New Jersey's Mercy Hospital. It's a world away from his three-season run as the ruthless drug smuggler Guillermo on Showtime's Weeds. And the thug he played on Law & Order. And'his two different parts as a guy named Scarface. 'I always get a kick out of being cast in those roles,' says Diaz. 'Guillermo on Weeds is hardcore -- trafficking young girls for prostitution, weapons, heroin. And I'm so the opposite: a big old nerd.'
This ability to believably transition from murderous gang leader to the gayngel of Mercy is a unique skill. Diaz credits it to his rough upbringing in New York City's Washington Heights, where he was repeatedly mugged; his head is scarred from one particularly violent pistol whipping. 'I went to school in the Bronx. I learned to constantly try to cover up the fact that I was gay. That facade of being somebody I'm really not just to protect myself definitely helped with acting.'
After high school he started doing children's theater; then, in 1992, he became a founding member of the LAByrinth, Philip Seymour Hoffman's off-Broadway theater company. From there he reached the epicenter of the New York City mid-'90s indie-film boom, appearing in Party Girl with Parker Posey and Girls Town with Lili Taylor and starring as the memorable storyteller drag queen La Miranda in 1995's Stonewall. The roles eventually led to work on both coasts, from Half Baked to Chappelle's Show to his love-to-hate-him turn on Weeds.
This month, Diaz takes on his biggest film role yet, starring alongside Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan in the Kevin Smith caper Cop Out. He plays (another) New York gang leader, this time a baseball-obsessive who comes into possession of a stolen rare baseball card and finds himself pursued by Willis and Morgan. 'I get to do so much fun stuff,' he says. 'My character has a batting cage in his house. I get to almost kill this one guy by hitting baseballs into him. I don't think I beat him to death -- just hit baseballs into his face.'
Diaz has been out his entire career, and the actor has never second-guessed his decision. 'I never even thought about it,' he recalls. 'I was like, I'm just going to fuckin' act. And it's never been an issue. I've worked constantly.' But his early managers objected. 'After I did Stonewall, I was doing all this gay press. My managers wanted to put a halt on me being out,' he says. 'I just don't have the patience for that shit. It seems like so much fuckin' work to keep lying. I remember them saying, 'We need to build up your body count.' They wanted me to kill more people on film. I was like, 'You guys would rather I kill more people on film than tell people I'm gay?' Needless to say, I'm not with them anymore.' Keeping with his devil-may-care attitude, Diaz even hopes the prefame nude photos he shot with S&M photographer Rick Castro will surface. 'He shot me naked, but nothing crazy,' says Diaz. 'I mean, I wasn't sitting on a dildo or anything.'
This summer, Diaz returns to Weeds for his fourth season, and Mercy has been picked up through May. Angel, originally slated to appear in the background of seven episodes, has taken on a larger presence on the show, appearing in 12 of the first 13 episodes. The writers have even told Diaz they're introducing a love interest for him. 'I hope it's not just talk,' he says. While the network has been supportive of his character, the online message boards haven't been as thrilled. 'I've been getting some flack from people saying that Angel is kind of queeny, and I'm like, 'Well, that's just me,' ' Diaz says. 'I'm both. Sometimes I'm butch, and sometimes when I'm with my friends, I queen out. It's all good. I'm just trying to keep it honest.'