This article was originally written for Talk Nerdy With Us.
Keller Wortham is like no other actor I’m familiar with. Not only does he constantly put in work to become as successful an actor as possible, he also currently practices internal medicine in the Los Angeles area. He shared with me how he balances the two very different careers, how he originally got the role of Esteban Santiago on Jane the Virgin, which is the role he is most recognized for, and what he nerds out about.
How did you get involved in acting? Was there any specific experience you would credit as the moment when you knew acting was something you wanted to do?
This is so funny but I remember being a kid and seeing The Muppets Movie where they all decide they want to go to Hollywood. I love musicals and stuff liked that, I mean I loved movies but it was even better if it was a musical and [laughs] I swear to God I credit Kermit the Frog for having this dream of leaving the swamp and going to Hollywood. I must have been five years old and I think I even had a Muppets-themed birthday and we sang the Muppets songs and I just loved putting on plays and shows and singing for the family. They would entertain me and I think that was their biggest mistake [laughs], encouraging this behavior. So yeah, from a very early age I knew I wanted to perform.
When I was doing some research on you, I saw that you also currently practice as an doctor.
Yeah, I do.
Where did you study and what kind of medicine do you practice?
Yeah. So I went to medical school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., I did my residency in internal medicine in Pittsburgh, and then moved to LA to pursue an acting career, or as my parents said, to enjoy the circus. And it was really that desire to get back to a creative and performing life that I was missing so much. At least in medical school and residency, you can’t have that as you don’t have time for anything else. It was a shock to my balance of everything, saying, “oh man. I lost this really significant part of me and I don’t feel complete. We’re going to have to re-think this.”
My father is a doctor so I grew up loving the arts and also having a great example of a guy who devoted his life to science and I also excelled in science so it seemed like, well acting is a hobby and what are we going to do for a career? So that’s kind of how it went until I was really forced to make a choice of all one or the other till I thought, “okay. Let’s move to LA and see if there is a way, a sure way to hybridize. And it’s worked out, it’s worked out quite well actually.
That’s so interesting. I’m curious: how has it been trying to balance your career as a physician and as an actor? I’d imagine that it has to be challenging as I wouldn’t expect there to be a whole lot of overlap. But maybe I’m wrong?
Well the core overlap, if you allow me to get a little bit esoteric, is that they are both really rooted in humanity and what it is to be intimate and what it is to want to understand more about the human condition, albeit one maybe from a more physical aspect and one from a more emotional aspect. There’s a ton of emotion and psychology in medicine and you get in very intimate circumstances with complete strangers. And really, you’re doing that with acting as well. But I think it’s that exploration in both that links them together for me.
As far as more logistically, you’re right. There’s not a lot of overlap. I actually don’t think I’ve ever played a doctor in a movie or a film. As much as I would have loved to be on Grey’s Anatomy, it just hasn’t worked out yet. I think the biggest hurdle I found starting out was that people will inherently take you less seriously about both. People are not comfortable when you don’t fit inside a box. You can obviously understand a patient or a colleague being like, “Oh. You’re an actor?” And just have them completely discount you’re work as a physician. But you equally find discrimination, if you will, from a casting director or a director or a manager who is like, “Oh. Well, you’re not 100% devoted to this so I don’t know if we want to pursue working with you.” So luckily, there were enough people who believed that I was not only capable but could excel at both.
What are some of your biggest goals in acting right now? Do you have a personal acting “bucket list?” I mean, you just mentioned that you’ve never played a doctor before, would that be on there?
Yes, I would love to play a doctor just because I have the wealth of knowledge. I also would love to, I tend to get cast as these decent and noble human beings or as arrogant human beings, but not as very dark human beings. So I would love to…I got offered a job with Telemundo, which conflicted with Jane the Virgin, that was a corrupt, pedophile politician that was based on a true character. And I didn’t get to explore that too much because I knew the dates weren’t going to work out, but I thought that it would have been the darkest character that I’ve gotten to play. So I’m sad at that missed opportunity because getting to get inside the head of someone like that, that’s for sure on my list of exploring. We all have those capabilities within us and the funny thing, coming at it from a very scientific point of view, the amount of impulses that the human brain has on a second per second basis that are so grotesque, they’re there. We just have a very developed cerebral cortex that shuts them down and says, “Nope. You’re not allowed to make-out with that person that you don’t even know. Nope, you’re not allowed to hit that person that you’re really mad at,” and there’s tons of things that are really grotesque that we keep in check. So to be able to explore those uninhibitedly is something I still long to do.
In terms of Jane the Virgin, which is the role you’re probably most recognized for, let’s go back just a little bit. How did you first hear about the role of Esteban? What was the audition process like?
It’s really funny because my manager, my agent at the time, called me and said that there was a role for a telenovela star on this new show and they’re going to see and she said, “You are a telenovela star,” which is true because I had done a couple of them in Colombia at that point that were really successful. So I had gotten to live that life for a hot second. But I’m American, English is my first language and Spanish was learned. But they wanted a Latino and she had kind of left that detail out. So we kind of had to fudge it a little bit. I went into the audition with Esteban’s accent and I talked with it the whole time as if it were my own accent [laughs]. But it ended up paying off and luckily I got the role.
What can you tell us about what Esteban is up to in the next few episodes? We saw last week that he and Darci are an item and he was a big help with the birth of the baby.
Esteban really, his MO at this point is to be a dad, not only a lover to this woman, who I believe he is sincerely in love with even though it happened over the course of like five days [laughs]. But I think there is this real desire to be a father that he hasn’t gotten to fulfill yet. So it’s going to be a continuous battle to insert himself into the life of this child, much to the chagrin of Rogelio.
Also, going back really quick: did you ever think you were going to have to play a giant sperm? Did you find out ahead of time that this was going to be a thing?
It was so much fun. What happens is usually we get the scripts first and you read it and you’re like, “Oh my God. Are you serious? This is hilarious. Esteban is having sex with the woman and therefore there is going to be a sperm version of him and Rogelio is blocking it out.” And you’re just like, when would you ever get to film something like this ever? And then you have to go to a wardrobe fitting and I had to go to several because it takes a little bit of time to sew up a mermaid-style sperm costume. So going to wardrobe and getting zipped up into this thing, where I can’t really move when I’m in it. They would put me on the ground of the dressing room because we had to figure out how it was all going to fit and had me wiggle. We could adjust the head a bit, and velcro it up in the back, and adjust the tail some more. Just imagine repetitive wiggling on the floor of a dressing room; it was really funny.
I know you’ve got another new series on Telemundo that’s getting ready to start and I would butcher the name if I tried to say it [Sangre de Mi Tierra]. Can you talk a little bit about the series and what your role is?
The series is called “Sangre de Mi Tierra” which means “Blood of My Land.” It’s basically a modern Romeo and Juliet story that takes place in Napa about two immigrant families that have vineyards. It’s very realistically written and I can’t say too much, but it’s about events that could happen to any of us and make the two families battle with each other. My character is basically the ex-boyfriend of one of the lead characters who comes in and disrupts the family dynamic. I would say it’s beautifully written in the sense that it shows the complexity of family life. We’ve all been in scenarios where things aren’t going so well in the family and we fall out of love, etc. I commend Telemundo for taking a risk and trying to write much less salacious material than usual. It’s very, very real and very nuanced and I hope it does well because there’s a lot of tragedy that is quite believable in the story.
Yeah. I think it’s interesting what you said about Telemundo moving away from more salacious material because I think that’s the reputation they’ve always gotten. So I’ll be curious to see how their programming changes moving forward.
The Latin public is, it might sound bad to use the word “maturing,” but I do mean that they’re evolving. There’s so much access to good television now that the public is demanding more interesting content as well now, that is better acted and better produced. So the partnership with Telemundo and NBC has really raised the game and it’s really fun to be a part of that family. I’ve already gotten an offer to be a part of a Christmas special that we shoot next week which is fun because I play an American character that doesn’t really speak Spanish at all and a lot of the comedy comes from him and the female interest not understanding each other. So it’s fun because my Spanish is really good and my character’s Spanish will not be as good.
Speaking of good television content, I know you probably don’t have a lot of free time, but what shows are you watching when you do have some downtime? Whats on your DVR?
Oh God [laughs]. First of all, I’m notoriously bad at watching every week but I love to binge-watch. I loved Bloodline. It’s really dark. Again, I love that believable family drama where it’s like, “Oh my God. That could happen.” I love shows where good characters, good people sink into bad situations. That, thematically, is great for me because I see myself as a good person so I love imaging scenarios where I would behave that way as well. So I love Bloodline. I love Stranger Things, as well. I have a real soft spot for Goonies-style kid-genre movies. I grew up with Goonies and so it’s like living a special moment. I have not started the second season that just dropped, but that is on the top of my list.
Our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us so what do you nerd out over?
Oh well. I’m a pianist so I love classical music so I play every day for a couple of hours. I’ll have friends over and I’ll almost like commandeer them to become an audience. I’ll be like, “Hey, I’m gonna play for you,” and they’re like, “F*ck. If I have to sit through one more f*cking show.” But I love the technical skills that are necessary to play good classical music, and try to impart on other people how brilliant classical music is, and how we drifted from some really important things in today’s world, and I find that a lot of music that is written today to be musically boring.