It took Yancey Arias mere seconds to realize how dangerous life could be playing the fictitious head of a powerful Mexican drug cartel. Driving with then-fiancée Anna Alvim last February, the actor got a call telling him he'd landed the lead in Kingpin, NBC's Sopranos-inspired new drama. "He screamed, then the tears came," says Alvim. Adds Arias: "We had to pull over so we wouldn't get into an accident."
As the conflicted Miguel Cadena, Arias, 31, pulls off some pretty tricky emotional U-turns, tenderly tucking in his 8-year-old son in one scene and mercilessly ordering a hit on his uncle in another. "You know when somebody's quiet and serious, and you never know when they're going to explode?" says Bobby Cannavale, who plays Arias's brother Chato. "That's the intensity he brings to the role."
In fact, Arias might be a bit too strong for some Hispanic groups, who criticize Kingpin for reinforcing stereotypes. "There's a real lack of balance," says Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. "You have a dozen Mexicans blowing each other up and one Latina DEA agent battling the forces of evil."
Despite the controversy, Arias says he had "no reservations" about signing on to Kingpin: "As a Latin community, we can come together and say, 'Look at all the wonderful actors, we can be proud of in every episode, that show their passion regardless of the issues that come out of their mouths.' "
Growing up in New York City, Arias at first wanted to be in baseball cleats. His soap-opera-obsessed grandmother Matilda had other ideas. "I guess she overheard me singing in the bathroom," says Arias, because the next thing he knew, he was belting out "No Me Olvides" at 12, during the intermission of a Menudo lip-synching contest catered by Matilda. The ovation he received inspired him to pursue acting, with the blessing of his parents, Antonio, 61, a tour-bus owner, and Miriam, 53, a business professor.
He enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University in 1989 but withdrew in '91, when his parents, then running an office-temp agency, fell into financial straits. A year later Arias landed on Broadway as an understudy in Miss Saigon, eventually playing Thuy, the heroine's fiancé.
Real romance struck in 1994, when he began dating Alvim, an actress he'd met at the local gym. Four years later, after accumulating bit parts as what he calls "misunderstood" bad guys in TV's NYPD Blue, Law & Order and The Sopranos, he proposed—but never committed to setting a wedding date. Finally, Alvim removed her ring last fall: "I said, 'I'm not putting it back on until you give me a date!' " In October, says Arias, "I woke up and said, 'This feels right. Let's just do it.' " He and Alvim, 28, wed two months later.
The couple, who share a one-bedroom L.A. apartment, are linked professionally as well. Alvim plays Arias's Kingpin sister, and they jointly run Body Language, a line of workout wear they created in 1999. Now the TV drug lord is anticipating a safer managerial role—on the ball field. "When we have kids, I want to coach Little League," says Arias. "I can't wait for that time in my life."
Katie Wright in Los Angeles
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