Say Hello to actor Pepe Serna's Balboa Island Paradise
Houses on Balboa Island tend to the quiet or small when it comes to touches of character. Packed close together on the narrow island lots, they don’t have a lot of room for grand statements, so most make do with grace notes and accents – a calm patio between the sidewalk and the front door, a picket fence, a softly burbling fountain. Then there is Pepe Serna’s home, which absolutely demands you stop and take notice.
Like Serna, an actor with dozens of film and TV roles over nearly five decades of work, the house knows it’s got the spotlight when passers-by stop and look.
The exterior walls are a vibrant indigo blue; the trim, a rich teal. Banana plants stretch nearly to the red tile roof. The front patio offers a place for Serna and his wife, Diane, to relax with a cup of coffee or an iPad, or exchange pleasantries with neighbors walking by.
Serna, the consummate character actor, landed his first above-the-title role this year with the indie noir mystery “Man From Reno,” in which he plays a rugged Northern California sheriff drawn into the mystery of a best-selling Japanese author who decides to disappear for a bit in San Francisco and the mysterious stranger – the man from Reno of the title – with whom she has a fling, and, when he vanishes, decides to track down with help from Serna’s sheriff.
The Sernas arrived on Balboa Island in 1993, moving there from a home in Eagle Rock
they’d renovated much like they eventually would this one.
“We rented different places at first,” Serna says. “We would go up and down every street looking for a place. And we got a lot of good exercise! And then finally this came up, and we came in and right away (Diane) knew.
“She’s so visual that she knew where the palm trees and the elephant and the quetzal birds
At the time, the house was a typical island two-story, Serna says.
“It was beige and had pine trees along the side and the fireplace was all brick,” he says. “And so we just clipped off the corners.”
As he speaks, he’s gesturing not only to the fireplace, which has the round curves and whitewashed plaster of a traditional Mexican hacienda, but also the gentle slope of the walls as they melt into the ceiling, all soft lines, no hard edges.
“The structure, nothing’s changed, but inside, the colors and doing the whole coconut faces in the kitchen and all the things we’d been collecting everywhere we’ve gone. When we were looking for a house to buy on Balboa Island it had to fit all our stuff.”
In the same way the saturated blue on the exterior walls of the house makes you feel that you’ve fallen into the color, the interior walls are an electric riot of reds and pinks, yellows and greens, with a scattering of white walls left as backdrops for the vibrant paintings Serna has done for years when he’s home from the set or the soundstage.
While he’s much better known for his memorable work as a supporting actor in films such as “Scarface,” “Silverado,” “The Jerk” and “American Me,” his paintings, most done in a Latino folk art style, have been exhibited in galleries and museums, including a series called La Mona Risa that the University of Texas at San Antonio displayed in its Institute of Texan Cultures in 2013.
“La Mona Risa, she’s a smiling, laughing Mona,” Serna says of the paintings. “I saw it as the woman in our life who picks us up with a smile and says ‘It’s OK,’ as opposed to the man who says ‘Get up, you little turd, stop crying!’”
As a character actor who has also taught the craft for years, Serna is generous with the spotlight, whether that’s sharing his knowledge with younger, newer performers on shoots or in the classroom, or giving credit to the elusive Diane, who slips off to the patio as Pepe offers a tour of their home, but who is largely responsible for its design.
“I tell you, the house we had in Eagle Rock was phenomenal,” Serna says. “She designed by just showing (the craftsmen) pictures and stuff. It was great, all rounded, kind of like that Mykonos feeling.
“We’ve always lived that way. When I first met her, it was a $60-a-month apartment that she had and then I moved in,” he says of their first shared home in Los Angeles in 1969. “It was just a little one-room with a little kitchen and a bathroom but it was always decorated beautifully.”
Given that he’s hustled his whole life in the tough world of the working actor, Serna says he’d sometimes encourage Diane to share her talent with others as a profession.
“Did you ever see ‘Casa Mexicana,’ that book they had done years ago on Mexican houses?” he says. “They wanted to photograph our house, but she wouldn’t let them. She never had a need to show anybody any of this.”
He jokes that her avoidance of the spotlight even extends to the red carpet for premieres of films he’s done.
“She’s my muse, and she’d dress up in all these colorful things,” he says. “And then she’d run inside the theater – she hates getting her picture taken. I said, ‘Gimme a break! I might get in a magazine, get a job,’ but she didn’t care.
“It’s interesting for me. She’s such an incredible artist but has no need for anybody but me to see it.”
It is, he says, life as art, and that’s partly the reason he picked that phrase – “Life As Art” – to serve as the title of a documentary he’s making of his life, tracing his journey from Corpus Christi, Texas, where he grew up knowing he’d be an actor, to Los Angeles, where he became one, to Balboa Island, where he and Diane have created a life surrounded by the art that is their lives’ work.
The movie is mostly finished – he’s looking for completion funds to help license all the footage he needs from the films and TV shows he’s done – and beyond that there is always another phone call with another acting job, a painting to make, and a bit of tinkering with the color or the art or the décor in the one-of-a-kind Balboa Island house.
“Just to enjoy it,” he says of what he and Diane appreciate most about their home. “And that’s where the life-as-art thing comes from.”