When Lt. Martin Castillo of "Miami Vice" whispers huskily, you feel a need to lean into your television to hear what he's saying. Then you discover that he speaks in a sort of emotional shorthand, as much implication as information. Of course, there are plenty of moments when he's not saying anything, only looking at you, or Crockett and Tubbs, with dark brown eyes that are a cold, quiet fire in the tough landscape of his face.

Fortunately, you don't need to lean into Edward James Olmos, who plays Lt. Castillo so well that he got a supporting actor Emmy this year. Olmos is clear, direct, audible, surprisingly handsome and downright friendly -- the opposite of his semimystical Friday night alter ego.

"A lot of people's bubbles are busted," Olmos laughs.

Olmos' Friday night coolness has made his role memorable, though he's not actually on screen that much. The Emmy nomination, he says, was a surprise, "because Castillo's not a character that jumps off the screen at you. He's much more subtle and the writing that's done on 'St. Elsewhere' and 'Hill Street Blues' and 'Cagney and Lacey' is much more emotional than ours."

When Olmos came to town recently, it wasn't to make the scene at a White House dinner (as 'Vice' stars Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas did last September) but to address the Multicultural Career Intern Program, a 6-year-old Washington organization that has just established a scholarship fund for immigrant and refugee youths.

The speech was part of the actor's ongoing campaign to promote cultural understanding through the arts. A number of Olmos' films -- particularly "Zoot Suit" and the award-winning "Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" -- have been about the challenge of cross-cultural communication.

"Actually, so is 'Miami Vice,' " he claims. "The cultures are constantly at war with one another, misunderstood. I think that's the theme of America right now."

There has been a tremendous influx of new cultural strands from Latin America and Asia, he says, and, "a lot of people don't want that change, nonethnic people especially. They're afraid, because of their own insecurities and their own ignorance, even though it's going to bring an incredible amount of strength to the country."

Born in East Los Angeles, the 38-year-old Olmos has been working to reduce that ignorance for more than 10 years now, speaking, by his own estimate, to 3,000 people a week. "I've spoken at almost every major university in the country, hundreds of high schools, junior high schools, reservations, migrant camps, penal institutions." He's also involved with the antidrunken driving groups SADD [Students Against Driving Drunk] and MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Drivers], voter registration drives, bilingual education and efforts to eliminate gang warfare; recently, he became the national spokesman for Justice for Sexually Abused Children. "All this activity interrelates," Olmos explains. "The most unrelated fraction is the time I spend on the set, maybe two days out of each 10-day schedule."

Clearly, he believes in his causes -- but he's also sure the work makes him a better actor.

When Olmos was first doing "Zoot Suit" on stage in Los Angeles, he got a request to talk to a high school class that had seen the play. "I talked for about 90 minutes," he says, "and that night on stage I gave one of the best performances I've ever given in my life. And I couldn't understand why. I didn't get my normal rest before the show and I'd spent a lot of time talking, expending energy."

A week later, another high school called. Olmos went, and again he uncorked a powerful performance afterward. "That started to feed the machine. I started to do it every day."

Ultimately, he won a Tony nomination, and saw the American Theater Wing honor his El Pachuco as one of the three definitive American characters (along with Stanley Kowalsky and Willy Loman). "I've kept on doing it and it has enhanced my performances on everything that I've ever done," Olmos says. "I've been asked by many actors who do I study with, who do I stay in tune with. They don't understand that in doing the lectures and answering the questions, you either speak the truth or try to evade it. Either choice, you're exercising a form of discipline. That truth muscle intensifies and gets stronger with every choice that you make.

"When people watch Castillo, they feel a real strong truth coming through from him. He's honest about his concentration and commitment to speaking what's on his mind, and it's starting to become the biggest asset that I have in film. You don't even talk and you can say a hundred words with one look."

Olmos got started in the performing arts not as an actor, but as lead singer in a rock band, Eddie Jones and the Pacific Ocean (their records must surely be collectors' items now). During the mid-'60s he worked as a singer, stand-up comedian and emcee on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles while pursuing a degree in sociology and criminology. "If there was a way of my becoming helpful to my community at the time, it was through an understanding of law," he explains.

But Olmos was also getting involved with experimental theater. In 1978, he got his first paying job -- starring in "Zoot Suit." Luis Valdez's play, a stylized myth loosely based on a sensational murder trial and the subsequent riots in '40s Los Angeles, dealt with the assertive life style of young Mexican-Americans, the pachucos, and the Chicano community's fight for identity in the tense racial climate of World War II.

"It was about pride and awareness, the confusion of a boy searching for manhood," says Olmos, who played the central character's alter ego both on stage (in Los Angeles and New York) and in the subsequent film. Made on a minuscule budget and essentially a straight shoot of the play, the film was not a critical success, but Olmos' riveting performance as the one-man Greek chorus -- a nasty, vengeful incarnation of Latin machismo -- was singled out time and again.

Olmos has appeared in a number of other films -- among them "Wolfen" and "Blade Runner" -- and on various television series. But he is proudest of his work with his longtime partner, director Robert M. Young ("Nothing But a Man," "One Trick Pony"). They first worked together in 1977 on "Alambrista!", a film about the problems of illegal Mexican immigrants in California (it earned Young a Gold Medal at the Cannes Film Festival). But their masterpiece was "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," originally made for PBS' "American Playhouse" and the first federally funded commercial film.

"Gregorio Cortez" was based on the true story of a turn-of-the-century Chicano farmer whose misunderstanding of a sheriff's question led to a shoot-out and the largest manhunt in the history of the Texas Rangers. Beautifully photographed, sensitively written, superbly acted, the movie showed what results when neither side in a violent dispute -- because of their inability to communicate -- understands what actually happened.

"Every year that goes by, that film becomes more understood and more accepted," Olmos says. "It was the forerunner of what has now become a great alliance between major motion pictures and television," he adds, noting that " 'El Norte' and 'Testament' were produced the same way.

"If I could make one more of those in my lifetime, I'd be doing real good."

Does it bother him, Olmos is asked, that "Miami Vice" has been criticized for reinforcing ethnic stereotypes?

"It's not surprising," he says evenly. "When you get any ethnic group and start to show their influence on a community, you're going to run into problems. It's also a problem when you start getting into the stories of a city. Like stereotyping San Francisco with gay people. Or stereotyping New Yorkers with their cultural backgrounds. Or like 'Hawaii Five-O' -- there was a lot of stereotyping of the Polynesian people during that period of time.

"We've been showing whites, Colombians, Latin Americans, Asians dealing in drugs, and they hit very hard over there. If you are in drugs, that is the capital import-export place in the world right now. But if you're not into drugs, Miami is the most quiet, most beautiful place I've ever visited and I'd highly recommend it for people to take their families."

Miami Nice?

"It's the nicest place I've ever lived," claims Olmos, who resides there with his wife and two sons (ages 9 and 12).

It does bother him that some critics think "Miami Vice" is subtly prodrug, sending confusing signals about the glamor of the drug culture.

"I don't think I'm confused at all about what the message of our program is on drugs. We show the confusion of the political structure, of the judicial structure and even the law itself, but we never, ever show confusion about what drugs do to people."

Yes, he says, "Vice" shows dealers with fabulous life styles. "It's very honest about that. It is not 'Ozzie and Harriet' or 'Dragnet.' We are showing that the people who deal in it live in a very high style . . . But we also show the consequences of leading that life."

"Granted," he admits, "we're exploiting something. That's the sad part. I keep on fighting for the integrity of the program, to lift its content and override the style, which right now has catapulted us to world recognition, which I think is almost like a joke.

"I cannot believe that the people that are in the hierarchy -- the Michael Manns, the Universals and the NBCs -- would not be striving to make television more than just an entertainment. I wish they would understand that you can entertain people and still have a high sense of content involved."

Olmos bristles again at the suggestion that a recent "Vice" episode, "Bushido," was a kind of Latino "Ninja."

"Almost like a stereotype? We're not doing it, you are. Castillo happens to be Hispanic, happens to believe in Asian philosophies and theories. He happened to take the sword over to give to the little boy, which was all he had to work with, and all of a sudden it becomes a Latino Ninja? That kind of facile stereotyping is happening all over the country."

"Bushido" was actually "a milestone in my career," Olmos says. He served as a last-minute pinch director -- his first and only directorial effort -- with only one day to prepare. He developed the script with John Leekle (who wrote the mini-series "The Blue and the Gray" and was cited by the Pulitzer Committee for his book, "Moments"). "We were going to use the idea for a film: It was a story about the love between two men and what happens when loyalty and duty get in the way and one has to choose."

Choosing is something Olmos may yet be forced into by the success of "Vice." His contract with the show is not exclusive, something he fought for when he was asked to step in at the last minute (the original lieutenant decided he didn't want to move to Miami and got himself killed in the third episode).

"I might stay on the show five or six years, but I'll need to break away from time to time to do the things Robert Young and I have been planning for the last five years," Olmos says. There might even be, he suggests, a true film version of "Zoot Suit." "It's overdue, and it would be a great piece of film . . .

"I cannot throw away everything that's important in my life for money."