By her own admission, Peruvian actress Claudia Dammert doesn't have a humble bone in her five-foot-tall, bantamweight body.
"Any director who is wise enough to choose me will have a good product," proclaims Dammert, whose sense of cocksureness is eclipsed only by her penchant for controversy.
Last May, when a production of Cuban-born playwright Dolores Prida's "Coser y Cantar" ("Sewing and Singing") was dropped from Miami's first annual Festival of Hispanic Theatre -- after members of the city's Cuban American community violently complained about Prida's support for improved relations with Cuba -- Dammert stepped into the donnybrook and performed a staged reading of the play at a local college.
"I believe in freedom of speech anywhere," she says, explaining her action.
"Of course," she replies, acknowledging that if she were to have paid for the subsequent ballyhoo it would have cost "more than $1 million."
Dammert probably will not have to face the bomb scares and threatening phone calls she did in Miami when she opens Friday at Gala Hispanic Theatre in "Extran o Juguete" ("The Toys"). The play, by Argentine Susana Torres Molina, is about a salesman who comes to the home of two spinsters, one of whom is played by Dammert.
"I like to be a clown," she says. "Through laughter you get the most from people. If you make people laugh at a very serious issue, you are going to make people think about it. If you tell people they are an ass in a very beautiful way, they are going to accept it."
One person who did not accept Dammert's "beautiful" criticisms was Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado, who as dictator of Peru in 1974 had Dammert imprisoned because her one-woman cabaret-style show was deemed to be "disrespectful against the government." She was released after four days because, she says, "I was secretary of defense of the actors union at the time."
"I always think it's my duty as a buffoon to say the things that happen. That's why I don't belong to a political party," says Dammert. "As an actress, people believe in me more than a politician because I don't promise them anything.
"At first I believed in the revolution because there was too much difference between the upper and lower classes," continues Dammert, who comes from Peru's upper class and was educated at Lindenwood College in Missouri. She served as a hostess-interviewer on a left-wing television talk show in the early 1970s, but the program was canceled when it became critical of a government that wasn't delivering on its promise of reform. "I guess I've always been controversial in a way," she says.
Dammert eventually became a popular figure on Peruvian TV, most recently in the soap opera "Carmin," in which she portrayed Liliana, the single mother of a teen-age girl. "I was the cherished mother of all 18-year-olds in Peru," she says. The show is currently in reruns on Spanish stations in Miami, Los Angeles and New York.
"The image of the Latin woman has to be changed in this country," observes Dammert, who hopes to continue acting both in the United States and Peru. "They are always characterized as hookers or drug addicts. There are other images that we can give."
She has a theory for why Latin actors continue to be stereotyped in American productions. "Right now the brown skin is making a big impression in this country," she says. "That's what people fear -- the reconquering of America."
But if Hollywood offered her a lot of money to play a prostitute or a junkie, would she take the part?
"Everybody has a price," she concedes.
Dammert has won the award for best stage or television actress three times in Peru, but in the United States she's the ideal candidate for an American Express commercial.
"In Peru, I've never auditioned," she says. "In this country, where nobody knows me, it's a very weird feeling to have to audition . I think I'm great, and you go there and 3,000 other people think they're great, too."
"It's a weird feeling," Dammert repeats. "But it's a good feeling -- I'm learning humility.