Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Selenis Leyva: NYC's Best Kept Secret Steps Into The Spotlight

By A.B. Lugo.

Selenis Leyva was, for a while, NYC's best kept secret. A phenomenally talented actress, most of us knew her for her work on the New York stage and on television series that shot in New York City. But now, with her award-winning turn as Gloria Mendoza in the hit Netflix series "Orange Is The New Black" (abbreviated as OITNB), Leyva is rapidly becoming a household name nationwide.

Edward James Olmos once said that it took him 20 years to become an "overnight sensation". Get to know actress, activist, budding fashion icon (check her out on the red carpet and you will see why), and "overnight sensation", Selenis Leyva.

• You grew up with a close-knit, loving family in the Bronx, in New York City. When did you know you wanted to act? What was their reaction?
I knew very early. I remember watching telenovelas (or really, I would sneak into the room and watch) and loving the drama... everyone was always crying, plotting, screaming! I loved all that excitement. I would lock myself in my room and reenact the most dramatic moments. 

On stage at
Repertorio Español.
• After college, you jumped right into New York theater, and in particular, the Latino theater scene in New York (where you would win an HOLA Award for starring in the Repertorio Español production of Doña Flor y sus dos maridos). Tell me about your years working in New York theater and how working in the theater informed your acting.
My first professional acting gig was at the PRTT [Puerto Rican Traveling Theater] in the play Simpson Street. The irony and beauty of that being my introduction to my acting career is that before I worked there I saw my first play there!! I remember arriving to the theater in a yellow school bus for a class trip, I was around 10 or so. As I left the theater I thought, One day I'll do that.

• You then made quite the name in television with recurring roles in Nickelodeon's "Taína" (as Titi Rosa), the "Law & Order" franchise on NBC (as Detective Mariluz Rivera), and CBS' "Blue Bloods" (as M.E. Craig). You then booked the role of Gloria Mendoza on the critically-acclaimed and award-winning Netflix hit series "Orange is the New Black". What was your reaction when you realized you booked this particular show?
I was relieved!!!! I had decided couple months before booking "Orange" that I was done with chasing "the dream". I was tired of getting gigs, working for a month or two and then be unemployed the rest of the year. I was in a really sad place! Jen Euston called me in for the role of Aleida [played on the show by Elizabeth Rodríguez]. I didn't book it but I knew I nailed it. A few weeks later I was offered Gloria.

In character as Gloria Mendoza on
"Orange is the New Black".
• On "Orange is the New Black", your character grew from being a recurring character to a regular one. What is it like to be on a television series with a female showrunner (creator and writer Jenji Kohan) and a predominately female cast (from many diverse backgrounds)?
It's refreshing!! It's empowering. I am surrounded by so many strong, talented, smart women. We somehow are programmed to believe that women can't really work together cause they can't get along or no one will tune in and watch women let alone such different types! But here we are– proving women do bring in the numbers! They can play with the "big boys" and hold their own!
And Mama Jenji... what can I say? She is so incredibly smart and in tune with us and these characters. She knows what she wants and goes for it with no reservations, excuses or apologies. I love that!

With the cast of "OITNB" accepting the
2015 SAG Award for Outstanding Performance
by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series
• In addition to OITNB, you have played varied roles on television– be they a medical examiner, a police detective, a Bolivian ambassador and a U.S. governor. How important is it for you, as a woman, a Latina, and even an Afro-Latina, to be able to pick which roles you choose to audition for and which roles you accept? 
It's extremely important. I have a responsibility not only to myself but to my preteen daughter. I need her to grow up seeing strong Latina portrayals on TV, film and media. I didn't have that for the most part! I never saw my face in any actress growing up!
I have some control over [selecting roles] now. Granted, early on in my career I began to not take certain auditions offered which meant I wasn't working as much. But I knew that if I wanted to grow as an artist I had to get really serious and picky as to what I wanted to be attached to. I love that I've gotten to play so many different types of roles. The possibilities continue to be endless!! Now all we need is more writers to continue to write interesting strong educated women for us Latinas to play!!

• You have also acted in several films, including María Full of Grace, Illegal Tender, Don't Let Me Drown, Sex and the City 2 and Living with The Dead. You are currently shooting Custody (written and directed by James Lapine). What do you like better– acting in films, television or theater?
I love it all!!! Theater feeds the soul. Nothing like that pure unedited audience response, good or bad. I love the pace of television... [I] love getting different scripts every couple of days and working with different directors. Film is magical!! The days are long, slower, and very detailed. Love it all!

• The new season of OITNB is premiering soon. Spoilers aside, is there something you can tell us about what we can come to expect with Gloria Mendoza this coming season? Will we see more confrontations with prisoners, more "Catholic plus" spells, more of that patented "Gloria Mendoza one-eyebrow raise"? 
As long as Gloria's around you will always have a little "Catholic plus eyebrow action"! Haha. I am excited about season 3. You will get to see a lot more of Gloria. She is working through some serious issues this season. I love where the writers took her this time around. I was challenged as an actress with certain moments and I can't wait to see what conversations start up because of it.

• What advice would you give other actors (for example, the HOLA membership) if they were ask you how to be successful in this business?
Training is important! The right training that is. We've all heard stories of people with NO acting background hitting it big, etc. Those cases do exist, they will always exist. But those careers are limited and very specific most of the time. For me it's about longevity, it's about making your mark, standing out. Playing different roles. And as a Latino artist you better be super prepared! Yes, we have had great success stories in the past couple of years. But if you ask me, [it is] still too few and far in between. The numbers don't favor us. We need to be extra prepared because we don't always get a second chance. Know your craft, know the business. Be realistic.
HOLA exists to help the Latino performer. Use it, casting people do turn to them. I've heard the organization mentioned when they are searching for new talent or a particular actor. Use all the resources accessible to you!

Season 3 of "Orange is the New Black" premieres on Netflix on Friday, June 12, 2015.

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