By Nicole Chavez, CNN
For decades, Gina Torres has carved out a career in Hollywood feeling like she couldn’t fully express herself. Now, the Afro-Latina actor is using her power to change that.
The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Torres said there was a time when she had to audition for a role multiple times early in her career because she didn’t fit producers’ ideas of American beauty.
“You’re too exotic and they didn’t want to confuse the audience,” Torres recalled being told.
Afro-Latino performers like Torres have been “hiding in plain sight,” she said, as Hollywood tends to cast them for Black roles because they “don’t look Latino.”
Over the past three decades, Torres has brought her artistry to roles in “Suits,” “Firefly,” “24,” “Hannibal” and numerous other series.
But only recently, when Torres said she stopped sacrificing one part of her identity over the other, has she felt like she’s had significant wins when it comes to representation on screen.
After Torres got a call from Tim Minear, the co-creator and showrunner of Fox’s “9-1-1: Lone Star” to take on the show’s female lead, she asked if her role could be an Afro-Latina. Minear agreed to it, she said, but he wasn’t sure what it would entail.
“I need to speak my language (Spanish) whenever possible. I need to let the audience know that this is also a face of Latinidad,” Torres recalled telling the showrunner.
The change made a difference for Torres, who sees her role as Tommy Vega as “beautifully crafted” and more importantly, a “fully realized human being” — something scripted characters of color too often lack.
“That was incredibly important for me because so often marginalized people aren’t really depicted as being fully human. They’re not given the same attention, they’re not given the same time, they’re not given families,” Torres said.
Previously, Torres also reimagined her acclaimed role as Jessica Pearson on the USA Network drama “Suits” as an Afro-Latina for the spinoff series “Pearson,” which Torres also created and produced.
Torres will continue starring in “9-1-1: Lone Star,” which has been renewed for a third season, and aims to continue shaping new, more robust characters of color through more producing projects.
“It’s just part of who they are and it informs how they see the world in certain ways,” Torres said. “At the end of the day, we’re all human.”
Name: Gina Torres
Job: Actress and producer
Projects you’ve worked on: “9-1-1: Lone Star,” “Suits,” “Pearson,” “Firefly”
Years in entertainment: 33
Mentor: “I’ve had many mentors throughout my career. I can’t say that it’s been one person that has taken me by the hand. I was very fortunate to have had Diahann Carroll in my life as a woman who had seen it all, had knocked down so many doors and exceeded anyone’s expectations of what she was capable of doing.”
Latina…de dónde?: First generation Cuban American, Afro Latina
Trope I’d banish from TV forever: “Spicy. I don’t even have to explain it.”
Latinx actor/actress I think will be a huge star one day: “I will say that recently, I’ve been so moved and proud of performances by Julissa Calderon in ‘Gente-fied.’ That whole cast is really beautiful, but she as an Afro Latina, when she first showed up on the screen, I gasped. It made my heart so happy that there she was in all of her beautiful brownness and speaking Spanish with a beautiful family. She’s very talented. Isabel Arraiza who was my co-star in ‘Pearson,’ and Michelle Veintimilla, who came off in ‘The Baker and the Beauty.’
Latinx show I wish everyone was watching/had watched: “‘The Baker and the Beauty’ — it deserved more than one season. I’m still hopeful that somebody will get it right and say, ‘Let’s bring this cast back together.’ It was such a beautifully done show. It was a story of a family and all the things that a family goes through, they just happened to be Latino and that, to me, is progress. To experience something other than White America just having a day, there’s nothing more powerful than that.”
Overused line that execs say when passing on a Latino for a project:
“When I was casting for ‘Pearson,’ there was an actress who came in from Miami and one of the producers said, ‘The way I pictured this character, you know, she was born here, she’s been here, she’s not an immigrant.’ I said ‘What? Why are we even having this conversation? I don’t understand.’ The producer said she had an accent. Having an accent doesn’t mean that you weren’t born here. For me it was a plus, it was something wonderful to kind of explore and have on screen, but it threw him off. It’s little things like that.
What I think all professionals in the industry could do to help increase Latinx representation on television:
“Hire us. It’s not that hard. We need to be in front of the camera, behind the camera, we need to be writing the words, we need to be directing these stories. There’s so much room in the industry. If we all get together and create a system by which we can nurture each other’s talents, bring people under the umbrella and bring them into the fold. Then the pool widens so that you have more to choose from and more to pick from. “