Our exclusive interview with the very beautiful and talented Selenis Leyva left no stone unturned. Ms. Leyva, who plays the fierce and formidable Gloria Mendoza on Orange Is The New Black, sheds some light on her character this season, dishes on what it’s like on set, and inspires us all to be our best selves.
Your character Gloria is sassy and brazen, a fierce protector of her family and her prison family. Since taking on the role of Gloria, do you see women in prison in a different light?
Selenis: I totally do and if you’re not in it you tend to forget and not pay attention to the “others” around us. It’s because as we move through life if we’re not experiencing something firsthand we don’t really care. That’s the honesty of it. For me, now having had three seasons on this show and also talking to women who have been in prison, and who are currently serving time, I really see them differently. There is no difference between me and a woman behind bars today because we are all one mistake away from being on that side.
Can you tell Inside Puerto Plata what the average day for you is like on the set of Orange Is The New Black?
Selenis: We start off by getting really stripped down; no makeup, they strip us of any cuteness you could possibly possess. If you come in with a zit that’s a good day because they’ll highlight that pimple. We have an amazing hair and makeup department. [Laughing] I always say that they get paid to make us look bad, which is so different from any other show I’ve ever worked on. We get on set very early and we order our breakfast. We always chat; there’s never a moment that you’re not having a conversation in someone’s dressing room, in the hallway, in the makeup chair. Everyone is very chatty on that set. We’re all women and there’s so many of us and we don’t get to see each other all the time. It really is like a really boisterous sorority filled with lots of fun and love.
What can fans expect from Gloria in season 3?
Selenis: We are going to see Gloria in a very different light than we have so far and that’s the beauty of the writing; it’s very complex and they really start peeling back the layers. The beauty of season 3 for Gloria is that we’re going to see a different side of her, perhaps even more vulnerable. We’re definitely going to see what this woman is really made of and what she really cares about. I think that’s going to be very prominent this year and I’m excited about that. For all of the characters we’re just really diving deeper into everyone and just when you think you know someone, you don’t, which is the beauty of this show.
You are incredibly busy with a very successful acting career, and you are a mother as well. When do you find free time for yourself and how do you like to spend it?
Selenis: My free time, believe it or not, is on my couch watching Lifetime Television because I don’t get to do that enough. I’m so fortunate to be so busy; I’m either on a set, doing an interview, I’m doing an event, I’m at my daughter’s school watching her play basketball or taking her to lessons, or running around. So when I get to just sit at home with my daughter, with my cat and my dog, and the TV and a glass of wine that’s a really good day. I really do sometimes miss my home so whenever I can be just home in sweats, no makeup and messy hair I love it.
You’ve had the acting bug from a young age. What advice do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing acting in theater, television, or film?
Selenis: You have to really be your own cheerleader. You have to in this business and you have to believe in yourself. Especially for women of color, you’ll have more people saying you can’t than you can. The beautiful thing about acting is that you can become whoever you want to. And that’s why I fell in love with the idea that I can be a villain in one moment and a damsel in distress in the next or a prisoner and then turn around and be a governor; I love that.
For young women, whatever you decide to be in life, not just in the arts, but if you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, the president of the United States, you can. There are so many more opportunities for us today than there ever have been in history and we really have to take advantage of it and prepare ourselves for the naysayers. For me, every time someone says no, that ignites a fire in me and I just want to prove them wrong. I always say to go about your business to prove people wrong.
Your father is Cuban and your mother is Dominican, and you were born and raised in the Bronx. Can you tell us what it was like growing up in a Cuban and Dominican household in NY?
Selenis: A Cuban and Dominican household in NY at the time that I was being raised was rare. You were either Puerto Rican or you were nothing. That’s how it was in the Bronx because there was a huge population of Puerto Rican people. My friends were all Puerto Rican and then Dominicans started coming in during the late 1980s/early 1990s. I saw people who sounded like my relatives [that lived] in the Dominican Republic and I felt like I wasn’t alone. It was also hard, however, because at the time the Puerto Rican community wasn’t united with the Dominican community. Since I was born here and raised amongst the Puerto Rican community they would forget that I was not one of them. I’m so happy that has changed but at the time I would hear really unflattering things about Dominicans.
I had a lot of Cuban relatives that lived in New Jersey and we would always get together on the weekends and listen to Cuban music and eat the wonderful Cuban food that was being prepared. I’m so proud of being a Latina; I’m so proud of being Dominican, Cuban and I feel Puerto Rican too because I was raised within that beautiful community that I have so much respect for and love. Gloria Mendoza is Puerto Rican and she came from that life that I had in the Bronx.
Do you travel to the Dominican Republic often? If so, when was the last time you were there to visit and/or vacation?
Selenis: I haven’t been there in the last four years because my time hasn’t allowed me. I do want to go before the end of this year; that is a must. 2015 cannot roll by without me stepping once again into my beautiful country and enjoying my family, the music, and the food. It’s just so beautiful and the people are so lovely and inviting and I’m just so proud of it. I would love to go back and see my family. My family hasn’t seen me since the blowup of Orange Is The New Black!
We know that you have your hand in many charitable causes, including Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation, The Doe Foundation and you are devoted to LGBT rights. Is there one particular charity or cause that is close to your heart that you’d like to bring more awareness to?
Selenis: I’ve associated myself with specific things that have affected me – that I have personal ties to. I have a sister who is transgender. My best friend is a gay male and I’ve always felt like I needed to advocate for them and to make sure that they are taken care of. So that’s a passion of mine. Cancer research is key and unfortunately we lose too many people to this disease. My brother is a two-time cancer survivor and my father was diagnosed with skin cancer recently and luckily we got it in time. The LGBT community and cancer research are really at the top of my list because they’re so personal to me.
You must be incredibly proud to star on a show with the very talented Laverne Cox, who has been a voice for so many in the transgender community.
Selenis: When I met Laverne I knew that she would be a voice and really show another side of the transgender community. She’s been able to do it in a smart, eloquent, and poised manner and she’s been crucial to the changes that are occurring right now. I really appreciate everything that she’s been able to achieve at this critical time.
What would you like to do that you haven’t yet – maybe writing, directing or producing?
Selenis: I have two scripts that I have hidden here that I’m always working on and it would be wonderful to bring that forth in the next year or two. The idea of directing is really something that I’m looking forward to doing. It would be great to direct one of my own pieces and see my vision come forth.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Selenis: In ten years I see myself making a move to Malibu although I love New York City. I see myself directing, producing, and acting and I think I see myself with a couple of little awards added to my mantel.