With her iconic eyebrow and sharp tongue, Selenis Leyva is promising to turn up the heat in the Kitchen when her character, Gloria Mendoza, returns to the screen for Season 2 of "Orange Is The New Black."
The 41-year-old actress' resumé includes roles in "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "Girls," but the star says her time with OITNB has been "an actor's dream." While shooting the next season of the Netflix original series, set to premiere in 2014, Leyva spoke with The Huffington Post about what's "shaken everyone up" and why the series is an important step for Latinos in Hollywood.
You're a born and raised Latina from the Bronx. Tell me about your experience growing up in a half Cuban, half Dominican household in New York?
My family was always supportive when I decided that I wanted to pursue this thing called acting [laughs]. They supported it 100 percent and I think that comes from having parents who were not afraid to take big risks themselves. My father, the first time he tried to leave Cuba, was detained and had to do time in prison as a political prisoner because he was against Fidel. But you know he left his home, he left his isla to come here and pursue a better life for his future kids. So they were very big on [saying] “Do what makes you happy, pursue your dreams.”
How did you come across the role of Gloria in "Orange Is The New Black"?
When [the series' casting director, Jen Euston] called me I really didn’t know much about it. The only thing I did know was that it was for Netflix, I thought that was little bit bizarre, and that it was for Jenji Kohan. And I thought “'well whatever she does, I want to be in" because the women is brilliant and I’m a big, big fan of "Weeds.” So I auditioned for another role that I did not get and I was a little crushed...
I got a call a couple of weeks after that and they said, "they really like you and they want to offer you the role of Gloria Mendoza" and I said who’s Gloria? What character is that? What’s her story? And they’re like “well we really don’t know but she’s in prison, she’s [a] recurring [character].” And I said well I’m not going to say no to this. So I’m glad that I jumped on board because what happened after that was an actor’s dream. I started doing it and they didn’t really have a clear idea of where Gloria was going to go and Jenji Kohan herself said to me, “you made us write for you,” so that to me was the biggest compliment ever because they saw something and decided to really make me a big part of the story.
Is there anything about Gloria that you see in yourself?
Oh my gosh well Gloria is definitely a Nuyorican. Gloria is Puerto Rican, she was raised in New York City and that’s me. And although I’m Cuban-Dominican, I really relate to my Puerto Ricans so much... And Gloria is sassy, there’s a fierceness about her and you know that eyebrow, when it goes up, you know she means business. And that’s like my thing [laughs]. When I’m a little bit upset, my eyebrow goes up and that is a trait that my beautiful mother passed down to me [laughs]. We always knew in the house “mommy’s upset, her eyebrow just went up.”
You’re pretty much the Latina leader in the jail, how do you think the show portrays Latinas?
Some people ask “well how do you feel about the stereotypes in the show” and I say well you know what I don’t think there is a stereotype, stereotypes also come from real truths of reality. We are all portraying different types of Latinas -- [we’re] different ages, we’re Afro-Latinas, we’re South American -- there’s a little bit of everything. And I think that’s very truthful to the world that we live in and we can be passionate and crazy and loud but we’re also kind and smart and there’s a little bit of everything.
It’s a beautiful thing and I’m very, very proud to represent the Afro-Latina, we haven’t really seen a lot of different types of Latinas in shows all at once. So this is all lovely.
When it comes to Latino identity there are always different opinions on what defines someone as Latina. On the show Daya is often criticized because she doesn’t speak Spanish. Gloria even called her a “coconut.” What do you think of the show’s take on this topic?
Again I think it’s very truthful to the world we live in. There are Latino people in our world who believe strongly that if you are Latino you should speak the language, you should eat the food, you should listen to the music, you should be proud. And when you don’t do those things, some people will look at it as if you’re neglecting who you are. But in the case of Daya, which is a wonderful character, look at the background that she has. Her mother isn’t exactly the mother of the year but she has heart. She hasn’t been the best mom so of course her kids aren’t going to speak the language, she wasn’t at home teaching them like my parents did. My parents made it a point that although I was born and raised in New York City I needed to speak Spanish because they wanted me to be able to communicate with my elders when I went to Santo Domingo [or] when my family came to visit from Cuba. So we have some people who place a lot of importance on that and a lot who don’t.
But you know I’m not one to criticize someone for speaking it or not. I, for one, do believe that we should speak the language of our ancestors and that’s why my daughter speaks fluent Spanish.
So you believe the show is doing something important for the Latino community?
In Hollywood we always have to deal with the one Latina representing us and they usually latch on to one Latina per year or one network says “we believe in diversity” and they have one Latina or one Latino in one out of ten shows. In this case though I think there is celebration in the Latino community. I don’t think we’ve ever had five, six Latinas in a show this huge worldwide. We haven’t. And I think that the writers aren’t focusing on any stereotypes, they’re telling stories, real stories that can happen to anyone regardless of race.
The end of Season 1 meant big changes for Gloria after Red got in trouble and she became the Head of Kitchen. Can you tease us a bit of what’s to come in Season 2?
I would have to say that the Kitchen is spicier than ever. We have a lot of good stuff happening, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone because I think it’s going to be just such a pleasant surprise to everyone, this season coming up. We are all cooking up some real hot stuff in there and there’s a lot of interesting characters too, popping in and out, that I think the audience is going to be really pleased with because it’s going to change the dynamic of all of it. We’re in the middle of shooting it so I don’t know how things are going to end up but I can tell you, that as of right now, we are all in it and we are all cooking up real spicy stuff.
I think there are definitely changes all across the board, not only for the Latinas in the show but everyone. There’s different elements that are being added to the prison that have kind of shaken everyone up.
You said “we are all in it” but there’s been rumors of Laura Prepon’s character leaving the show or having limited appearances. Will Season 2 see any characters we love leave?
You know, I’m just saying, [Laura is] so wonderful and I look forward to working with her because she really is absolutely wonderful in this. To be honest, I think that a lot of people will be surprised, in general. I hear so many predictions and so many people saying ‘this is happening and this may not”... it’s interesting to have information and then to hear people speculating on the outside. I have to say that I’m getting a kick out of it.
What are you most excited about when it comes to Season 2?
I’m just excited to be a part of it. Honestly, I never thought that I was going to make it past a couple of episodes because they didn’t have an agenda for [my character.] Once Gloria took over the kitchen, that put me in another place altogether and a lot of really interesting, beautiful things are coming and I think you will get to know a little bit more about Gloria just like you will get to know about everyone. I think this season the word is: deeper. We’re getting to know everyone a little bit more and just when you thought you knew something and you were dead set on it, you’re going to discover it’s not that. So it’s really good stuff and I’m excited to just be invited back.