Selenis Leyva on The Power Of Words, What A Real Woman Is, and What Might Be Next For Gloria Mendoza
Selenis Leyva speaks with passion.
Whether it’s LGBTQ rights, the need for more diversity in the arts, destructive beauty standards, or even what it’s like raising a preteen daughter, Leyva is not one to mince her words.
She plays Gloria Mendoza, the calls-it-like-it-is inmate on Nexflix’s Orange is the New Black. Leyva makes it very clear she’s loves her job, “I love working on this show, there’s nothing I can say I love more than coming to set and working with everyone. Season four so far is pretty delicious. It continues to be really, really good.”
Her lips are sealed about any specifics about the fourth season (currently filming), but the Latina actress recently spoke to Dork Shelf about what working on the show has meant to her.
Firstly, I just want to say it’s been such a pleasure to watch you work. Gloria’s such a great character.
Selenis Leyva: Oh thank you so very much, I appreciate that.
You recently wrote about what makes a “real woman.” Specifically, how the term is used as a backhanded compliment to women who don’t fit the traditional Hollywood mold and are seen are “other” or “less than.” What’s your advice to those looking to change the conversation about what “a real woman” is?
SL: I think that we have to be really aware of what we mean when we say things. The power of words is really important. We certainly can control a lot of that. I found myself, in the beginning, you know kind of falling victim or falling into the habit of saying, “Oh yeah we’re all real women” almost like we’re acknowledging that we’re not supposed to be celebrities, or supposed to be successful actresses on a hit show.
Then I think, wait a minute — this has been something that I’ve been fighting most of my life ‘cause, you know: I’m too short, too fat, too thin, too old, not old enough. So it’s you’re always “not enough” if you don’t fit this standard of beauty that somehow society has made for us.
I think we really have to educate ourselves and continue the conversation and correct each other when we speak about women in general. We have to be very careful of not giving so much power to the idea of physical beauty — what the ideal woman should look like.
I have a daughter and I try very hard to give her more power by telling her, “Yes you are beautiful, but you’re also smart and you know there’s also a power of being a good person, a good human being, a good caring human being of the world.”
I’ve met a lot of gorgeous people in my lifetime that don’t necessarily live up to their physical beauty, you know (laughs). So, we need to continue to educate ourselves not only our children, but adults on how they refer to young women and women and general.
That seems to be a reoccurring theme on Orange, specifically in this last season’s episode, “Pretty Hurts” which certainly investigates how beauty standards can be destructive.
SL: Yes! Definitely we’ve broken the mold, and we’ve said to people, “Here we are.” I hear it time and time again, women who wouldn’t be and shouldn’t be [on television] and “how great” and I say, “Says you!”
Not everyone walks through life looking the same way. Orange Is the New Black is a representation of what is happening in the world. There’s black women, there’s white women, in the world, there’s, to quote Lea [DeLaria] there’s “butches.” There’s transgendered, old, skinny, there’s short – and that’s beautiful. That’s one of the things that’s had us stand out as a show.
Finally we are showing a good representation – a clear representation of the world we live in. In a powerful way. We’re not saying we’re victims, yes these women are incarcerated, but they also are fighters and they’re survivors and they make good with what they have. So there’s a lot of strength in that.
The third season was definitely one centered on the theme of faith and what that means to different individuals. I’ve read that you were ready to give up on acting before you got the role on Orange, and actually Uzo Aduba (who plays Crazy Eyes) said something similar — it’s almost like this series was a kind of saving grace.
SL: It was, yes.
Do you think the popularity of a show like Orange Is the New Black might be a turning point in television, like now that we see that a show like this can get an audience, we can step outside the mold?
SL: I hope so, I certainly hope so. I certainly hope that more people — the Jenji [Kohan]’s of the world, forward thinkers like Netflix and Lionsgate really start realizing that it’s really interesting to tell different stories with people from all walks of life. For a very long time, since I started [acting] I was always told, well they don’t want to see you because they wanna go with a “model type” it would always end up you know that 5”11 woman who weighs 100 pounds over me. So I’m hoping what we’re doing with Orange Is the New Black, will somehow effect Hollywood.
I have to tell you that I think it’s starting making an effect, but I still am not being offered or even ask to audition for roles that I feel show that we’ve grown beyond Netflix. You know, we talked about diversity for the Emmy’s and diversity in the Oscars and there isn’t really diversity because it’s still like a black and white issue sometimes and the Latinos are underrepresented in many, many ways so I still haven’t seen any inclusion—complete inclusion. I would hope that more people would kind of fall into a place like Netflix has […] that would be wonderful. So we’ll see.
I do have faith and hope. Lord knows, I thought this was going to be the end of it two years ago and to be where I am now is pretty amazing, so there’s definitely still hope.
We’ve seen the evolution and excavation of your character Gloria over the past three seasons (particularly in this last one). Was there any scene or revelation that surprised you about your character? Like you read the script and was like, Really?!
SL: I was shocked that I got the kitchen.
In season two?
SL: Shocked. That was surprising because [before that] I only had one liners throughout the entire first season, so for them to hand me over the kitchen I thought, oh my goodness I’m this is going to interesting. This is going to be fun or this is going to be a disaster, because everyone loves Kate [Mulgrew]. Turns out to be good. (laughs)
You’ve said before that out of the other characters on Orange you’d like to see an interaction between your character Gloria and Pennsatucky (played by Tayrn Manning), which I think would be awesome— is that something you could bring to the show’s creators? How collaborative is the process?
SL: They listen to us. They pay attention. Not necessarily you know, I call Jenji and go “Listen Jenji…” (laughs) But I think they are really good at listening to us on set. We’ll tell stories that are personal perhaps and things that we’ve heard… and don’t be surprised if that shows up somehow in the script.
I know that the Santeria came from me talking to a writer and saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Gloria found the chicken and it was used for a ritual?” and she says, “Well, what do you mean?” and I say “Santeria”, and she says, “You know about that?” I said, “I dabble” and next thing you know it’s in the script!
So I’m putting it out there into the universe that I would love for Gloria to try to take hold of Pennsatucky in a loving, mothering way. I would love to see that because I think that Taryn Manning is brilliant. I think that her character is so layered and beautiful, and complicated, and crazy, and all the good things that you need for Gloria to try to get her in her place. I love the idea of that. I also would love more scenes between Gloria and Healy. I think that would be interesting, and a little more scenes with Caputo because Nick [Sandow] is a wonderful actor.
I’m thinking Gloria is someone who could talk a lot of sense into those two men.
SL: She could talk sense into a lot of people.
Like if Gloria walked into one of those moments where Caputo is struggling you know, while he’s alone and bored you know those moments that Caputo has?
Like when he’s fiddling with his plants, or feeling sorry for himself, or even…
SL: Catch him in the act! (laughs) Exactly.