There are countless reasons for why Netflix’s Orange is the New Black (now Emmy-nominated) is one of the most significant shows we’ve seen in some time. On paper it looks like an impossible feat to green light. Virtually an all-women, multi-cultural cast, creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds) has crafted a truly diverse show that embraces and breaks down a structural comedy to discuss socioeconomic issues, sexism and the appropriation of women within the frame of a prison that’s likened to Rikers Island. What keeps us coming back for more is the complex writing that delves into the lives of these female inmates and the skills they’ve acquired on the outside to get them through their life on the inside of a tragically broken system.
Actress Selenis Leyva can easily say that she’s been taking in life experiences that ultimately prepared her to play head Latina in charge at Litchfield Correctional Facility, Gloria Mendoza. A Bronx native, Leyva was bit by the acting bug early on while sneakily watching telenovelas behind the furniture in her parents’ living room. Finding a great appreciation for the dramatization of those shows, by the time she was a teen Leyva was convinced that she was ready to apply to LaGuardia High School. The only thing that stood in the way of her acceptance to one of the most competitive performing arts schools was her guidance counselor, who underestimated the young actress and denied her an application. Leyva stood her ground, much like her character Gloria does in Litchfield, and followed her dream.
From working with youth in detention centers, and later on shooting the NBC show Third Watch at Rikers Island, Leyva acquired the very specific skills and knowledge that would make her shine in the biggest role of her career thus far.
Paste caught up with Leyva—now a series regular on OITNB—to talk about her life before Orange is the New Black, and what it’s been like sinking her teeth into a powerful backstory that introduced a rare conversation about domestic violence.
: I noticed you took a trip to Puerto Rico? How was the fan response in San Juan?
Selenis Leyva: I did. I escaped. Let me tell you something, I was so shocked. I was pleasantly surprised at how amazing and generous and loving the Puerto Rican fans were. It was overwhelming. As soon as I stepped off the plane and got on the island fans and people who love the show bombarded me.
: I’m sure each project feels different, but does this experience feel amplified?
Leyva: It is. It is because I really love coming and going to work. I’m surrounded by so many strong actresses and actors. I can’t forget about the men.
: Can’t forget about the boys!
Leyva: (aughs) Yeah the boys are holding their own! It’s such a wonderful environment. Everyone is supportive of each other and I also feel the strength in womanhood, and that’s very rare. Usually when I step into a show, as fabulous as it is, men drive it. Here we have a lot of very powerful women calling the shots, and there’s something to be said about that. I’m not saying that men are awful when they do it, but it’s empowering as a woman to see women really stepping up and having success. We’re sending a real clear message to Hollywood. Women can produce, write, direct, act, and we can have an almost all-female cast, and bring in the numbers. That’s something really powerful.
: It’s not just the fan response. Like you said you are pulling in the numbers, and critical acclaim. The show swept the Critics’ Choice Awards a few weeks ago.
Leyva: Yeah! That was very nice. It’s nice to be a part of something that not only the audience relates to, but the critics. They’ve been very nice to us, and they’ve “gotten it.”
: We’ve seen Uzo [Aduba]’s hilarious viral video where she’s “auditioning” for Orange is the New Black, but what was that process really like?
Leyva: (laughs) The process can be absolutely horrific depending on who’s doing the casting, but Jennifer Euston did the casting and she’s one the nicest and smartest casting directors out there today. She gets the actors and is very respectful, so the process was less intimidating. I’ve been fortunate enough to be cast in other projects that she was working on, most recently Girls, but I wanted to do this show. So I came in with a mission once I heard it was Jenji Kohan.
: Even I have colleagues who are actresses that want to be on the show, and they come from different backgrounds. The show is all-encompassing.
Leyva: That’s why we’ve had this success, because we’re speaking to so many different people. It’s not just one specific type of person. We’re speaking to millions of people who can say, “Oh, I know that person. I have an Aunt, I have an Uncle…” It’s a show that is very representative of what’s going on in the world today.
: How far in advance did you know Gloria’s history?
Leyva: I had no idea! I had nothing. I got to know about Gloria in Season Two when I got the script with the backstory, and I said, “Ohh!” but before that I had no idea. I know Gloria was developed with me and the writers. It was a collaborative effort, but I don’t think they knew what they were going to do with Gloria. She was going to appear for two or three episodes and that was it. Slowly, they just kept me on board.
: And now you’re a series regular!
Leyva: Yeah! I think that happened with a couple of “smaller” characters. Black Cindy was only supposed to do a couple of episodes, but now we’re all series regulars so on top of the writing being good, they’re also paying attention to what the actors are doing. They’re really taking it in and when they see something they jump on it and develop it. As an actor, that’s a gift.
: What’s refreshing about the series is that it shows the inner workings of a degrading prison system, but it also pulls back the veil on socio-economic issues, race, and class. Even though you were familiar with Jenji’s work on Weeds, did you anticipate just how much depth there would be?
Leyva: I had no idea. I don’t think any of us did. I still get scripts and I’m blown away. I’m like, “What? Are you kidding me? How can you be this good?” I call her Mama Jenji. She’s brilliant. The writing staff is absolutely genius and they’re so smart. They give you information and insight without being preachy. They hide everything behind entertainment and that’s the beauty of it. It’s so honest—almost like they set up a recorder in someone’s living room and picked up from whatever was said.
: It’s doing a great deal by adding to the conversation in how society views women, and how women look towards each other, but on the flip side there’s so much biting humor on the show. That must be a fantastic element to play with.
Leyva: It is and I got a big case of that. It was how Gloria was introduced. That line in the beginning, “Even the white girl speaks Spanish.” Those were my very first lines spoken on the set. That’s what kind of made Gloria and that’s all I had to develop Gloria, so I thought, “She’s a sassy New Yorker. I know this woman. I’ve walked the streets with this woman. I’ve heard her in the supermarket. “ There’s always humor even in the midst of pain. Even in times of great sadness there are always moments where we crack up. It’s a nice break.
: Like you said, there are a million women in the world like Gloria but Orange is the New Black paints a realistic picture of all the intricate details that go into how much an abuser affects all facets of a victim’s life. What kind of a voice do you think this show gives to the visibility of these women?
Leyva: I was excited especially with my backstory to come out. There was something really surprising because I feel like there’s still this stigma about anyone who’s a victim of abuse. People think that they deserved it or that they’re weak. The show really gets in deep and takes away layers so you can really get to see this person. As strong as Gloria is, she’s clearly missing something. She has self esteem issues. I was happy that her story went this way, because it kind of gives you insight into why she’s so tough in prison. Now she’s taking control and takes care of everyone, which makes sense with her backstory. I’m hoping that this particular issue will strike up a conversation, just like all the others that have been brought up with transgender issues, race, and poverty.
: Have you received any outreach from victims of domestic violence?
Leyva: I haven’t thus far but it’s tough to go, “I can relate to that.” That’s part of the domestic abuse—you kind of keep it really hushed, and you don’t want to talk about it. It’s okay to see it in others, but to come out and admit it is kind of difficult. I certainly feel that it is something that I want to pursue. I want to make sure that I can meet up with groups of domestic abuse victims, or young women that may have experienced abuse in their relationships. I think it’s really hard to admit that someone you love can harm you.
: There are many layers behind it.
Leyva: There are so many layers. It’s a cycle. Unless someone wants it to end, it continues. It’s definitely a handful, but I’m looking forward to speaking about it.
: Were you encouraged to go to a place like Rikers and speak to inmates?
Leyva: I went to Rikers one time to do Third Watch, and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is a scary place.” We were using a section of the prison where half of it was still populated by inmates. My trailer was in the courtyard where the inmates would yell out their little windows, so that was interesting (laughs).
I found it sad when I got there, but earlier on in my career when I was trying to make it as an actress I worked with a youth educational program and we went to prisons and youth detention halls to work with them through creative arts programs. We did plays and scenes that were based on their lives that they wanted to discuss. I spent some one on one time with a lot of young women and men who unfortunately found themselves very early on in the system. That to me was an amazing learning experience and I was able to tap into that.
: Last season we saw Gloria get a promotion to the kitchen, and this season she’s really come into her own. Can I just say how happy I was to see you running the kitchen? The dynamics of women—especially Latin women—cooking in a kitchen can be hilarious. I’ve been witness to that chaos in the kitchen.
Leyva: (laughs) Exactly! Isn’t it a funny place? It’s where you get all the gossip and entertainment. In my household everything happens in the kitchen. My parents have this pretty big home and it doesn’t matter how big it is, we will all squeeze ourselves in the kitchen and just chat while my mom or dad cooks. There’s something about preparing food that’s very familiar to me. I think that’s what Gloria is enjoying. She’s created her own little family with these chicas, and all she wants to do is work. Just leave her alone because she wants to work.
: I’m Italian and Puerto Rican so both sides can relate.
Leyva: (laughs) Oh well you got the double whammy! We have a lot of things in common with Italians when it comes to the kitchen and family.
: How was filming with all those girls in that environment?
Leyva: Oh my God, it’s hysterical. We have way too much fun. In the hallway between our dressing rooms—look, you know how it is. When you get together with your girlfriends you talk about things. It can get really R-rated, but very funny. (laughs)
: Things you wouldn’t talk about with your mother or aunt.
Leyva: Exactly! And that’s why I love the scene of “the two holes” because that’s something that people would talk about. If you’re hanging out with your girlfriends a discussion like that will happen! It’s a crazy, beautiful, psychotic set at times. We play really hard but when we step on to that stage it’s on. Everyone really does transform. But when we’re in the hallways of that dressing room, anything can happen!
: The show deals with the bonds that women form, especially the surrogate mother and daughter relationships. How was it delving deeper into that with Gloria and Daya?
Leyva: Daya and Aleida have their own situation to work through, but Gloria sees Aleida kind of making a mess of things, and wants to step in every once in a while to clean it up. We’ll see what happens. I still don’t know where they’re taking it, or if they’re going to further explore the dynamic between Gloria, Aleida, and Daya.
: It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens when she has that baby. I can only imagine a labor scene with the three of them.
Leyva: Yes! It’ll be really interesting to see Aleida and Gloria going at it because they want to hold the baby.
: A little bit off topic—the trailer just dropped for St. Vincent and it’s already on a lot of critics’ radars for Oscar watch. Are you allowed to go into detail about your character?
Leyva: I’m not allowed, but she’s fun, and so wrong, so the audience will go, “Oh my God.” All I can say is that she’s a hell of a mother. Bill Murray is absolutely divine. I keep saying that I hear Oscar buzz too.
: How was it acting opposite Murray?
Leyva: It was lovely. I got to do a really big scene with the entire cast. I had a geeking out moment when I was sitting next to him in the makeup chair and he was eating French fries. He looks over to me and says, “Do you want some French fries?” And I literally melted in my chair. I couldn’t even speak at that point. I was such a geek. It was a surreal moment.
: Now that you’re upped to a series regular, everyone wants to know what’s coming up in Season Three for Gloria. Any hints?
Leyva: It’s so early I have no idea, but I can tell you that I got another script today and it’s really good.
Niki Cruz is a Freelance Entertainment Journalist based out of New York. With a passion for Film/TV she often contributes to Paste and Interview Magazine. Niki spends her time off learning life lessons by binge-watching Dawson’s Creek. You can follow her on Twitter.