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Acting Without Shame: HIV-Focused Bilingual Telenovela Informs and Entertains

An Interview With Actors JM Longoria III and Joanna Zanella

January 16, 2013

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Mathew Rodriguez: Was there ever any hesitation to take on the project because of the subject matter?

JM Longoria III: I know on my end, there was never hesitation. There was only excitement. As I continued finding out more about the project, and reading the script, and seeing the interaction and relationships between each character, it was more exciting. I kept telling my roommates and friends, "I have this cool job! I'm helping to be this voice for this community, and helping to educate! And be almost a spokesperson, in a way."

There was never any hesitation. And the moment when we all met, we had our first table read with the director, and everything just clicked. It was just magic. And every day on set was just magic. We were supporting each other. I don't know how to describe it, but it was this amazing energy.

Joanna Zanella: I agree. When I first sat down for the table read with JM and I found out he was going to play my brother, I had actually never worked with JM before, and I'd never met him. When I saw him, I immediately hugged him and said, "Brother!" [Laughs]


JM Longoria III: Right away, we hugged each other, and I was like, "Oh my God, are you my sister?"

Joanna Zanella: I think, between me and JM, there was an amazing connection, because every day that I went into work on set, I truly felt that he was my brother. At lunch, I'd be like, "Bro, do you need something to drink?" "Bro, are you OK?" Even now, after shooting, I still feel that connection with him.

We built great friendships, and I know that, thanks to this project, I got to meet great people -- not only JM, but Eliana [Alexander], who played our mom, and Danny [Daniel E. Mora], who played our dad, so it's been an amazing journey.

JM: Yeah, and just watching everyone work day to day, and seeing how much they would give you, it's just like, "Wow!" As an actor, it's amazing to see that and learn from them. The project itself was beyond what I could have ever expected from it.

Mathew Rodriguez: There's a lot going on in the episodes -- in a good way: infidelity, condom usage, stigma, LGBT issues, and all centered on the Latino community, specifically the East L.A. Latino community. When you were absorbing everything that was going on, what were some of your favorite storylines, or things that you looked at and just said, "Yes, this is so true! This family dynamic is exactly how it is in a real family!"

Joanna Zanella: My character Christina was the responsible daughter who wanted to make sure her parents were safe, and try to play that role of being the responsible one in the family. At one point, Christina became me, because in real life that's how it is in my family, with my brother and my dad and my mom. Sometimes I'm the one that makes decision and guides everyone through certain situations. That definitely was a part of me in Christina.

JM Longoria III: When Natalie and Hilda wrote this, they said they wanted to make it conversational, and I think the story's very true. It's a reflection of current Mexican American families. As far as my relationship with my own mom and dad, personally, they're very supportive of everything, and you see that through Eliana's character, my mom, where she's supporting her gay son. He's trying to get an education, trying to better himself. They're hard workers, parents working, owning a business, trying to earn a living. I think, growing up in South Texas, that's everything we saw. My parents told me, "Work hard and you'll succeed." So, I think that's a great reflection of family dynamics that stands true for me.

Mathew Rodriguez: When preparing for your roles, did you meet any openly HIV-positive people to talk to? How did you prepare in terms of the HIV aspect of the role?

Joanna Zanella: I hadn't met anybody who was openly living with HIV when I first picked up this project, but when we did have the table read, Natalie and Hilda were there, and JM and I were both asking them questions, and the first thing I did was I went up to them and said, "Hey, can you talk to me a little bit about Christina in real life? What is she like? What is her family like?" They have a patient who is Christina in real life. I really wanted to be true to that person. I didn't want to play the character in a way that wouldn't be true to me and wouldn't be true to that person. So, I did talk to Hilda and Natalie. I wanted to make sure that I could do my best performance so that, when somebody who is in Christina's shoes is watching it, they can feel that this is real life. These things really happen. That was something that really helped me and got me into the mindset of what it meant to play Christina.

JM Longoria III: It was a similar process for me. I do have a connection to someone who's HIV positive: one of my instructors, a teacher that I had. Just observing her, she's a beautiful spirit. She's been positive for over 20 years, I'd say, as well. It's just amazing to me, because I wasn't aware of life today, as far as being HIV positive. You know, you hear these stories, and you have something in your head and you think about that life, but it's completely different -- trying to bring that in, and talking to Natalie and Hilda, and asking, "What's my relationship with my sister? With my parents?" You can see in the telenovela, after the first two episodes, my dynamic with my dad and my relationship with my mom, and sort of being stuck in the middle, and being supportive to both. That was some of my research and my process: It was discovering day by day, and seeing what else I could discover.

I didn't even know the gentleman who spoke at the premiere event, but he spoke, and afterwards he came up to me and he said, "Can I get your autograph?" and I told him "Can I get your autograph? You're the one who's living this and who's helping us understand what we need in order to communicate out to everyone in the Latino community." After talking to him for 15 minutes afterward, I was a completely different person.

Hopefully this telenovela continues -- I want to see where this character goes, now that I have that connection now with him, and with an actual person and an actual story of living with HIV.

Mathew Rodriguez: That leads into my next question. Would you love to do it again, if there's a push for another four episodes?

Joanna Zanella: I definitely would. It would be amazing. Hilda and Natalie have talked about extending and having more episodes and pushing it out more to the community. For me, I would be honored to be part of this project, to work with Paco, and Eliana, and Daniel and everybody again. I would be crazy about going back and doing 1,000 more episodes.

JM Longoria III: I'd love to go back. It was a pleasure going to work everyday. It was so much fun; just learning and asking questions, it was such a free learning environment. No questions about it, I'd love to continue forward with this.

Mathew Rodriguez: I'd love to hear about your relationship in real life with the actors who play the mother and the father and especially the abuelita (grandma); she is my favorite character. I think hers is just an amazing storyline. What was it like playing a family with them? What did you learn from them?

Joanna Zanella: It's funny that you say that because Maria [Richwine], who plays Abuelita, is hilarious. She's the funniest lady I ever met. Ever since I met her, I've said, "I hope one day, when I'm her age, I look just like her." She's absolutely beautiful, and the fact that she was able to get into that grandma character, it was amazing to see. But she was a goofball on set. Every time they cut, it was like me and JM were cracking up every time, because she would say something outrageous, and every one would be laughing.

JM Longoria III: She's the last person you'd expect, because she's dressed in old grandma garb, but then she'd be saying these crazy things, but that's what would make it so much fun. We have a wonderful relationship with everyone. We communicate probably on a daily basis via Facebook, and we email things like, "Love you, Mom!"

This project has gone beyond just the set: We've become a family in real life.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
A Series Without Shame: Episodes and Interviews From HIV-Focused Telenovela Sin Vergüenza
13 Moments in Black Celebrity Activism
History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
More About HIV on Television

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