Acting Without Shame: HIV-Focused Bilingual Telenovela Informs and Entertains
An Interview With Actors JM Longoria III and Joanna Zanella
Family secrets ... betrayed trust ... condom usage?
The classic, persistent themes of Spanish-language soap operas, also known as telenovelas, get a refreshing, enthralling update in Sin Vergüenza (Without Shame), the new telenovela that is taking the Internet by storm. Presented in English as well as Spanish, and imagined and realized by California's vast AltaMed health care network, the aim of the show is to "educate without being educational." The project is a unique endeavor -- it combines a fresh narrative format with the ability to tackle real-world issues such as HIV, stigma, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) issues, family issues, infidelity, shame, aging, dating and more.
Before you read, make sure to watch Episode 1 of Sin Vergüenza. Stay tuned for three more episodes in the coming weeks -- each accompanied by a conversation with key people involved in the production!
This interview is Part One of a series. Read Part Two, an interview with series director Paco Farias; or check out what's coming up in the series.
In the first interview in this four-part series, TheBody.com was lucky enough to sit down with two of the series' main actors -- JM Longoria III, who plays gay son Enrique Salazar, and Joanna Zanella, who plays doting daughter Christina Salazar. Both are performances not to be missed, and in this interview they discuss the honor of spreading HIV awareness through this project, why timing is essential and what they took away from playing Latinos who are dealing with issues of sexuality, condom usage, HIV and family secrets.
Mathew Rodriguez: How did you hear about this opportunity to get involved with the telenovela, Sin Vergüenza?
Joanna Zanella: I was submitted for it by my agent, and it said it was a theatrical project, and it was for HIV awareness and it was going to be in a telenovela style, so they wanted bilingual actors who could speak perfect English and Spanish. I saw it, and I thought, "Oh my God, I think I should audition for this, because I speak perfect Spanish and perfect English and I think it's a great opportunity and a great cause to talk about: HIV awareness." I went into the audition, and that's where I met Paco [Farias, director of Sin Vergüenza]. I went in with another actor, and I thought I did pretty well, and I got a callback.
At the callback, there was Natalie [Sanchez, AltaMed's HIV prevention and education program manager], Hilda [Sandoval, manager of the psycho-social services and mental health clinician program at AltaMed], Paco, and a whole bunch of other people, and I actually ended up going in with Eric, who plays Hector, my boyfriend, in Sin Verguenza. And, I think we both did so well. Our chemistry was there from the beginning. When we went in, everybody started laughing when we acted it out. We added on to the actual script, which was great, that Paco let us play with it.
I got the call; they said "You booked the job," and it was amazing. It was wonderful news. As a Latina actress, getting the opportunity to play the same role in English and Spanish was such a blessing.
JM Longoria III: For me, it was sort of a happy mistake. I ran into a friend the night before the audition, and he was saying there was an audition going on at this casting office, and I was a little hesitant. Typically, your agent should submit you. One of my coworkers convinced me to show up, so I show up to Blanca Valdez's casting office. They told me I was too young for another role that I was trying to get an audition for. They recommended me to audition for this project, Sin Vergüenza, and I had no idea what it was. I was like, "Well, I'm on my lunch break, I need to go back." And they said, "Well, you're next." So they paired me up with another guy and had me read.
I had no idea what the project was about, or what the context of the scene was. Paco was there, and at the end he said, "Oh my gosh, thank you, this is what I've been looking for all day!" And I was like, "Great!" Then I ended up getting the callback, and I had to tell my agent I got a callback for this role that she hadn't submitted me for -- but she had actually submitted me for Hector's role, which is funny.
At the callback, I just felt so comfortable. We had fun, and thank you Paco for allowing us to kind of improv a little bit more, to add on and bring our own personalities. It's such a great role for Latinos. It's bilingual. And playing the gay son who's in law school in this Mexican-American family, where there are so many taboos and machismo mentality, is wonderful. It's being put in such a positive light, and it being surrounded by HIV awareness is beautiful. It's a great project. And I hope this message gets out there and educates the Latino community.
Mathew Rodriguez: It sounds like the HIV awareness aspect of the project made it more attractive to both of you.
JM Longoria III: Oh, definitely. As I continued to find out more and more about the project, I was like, "Wow!" I felt like I had found this gem. As an actor, these are the kinds of project you want to find: doing work that has so much more meaning than something that you can forget about as just one performance.
Joanna Zanella: I'm with JM. When we went to the screening for the first episode on World AIDS Day: Usually, like JM said, when you see your work, it's an amazing feeling. But when you know it's for a great cause, it's a one thousand times better feeling than it is to just be doing something because it's just a project.
That day, one of the ladies who was a speaker at the event had been living with HIV for 22 years, and she was telling us her story, and I was in tears. This whole time I was in tears because of the strong woman that she was. But what really hit me was that she came up to me, and she hugged me, and she told me, "Thank you so much for doing this, for helping the community understand." When she said that to me, I just started crying, because, to me, I felt like I really didn't do anything. It's such a small thing that I felt that I did. But to other people, they're really appreciative, because we were able to express real people's stories in the novela. You get into a character that is actually someone's life. To me, it's one of the most amazing projects that I've been a part of.
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.
Mathew Rodriguez: From an acting perspective, what was it like to have to do the scenes in both English and Spanish?
Joanna Zanella: We'd have our scripts, and we'd read it in English and in Spanish. My first language is Spanish, so I was more comfortable with it, and would memorize the Spanish lines more easily than I would the English. Sometimes when I'd start a scene with the script in English, Paco'd say "Joanna, do it in Spanish first."
Then we'd do it in Spanish, and he'd say, "OK, now you can do it in English." Because I think I gave him what he wanted exactly in Spanish. I think it's just because my first language is Spanish, and I'd feel more of the novella style of it in that language. And then he'd say, "OK, now do it in English. All of us had our little niches in certain languages, which was fun to see.
JM Longoria III: I know my strength was definitely more in English. Spanish was my first language, and then I went to public school; at home, all we speak is English. I had a little more trouble with Spanish, but luckily I had Joanna, because she's so fluent. I'd ask, you know, "How do I say this?" So, Joanna, thank you for being such a great coach for me.
It's interesting: In a conversation with Paco, one of my roommates, also a director, asked him, "Which of the two was harder for you to edit?" Paco said he had a lot more trouble with the English because we did all the English scenes first, and by the time we did the Spanish, we already were in it, and understood the scene, and where our emotional level should be. It was great.
It's interesting if you watch both languages, because you think you're watching completely different episodes, but it's the same line. The change in language changes it a bit more. It was so much fun, and I'm glad we were able to do it in both languages.
Mathew Rodriguez: Had either of you done any telenovela acting, or anything in that format, before? According to Paco, you guys wanted to pay homage to the genre and update it and make it more accessible, and pay homage to telenovela acting in particular. What did you do to prepare for it?
Joanna Zanella: I had actually worked on a novela when I was 15 years old. Because I come from a very Latin background, and I've always been involved with novelas, I was already kind of used to the novela acting in Spanish; but in English, it's completely different. In Spanish, it's mas pacionado. It's more passionate. There's more feeling, and in English, even though it's the same script, it's not so much like you're being passionate; I would say it's a little more toned down. To me, not that I would struggle, but I always had to keep that in mind, because in Spanish it was a different read than it was in English. Even though it was fun, it was a challenge for me, because I always had to come in and out of both. And I think the same thing happened with JM.
JM Longoria III: Definitely. I had a little more of a struggle in Spanish, because the language itself makes it more passionate in Spanish. So, for me, I felt kind of the opposite: I always felt like I had to tone it down a little bit in Spanish, because I didn't want it to be too aggressive or too overdone.
I did a small pilot back in Austin before I moved out here to L.A. It was called Mundos diferentes. It was a Spanish telenovela about kids in a high school, so that was my first little introduction to it. But it was the same thing: How do you play true to the reality of the scene but pay homage to the telenovela style? It was a little prep for me to do this project.
Mathew Rodriguez: What have you taken away from this whole experience? What changed you during it?
JM Longoria III: I think a few things. As an actor, it's a validation that, when something is meant to be, it's meant to be. As actors, we go into auditions hopefully on a daily basis, and you may not hear anything about some jobs, it may not be you that's chosen -- but when it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I went into this not knowing, and then having talked to the clients afterwards, they said, "The moment we saw your audition tape, we knew you were Enrique."
As far as the project as a whole, I think we have to continue learning and wanting to explore and educate ourselves, and finding out more about HIV and STDs [sexually transmitted diseases]. I thought I was educated, but I'm not, and I'm constantly having to ask Hilda and Natalie: "Is this safe practice? Is that?"
I'm trying to get as much education as I can to put out to the world. To be that voice. That's what I've taken away, that I had that opportunity to do that.
Joanna Zanella: I agree with JM. You can go into a thousand auditions and you may not get one, or you may get five. But, when it's written for you, there's no way on Earth to get away. When they see you, and it's for you, that's it. You are that character.
Also, working with Eliana, and Daniel: They are such amazing actors. It was such an experience. They're just so passionate about what they do that it made me become a better actress, as well. It made me step it up and say, "Oh my God, I have to bring my A game, because everyone's an A game here." It also made me realize that with every character, you have to learn about that character's life. And I'm glad that I was able to ask Hilda and Natalie everything about Christina's life.
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.