Mishel Prada (‘Vida’): Having entirely Latinx writers’ room ‘creates a beauty’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Mishel Prada is one of the stars of the new Starz drama “Vida” in which she plays Emma, a Mexican-American woman who reunites with her distant sister Lyn (Melissa Barrera) after a family tragedy. This is Prada’s first leading role on a TV show, though she previously had a role in the Emmy-nominated short form series “Fear the Walking Dead: Passage.”

A few days before the “Vida” series premiere on Starz, Prada spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws about her reaction upon getting the part, how she related to Emma and how the series touches on timely themes about the Latinx experience. Watch our exclusive video interview with Prada and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: So Mishel, you are one of the stars of Starz’s new series “Vida,” which is set to premiere in May. Tell us a little bit about the show and what attracted you to it. What made you want to be a part of this?

Mishel Prada: Honestly, I remember when the show was announced and as a Latina actress, kind of been auditioning for stuff over the last few years, the show was announced and it was just about these millennial girls, their parents were immigrants, their grandparents were immigrants but they were American, they were born in the United States and just talking about what that means. I remember auditioning for stuff and wondering, “Wow, I wonder if there’s ever gonna be a Latina role for somebody who’s like me.” My parents are immigrants and I was born in the United States and what does that mean? I saw it and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is so exciting that this is existing and Tanya Saracho was the showrunner and she was a playwright with different plays that I had really connected with and I was so excited to watch the show and then never thought that a year and a half later I would be on-set breathing life into the flesh and bones that had existed, so I think that that was a big part of what drew me to this and then I really thought that I was gonna fit other characters a bit better ‘cause they were closer to my life and closer to who I was and Tanya really is just a master of pushing you to do work way further than you think you’re even possible to feel and she brought Emma to me in this really quick way that I didn’t expect to happen and there I was playing a character that terrified me but really pushed me and stretched me and she never let good enough be enough. It was always more than that. That was a lot of what brought me to this role was this opportunity to be able to work with somebody like Tanya Saracho and then obviously get to portray a character that I don’t think we’ve really gotten a chance to see, especially as a Latina woman.

GD: Tell us a little bit about that character. Tell us about Emma.

MP: So Emma, she’s really strong, very driven. She grew up in the hood, wasn’t given anything, wasn’t given any opportunities and had to forge her path and had to just hack away at what she felt was given to her and she puts herself through school, puts herself through grad school, gets herself involved in the corporate world, moves to Chicago, and is just, “Girlfriend doing it for herself.” She also really carries a lot of hurt and pain because her mom, when she was 10 years old found her kissing another little girl and pushed her away and made her feel like there was something wrong with her and sent her away to live with her grandmother, which is unfortunately a really common thing that happens in Latinx communities, and then she just kind of decides that she’s an island and decides that she doesn’t need anybody and really abandons the part of her that she feels is not necessary anymore and her mom passes away. We start the series with her being forced to come back to Boyle Heights in the Eastside of L.A., the part that she grew up with, the part that she’s kind of, “I’m done, I’ve outgrown it.” Only to find out that her mom’s actually been married to a woman for three years, so there was a lot of emotional stuff that happens but Emma really tries to keep it together because she has so many layers that keep her distant from emotion so that’s kind of Emma.

GD: There’s a lot to unpack there, of course, but I wanted to start by asking you, you bring up the way that this show deals with children of immigrants and people who were born in this country as immigrants and one of the interesting things about your character, and it’s right in the first episode, is how fiercely defensive she is when anyone tries to question her heritage or her culture. Can you talk a bit about that?

MP: Yeah, I know I’ve experienced this for myself, feeling that at times, I was too Latina for something or not Latina enough for other things and having people really feel the need to place you on a specific place in the spectrum and understanding that as Americans, we really do exist in many different ways. There’s all these colors and nuances that exist in being an American and I think that’s a big part of Emma to be able to create something that is not what people expect. She really actually honors her heritage. She honors who she’s from but she feels also pushed away from that so she’s created this place where she’s not completely Mexican, she’s not completely American but she just is who she is with her two feet in that soil wherever she is, and I think that’s something that we see a lot with a lot of immigrant communities, whether it is Mexican or Cuban or Jewish American or Italian American, just throughout the history as the American story, is that a lot of times you don’t feel completely at home in this country that you associate with but you’re told that you are not meant to feel at home here in the United States, so essentially home is where your feet are standing and it’s that neighborhood and I think you see that a lot throughout the series and throughout Emma’s journey where she really wants to run away from it but you can’t. It’s a part of who you are.

GD: You bring up the issues with her mother. In the first episode there’s a bit of mystery surrounding what it is exactly that happened between the two of you and later on, of course, that’s clarified and why her having been married to a woman would be so deeply hurtful to Emma. Could you talk a bit more about that?

MP: Yeah, I think a lot of times as parents, and I’m not a parent so I’m speaking on behalf of parents but what I can understand even just from my own experience with my parents and from my friends that are parents is that you really do the best you can with what you’re given. And I truly believe that Vidalia really pushed that down with Emma because essentially it was something she was pushing down within herself, so it was a bit of her gay shame that she was just pushing away and I think that Vidalia really felt that she was doing the best that she could because she knew as a Mexican American woman growing up in the United States in a place where you’re told that you’re an other constantly, then on top of it being a queer woman, was like another nish nish so she was like, “No, no, no, just move away. Get it away from me. I can’t see it.” And you see also the way that Vidalia pushed my sister Lyn to be all about men, “Be with men. Be with men.” So there’s this interesting thing that you really see and I think it’s really important for parents to understand that even though maybe it is something that you don’t see and something that doesn’t resonate within you, how if you really push that upon a child at a very young age, you create this damage for a long time that isn’t worth it, because there’s nothing wrong with falling in love, really. It’s like, “Oh, you fell in love with someone of the same gender so therefore it’s wrong.” I think we see that.

GD: Right, you bring up the sister and obviously that is a very pivotal relationship in the show. Can you talk a bit about Emma’s relationship with Lyn?

MP: Emma and Lyn are the same sides of a different coin. Emma and Lyn took very different routes and it’s really important, and I think you do throughout the series is you see the love there, but it’s family, right? So this show, really the fabric of it, is this Latinx community that we’re inviting you to understand and to see and to explore but essentially we realize that all of us want the same things and all of us have very similar experiences so family drama is always gonna be family drama and I think you see that a lot with Lyn and Emma, how they really love each other and that love is there, but Emma especially won’t allow herself to be loved because she’s been taught that love hurts and people will disappoint you so you just expect that from people and you go on. Lyn sees Emma for who she is, and Emma isn’t used to that. Emma has created this persona in the world and throughout the series we actually see that persona get taken off brick by brick by brick so their relationship is a really special one and a very unique one in Emma’s life because nobody else knows the Emma that used to be scared at night and want to sneak into the bed with her little sister but then get mad at her that she was in the bed in the morning or whatever. That’s family and that’s the way that we are and heaven forbid anybody say anything about your family. It’s on. But you can say whatever and you can judge them but if anybody else says it, you’re like, “Oh hell no.”

GD: Working with Melissa Barrera, can you talk a bit about that?

MP: Working with Melissa was just a dream. I kind of came on late in the game, about a week and a half before we started shooting and it was definitely a little bit intimidating ‘cause I was like, “This is a cast that already knows each other and they worked together and here I am coming in,” and I couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming, more generous person to work with, because especially characters like Emma, you have to be able to just go there. I feel the same way with Ser [Anzoategui], who plays my stepmom. There was a definite feeling of safety where, in order to create stuff that’s amazing, it either has to really suck or be horrible or be amazing, and that’s it. So there was this kind of amazing space to just throw it out there and be like, “I was really bad, let’s try it again and let’s keep going,” and it is a dream to be able to work with an actor that really creates that for you and creates that safe space where you can just go for it and be like, “Oh, okay that didn’t work out the way I thought. Let’s try it again,” and she was just so forgiving and so generous, so working with her really was a beautiful experience and school, because it’s my first TV show and I didn’t fully expect to be the lead of a TV show on my first thing.

GD: Nobody does.

MP: I know (laughs).

GD: To that point, working with the creative team of directors and writers, what do they give you in order to help you create that familial bond and to help you do these rather intense emotional scenes?

MP: Being that this was my first TV show, I feel intensely spoiled, because I get told all the time that shows like this come once in a lifetime and I hope that that’s not true because I really give huge credit to Tanya Saracho for creating an environment where there was no hierarchy. We’re all just working. So I’ll go to lunch with the writers even still now that the shoot’s done and we’re always in contact and texting, coming into the writers’ room, bringing them juices and whatever. I think that that’s a huge testament to Tanya because she’s really about inspiriting and empowering each other to really feel like we can go further than we realize so the writers created this incredible opportunity for us. There was this river running through and we just put our little boats on it, built our boats the best we could and then just went on the river that they created for us. So I don’t know what it’s like on other shows but I know on our show, being able to be up close and personal with the writers and having discussions and honestly, sometimes I feel like they’re spying on us. “My fear is this,” and then it ends up in. You’re like, “I said that in my house!” But I think it really creates a beautiful synergy that I don’t know if it happens all the time and I think also, our writers’ room being entirely Latinx creates a beauty that is… I feel like it hasn’t been seen. I think a lot of times you have a token Latinx person or a black person or Asian person that speaks on behalf of their people and with our show, it really created these nuances and these really three-dimensional, rich, yummy characters to get to dig into and I know I have never, ever, ever auditioned for anything like this before in my entire life and then let alone getting to play a character and also getting pushed past the abilities that I even thought were possible. It’s like a dream.

GD: To that point, the show deals with issues of cultural identity and within that also, it deals with issues of gentrification and East Los Angeles changing a lot. Can you talk a bit about that?

MP: Yeah, change is inevitable and it’s something that we need to understand but also need to discuss because I think a lot of people don’t realize that we have these communities, especially of people that are immigrant communities or have come from other countries and quite a few people are multigenerational in these communities so even if you weren’t an immigrant, your grandparent was an immigrant, your mom was an immigrant and it took a lot to work there and to get there and it’s going back to what we were discussing where, here’s these people who don’t really feel comfortable in Mexico but they feel very Mexican but are told in the United States that they don’t really belong there, so then what does that exist in this world? How are we making that work? I know for me, my mom, it was really important for me to be able to speak English without an accent even though Spanish was my first language and I remember being in the grocery store and speaking Spanish to a friend of mine and having somebody turn around and look at me and say, “You should speak English. You’re in this country now.” And then me speaking in English in a perfect accent and being like, “Actually, I do know how to speak English. I just was speaking Spanish to my friend.” I can only imagine what that would be like for somebody that maybe didn’t speak English for me and how that becomes something that, you’re made to feel like an other and we’ve been made to be felt like others for a really long time.

So with these storylines I think it is really important to understand why these neighborhoods are so important because for a lot of these communities, this is home. They don’t feel home in the United States or home in Mexico or whatever, Cuba, Dominican Republic, but they feel home there and you have these developers coming through and just excavating and colonizing, essentially, these neighborhoods because they’re hip and cool, without any type of consciousness and I think that the show does a really good job of not giving you an exact answer but it gives you these ideas to discuss and just to be aware of. If we can understand that less than 20% of the people in these neighborhoods own their houses because they can’t afford it. So when you displace them you’re displacing essentially their identity and unfortunately it isn’t even displacing them to another community. Some of them end up becoming homeless because they can’t even afford to live in Los Angeles anymore. So I think if we can really use this platform to just bring awareness, I think we’re in a good place to at least have a conversation about it.

GD: To that point also, the show is very specific in its portrayal of Latinx communities but it’s also in the way that it’s about family and about loss and love and things like that, very universal. So I think it can go a long way in perhaps closing some of those gaps that we have culturally.

MP: It’s crazy too because we fear what we don’t know, so the more that we can get to know each other, the better place that we’ll be. We’ll humanize each other, because I feel like that’s one of the things, the phenomenons that’s happening in cities. In cities we’re all kind of misking together and doing whatever we need to do, so we get exposed to a lot of different types of people and then I feel like you’re like, “Oh, I know a trans person. I know what they need and what they love and yeah, there’s nothing really that intimidating about that,”, or, “I know a gay couple and they’re actually a lot similar.” We saw that a bit with “Modern Family” in really showing what a normal gay couple married with a kid looks like and start realizing you can kind of laugh and be like, “Oh yeah, my husband does that or my wife does that.” So it isn’t about them being gay or them being trans or Latinx. And I think if we can really shed that, because essentially what we present to the world is just this little iceberg and we scratch at it and we start seeing there’s so much more and we realize we’re a lot more the same that we are different. We all want security, we want to be loved, we want to feel safe, so what’s the problem? Let’s just start understanding that about each other. We’re human beings. We’re a human race.

GD: Well thank you so much and congratulations on the show. It premieres on May 6th, so thank you for your time.

MP: Zach, it was great talking to you. Thank you so much.

GD: Thank you, same here. Have a good one.

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