Lauren Vélez grew up in New York City and started her career by pounding the pavements on the audition lines.
The actor fondly remembers lining up early outside the Actor’s Equity offices on 46th Street in Manhattan to sign up for spots. “I was very proud of my actor bag,” she says. “I had two monologues (comedic and dramatic) and two songs (up-tempo and ballad), 16 bars of each, and I had ballet shoes and jazz shoes and a couple of plays in my bags. I always felt like I was very prepared for what was going to come.”
What came was a slew of big breaks at an early age, and a long, distinguished, career in theater, film, and television. She received a scholarship at the Alvin Ailey Dance School right after high school; a role in the touring production of “Dreamgirls”; the part of The Witch’s double in the original Broadway production of “Into the Woods”; a major film debut in “I Like It Like That”; leading television roles in “New York Undercover” and “Oz”; acclaimed guest spots on “Numb3rs” and “Ugly Betty”; and, of course, where Vélez can be seen now: a part in Showtime’s hit “Dexter,” which premiered its seventh season on Sunday.
On the heels of Vélez’s upcoming passion project “They Call Me La Lupa,” the seasoned actor tells Backstage about her journey through auditions, the new season of “Dexter,’ and full-circle moments.
What were the early days of auditioning like for you
Vélez: I actually got my very first two jobs from open calls I read in Backstage. One was for Theater for the New City, which was for a street theater play called “Keep Truckin.” The other, for the touring production of “Dreamgirls.” I read Backstage religiously. It was like, the actor’s bible.
Not having a picture and resume, I went into the “Dreamgirls” casting thinking, “What are the chances? I’m never going to get this.” It was pretty terrifying because there were so many women there, and they typed us out first, then put us through singing, dancing, etc. And I remember the casting director came out and said, “Look, if you don’t have serious vocal lungs – we’re talking Jennifer Holiday lungs – don’t even bother.” And I thought, “Come on!” Nobody has lungs like that.” And then I got the gig.
Amazing! The training you had at a young age must have helped. Would you recommend young actors try and build a similar foundation?
Vélez: Absolutely. There are a million beautiful faces out there and at the end of the day, what’s really going to get you over is your craft and your technique. Anyone can walk on and say a line and do this. But if you really want to act, study. Hone your craft. The rest, you learn as you go. Nobody can prepare you for the craft of being on the set. That’s experiential. But if you are prepared, and you know you have a solid technique, that’s what’s going to keep you going. That’s what’s going to allow you to do the actual job. The rest of it, that’s just the mechanics.
Both “Oz” and “Dexter” are pretty dark shows. What attracted you to those projects?
Vélez: Well what I loved about “Oz” was that it was completely different from everything around then. At the time I didn’t know how dark it was going to get. I was like, “Prison doctor? She’s not going to be in that whole mess!” Little did I know.
When I first read “Dexter,” immediately I said I wasn’t interested. Even just the theme, I thought, “I don’t know if I want to do that kind of show.” I try and be as responsible as I can, and without sounding self-righteous or preachy, I just wasn’t sure if I was ready to see a show about a serial killer. And I was so blown away by the writing that I the actor in me thought, “How can you not be part of this?”
Well Dexter may be the serial killer, but your character, Maria LaGuerta, is the one who’ll stick the knife in your back.
Vélez: She’s really great and incredibly complex, and sometimes we don’t get to see the machinations and the emotional light that drives her to make the decisions. You’re talking about someone who came from another country, from Cuba, by herself, who really had to force her way, not speaking the language, and who’s become the captain of the police department. That is huge for any woman, let alone somebody who came from somewhere else. And the toll it’s taken on her to achieve this dream she’s had, which is ultimately to become mayor, and keep going politically.
What can we expect from LaGuerta this season?
Vélez: This season is going to be pretty shocking and amazing. I get to delve in a little bit more into who LaGuerta is as a woman. At the end of the day, the thing that’s most important for her is success. It’s what she needs to feel – what she needs to believe about herself.
Speaking of challenges, what’s this new Kickstarter campaign for “They Call Me La Lupe” all about?
Vélez: “La Lupe” is my passion project. I’ve done it as a one-woman show, but I’m raising money to turn it into a film. It’s a story of a Cuban singer who became the Queen of Latin Soul, the first woman on the NY salsa scene. Between ‘61 and ‘71, she achieved this incredible fame, and it’s sort of a rags to riches to rags feeling of redemption. The music is incredible and the time period is incredible. This woman performed in such a way that people thought she was possessed or obsessed or on drugs. Her performances were so incredibly dynamic…She was so incredibly in the moment of what she was doing, it was explosive. And she made people feel uncomfortable. And she was so ahead of her time. Back then, she was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before….And I have been dying to play this character for a while.
Singing? Dancing? Acting? Sounds like that triple threat training will be on display again.
Vélez: I hadn’t thought about that. There’s a kind of full-circle quality about it. Now I’m scared!
"Dexter" airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.