How a Dancing Career Prepared Jaina Lee Ortiz for Acting

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Photo Source: Illustration: Nathan Arizona/Photo: ABC/Image Group LA

Jaina Lee Ortiz is best known as Detective Annalise Villa on Fox’s “Rosewood,” but soon she’ll star in “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Station 19,” a firehouse drama premiering March 22 on ABC. For this daughter of a NYC homicide detective, playing police officers and firefighters comes as naturally as salsa dancing, which she did professionally for 14 years. With a strict workout regimen, a no-smoking and no-drinking policy, and a vigorous work ethic, this star speaks with Backstage about how she’s making the most of her dream.

Can you talk about your current role on ‘Station 19’ and what it’s adding to your acting skills?
[I play] Andy Herrera. She’s a second-generation firefighter and the epitome of an alpha female. She’s a natural-born leader who goes after what she wants. The thing I love most about her is that she’s flawed. As episodes go by, we’ll get to discover her brilliance combined with her drive for perfection, which I find both interesting and relatable. Basically, I’m playing a character who’s everything I want to be when I grow up.

If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?
Enjoy the journey. Have fun. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, so make sure to have as much fun as you can. With acting comes sacrifice, so make sure to take care of yourself and love yourself. And surround yourself with positive people…because that’s what’s important as an actor: your support system.

You talk about the bumpiness of the ride. Did you ever have a survival job or side hustle?
You know, it’s interesting! I’m married to a man who is super supportive, selfless, and understanding of this industry. He wanted me to succeed in every way. While he was working his 9-to-5 as a video game animator, he made sure that I was ready and available for any acting opportunity I could get. So, basically, I didn’t have a survival job. The pressure that came with that, with my husband’s encouragement, [was that] he made sure I was putting myself on tape, taking classes and workshops, and auditioning for commercials, student films, anything!

Do you have an audition story that sticks out?
I remember auditioning for “Limitless,” and I completely bombed. I had a friend who knew the casting director, and she gave me advice to not hold the sides in the room. Me avoiding the paper made it twice as complicated, and it put me in my head. It was the most embarrassing audition of my life. As soon as the audition was over, I cried my eyes out, and by the time I got home, I thought to myself, I need to give this dream a break and maybe focus on another career, because I don’t think I can take it anymore. I don’t think I’m strong enough for this career. Two days later, I got an audition for “Rosewood” and I thought, There’s nothing to lose! Let me at least give it one more try!

What keeps you from burning out?
I honestly don’t know. TV drama schedules are very hectic, and I find that my mom, husband, and dad truly keep me grounded. Checking in with them daily helps me remember that I’m living my dream and I am having the time of my life. I honestly have no vice; I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I work out almost every day, and with the early call times I sometimes have to be in the gym at three in the morning. So, essentially, I have no life! But at the end of the day, I have a really close group of friends that I absolutely love, and they genuinely support me.

You mention your parents. Your dad was a NYC detective, right?
Yes, my dad is a retired First Grade homicide detective.

You’ve played a detective and now you’re playing a firefighter, both these incredible public service characters. What have you learned from your dad in portraying these roles?
Well, what’s interesting is I’ve had four roles in my career so far, and they have been a rookie cop, a homicide detective, a Marine, and now a firefighter. And with my dad’s background as a detective, he’s taught me how to control most situations with calm, awareness, and respect. I basically channel him whenever I can. Although cops have a bad reputation, in every profession there are good and bad apples. So I try to be the good. I basically try to be my dad.

You have a background in salsa dancing, yes?
I was a professional salsa dancer for 14 years!

What has that background contributed to your acting skills?
My dancing was basically the inspiration for my dream to be an actor. I loved the idea of being on stage and performing. However, three minutes wasn’t enough. And so, the discipline of dance has taught me, with rehearsals and putting in constant hard work, that I was able to transfer that work ethic into acting. And I knew to be the best performer, I had to practice.

READ: 10 Things to Know When Transitioning From a Dancer to an Actor

On March 1, there’s going to be a crossover episode between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19.” What was it like shooting that?
Shooting “Grey’s Anatomy” was surreal. I think it hit me in one of the scenes where I had my hand in a 9-year-old’s stomach. And I remember looking at one of the other actors and saying, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe I’m on the set of ‘Grey’s Anatomy!’ ” To be a part of a show that’s lasted for 14 years and has made TV history is extremely incredible and I’m super honored.

Do you have a favorite movie that you would recommend all actors see?
It’s actually one of my favorites, and I think it’s the best character study work: “Monster” with Charlize Theron—and it’s written and directed by Patty Jenkins. That is one of my dream roles. I would love to play a character like that one day. I feel like if actors want to truly see a transformation on camera that is very visceral, it’s “Monster.” You can’t get any more raw and edgy.

I understand you are of Puerto Rican descent. Is there anything you’d like to express, especially in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Maria?
I’m second-generation Puerto Rican. And although I wasn’t born in Puerto Rico—I was born in the States—my grandparents still live in Puerto Rico. I feel like my heart lives on that island in a way. I do want to say that I support everyone who lives on the island and I understand what they’re going through, especially not feeling like they’re part of the United States. I am glad that, as a Latina, I can be a voice on TV and give them some sort of hope and inspiration.

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