Selenis Leyva on How ‘OITNB’ Broke the TV Mold + Why the Fight Continues

Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

From early-career gigs on “Law & Order” to series regular work on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” as Gloria (Season 6 returns July 27) and AMC’s “Dietland” as Soledad, the leader of an underground feminist vigilante sect, Selenis Leyva has always been a proponent of transparency on- and offscreen—little things like sharing her first-ever headshot on Instagram and big ones like speaking out about diversity in Hollywood. Here, she shares what she would tell the young woman in that #TBT and more.

I hear you’re a fan of Backstage.
Yes! Backstage was, for years, my manager [and] my agent. There is not an actor in the world who has not used Backstage at one point or another, whether it’s to read the great articles or for employment. You can’t be an actor and not know what Backstage is. It’s almost like you can’t be a New York actor and not have a “Law & Order” credit.

I saw your first headshot on Instagram. Tell us about it!
That was, like, my first headshot at the age of 18 years old, and I was fresh-faced, ready to attack and conquer the world. I look at that smile and I go, “Oh, poor baby. Oh, poor sweetheart.” But what kept me going all those years was that part of your youth where you believe you can conquer anything. I think when you’re young, you don’t believe in failure, and thank God for that, because that got me through years and years of rejection and the reality of it not being easy for me—not only as a woman but as a Latina, and not just as a Latina but as an Afro-Latina. For years, I had to hold onto the thought of, There is no failure, I’m going to go for this. That’s what that picture reminded me of.

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And you have a few “Law and Order” gigs! Are there any that stick out in your mind as being the most memorable?
I always joke [that] I started out as a prostitute and then moved my way up the ranks. So it was like a prostitute, a defendant, and then it went from a cop to a detective. Dick Wolf did wonders for us New York actors for so many years and continues to do so.

Now you’re behind bars on “Orange Is the New Black” is large. Is it difficult to dig into the different relationships Gloria has with the large ensemble?
I think that the writers do a really good job in honing in on characters. They do a really good job at changing your scene partners. At least for me, I’ve had a really wonderful time where I morphed out of just working with the Latin girls and started really going out of the box and out of the norm. She was in the kitchen, and then once that fell through, I still find that Gloria gets around. She’s like the busy bee in the sense. Last season, I did spend lot of time by myself. I felt like I was on the phone a lot. The biggest joke last season was “Another phone conversation!” I had a lot of those moments, but I also got to work with the COs—a lot of the actors who played other characters that I’ve never interacted with, so I loved that. Then Season 6 we’ll see her also exploring different stuff.

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What kind of stuff?
It is a whole new world, and for Gloria, you will see her pretty much start the season looking for blood. It’s all about vengeance for her, it’s all about revenge. So that was really interesting to tap into because she’s always so sane and always so the mother hen, always the voice of reason. And for a bit there, she kind of goes off, too.

What advice would you give that younger self? I would say to her, “Sweetheart, it’s going to take years for people to figure out what to do with you.” I, as a Latina woman, would walk into auditions and know even without opening my mouth that I wasn’t going to be considered for the role because I didn’t look like the women sitting in the waiting room.

Also, I’d say it’s going to take 20 years to be an overnight success, honey, so buckle down. If I would have gotten the fame that I thought I was going to get fresh out of Laguardia High School…. We were all told that it would be about seven years before we would hit fame and stardom. If I would’ve listened to that, I would not be here right now. If I had become famous at the age of 18, I don’t know if I would have had a long career. Because for me, it’s about longevity. A real actor will always aim for longevity in this industry, not for that one-hit-wonder. It’s about being able to grow, grow old, and get jobs. And how do you do that? You do that by living life, by having experiences, by continuing to grow, by doing theater, by doing independent films, by doing everything under the sun and living and knowing what it is to not have a job and knowing what it is to come home crying because you’ve had 10 auditions and you’ve gotten nothing. That that builds character.

How important is it for actors to see characters as diverse as the ones on “Orange Is the New Black”?
It’s great to be part of a groundbreaking show like “Orange Is The New Black,” but the reality is that when this show came out six years ago, everybody was like, “Wow, this is amazing. So groundbreaking. Diversity, yay!” Patting us on the back. I thought, Wow, this is the movement that was started. And then six years later, everything kind of still is the same. There are very few shows that I feel truly are diverse. You can’t say you’re diverse and just have a black and white cast. You can’t say you’re diverse and have one token person. We’ve seen that for years and years. True diversity is a show like “Orange Is the New Black,” where you have not only race, but you have difference in age. It’s OK to show women over the age of 50, 60. The beautiful thing about “Orange” was that we introduced that, but unfortunately, everyone keeps going and saying, “Oh, this is so great,” but nobody is following suit and opening more doors for a cast this diverse. I am disappointed six years into it because I thought that we would make a change. We have started changes in conversation about prison reform, transgender people—all that is wonderful. But we’re the only ones really doing it and tackling it. So it’s kind of scary that we’re coming to the end of it. And will it be like, “Remember how that show ‘Orange Is the New Black’ really was about diversity?” That would be a very sad thing. So far I don’t see anybody making any changes.

Why do you think that is?
People talk about how much they want change to happen, but it takes a lot of courage to make change happen. And Jenji [Kohan] and the writers were like, “Yes, we’re going to do this. We’re going to get in your face and we’re not going to be apologetic about it.” I don’t think a lot of people have that in them. I’m excited that Marti Noxon is coming on board with “Dietland.” I think that she is a promising voice there. Could it be the show that takes us again? I don’t know, but I would love to see somebody really tackle the true issue of diversity, that it’s not just black and white, that it’s not just adding one character of another race. It’s more than that: it’s body, it’s age, it’s disability. We all have stories to tell and we all deserve our stories to be told. I have hope and have faith that it’s not just a phase.

It is a whole new world, and for Gloria, you will see her pretty much start the season looking for blood. It’s all about vengeance for her, it’s all about revenge. So that was really interesting to tap into because she’s always so sane and always so the mother hen, always the voice of reason. And for a bit there, she kind of goes off, too.

How important is it for actors to see characters as diverse as the ones on “Orange Is the New Black”?
It’s great to be part of a groundbreaking show like “Orange Is The New Black,” but the reality is that when this show came out six years ago, everybody was like, “Wow, this is amazing. So groundbreaking. Diversity, yay!” Patting us on the back. I thought, Wow, this is the movement that was started. And then six years later, everything kind of still is the same. There are very few shows that I feel truly are diverse. You can’t say you’re diverse and just have a black and white cast. You can’t say you’re diverse and have one token person. We’ve seen that for years and years. True diversity is a show like “Orange Is the New Black,” where you have not only race, but you have difference in age. It’s OK to show women over the age of 50, 60. The beautiful thing about “Orange” was that we introduced that, but unfortunately, everyone keeps going and saying, “Oh, this is so great,” but nobody is following suit and opening more doors for a cast this diverse. I am disappointed six years into it because I thought that we would make a change. We have started changes in conversation about prison reform, transgender people—all that is wonderful. But we’re the only ones really doing it and tackling it. So it’s kind of scary that we’re coming to the end of it. And will it be like, “Remember how that show ‘Orange Is the New Black’ really was about diversity?” That would be a very sad thing. So far I don’t see anybody making any changes.

Why do you think that is?
People talk about how much they want change to happen, but it takes a lot of courage to make change happen. And Jenji [Kohan] and the writers were like, “Yes, we’re going to do this. We’re going to get in your face and we’re not going to be apologetic about it.” I don’t think a lot of people have that in them. I’m excited that Marti Noxon is coming on board with “Dietland.” I think that she is a promising voice there. Could it be the show that takes us again? I don’t know, but I would love to see somebody really tackle the true issue of diversity, that it’s not just black and white, that it’s not just adding one character of another race. It’s more than that: it’s body, it’s age, it’s disability. We all have stories to tell and we all deserve our stories to be told. I have hope and have faith that it’s not just a phase.

What have your latest roles on “Orange Is the New Black” and “Dietland” added to your acting skills? I like playing every type of role, but I like being a strong woman. I love that as an Afro-Latina, I can portray someone with strength. With this role on “Dietland” specifically, she is tough. She is in control and she knows what she wants. This is a woman who has built a revolution, and she is different than Gloria. They have in common that they’re tough women, but they come from different worlds, and they’re delivering their strength in different ways.

How do you keep yourself from burning out? Being a mom, wearing a different hat. Acting has taught me to keep balance in my life. I support the LGBTQ community, and then I have other things, like the Maestro Cares Foundation, which builds orphanages all over Latin America and the Caribbean and the U.S. I can say this to any actor: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. And by that I mean be well-rounded in other areas. If you think that you can just be an actor nowadays and just live off of that, good luck. Do you write? Do you want to direct? Do you want to paint? Find something that takes you out of this rat race so that you feel human, too.

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