Ana Villafañe has played some iconic roles on the stage and screen, most notably starring as Gloria Estefan in the Broadway musical “On Your Feet!” and Dr. Valentina Castro on NBC’s “New Amsterdam.” We talked to her about what inspired her to succeed in the arts and why she wants to see more Latinos follow her lead.
To what degree has your success allowed you to be a proponent for more Latin inclusion in the arts?
My own inclusion in this industry has been a product of the doors that had to be opened before me, so I simply aim to keep that going. I have been selective because I know I want to see brown faces portrayed with dignity on screen and on stage. At times that has been a difficult choice but I have a huge amount of respect for the integrity of representation.
I hope that choosing to play smart, capable, empowered women of color inspires more of the same. I had to learn to empower myself in order to empower others. In my opinion, the power and influence of art can help create a better world in that way.
Many Hispanics are unable to attend college for a variety of reasons. How did your college education help to better your life?
My parents worked hard to give me access to education and I am fully aware of that privilege, but it was up to me to act on it. I earned a degree in classical music (vocal pedagogy to be exact, which is the performance of opera), with a double major in sociology and a minor in dance.
It took a long time to graduate. I had to pay my way through school while working, but I’ve always had a natural curiosity and thirst for information. Plus, I am really stubborn. I was once told by an acquaintance that I was “not the type who actually graduates.” Looking back, I am grateful for the ignorance of that person because they actually fueled me to go farther.
How was your experience breaking into Broadway?
The Broadway community is special in that it truly is a community. I moved to New York from Los Angeles with a dream job, an iconic role, a huge responsibility, and SO MUCH to learn. The entertainment industry is “sink or swim,” and theater takes that to an extreme level. Eight shows a week requires the discipline, talent, mindset, and lifestyle of an Olympic athlete.
I’m forever changed and grateful for the respect I gained, and for the people who took the time to help guide me through it. As the new kid in New York, I felt surprisingly welcome and supported. I would not have been able to sustain the show otherwise — it would have been too much pressure on my shoulders.
You previously said that when you were younger, people told you to change your last name. What made you decide that wasn’t the right decision for you?
Moving to Los Angeles at 18, I had already left my family, friends, and everything I knew behind. I was not about to lose my identity and conform to one-dimensional standards while also potentially disrespecting my dad. I am sure he would never admit it, but I think it would have hurt his feelings.
I am an actor. By definition, it should not matter what my name is. Give me the script and I will become whatever is on the page. I am not worthy of a role “despite my last name.” I am worthy of a role because of the quality of perspective my last name has enriched me with.
Also, I low-key love my last name. As a kid, I hated how hard it was to pronounce, but I’m proud to have grown out of that shame mindset.
Of your role as Dr. Valentina Castro on “New Amsterdam,” you have said that people would praise your character if she were a man. Can you expand on this?
There tend to be major double standards between men and women. Men who are opinionated, driven, goal-oriented, and competitive often win praise. These are qualities of strength, confidence and conviction — even if their actions are questionable (looking at you, Tony Soprano).
In developing how to play Dr. Castro, I wanted to make sure she always walked into a room as if she owned the place. Castro is meant to be a direct foil and counterpart to Freema (Agyeman)’s Dr. Helen Sharpe, and it was my (very tough) job to constantly challenge her.
I am in love with the fact that our “New Amsterdam” writers created a space for two brilliant alpha-females who are at the top of their game to engage in a power struggle. And the fact that both characters are played by women of color was the icing on the cake. I prefer for the world to focus on that.