This Is How She Makes It

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Latina finds ways to overcome the challenges of breaking into the entertainment industry.

Not many people are able to say they had the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of their biggest influence. For Judianny Compres, a thirty-something actress in New York City, today is that day. Her face would be most familiar to mainstream audiences for her role opposite Eddie Murphy in Tower Heist. On this day though, she beams with excitement as she chats about the full circle moment that awaits her, an audition for director Ivo van Hove, whose production of the play A Streetcar Named Desire inspired her during the early stages of her acting career. 

Most people are overcome with nerves at such a moment, but Compres is as cool as the unsweetened iced tea she’s sipping. “Opportunity meets preparedness,” she said, noting that there’s nothing she can do except lay it all on that stage. 

The Dominican actress earned her undergraduate degree in theater at the CUNY Baccalaureate program—an honors program where students may pick courses in their major from any of the CUNY schools—before studying at Stella Adler and then HB Studio, all of which has helped her hone a confidence that prepared her for this audition. Compres is trying for any of three female lead roles in the Ingmar Bergman play Scenes From a Marriage being put on by the New York Theater Workshop, which combines the experience of performing with nurturing artists’ individual work. “My hope is that not everybody has to be white, especially with this director who’s a visionary,”said the Latina with cinnamon brown skin and honey colored hair. “I’m hoping that he will have the vision to incorporate a more 2014 New York, more diverse.” 

The talk of more diversity extends beyond New York and into Tinseltown with the question on everyone’s mind: is this the year of Latinos in entertainment? With controversial television shows like Devious Maids—providing five Latina lead roles— premiering their second season and the success of Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, the number of roles opening up for Latinas has been growing. Some argue it isn’t enough and that the roles offered do not capture Latinos in all their complexities. According to a study by USC released in October 2013, Hispanics are up there in numbers as movie goers, at 26%, and yet only 4.2% of the speaking roles are of their own.

So what is the root of this disparity? And how can the issue become less talk and more action?

Compres believes the cycle starts early on with the lack of encouragement the Latino youth receives to pursue careers in the arts. A career as a lawyer or doctor would garner more pats on the back from her family than her acting credits, she notes. Her mother has warned her about a lifelong career in acting saying, “You’re thinking of pajaritos preñaos (pipe dreams).”. By supporting children from an early age and encouraging them to get involved in the arts, the future of diverse inclusion in film and television stands a chance. And as millennials align themselves in power positions within the media and entertainment world, they will help cultivate a greater respect for the arts in their Latino communities, she predicts. “The generational component is key.”.

As a film history professor at University of Texas at Austin, Charles Ramirez-Berg agrees that part of the solution is generational. “It’s just kind of human nature for first generation Latinos who go to college to seek out a life-long profession, like being a doctor or lawyer,” he says and “it’s the next generation that has the opportunity to explore.”That is the generation that will increase Latino inclusion in film, Ramirez-Berg believes, and “in our history, in the history of Latinos, that generation is now.” 

Latinos also need to become content producers, Compres argues. “To have writers and producers developing content that’s inclusive,” will drive the future of Latino representation on the big screen.

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Compres also abides by this standard as she maneuvers her own career goals. She’s currently working on a screenplay called In The Cargo that tells the story of a Dominican immigrant and her treacherous journey to the states in search of a better life. She believes that universal themes can transcend race, mentioning movies like Maria Full of Grace, a Spanish-language movie whose story arc of a pregnant woman trafficking drugs into the United States captured audience’s attention, regardless of language. In the movie A Better Life cited by Ramirez-Berg, the story at surface seems to be about a Mexican immigrant, but the tale of a father and son stirs up universal emotions. “There’s this curious thing that the more specific you make it, the more universal it becomes,”said Ramirez-Berg.

Compres also thinks the classics can be colorblind. “These great stories, like Ibsen and Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, transcend race and ethnicity, “she says, “but oftentimes the vision of the creator, of the director is not there, they only see white.”She’s not opposed to chasing roles she knows lend themselves to inclusivity. “A lot of times they’re not looking for Latinas but I know the story is not white specific so I go and show them I can do the job,” said Compres crediting this go-getter attitude for helping her land a few gigs. 

The same could be said of the Spy Kids series written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. Ramirez-Berg points out that the movie series are centered around the Cortes family although “there’s nothing in that story that says they have to be Latino.” He believes part of the success that surrounds Robert Rodriguez is his focus on creating genre movies that happen to have Latinos or be Spanish-language. 

Still, there have been plenty of times when Compres reads through casting call lists seeking Caucasian, Caucasian, Caucasian. Plenty of times when they’ve told her  “you need more of an accent.” Plenty of times when they’ve told her “you need to be more Latina.” But what makes a Latina more Latina? Perhaps it’s the sexy coke bottle image that’s been drilled into audiences.

The study by USC also reveals the alarmingly prevalent sexualization of Hispanic women. According to the study, “Hispanic females are more likely to be depicted in sexy attire and partially naked than Black or White females.”The sexualized Latina portrayed in films translates into complications for Latinas seeking respect and growth in the entertainment industry. Take for instance the money-well that Sofia Vergara has filled to the brim with her curvaceous dumb Latina act in the Emmy Award winning sitcom Modern Family. There’s also Jennifer Lopez, whose round romp made having a big booty a trait to appreciate.

The pressure of sexualized Latinas dates back over a century according to Ramirez-Berg, who details the harlot character in Westerners, with their floral skirts and exposed shoulders, as intentionally created to be the “very alluring but they’re dangerous” figure.

Xiomara Medina, a film editor and aspiring singer, has felt the strain of the sexualized Latina image displayed in the media. For many people in the industry, networking events are useful to landing gigs, but Medina says she has found it difficult to get the respect she works hard for because of her physical appearance. The curvy Puerto Rican with long blonde highlighted hair  has learned that the extra effort of dressing more conservatively than usual is necessary if she wants the focus to be on her work and not her cleavage. “As a woman, a lot of men want to date you. That’s a big challenge. How do you tell somebody that you need an opportunity from that you don’t want to date them?” said Medina. “Stick with the people who are taking you seriously and giving you the opportunities.” 

While Medina has felt the pressure of Latina sexualization in her professional encounters, Compres has felt the same when walking into auditions. Seeing model-looking women chasing the same roles she’s there for. Oh I’m never going to get the job. But sometimes she does. 

Medina also encourages Latinas to create their own content. She implements this in her own life by using her video editing skills to direct and produce the music videos for her songs. Her bilingual skills proved to be an advantage when she got one of her first major film editing jobs on the film about salsa singer Hector Lavoe, The King. She was able to edit the film with an understanding of Hector Lavoe as an artist while also comprehending the content in both English and Spanish.

Both Compres and Medina strongly urge the public to back up Latino projects. That means when a movie as telling as Cesar Chavez is released, there shouldn’t be an empty seat in the theater during opening weekend. If the audience does not show up for a Latino project, the funding for the next one will be that much harder to gather. 

Compres’s mentor Zachary Sklar knows how tough the film industry is when it comes to seeking out financial support for a project. Sklar, an Academy Award nominee for his screenwriting work on JFK, has mentored her through the writing process of three screenplays, one of which—Happy New Year!— was made into a film that was screened at Cannes. 

He knows she has her work cut out for her on her most recent screenplay In The Cargo, when he admits, “I don’t think it’s the traditional commercial vehicle that people in the film industry are looking for, so that’s why it’s rough.” So her plans to bring her screenplay to film festivals and network will be key. “She’s also good at talking to people and making connections and getting out there, and that’s half the battle,” said Sklar. “In this case she has the goods, the work is really excellent.” 

The effort to increase the presence of Latina women in Hollywood is as the saying goes, it takes a village, or un pueblo. The actresses must be prepared to show their best performances to nail the roles that aren’t necessarily for Latinas, and develop their careers in order to fill those behind the scenes positions as well. Taking on all the roles guarantees that there will be more voices in the industry vying for Latinas and telling those stories from the community that need to be heard. Sklar has witnessed Compres’s dedication to giving voice to such stories, “She felt a moral responsibility to tell the story of people who really can’t speak for themselves, they don’t have a voice in the mainstream media, and Judianny has that voice and she’s willing to do the research and talk to these people, which she did.” 

While she waits on callbacks for her audition, she’s still buzzing around working and networking. “It’s a very exciting time to be a Latino in the industry,” said Compres, “but it’s not enough, there has to be more.”And she’s dead set on contributing to that. “I just don’t know how to quit.”

Photo Source: Judianny Compres

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