'Bunheads' Star (And Proud Cubana) Jeanine Mason: "I'm Carrying My Culture On My Shoulders"

If you look inside Jeanine Mason’s childhood journals, you’ll learn that she’s been dreaming about Hollywood for a long time, well before she made history as the youngest winner of So You Think You Can Dance in the Fox’s reality dance competition’s fifth season.

Since then, she’s been putting that same commitment that she used to become an award-winning contemporary dancer into her budding acting career. And now – on the same day she turns 21 (January 14) – the Cuban-American contemporary dancer is making her big debut in her first major acting role on ABC Family’s Bunheads.

In an exclusive interview with Latina.com, Mason talks about her recurring role as the oh-so-cultured Cozette on the ballet dramedy series, her fondest SYTYCD memories and serving as a positive role model. And, she tells us why it's important to her to represent for her fellow Latinas and "carry her culture on her shoulders!" 

You grew up in a dance-oriented family in Southern Florida and started studying dance at the age of three. What’s your first memory of dancing?

I used to do this thing when I was really little where I’d go to a department store with my mom or abuelita; and I’d go and hide inside one of the racks while she shopped. And when I saw a large enough gathering, I would pop out of the racks and start dancing and singing. I think that’s terrifying now in retrospect; I can’t believe I was doing that! But my mom tells me people used to actually entertain me and my performances, they’d watch and clap.

So did you ever think you’d end up in Hollywood?

My intention was to go to New York and pursue Broadway. I was taking voice lessons and I was preparing myself for that. I met with these producers and we did a little workshop and they really liked me and encouraged me to take some film classes and come in and audition for a couple of things and it made me realize that this is what I wanted to do. And suddenly the plan shifted and the direction became L.A. So now to be out here and doing this is crazy.

Tell us about your experience on So You Think You Can Dance. What made you audition, and did you ever think you’d win the whole enchilda?

Hell no! I never thought I’d win. I was actually very resistant to auditioning because I was so set on coming to L.A. My interest was in film and television and I didn’t want the potential of me being on a reality television show to keep me from being able to seriously pursue that. My mom was the one who told me I should audition.

How has winning So You Think You Can Dance changed your life?

It opened up my eyes to my potential and allowed me to realize that I could do a lot more than I believed I could do. It sort of ignited this fire and got me excited to go to war in a sense… My success as a dancer was attained because of the number of hours I put in; and for me that mindset – the hours, the practice – is the same structure now in my acting.

Tell us how your recurring role on ABC Family’s Bunheads came about?

I was thinking of shows where I could be a real asset, brainstorming with my manager on ways I could meet with casting directors or how I could get in a room with them. And Bunheads popped into my mind. And thought, “Oh my god, how did I not think about this show. I love this show. I’ve got to get in this room and be like, ‘Hey, I love this show… and I can act, I swear!’” (Laughs) So I emailed my manager and asked about Bunheads. So it was just serendipitous that 10 weeks later this call came in about this audition for the character of Cozette.

Tell us about the audition experience.

I went to my first audition; and I didn’t even have the sides for the character, it was all so secretive. They didn’t necessarily need someone who was a dancer, which I thought was going to limit my chances. But then I got a call back, and then I went to another call back with [Bunheads creator] Amy Sherman-Palladino, who I’m obsessed with. And we chatted, and I danced for them a bit. And, we did the scene a bunch of times. And, they were really excited and inspired by the dancing. And they thought, “Oh my god, this would be awesome if we got another actor on the show who is really a dancer.” And then I started going into chemistry reads. So it was a really long audition process and the whole time it was just getting me more and more excited, with a little bit of anxiety about not getting the part!

And here I thought you’d say it was a cakewalk since you’re an award-winning dancer and SYTYCD winner.

No, it was not! But when I finally got to the show, I was like, “Okay, I can breathe!”

The show has been criticized for its lack of diversity. How does it feel to bring some sabor to Bunheads?

It’s just a part of me. Anywhere I go, I’m carrying my culture on my shoulders. I’m a product of my hometown and my ethnicity, especially because of the vibrant Cuban community in Miami. So for me, it’s about finding pride in the fact that I’m a Cuban-American actor on the set. And I feel a real responsibility to do the best that I can do and inspire people.

Tell us about your character and what we can expect from her.

She’s this hilarious, artistic, well-traveled young lady who has an obscene amount of talent. And that’s been so much fun for me. She’s a girl who does everything with a lot of ease; she’s always calm, cool and collected. She dresses to the nines; and she’s lived in all these exotic and amazing places, so she has a collectiveness to her that is foreign to me. So it’s fun to sort of jump into this world where I, the actor, am challenged to be very good at something I’ve never done. It’s sort of the running gag for every episode, what are they going to have her do this week that I need to YouTube or go take a class in so it looks like I’ve been doing it my whole life!

So can we expect to see a high-profile performance from your character?

Quite a few actually! Especially this first episode. I’m honestly most excited about this first episode; I could not have asked for a more well-crafted introduction to this series and this character, and a reintroduction to me as a dancer, to that fan base as well, ‘cause that’s a big part of this episode. There’s quite a large performance, and I worked really hard on it. The whole time I was thinking, “I really want this to be paying homage to So You Think and to my dance teachers back home who were training me since I was 3. And it’s something that’s sort of a really nice thank you to them.

Like Gilmore Girls, Bunheads features some snappy dialogue. What has that been like?

I’ve had a blast getting in that rhythm. It’s quick-quick-quick, kind of like a freight train, and you kind of have to jump on! It’s so fun, it really is.

Your first episode on the show will actually air on your birthday? That’s a pretty awesome birthday gift.

Isn’t that insane? They had no idea! I was actually talking to my mom about it, and I’m like “I don’t think this will ever happen again!” The odds of this happening again are really slim… That there is a show that I premiere on, on my birthday, and it’s such a landmark moment in my career.

It’s like a little wink from the universe that you’re on the right path.

I think so, too! Everything really feels like I’m on the right path. Honestly, it’s been very emotional for me, I worked very hard, but it would be for nothing if I didn’t have such beautiful people around me. And I think a lot of that has to do with my family, being indebted to their love and support.

So how does it feel to be a positive role model for Latinas?

Honestly, that’s the most important role of my life, being a role model. I was so inspired when I was younger and I remember sitting there and watching interviews and hearing these beautiful women talk about how hard it was for them, but how empowered they were by life’s difficulties. And, that’s a message that I really want to constantly be expressing. And that it hope it inspires somebody.

So what’s next for you?

I just shot my first pilot. It’s called Hot Mess, and it’s for MTV. And we’re just hoping it gets a series order because on that show I play a different character than Cozette on Bunheads. She’s this va-va-va-voom Latina. She’s a firecracker; she’s deliciously evil. It’d be a fun role to play with. And I also have a little bit in The Secret Life of the American Teenager that will air soon. I was really excited to be a part of the show before it takes its last bow.