Valerie Cruz on 'Off the Map': "It's Like Going on Vacation"

Off the Map, the highly anticipated new medical drama from Grey’s Anatomy executive producer, Shonda Rhimes, premieres January 12 at 10 p.m. on ABC. The show is set in the South American jungle and stars Cuban actress Valerie Cruz as Zitajalehrena “Zee” Alvarez, a no-nonsense Latina doctor who trains American doctors to practice medicine in the third world.  

We caught up with the newly engaged actress to get the 411 on her hot new show, her steamy love scenes, and the show's portrayal of Latin America.

Tell us about your new show, Off the Map.
A lot of people are comparing it to Grey’s Anatomy—which is an easy thing to do—but it is its own entity. It’s a look at Doctors without Borders and people who go open up a medical clinic in places like Colombia, where medical attention is a luxury. It examines the type of people that choose to live in an environment like that and practice medicine. Who are these people who basically exile themselves to treat humanity? Sometimes they're damaged and sometimes they're people who are running away from certain components of themselves. The show has a little bit of everything: it has medical, it has cultural components, it has action and adventure. it's like going on vacation!

Tell us about your character, Zee.
I’m playing a doctor! She started off as a nurse in the pilot and they changed her to a doctor. I think she’s a good person—she’s definitely the heart of the clinic. She runs the clinic, which she helped build brick by brick. She goes out of her way to help people, but at the same time she’s not somebody who’s going to hold your hand. She’s very no-nonsense, and she’s definitely weary of American people coming in, because she has seen doctors come and go and has a really hard time letting herself trust people. She can come off a bit harsh, but underneath it all she’s a warm, caring and dedicated person.

Why did ABC decide to make the setting of this show the South American jungle?
I don’t really know for sure why they chose to do it, but I heard it was an idea that had been tossed around for a while over at the studio—the concept of a TV show about Doctors without Borders.

As a Latina how do you feel about the way the show has portrayed Latin America?
I think it’s evolving. We’ve had really great Latin guest stars on the show like Judy Reyes, who was amazing and lovely and Cheech Marin. I think that will give the show some credibility with the Latin community—just the caliber of actors that they get for guest stars.  It’s always a challenge because there aren’t many Latino writers in the industry. But I know when I get the script and other actors as well, if we find things that don’t resonate truthfully to us, as far as our experiences of being Latin people, they’ve really listened and changed things that might seem stereotypical. I think that’s all that you can ask for on any show. 

Does your character Zee have any steamy love scenes in the jungle?
[Laughs] Totally! There’s a lot of that, especially for my character.

Check out a sneak peek below and tell us: