EXCLUSIVE: Ana Villafañe Dishes on Playing Gloria Estefan on Broadway

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There was a bit on this year's Golden Globes wherein America Ferrera and Eva Longoria poked fun at America’s ridiculous tendency to mistake one Latina actress for another. Have you ever been mistaken for another Latina actress? If yes, who, and how did you feel about it?

I mean, the day someone mistakes me for Penelope Cruz, I’m not going to get mad about it. Right now my entire job is to emulate one of the greatest Latinas to grace the world of entertainment; so, yes, it happens. It can be frustrating to constantly be equated as if we are all interchangeable. It's ignorant, but it’s also human nature to group "like" things together and resort to comparison when you don't know any better. The plus side is we are not going anywhere. And from within our community to the media to policy makers, we simply need to educate people, without being nasty, that there are many different ways to be a Latina. We aren’t all the same exact person. Generalizations rarely work. Just like no matter how badly we try, all we are not all Penelope Cruz.

You’ve spoken about turning down roles that would cast you as a maid. Can you elaborate on that?

I guess it’s not really a stereotype I’d like to keep perpetuating. It’s a personal choice. I was very lucky to work with Lupe Ontiveros before she passed away. One day, at a press event she looked me in the eye and said “I played a maid 50 times so that you’ll never have to”.

Do you feel a pressure to “represent” Latinos on Broadway?

I don’t think I have a choice! Being Latina is not exactly something I can turn off. So pressure is not the right word. I feel a responsibility to be authentic. I feel a responsibility to carry out Gloria and Emilio’s legacy, and to continue celebrating everything they’ve accomplished. I mostly feel pride that this particular story is being told in such an iconic American art form.

,You’ve said that your favorite line in On Your Feet! is when your co-star Josh Segarra says “This is what an American looks like.” It provokes spontaneous applause from the audience. Why does it resonate with you?

It is one of my favorite lines, but it’s also the moment in the story where I choose for my character to really fall in love with Emilio. In that moment, he reveals his soul, and he defends her in a beautiful way. Those are the most attractive things a person can do. I look at my family, my friends, and my cast, and it's full of Latina men and women who are proud, accomplished, vibrant and have the freedom to be the best versions of themselves. I think that's exactly what Americans look like.

You seem to have a deep sense of gratitude. Can you share a little bit about your thoughts on gratitude as it relates to pursuing your dreams or your family or… anything, really?

Ever since I was a kid, we'd take turns giving thanks for even the most mundane things. It was engrained in me. Just waking up in the morning being able to see, hear, walk, talk, and having a bed to sleep in — those things should be enough. So add that I get to do the job I’m in love with every single day? I’d be crazy not to be grateful. I guess I’m not very good at keeping a cool composure. But I’d prefer that than sitting back looking cool and taking it all for granted.

I saw on your Instagram that you like The Melt Shop a lot. What are your favorite Latin foods, do you cook, and how do you stay as fit as you are?

I do love Melt Shop. I love food in general. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I can make a plate of rice and beans with platanos maduros disappear. Don’t get me started on chips and guacamole. I might be a guacamole snob, because I love making it myself. I’ve had very real, judgmental opinions about the quality of guacamole at any given restaurant or person’s house. For now, a life full of crop tops (as in, my wardrobe for the show) means sacrifice and exercise. I am very active and working out keeps me sane. Also, in order to keep up with eight shows a week, I have to be conditioned. Broadway performers are like athletes, because we have to be in top shape consistently. My body and my voice won’t take care of themselves. There’s a lot of yoga, strength training and a gluten-free diet. That said, there's no question that platanos maduros are my kryptonite.

You said on Twitter that you were “allergic to “boring.” What does that mean and how do you combat boredom?

There’s nothing worse than being complacent. I’m restless, and always had a weird obsession with being productive. I like to use every minute and keep myself stimulated. I simply love to feel. I’ve recently been learning the importance of balance and rest and “quiet time” which is a work in progress. Maybe I’m a bit of a masochist, but the alternative — stagnancy — is so much worse. 

Last question: how heavy is the wig you wear in On Your Feet!?

Ha! Believe it or not, I wear four different wigs throughout the show. The hair is such an iconic part of Gloria that sometimes I can’t recognize myself. At first, the millions of pins made me really uncomfortable, and the weight of big curly hair was impossible to ignore. Part of my job was to learn how to live in the wigs, despite feeling unnatural and taking me out of my comfort zone. I did a lot of research watching videos to match the way she managed her hair on stage and in interviews. Now, the hair has a life of it’s own. I do a lot of hair flips in concert scenes, making the curls part of my choreography. Like anything in life, you figure out a way to make it all work and turn a weakness into a strength. At this point I barely notice the wigs while I'm working, but I do love the moment after every show when I put my real hair down and feel like me.

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About this author

Amanda Cargill, Food Content Director

Amanda Cargill is the Food Content Director at Latina Media Ventures, where she oversees food- and spirits-related features in Latina Magazine and on Latina.com and TheLatinKitchen.com. She has traveled extensively in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Her work and travel have cultivated her palate and fostered a love of food and the stories it tells. She is also a former professional dancer who writes arts and entertainment reviews for domestic and international publications. Amanda received her BA in Sociology from UCLA.

Follow her on Twitter at @amandasi and on Instagram at @amandasi1

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