By Elia Esparza
Let’s face it: All actresses are renaissance women. Some are lucky enough to continue working after they reach a certain age, others not so much. Unfortunately, most of the employed Latinas are unsung heroes cast in a few roles available in Hollywood. What most actors and viewers don’t know is that these women keep things moving forward, day in and out, for all Latinos in entertainment.
Few get the recognition they deserve. There are exceptions: Rita Hayworth, Katy Jurado, Rita Moreno (who is still working to this very day), and lately Lupe Ontiveros got lots of attention but, unfortunately, it arrived posthumously. That’s so sad, given what an outstanding thespian and human being she was. I’m quite over that unproductive trend and grateful I’m in a position to help change it. In fact, we’re all in a position to change it for today’s living, breathing, amazing Latina actresses. I’ll come back to that opportunity shortly. We have a renaissance star shining in our midst!
Switched At Birth’s Ivonne Coll is one of the most talented women I have ever met in Hollywood. Her list of credits belongs on a Roman scroll! The thing would go on unfurling until it reached Greece.
Because I happen to be a big fan of ABC Family’s Switched At Birth, I was reintroduced to an actress in the role of Adriana (Coll) who portrays Constance Marie’s mother on the series. When Adriana had her ex-son-in-law deported back to Italy, I hated her! I mean, who deports Gilles Marini?
For those who still have not caught the Switched At Birth fever, the series is about two families, one rich white and one Latino working class. After the delivery of their baby girls, somehow the hospital screwed up and accidently switched the babies. Fast forward 16 years and the mistake is discovered. To get to know the girls better, the rich family invites the Latino family to move into their guest house. Switched At Birth has alway won kudos from the hearing impaired community since one of the girls is deaf and sign language is a big part of the show. It is a terrific family show.
Ivonne Coll intrigued me. I wanted to know everything about her. It’s just too easy to take for granted the incredible accomplishments made by veteran actors who have sacrificed personal happiness, lifestyle, and income to pursue their love of craft. In doing so, they’ve opened a number of doors for Latino actors in Hollywood.
I interviewed Coll recently and learned she’s a true triple threat actor (TV, film, and theater) and that her film debut was in The Godfather II. She played Yolanda, the redheaded cabaret girl, and she is a dead ringer for Rita Hayworth! Discovered in her native Puerto Rico by the director Francis Ford Coppola, he created the role just for her — making her an international star and one of the first Puerto Rican actresses to crossover to Hollywood.
Latin Heat: I love your role on Switched At Birth! Why do you think the show is resonating with all audiences even with a Latino family playing a huge part?
Ivonne Coll: I think the show is a success because of the storyline which happens to feature a Latino family. I don’t like to be whitewashed and I like the way the show portrays us… working income class comingling with a higher income class family. The girls were switched and one went to the working class family and the other to the rich family.
But what makes this story extraordinary is that the show’s creator and producers are presenting an American story about us Latinos. Our ethnicity is reflected in who we are by our names, our persons, they [producers] have not whitewashed our characters. They just made us a part of the American scene which is our Latino reality.
LH: You play Constance Marie’s mother. What are the stereotypes on the show, if any?
IC: [Not sure this is a stereotype but] Regina (Constance Marie) is a single mother because her husband left her. Regina stays with me, she’s a beautician with a workstation at home.
LH: You’re Puerto Rican and Constance Marie is of Mexican descent did the writers make the family Puerto Rican or Mexican heritage? If Puerto Rican, did Constance Marie have any objections?
IC: The writers made the Latino characters Puerto Rican. Constance’s Regina is Half Puerto Rican because of my role being Puerto Rican and they left the father’s ethnicity open. I think she loves being a Puertorican on the show… She better! (Laughs).
LH: How else do the writers honor your ethnicity as Adriana?
IC: There’s no mi’ja in my dialogue and writers are careful not to include it. One Hispanic writer on our team, Henry Robles, is Mexican American and whenever they have me speaking Spanish, which is maybe a word or line or phrase, he writes it and then translates it to Puerto Rican Spanish. So we all agree that it has that authenticity.
And, I’ll tell you another little secret from our set… In the hallway leading to Adriana’s bedroom there is a small-framed Puerto Rico flag hanging. They did that for me. It’s these subtle little things that make it real to the audiences.
Another thing the writers did for me was make Adrian a Vet’s assistant instead of the typical domestic role of a maid. We Puerto Ricans, because we’re north American citizens, we don’t come to the United States to do manual labor like other Latino immigrants (doing domestic work, etc.). Our work tends to be more in sales, cashiers, and secretarial. We have the advantage over other Latino immigrants because we already speak English (or most of us do) and we’re already citizens.
LH: How could Adriana deport Gilles Marini? I’m ticked! Now mom has only herself to thank for her daughter remarrying the man so she could save him …a sacrifice she made for her daughters.
IC: I know! Gilles Marini is beautiful. We have a special communication and because we both have accents, we bonded. In reality, we love each other so much especially since we hate ourselves so much on show. I deported him!
LH: Before coming to Hollywood, you were a big TV star in Puerto Rico, not to mention you were Miss Puerto Rico in the Miss Universe Pageant all those years ago. How could you just give up a sure-thing career in your native land to come to the unknown?
IC: It was not an easy decision. After being crowned Miss Puerto Rico, the exposure I got was overwhelming. Paquito Cordero, the most important producer in PR asked me to audition for La Tarvena India with Machuchal (a Cantinflas type of comedian). One thing led to another. I was acting so much, I had to drop out of the university. I later became a Vegas showgirl for a revue in Puerto Rico where I became a singer/dancer. My vocal coach, a gifted classicial composer and piano player, Jorge Cordoba, had the brilliant idea to create my persona of the Rita Hayworth-Marlene Dietrich and within one year I had my own show called Una Chica Llamada Ivonne Coll, and it was here that I met Tony Martinez (who played Pepino on the show) would become my acting mentor. He urged me to go to Hollywood to study acting and to leave Puerto Rico.
I eventually caught the eye of Francis Ford Coppola while he was scouting for locations in Puerto Rico. He cast me in The Godfather II and on the set I witnessed the most profound actor ever… Al Pacino! It was then that I knew in my heart that acting was my destiny.
All it took was somebody believing in me and for the next seven years, I studied my craft… Strasberg, Actor’s Studio, etc., you name the class, I enrolled. I even got to study with Lucille Ball. She thought I left a banquet in Puerto Rico to come to an empty table in Hollywood.
LH: What is it about the business of acting and Hollywood in general that you most like? And, what don’t you like?
IC: I most like the professionalism. This is the real place. The Union work… the residuals, the way they treat the actor with so much respect.
I don’t like the superficiality of the people. How people adore oelebrities. That adoration is not good. I observe it and it is kind of sad to me because fame is a funny thing… you can be the flavor of the month today and gone tomorrow.
LH: Your most treasured possession?
IC: I’ve had a life of experiences that I’m taking with me toward my next life or toward wherever we go. I’ve had the opportunity to touch people’s lives through my work — a gift that God has given me.
I have a little but extremely prestigious award (in physical terms), have many, but this one was given to me by the San Diego Critics Circle: The 2002 Craig Noel Award for my role in Jose Rivera’s Adoration of the Old Woman. The judges couldn’t decide between myself and another leading lady, Cherry Jones. We both tied in “standing performance in a lead play.” And, our ethnicity did not matter. It was all about what you know and how you apply it.
All those years of preparation of just studying and believing in my craft and taking it as a religion, ‘we couldn’t decide between these two actresses…’ this is more than an award I treasure.
LH: Stage or TV?
IC: I have to be in a play at least once a year. It is important to remain active in regional theater and I’ll never give it up.
LH: If you could sit down with your younger self, what would you say to her?
IC: I’m proud of you for being so courageous. To walk away from a successful career in your beloved Puerto Rico in order to start a new one in a different country without any expectations but just the goal of studying my craft and train to become a serious and respected working actor. Well, here we are! We’ve accomplished that goal, asi que Gracias a la joven y aventurera Ivonne!
Thank you, Ivonne Coll! You are truly the most beautiful renaissance woman in Hollywood and Puerto Rico!
Switched At Birth airs on Mondays on the cable network ABC Family at 8:00 PM.
Cast: Constance Marie, Ivonne Coll, Katie Leclerc, Vanessa Marano, D.W. Moffett, Lea Thompson, Marlee Maitlin, Lucas Grabeel, Gilles Marini