(Featured image courtesy of Vince Trupsin)
In May 2018, Starz premiered a groundbreaking new Latino-led series. Vida followed a pair of Mexican-American sisters who return to their hometown of Boyle Heights, Los Angeles after the death of their mother (the titular Vida). It was hailed as a touchstone for Latino representation, its handling of LGBTQ+ topics, and its discussion of gentrification. The series won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2019 and only grew to attract more praise over its three-season run. The series finale aired just earlier this week, on May 31.
One of the many characters the two sisters encounter in Boyle Heights is Mari, an L.A. activist who wants to protect her community from being gentrified. She’s portrayed by Chelsea Rendon, whose East L.A. upbringing and vocalness about Latina issues draw many parallels between her and her character.
TV Wasteland talked with Rendon about Latinas in Hollywood, the end of Vida, and the projects that have helped her find herself.
Rendon started acting at only six years old. Starting from a young age shaped her perspective in a really unique way, as the underrepresentation of Latinos in media wasn’t as apparent to her because she was creating that representation. “Now that I’m older, and I see… the unfairness of the stereotypical role that Latinos play or the small amount of roles we get… it definitely affects me now.” However, growing up, “it was a playground for me. It was fun and exciting, and I felt like every other actor on the set. It was really special.”
Despite the fact that she was working from a young age, she was still able to attend public school and have a “normal” childhood like everyone else. This turned out to only supplement her acting, as when she plays characters like Mari, she has genuine “memories to touch on from my own youth and from my own family.” Chelsea counts herself as lucky to be able to have the “best of both worlds.”
An early set memory comes from a 2013 Rizzoli & Isles episode that was filmed in San Pedro in the wintertime. The scene was supposed to take place in Boston, so the ground had to be wet to fit the setting. Rendon had been shot in the scene, so as to not tamper with continuity, she had to lie completely still, even between takes, on the freezing cold, wet ground. She did jokingly admit that the struggle was partially due to the fact that people from Southern California are never used to the temperature dropping very low.
Vida premiered at the South by Southwest (or SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, where Rendon was surprised by how “lively” everything was. “The energy that it brought to the area was just amazing.” She described everyone as just having a great time, with an energy that was totally unique to that festival. The local culture and food also helped to bring that energy to the forefront.
In terms of Vida’s uniqueness as a show, Chelsea highlighted it as special in how “it’s really one of the first shows about Latinos written by Latinos on primetime cable… We’re able to tell a very authentic story because you have brown writers in the writers’ room, and all the storylines are universal and very relatable.” Beyond the aspects of the show that are specific to East L.A. and the Latino community, it’s about love, family, sister dynamics, and male pride and privilege (discussed through the lens of “machismo” on the show). “We’re telling a story about human beings that just happen to be brown. We’re not trying to fake these characters. They’re all genuine human beings who are flawed and who have positives and negatives about them, and we’re not trying to hide any of that.”
In terms of playing Mari, Rendon said: “I am very much Mari. I am a tomboy. I’m someone that didn’t start wearing makeup until senior year of high school and is very vocal about what I believe in.” Mari is loud and proud, and Chelsea’s upbringing with the mix of her professional success and her life at home gave her the ability to tap into those aspects within herself and bring her own mindset to Mari’s experiences. Actually filming in the Los Angeles area also really helped her reconnect to her roots and the city that influenced both her and her character so much.
Rendon emphasized that Mari is also the youngest character at twenty-one years old, and her growth over the three seasons came a lot from her learning all the new things people at that age learn. “She went from seeing the world as black and white, for gentrification or against gentrification, and in season two… she realizes that there’s a gray area” as she lives with the two sisters. In season three, she loses her father and has to define her future and what she’s meant to be. There’s so many layers to her character, and part of her journey is recognizing those layers in herself and in everyone around her, which is something that can be so relatable to all young people.
Her favorite memory from on set came from the second day, when she filmed the scene where Mari first confronts the two sisters (played by Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada). Rendon’s mother was visiting the set, and as soon as she stepped in the restaurant where they were filming, she started crying. It turned out that the restaurant was connected to some apartments where Chelsea’s mother had grown up. “When she was five years old, she remembers living in that one-bedroom duplex with her six brothers and sisters and her mom, who was a single mother.” Rendon highlights that moment as a beautiful coincidence where everything suddenly felt full circle for the two of them.
Her most difficult day on Vida was in season two, during the scene when Mari was kicked out of the house by her father. She “was connecting to it as best as [she] could,” deciding to go all in on immersing herself in the scene. The closeups of her crying came first, but the final shot of her walking away from the house didn’t come until the very end of the day. After finishing those close shots, she remembers, “I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to get back to that place.” It can often be difficult for actors to replicate a certain feeling or emotion once they’ve really reached that inner place, and this scene was no different. She recalled sobbing as the crew changed setups and cameras around her, trying to retain that real feeling she had tapped into.
A couple years ago, Chelsea recurred in the final season of The Fosters, where she got the opportunity to roller derby for the first time. “I had roller skated as a kid, but it was very much pushing your athleticism… I was the only actor who didn’t have a stunt double,” finding herself in the middle of these elaborate sequences with lots of stunt experts, which she described as so much fun. Some of that fun can also be attributed to the fact that that set was populated with a lot of young people, especially Rendon’s scenes which she largely shared with the main siblings.
Rendon recently appeared in a five-episode arc as Annie Gonzalez on the tenth season of Shameless, which became a brand-new experience for her in the fact that it was a no-sides set. Normally, everyone is given a tiny packet with the script for that day’s scene, used for reference or reminders on lines. The Shameless set didn’t have any of these. “You could technically print out your own,” but it still meant you had to be memorized and ready. “The level of professionalism that they had, when you look at characters like Frank (William H. Macy) and Lip (Jeremy Allen White), they have paragraphs of dialogue that they’re saying, and they never looked at a paper.” The expectation was that everyone would come on set completely prepped and ready to work, and it really inspired Chelsea to rise to the occasion and bring her all to work every day. Macy also directed one of the episodes she was in, and she made sure to listen even to the notes that weren’t specifically for her, as an actor can bring so much to the director’s chair that’s unique to their background and expertise.
In October of last year, Rendon participated in an empowerment conference organized by ELLAS, a group whose goal is to supplement the education and leadership opportunities of underprivileged Latina youth. The participants and attendees were predominantly Latina, but Chelsea noticed so many different communities represented. She remembers how you could feel the energy in the room, “you could feel it in your skin, you could feel it in your bones… It was great to be around so many women and so many badass women at that, and from all walks of life.”
In 2019, the docu-thriller The Infiltrators premiered at Sundance. The story follows a group of men in 2012 who infiltrate a for-profit detention center. “The most important thing about it is right now, Donald Trump has been a horrible president… but it’s also not a new thing. This was happening under Obama.” He claimed that he was only detaining and deporting criminals, “when a woman [from the Congo] went to the police station to report her husband for domestic violence, and she was detained.” Horror stories that don’t seem believable, of people going about their daily lives or committing minor infractions and being sent away, have been occurring for longer than most people think. “We have been criminalized and detained for no good reason for a long time.”
The Infiltrators is so different from most other doc projects because it’s part documentary, part re-enactment. This group of men intentionally got themselves detained to make this film. Part of the movie features their interviews and their stories, but the other part depicts their time behind bars. Obviously, there was no one filming them during their time there, so actors were hired to depict the memories of the detained men. Nothing was scripted or make-believe, everything the actors say and do are things that actually occurred behind bars. “It was so powerful and so important and beautiful that these kids [Claudio Rojas and Marco Saavedra] put their own well-being on the line… to help other people. It was for the greater good.” Rendon feels it was an honor to be able to give a voice to her character and help tell such a timely and essential true story.
When Chelsea met Viridiana Martinez, the activist she plays, she was shocked to find out that Martinez was glad that Trump was elected. Viridiana told her: “This has been happening for so long, but it’s been swept under the rug. And now it’s finally going to be front page news.” And of course, that’s exactly what happened.
The Infiltrators is currently available to watch online at http://www.infiltratorsfilm.com/.
As Chelsea says goodbye to Vida, she reflected: “I learned how important it is not only to support the Latino community in front of and behind the scenes, but how that can lead to so many different things.” She praised Starz for giving creator Tanya Saracho an all-brown writers’ room with female and queer department heads. It made Chelsea realize, “All we have to do is ask… Now I feel I have this power I didn’t know I had, and I’m so thankful for it.” In the future, she’s making it a goal to always speak up and ask for more representation behind the scenes, knowing it doesn’t make her a diva or difficult. “Tanya really just showed us all what a chingona she is and that we have to find our own chingona in ourselves.”
Thinking back on years past, Rendon recalls always seeing Latinas cast as “the chola or the sexy vixen or the maid.” These stereotypes are still prevalent, but she’s noting all the victories and progresses the industry has made. The Baker and the Beauty, Roswell New Mexico, and Station 19 are opening doors for more complex and layered Latina characters that break those stereotypes. She also emphasized how essential it is to get Latina writers and creators involved behind the scenes as well. Vida’s Tanya Saracho and One Day at a Time’s Gloria Calderón Kellett are trailblazers, “but we need more than that.” Rendon calls out casting directors who say that they couldn’t find the talent to fit diverse roles, challenging them to look harder. There’s plenty of that diverse talent out there, and they may not have worked with Spielberg before, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Latinas supporting and promoting other Latinas is also vital and helps with making every artist’s platform bigger and bigger until “the executives can’t deny it.”
Next up, Rendon has The Tax Collector from the “out-of-this-world” David Ayer, also starring Shia LaBeouf, Lana Parrilla, and George Lopez. The film follows two tax collectors for a crime lord whose world is thrown into chaos when a rival arrives in Los Angeles. Chelsea found that Ayer is “someone who really brings out the best in you and really pushes you.” The Tax Collector’s release date is up in the air due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, but it’s expected to land near the end of the summer.
Rendon will also be producing and starring in a romantic comedy in the near future that’s still finalizing funding. She’s also been developing a cop story and an adventure story that will hopefully be produced at some point soon.
For now, though, Chelsea is just trying to survive quarantine with the rest of us. Criminal Minds and NCIS are her go-to binges, but she’s been keeping up with The Last Dance, Riverdale, Grey’s Anatomy, and Insecure.
As barriers and expectations are broken down every week on your favorite television shows, you can count on Chelsea Rendon being at the very forefront of that change.