Ana Villafañe may not be a name you recognize — or know how to pronounce. (For the record, it’s “vee-yuh-FAHN-yay.”) But that may soon change, if she can survive playing Gloria Estefan in the Broadway musical “On Your Feet!”
The show, which opened at the Marquis Theatre in November, recounts Estefan’s ups and downs — including the devastating bus crash that almost left her paralyzed — as she became a pop music sensation in the 1980s and ’90s. Playing the role is arguably one of the most grueling jobs on Broadway at the moment. Villafañe, in her Broadway debut, has earned critical praise for her full-throttle performance, which could earn her a Tony nomination.
Raised in Miami and now based in Los Angeles, Villafañe, 26, will also co-star in “Max Steel,” an action film due out later this year. In the meantime, she’s getting used to life in New York — yes, she bought a parka . . . and snow boots — and recently chatted with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
You’re testing my typing skills. I’m having to find the keyboard command to make the Spanish letter ñ (“EN-yay”) in your last name.
Yes. The ñ. It’s been the bane of my existence. I was that girl who — first day of school, every year — the teacher looked at the paper . . . and by the confused look, I knew. I was like, “It’s me, I’m here.”
This role sure keeps you go-go-going.
Like I’m shot out of a cannon. The curtain literally rips open, and the energy bursts off the stage — it’s like a concert. And from then to the final curtain call . . . I don’t sit down. It keeps me literally on my feet. Pun definitely not intended.
I can’t complain. I’m trying to honor the life of somebody I truly believe is a great human being.
After working with Estefan, is there something that’s surprised you about her? Something you didn’t expect?
Her honesty. I’ve asked her a lot of personal questions . . . and I expected her responses to be . . . a little sugarcoated, or watered-down.
You figured she might be guarded?
For certain things, yes. But we’ve gotten into the nitty-gritty, like, one big plot point revolves around her 1990 bus accident. One day I asked her if she felt guilty afterward. I thought, she’s gonna say whatever she’s gonna say, but I’m gonna watch her face and use that as the real indicator. But she said yes. That’s the kind of thing Gloria does. She surprises you with her realness. I’ve also asked if there’s anything she does before going onstage — a stretch or warm-up? She told me to stand behind the curtain and outstretch your arms, forming a T, palms forward. And take 10 deep breaths. As she explained it, that’s opening all your chakras, to give whatever that particular audience needs.
So you do this backstage? How does it make you feel?
I do that before the show. Then top of act two, I sometimes do 13 breaths, or seven. Now mind you, I hate odd numbers. But those are her power numbers, so if I need to connect with her, that’s what I do.
Uh . . . power numbers?
Yeah. Mine is four. I know, it’s weird. It’s just the numbers that pop up in your life. For her, a lot of significant dates in her life have landed on 13. And seven is her favorite number. For me, it’s four. I’m one of four children. And I love balance . . . the four seasons, the way two plus two and two times two . . . equal four.
Yeah. I guess that’s unusual.
Four’s just always kinda been . . . my thing.
How’d you like shooting a big film? You shot it before being cast as Gloria, right?
Yes. “Max Steel,” a Mattel action figure they’re turning into a film franchise. It’s funny, you finish shooting and there are so many months before it comes out. You don’t get that immediate gratification like in theater. But it’s cool, you get to revisit it later. Like a time warp — when I finally see that movie, it’ll be surreal to think back to who I was at that point. It’s like a past life. If cats have nine lives, actors have millions. It reminds me of college. If I could, I would’ve had six different majors. I’d be a lawyer, a doctor — I wanna know what that feels like. As an actor, I can do that, try a little of everything.
Like a smorgasbord.
Yes. Like tapas!
Ah, yes. A much better analogy. So you went from playing the superhero’s girlfriend . . .
. . . to being a superhero. (She laughs.) That’s how I see Gloria. As soon as I put on that wig, I don’t feel like myself, I don’t look life myself. It’s like my super-suit.