Selenis Leyva may not have an Emmy Award, yet, but she’s got something few other actresses can brag about — a street sign bearing her name.
That sign, bestowed when she was inducted last year into the Bronx Walk of Fame, is a point of pride for Leyva, who plays Gloria Mendoza, the maternal-but-don’t-cross-her cook and prison inmate on the critically acclaimed Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.” Season 6, debuting July 27, finds the women of Litchfield Prison thrust into dangerous new territory — maximum security — after last season’s prison riot.
Cuban-born and raised in the Bronx, Leyva, 46, is a single mom with a teen daughter. Recently seen in 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” she’ll also appear in AMC’s “Dietland,” starting July 23. She spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
“Orange” is getting darker, grittier this season.
Yes. We’re revisiting that grittiness from earlier seasons. Now we’re in max. The [guards] are tougher, we don’t have allies, and we’re fighting each other for survival. The show continues to explore what it is for these women to be incarcerated and forgotten. And to have a system that does more harm than good, at times.
Gloria is often the voice of reason on the show. Are you like that in real life?
You know . . . I am. As the oldest of five kids, I’m always the one my family turns to for advice. My brothers have this ongoing joke — “Mami and Papi don’t do anything unless Selenis co-signs.” [She laughs.] It’s true. Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking to have that kind of responsibility. But it’s just who I’m raised to be. For a time, I thought I might not have children, because I felt I’d raised my siblings. It’s not just being the oldest, but the oldest in a family of immigrants. My father’s Cuban, my mother’s Dominican. They didn’t speak English. I had to be the translator — I had to go to every doctor’s appointment, every teacher conference. I became this little adult.
Sounds like a lot of pressure.
Relief came when I went to Marymount College. I found this outlet in the arts and theater that finally gave me a breather.
It must be tough raising your own daughter at a time when you’re on a hit series, going to award shows — all these things that are often about appearance, yet trying to explain to her that life is about more than that.
She’s 15. It’s all hormones and teen angst. I remember it well. But she’s such an old soul in many ways. She’s got a good head on her shoulders. The vanity part of this industry doesn’t faze her. When I’m overwhelmed, I actually get a lot of good advice from her.
Like … ?
It’s tough as an actor to work hard and not get recognition. The work on “Orange” is amazing, but there are times, I have to admit, when not being included in a nomination, not even being submitted, can be hurtful. She’ll turn to me and say, “But people are watching, Mom. You’re working, respected. And that’s all that matters.” That snaps me out of it. She reminds me why I’m doing this. It’s not for the awards. It’s because this is all I know and want to do. I’m living my dream.
You’ve always wanted to be an actress?
Yes. Telenovelas always played in my home. I’d be gluuuued to the TV. My mother would be like, “Get out, this is inappropriate,” and I’d sneak back in. I remember thinking, “I want to do that, but I don’t know if I can because I don’t look like these telenovela queens. Their features were Euro-Anglo. I’m Afro-Latina. I didn’t see anyone who looked like me anywhere on television.
How’d your parents react?
So supportive, until my father saw a production of this off-, off-, off-, super-off-Broadway production I did on the Lower East Side in the basement of a bodega, with candles all around the “stage” — not just to light us, but scare off the rats. [She laughs.] My father was mortified, and suggested I take up real estate. A year later I did my first paid production Off-Broadway, got my Equity card, and then he was proud, saying, “Yeah, she gets it from me.” My parents are so cute, they get giddy when people recognize me.
I just moved to a Dominican neighborhood. What foods should I try?
You can’t go wrong with rice and beans. Latinos, especially Dominicans and Cubans — their beans are so on point, it’s ridiculous. Now I’m getting hungry. Try a pastelón. It’s like a Spanish lasagna . . . made with layers of sweet plantains, ground beef, eggs, cheese. It’s fattening and sinful and every bite will be heaven.