Karla Souza is uninterested in pursuing work that perpetuates outdated depictions of Latinas in entertainment, thank you very much.
The promising Mexican-born actress has transitioned from hit Spanish-language romantic comedies (such as Nosotros los Nobles [The Noble Family], ¿Qué culpa tiene el niño? and No se aceptan devoluciones [Instructions Not Included]) into American television in the acclaimed show How to Get Away With Murder, alongside Oscar-nominee Viola Davis. Her ability to perform in a variety of roles, with fluency in two languages, sets her apart, and places her in a privileged position represent the Mexican American experience with authenticity. You might describe her as the Mexican Emma Stone, for her charisma, comedy chops and range. Her international profile is decidedly on the rise.
Souza’s most recent film, Catalina Aguilar Mastretta’s Everybody Loves Somebody (which we covered at length here), combines both sides of her identity into a sophisticated storyline that is informed by biculturalism, but doesn’t depict it forcefully. Just before the film’s world premiere at Palm Springs International Film Festival, Souza met with MovieMaker to discuss why working with Mastretta was a different experience for her, which directors she would love to work with, and being on a series for seven months each year.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What particular qualities about Everybody Loves Somebody or Catalina’s previous work did you find compelling enough to interest you in this project? This is definitely different from what you have done before.
Karla Souza (KS): I’d seen [Mastretta’s 2015 film] Las Horas Contigo and I really liked the way she managed to make a fully fleshed-out female character. I’d only worked with men directing romantic comedies, and they have a very male perspective, so to have a feminine perspective on love was great. This was a lot more intimate than all of the comedies and box-office hits that I’ve done. Right now, it’s become very politically relevant to have a movie that’s bicultural, and that is unifying rather than separating.
My character is a Mexican woman living and working successfully in the U.S., and yet comes back and forth from the border. There are no donkeys, sombreros or tacos, none of those stereotypes. I needed that when I was growing up. I needed to see a movie that was just seamlessly between English and Spanish. I grew up like that and I never saw an authentic take on it at the movies. It was always the American version or the Mexican version.
Catalina had lived in the border between them, so she I knew she was going to give that genuine take on it. I really needed to see that more in the film industry. I also felt very connected to the story because, whether in relationships or the past, we idealize moments of our lives, and if we really took another second to look at them, they might not be as perfect as we thought they were. Letting go is a huge thing that I’ve been learning, so it’s almost like movies come to me and help me live life. It’s almost like I take them as therapy! Maybe it’s a catharsis for me to play this character at a certain point in my career, and that’s why I decided to do this.
MM: One of the conflicts present in films with a successful female lead is the sexist debate of whether they can have both a career and a family or not. This film doesn’t take that approach. Is this something you have faced yourself at any point in your path as an actress?
KS: Yes, especially in Latin culture. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a lot more to do in order to be able to represent that in film accurately. Even in my personal life, I’ve had a lot of people telling me I have to choose just one, so to suddenly have a female character in a bicultural movie—in which she is not a maid and she is not sexualized in the way that we sometimes see—that’s something that wanted in my career. I wanted to share that opportunity with women, without being on the nose about it. The movie isn’t about her being a doctor. That’s already a given. We are subconsciously telling girls, “Oh, [these characters] don’t even question it.” That automatically tells girls, “You can do it too.” It’s not about the struggle to become a doctor. It’s about the struggle of growing up, letting go, and letting your heart be open again.
MM: In your experience, what’s the most noticeable distinction between working on a movie and working on episodic content? What’s more enjoyable?
KS: Because a movie is going to be over in two months, it’s like summer camp. It’s like a retreat, especially in Mexican moviemaking culture: Every Saturday there is a sapo, or a party where everyone eats and drinks. There is music and we dance. Every cast and crewmember comes together, and there is a family that’s formed. For this movie we filmed in Mexico City, Ensenada and Los Angeles. While we were in Ensenada we were all staying in this beautiful town, with wine tastings. I had the most amazing life experiences, while at the same time getting to do what I love, which is acting.
Every single time I finish filming a movie, I feel so depressed and I feel like I’m never going to work again. There’s a fear: “Oh my God, I don’t want to leave these people! They’ve become my family.” With How to Get Away With Murder, after seven months you are like, “Get out of my face. I don’t want to see you again.” [Laughs]. We are such a family in the show, but I can’t even explain the pain, anxiety, stress and loneliness that we are all feeling now that Alfred Enoch, who plays Wes in the show, has been killed off. We are all having PTSD about losing one of our family members because we’ve been together for three seasons.
The experience of cinematic storytelling, I think, is sacred. Nothing beats that. It’s like theater. It’s a very particular thing. I really enjoy the pace of moviemaking.
MM: Was there something about Catalina’s direction that was different from what you had previously experienced doing romantic comedies?
KS: In other romantic comedies I’ve shot, there was always the “beauty shot”—well, I’m being nice, but it’s really the “body shot.” The male vision of the female body: “Now she is in a bikini.” I always knew that was coming in a movie. I had to prepare for it, exercise and eat a certain way. But in this movie for the first time, I was in underwear in certain parts and I kept hearing Catalina say, “No, we are just going to stay on the close-up.” I thought, “What? I’ve been starving myself for two months. What are you talking about?” and she said, “I don’t need that. That’s not what the movie is about.” I thought, “Wow, that’s what having a female direct a movie that’s about a female lead character is like.” It’s a different take on it. For the first time I was opened to that version of me. It was uncomfortable to think that I already had all these tricks for when they shot those body scenes. I asked Catalina, “What do you want instead?” and she said, “Just simply you.”
It was beautiful to fail in front of her. With some directors you feel safe enough to make the most ludicrous choices and with some you don’t. With some you are just playing it safe, you know what they want, and you think, “I’m not going to try something and make a fool out of myself.” With her I was able to make a fool out of myself and make the biggest mistakes acting-wise and still feel safe. It was such a good actor-director relationship. It was such a relaxed movie that wasn’t trying to be what it isn’t. I really respect her because she was always had a clear vision of what she wanted.
MM: Aiming high, who are some directors with whom you would love to work?
KS: Derek Cianfrance or Xavier Dolan. I was directed, for like two seconds, by Iñarritu for a voting video. That guy is so charged and I’d love to work more with him, but also I’m terrified to be directed by him. I’d love to be directed by Eva Sørhaug, she directed a movie called 90 Minutes and she is a feminist filmmaker. I’d really like to work with her. If Marty Scorsese ever decides to make another movie like Silence, but with women, I would definitely like to be directed by him. I didn’t know what a strong faith he had, both in movies and in life. Also Julie Taymor—I’d love to be directed by her, maybe in the theater. Barry Jenkins, of course. My God, Moonlight is such a beautifully directed movie.
MM: What kind of roles are you attracted to?
KS: Biopics for sure. I’m actually trying to produce one from the ground up. I recently started having meetings with financiers. It’s like my baby—I can’t really say anything because of contracts, but that’s a biopic I want to do. I can’t wait to actually develop something.
When I saw Deadpool, for the first time I thought, “It’s awesome to have a superhero that is just not a superhero.” He is an antihero that has such pain, but also such power at the same time. I’d love to do something fun like that, an action movie and be able to transform my body, learn a martial art, beat a bunch of people, and become like a Joan of Arc but in a modern way. And I’d love to play Joan of Arc!
Also, a really quiet movie like Moonlight is something that would be great. I’d love to bring to life C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed; I’m reading it right now. I’d love to do a book adaption of something like that and bring it to the movies. That’d be great.
MM: Has it ever crossed your mind to become a director?
KS: While we were doing this movie, Catalina told me, “You are going to be a director one day,” and I was like, “No.” She said, “Yeah, you are going to be a director.”
I don’t know. I’ve never learned camera language, as directors should. I’ve never studied that, but the more films I make the more I have an idea of that and learn what works. But I could not deal with actors. They would terrify me. It’s a terrifying task to direct someone with soul. Therapy is already terrifying enough for me, so to tell someone, “You just gave me your heart, but sorry, I want this”—I could not bring myself to do that. I would just be like, “That was amazing. We are going to keep that.” It’s a very different relationship. The director is supposed to be the mentor, and I don’t want that responsibility! MM
Everybody Loves Somebody opened in theaters February 17, 2017, courtesy of Pantelion Films.