VOCES on PBS continues with Now En Español, airing this Friday, April 24 at 10 PM (please check all local listings). A fascinating look at a rarely seen side of Hollywood, Now En Español follows the trials and travails of five hard-working Latina actresses who dub Desperate Housewives for Spanish language audiences in the U.S. With real lives that are often as dramatic and desperate as those of their onscreen counterparts, the five dynamic women featured in Now En Español struggle to pursue their Hollywood dreams while balancing the responsibilities of paying rent and raising children.
Shot over the course of several years by Latina filmmaker Andrea Meller, Now en Español offers an inside look at the challenges faced by many Latino actors while offering a warm and engaging portrait of five gutsy women as they follow their dreams against all odds. An LA based filmmaker, Andrea Meller was born and raised in New York after her parents emigrated from Santiago, Chile. She most recently co-directed the Emmy-nominated Hard Road Home (Independent Lens/PBS) and directed 156 Rivington (Sundance Channel). Her films have screened at SXSW, SilverDocs, and the New York International Latino Film Festival, among others. Her shorter work has screened at the Netherlands Architecture Biennale, the Museum of the City of New York, Storefront for Art and Architecture, and she has worked for National Geographic, MTV, TLC, Food Network, WE and Style. Andrea is a fellow of the Film Independent Documentary Lab and the PBS/CPB and NALIP Latino Producers Academies.
Now En Español depicts the struggles of five dynamic Latina actresses and portrays a side of Hollywood that is rarely seen. Tell us about the journey of the film. What inspired you to create this project?
I read an article about the actresses in 2005, when ABC decided to offer all of its primetime programming in Spanish, either through dubbing or subtitling. I was impressed by ABC’s acknowledgement of the demographic shifts happening in our country. Their decision to offer programs in Spanish was a real demonstration of the growing Latino market. But it had a catch: the acknowledgement of Latinos still felt behind-the-scenes with Latina actresses literally being invisible laborers. It reminded me of a time in the 1940s when black actresses would provide the singing voices for white actresses onscreen. So to me, it felt like a major acknowledgement but with severe limitations and a reflection of the inequities the entertainment industry was still struggling with, and I wanted to make the dubbing actresses visible.
At the time that I read the article, I was still working on a documentary about people transitioning out of prison back into New York City in which the main protagonists were all Latino. It was a great film and an important story to tell, but I felt the need after working on that film to tell a different “Latino” story that wasn’t about crime or poverty. I saw making a film about the dubbing actresses as an opportunity to tell a very different, more celebratory and more diverse, story about Latinos in the US that also put them on-screen.
On a personal level, for me, growing up in NY as a white woman with immigrant parents from Chile, I really didn’t understand what being Latina meant. Reading the article, I thought “here are women that every day at work have to deal with other people’s definitions of what it means to be Latina” – “you’re too white to be Latina,” “you’re too dark to be Latina,” “you have too much of an accent,” “you don’t have enough of an accent.” I was fascinated by the idea that there are people out there deciding what Latina means and I wanted to explore that idea. So even though I am not in the film, it was also, in many ways, a personal exploration.
The film interweaves the struggles of the fictional women of Wisteria Lane in Desperate Housewives with the lives of the Latina actresses that dub them in Spanish for American audiences. Why was it important to show this correlation?
When ABC started dubbing its primetime shows, several other shows were included in the roster in addition to ‘Desperate Housewives’ –’ Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, Ugly Betty.’ But I was interested specifically in ‘Desperate Housewives’ for two reasons, besides the fact that I was a fan of the show. First, the show is all about the American dream. Yes, it’s a uniquely dark and comedic American dream, but it’s still the house in the suburbs with the white picket fence. I knew that I wanted to incorporate the theme of the American dream in the film – both the immigrant’s version of the American dream and also the Hollywood version. So I loved that the TV show was playing with these ideas too. Second, the show is all about women, and mostly women over 40, which was incredibly excited to see on broadcast television. Not only are the statistics for the number of Latinos on-screen not great, they’re not wonderful for women either. So for me, incorporating ‘Desperate Housewives’ was a way to play with these themes that both the documentary and the show share – the American dream and women’s stories. The actresses have a lot of bad things happen to them over the course of the film, and they’re lives are, to me, just as interesting and dramatic as a fictional tv show. The correlations between the tv show and the reality of the women’s lives were already there, I just had to point them out.
Finally, comparing the lives of the actresses and their on-screen counterparts also added an element of playfulness and whimsy to the documentary – which I wanted to create by putting the actresses in more stylized ‘Desperate Housewives’ type scenarios. This moments gave the actresses a chance to act, in a small but still present way, on-camera! Plus, many of them look uncannily similar to their on-screen counterparts!
Equal representation and equal rights for women in Hollywood has been in the news lately, particularly after this year’s Oscars. What impact do you hope your film will have on the current discussion of diversity and gender equality in Hollywood?
You know, it took more than 6 years to make ‘Now En Español,’ and I was nervous about finishing it after ‘Desperate Housewives’ had already ended. But I think the movie is coming out at a perfect time when there is a growing awareness of the inequities in media representation in our country. From this year’s Oscars to the release of multiple reports that show how bad the numbers are for women and non-white actors and actresses, both in front of and behind-the-camera. So I think it’s an exciting time to show ‘Now En Español’ and add to the conversation, specifically with the film’s focus on Latinos and women.
But it’s always been my goal to present the importance of more equitable and higher quality representation by really humanizing the actresses and making their stories relatable on various levels, not just as actresses, but as mothers, as working women, and as people following their dreams. I didn’t want to include interviews with professionals talking about media representation because I wanted to make a film that had a personal story which would entertain viewers while also bringing up these issues of representation and identity – almost like serving the medicine with the sugar.
And while I do think the film will appeal to people who are already thinking about issues of representation, I also wanted to also appeal to a larger audience who might not already be thinking about these issues. I think that by humanizing people who we don’t always get to see and showing not only their downfalls but also their strengths and resilience, the movie can be used as a reinforcing and celebrating reminder that we are all human beings and that we all have important stories to share. I hope that after seeing ‘Now En Español,’ audience members will consider what they see on the screen, not just the numbers but also the quality of the roles that Latinas get, thereby contributing to the current conversation about diversity in Hollywood. And I’d love it if ‘Now En Español’ goes even one step further, that the movie inspires people to think about the other Latino stories we don’t see – both the stories of the invisible Latino laborers, in the kitchens, in the fields, wherever, and the ones who are working as doctors, as lawyers, as teachers. All of these stories are important in showing the depth and breadth of the American experience.
A note touched on by all of the women, is that Hollywood has a particular mold for the Latino character. That is, you have to look like Hollywood’s image of Latino in order to get a part. Do you think Latino representation in Hollywood has improved or is changing? Why or why not?
On a positive note, I think we are currently experiencing a season of great diversity on television, with shows like ‘Jane the Virgin’ and ‘Cristela.’ It’s very exciting and I think it’s an illustration of television networks further acknowledgement of the strong Latino market. But I think it’s still too early to tell whether representation overall is improving. We’ve had shows that had majority Latino casts before, like ‘Ugly Betty’ and ‘The George Lopez Show.’ I think when we see some sustainability in the numbers, that’s when we can say things are improving. And not just in a handful of shows, but in representation across shows. The reports from the past few years, which don’t include this current season, from the UCLA Bunche Center and the Latino Media Gap show that we still have a long way to go. I think representation is improving, but we still have a long way to go, especially from the 2% of broadcast TV roles going to Latinos in 2013. And we have an even longer way to go in movies than in TV.
As we saw in Now En Español, the dubbing industry is very selective in how they cast actors and actresses, basing their decisions on a particular tone or pitch of a voice. What is the gender breakdown like in this industry? Are women represented more than men?
I don’t have the numbers on the world of dubbing, but I would guess that the breakdown is based on the shows being dubbed – so for whatever actor or actress we see on a TV show, we have the equal number of actors or actresses dubbing them behind the scenes. I happened to focus only on women for ‘Now En Español,’ but I definitely saw many men in the dubbing studio as well. I will say though, that several of the actresses that I filmed also did the dubbing for children’s voices, so maybe in that way, women are more represented!
Where are the five women now? Have they seen the film? If so, what did they think of it?
Well, all except for one of the women are still living in Los Angeles. Without going into too much detail and giving spoilers away, one of the actresses returned to her home country, but she is still working in the world of dubbing – teaching a new generation of dubbers in her home country – in addition to acting on-camera and on the stage. The rest are still doing voice-work and finding those elusive on-camera jobs!
The women have all seen the film, and to be completely honest, I think it’s difficult for anyone to watch a filmed version of their life, but I think it may be even more so for actors. While they’re used to seeing themselves on-camera, it’s always as someone else. And such a major part of their jobs is being conscious of their image in the world, so while it was a success for me to have the documentary go so deep into their personal lives, and to see both the good and the bad, I think that for the actresses, it’s pretty overwhelming. I also happened to do the bulk of filming in 2008-2009, when the great recession was happening, which was a very difficult time to have a not-so-stable career. But I think that the women understand this is just one moment in their lives that was captured and also not a complete one. In a documentary about 5 people, I had to leave a lot out of the film, including other work that they do and other events that were happening in their lives. But we’ve had many conversations about how their individual stories make up a larger story that both humanizes and celebrates the Latina experience, which they are on-board with. I think they understand what I’m trying to do with the film and feel equally strongly about the goal of improving Latina representation in Hollywood. And I owe it all to them. If the women hadn’t opened up to me about their lives and their struggles, the film wouldn’t have been as personal and as interesting as it now is. And as scary or strange as its been for the women to see themselves in a documentary, I know they all would like to have seen even more included in the film. One of them has even asked me to start ‘Now En Español 2′ now that the recession is over and they’re working more!
What difficulties did you encounter during the making of your film?
During production of the film, probably the biggest challenge was balancing making the movie and surviving as a documentary filmmaker. I realized in the making of the movie, that my life was not so different than the lives of the actresses – we are all following our dream to make our art. But the film took me many years to make and a lot of that was because I had to take jobs in between. I could do most things myself, but I still needed to pay my rent. And then I also needed to raise enough money to bring on an editor. I couldn’t have made the movie without the support of Latino Public Broadcasting.
During the edit, the biggest challenge was probably figuring out the tone of the narration. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to play with the tongue-in-cheek, wry narration tone that ‘Desperate Housewives’ uses. But we also needed to make it personal to the women and to provide contextual information. Ondine Rarey, the editor, brought so much to the project and was instrumental in figuring out the narration and how to weave it through the movie seamlessly with the women’s personal stories.
What do you hope your audiences will take away from the film?
I hope, first on the most basic level, that the film inspires viewers to continue the dialogue started in the film about media representation. That viewers will be inspired to continue thinking about these ideas as they watch their favorite television shows and wonder how the show was cast or why characters were written as they are. I think that ‘Now En Español’ can serve as a reminder that what we see on TV and in movies still does not reflect what we see in this country. Then I hope that audiences will take it one step further and think about the impact of those creative decisions; how the words chosen, the actors cast, the types of roles offered all influence how we see the world around us.
Finally, I also hope that audiences leave the film with a little more awareness of the behind-the-scenes work and magic that happens not only in Hollywood but across the board in so many fields. It’s all about making people, the work that they do, and their stories visible.
Why is public media the best platform to showcase this story?
I really wanted to bring this film to public media first and foremost because of its accessibility. Public media is available to everyone. In making a film about limited representation, which is just one form of access, it was important to me to have the film be accessible to all.
I also think that public media in this country is one of the main supporters of independent artists and culture. So what better platform to showcase a movie that is all about celebrating and encouraging support of these artists?!
Can you tell us what project you’re working on now?
We just finished ‘Now En Español’ recently, so I am still working on the film’s outreach campaign. For the past few years though, I’ve also been working with a friend and filmmaker on a project about the resettlement process and cultural transitions of the Iraqi refugee community in San Diego. And I have a few more ideas, but they are all still in development.