Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Ivonne Coll first stepped onto the international stage as Miss Puerto Rico in the 1967 Miss Universe Pageant, but she had no intention of being an actress. She worked as a bit comedian and showgirl before scoring a small role in a huge movie, and her time on the set of The Godfather Part II put her on a new track that took her to the United States and saw her training with some of New York City’s greatest acting teachers. She appeared in minor film and TV roles while working consistently in theater, but she’s seen her biggest success in the past decade with recurring roles on shows like Teen Wolf, Glee, and Switched At Birth. She booked her first series regular gig as the beloved Alba Villanueva on The CW’s Jane The Virgin, and she’s brought immense depth and complexity to a character that challenges how older Latinas are portrayed on screen.
The A.V. Club: Alba Villanueva is the biggest role you’ve ever played. What is the most rewarding thing about building this character and going on her journey?
Ivonne Coll: Jennie Snyder Urman, the creator, she’s just so genius. She’s the heart of that show, she supervises everything. Not only the writing. The wardrobe, the editing. She does everything. She added that Latin Lover [Narrator]. She changed my character, only speaking Spanish and presenting an immigrant in the United State. That is Jennie. When she told me that I was going to speak Spanish only, I was like, “Why? I spent so much money on my diction classes out here! Are you kidding me?” She said, “No no no, she’ll speak Spanish only. And you’ll see why.” I was worried, because Americans don’t like to read subtitles. Everywhere else in the world, we read the subtitles, but here not so much. I was worried that people wouldn’t know what I was about, what Alba represented. And oh my god, what a journey. I’m Puerto Rican, so I have no idea what it is to be an immigrant without papers in a country. It gave me the chance to be in touch with a reality that many Latino-Americans are going through.
AVC: The political climate has changed a lot since the start of Jane The Virgin. Has that changed how you’ve approached Alba’s immigration storyline?
IC: This president is very controversial in terms of the rest of the world because he’s isolating this part of the Americas and saying this is the greatest and we don’t need anything else or anyone else, but we’re all part of one continent. It’s not just one country, it’s a continent. In a subtle way, we’re trying to bring that into the forefront of our message. But also, complying with what it is that [Alba] has to do to survive in the country, which is to become an American citizen. To be here without any papers is not kosher, and it’s showing immigrants who work very hard to sustain their families, and ultimately have their children be American citizens immediately because they were born here. Now the laws for deportation are so violent, and this is a story that had to be told. The struggle of this woman, who you’ve never heard her speak English until now. Why is she speaking Spanish? Because why would she speak a foreign language in her household? She does know English. She’s not confident enough in those early episodes to be able to speak it, but now that she’s trained to be an American citizen, she has had to learn in English the Constitution and the laws and all that the citizenship test entails.
I love Alba Villanueva, I base a lot of her characteristics on my mother. She was always working, and when she was with us, she was with us. I appreciate that you never see me with an apron. Usually they dress the Latina grandmothers in this humongous apron, and they always have us cooking, and everything is like, “Mija, would you like to eat some—” [Groans.] I don’t see Alba that way. I see her as a working-class woman—she works outside of the house. Who pays for the house when my daughter is pregnant at 16? I don’t have a husband; he died. Who pays the electricity? Who pays for everything? I do, by working very hard. And one of things I liked about Jennie with Alba is I’m not a housekeeper, I’m not a nanny, I’m not a maid. I take care of people who are sick in their houses, which is something that some illegal people in my country did with my mother.
We’re not showing Alba Villanueva in a stereotypical way that we are always portrayed in American television. I’m so tired of that, but finally, thank god, this show came about. Although I have to say I’m very lucky that in Switched At Birth I had another grandmother who was not traditional, a very intelligent woman. In Glee, I had a grandmother who was very anti-gay. The homophobic grandmother who was not very likable, so I liked playing that. The opposite of what we’re expected to be. And then coming to terms with what her granddaughter needed and asking for forgiveness for her ignorance and participating in her wedding. Alba Villanueva is a gift from God, and my mother was able to see it before she left this plane, so I’m very grateful for that.
AVC: I loved the episode that Gina Rodriguez directed where we learn about Alba’s need for intimacy and Jane takes her to the sex shop. It’s so rare to see shows address the sexuality of older women.
IC: That’s what I love about Alba. She has sensuality, she’s still assured sexually, and when she takes her to that sex shop, Alba ends up with a vibrator in her house! And experiencing the vibrator, too! You have never seen a Latina grandmother doing that! Somehow we’re not seen as sexual beings after a certain age. When we’re young, Latina characters are very hot, very sexy. And in the middle, you’re still sexy and hot, but you’re the policewoman or firefighter or nurse. You see this older woman exploring and breaking boundaries, because we are always portrayed as traditional, with the fear of God. Here the fear of God is very instilled in my character, but Jennie has made her go beyond her Catholicism. She’s transformed herself thanks to her daughter and granddaughter’s experience in the 21st century.
She’s always looking for love, how to complete herself. It’s very hard for her, being a widow, and that’s the only man she knew in her life who she loved. And being from the Latin American tradition, sometimes when you’re a widow, you stay a widow. But she’s Americanized herself in many ways. I just did this film that I produced and directed and acted: “From Now On.” It’s a short film, and I wanted to show two older Latina women being sensual. Two women in their 60s having their sexuality open and being courageous on their journey. Taking steps that traditionally you’re not supposed to, according to what’s been shown about us. You don’t see Jane Fonda, Helen Mirren, Glenn Close—they have so many more options at the same age.
AVC: Your first film role was in The Godfather Part II, a cinematic masterpiece. How did you go from Miss Puerto Rico to landing this role?
IC: After the Miss Puerto Rico thing, I dropped out and became a hippie for a year. In that commune, there were a lot of artists and singers and songwriters, and I was exposed to something else. But as Miss Puerto Rico, I was given a chance to audition for a little comedy skit, and I was the sexy neighbor asking for coffee or sugar, and I didn’t want to do that. I became a production assistant to Cordero Enterprises, the biggest producer in town, and I was working with them and their great stars. I became part of the shows that he was producing for different singers and comedians. It was school for me, but then I dropped out into the commune, and came out to audition for a showgirl in a Vegas revue. I became a showgirl, and they would hear me singing and they asked me if I could be the main singer and dancer.
I went to a composer friend and asked: “Can I sing?” He tested me and said, “Yes. And we’re going to create a Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich persona for you. We’re gonna do you glamour.” We started with a show called: Ivonne Coll...Sings? With a question mark. Everyone came to see it because Miss Puerto Rico singing? What?! For Miss Universe, there is no talent contest. From that contract, I started to do other gigs around town, and they were looking for someone to develop as a star on Channel 11 who was a singer and dancer. I ended up with a one-hour variety show. They had groomed another person who left before me, and they groomed me to take revenge on the other performer. It didn’t matter to me, I just wanted the exposure and the learning experience.
My friend who had studied with Francis Ford Coppola, Francis called him about locations to replicate Cuba in The Godfather Part II. And another mutual associate said, “You have to meet this man, he’s looking for a nightclub act!” I didn’t know who Francis Ford Coppola was. I was very insulated in my little island. I went and met him with my friends. I had never been interviewed for a job like that, I didn’t even know it was an audition. They just asked me, “What do you do?” I said, “I sing ’30s, ’40s, ’50s nostalgia.” And that’s what they were looking for. Three months after that, a casting director calls me and says, “Mr. Coppola wants to tell you that he wrote a part with you in mind.”
I never wanted to do a film up to that point. I had been offered Mexican productions, but it was to be a girl in a bikini by the swimming pool, dancing the twist. It was so misogynistic. This was the first film I had ever done in my life. I had no idea it was so important. I had no idea who Francis was, I didn’t know Pacino either. He gave me a name so I would have a credit on the film, and he gave me the name Yolanda. “You won’t have any speaking scenes, but you’ll be an extra with the principals.” Mr. Coppola, I don’t think he even knows that I’m an actor. After I saw Pacino do the kissing scene with Fredo, I thought, “What the hell happened here? How do you do that?” He transformed himself in a second from this pale guy to this red-faced person who is so upset with his brother. That film was what made me realize that I wanted to become an actor.
AVC: Your next role in a major American film was 15 years later with a minor part in Lean On Me. What were you doing in that period between the two movies?
IC: I was studying with Lee Strasberg and going to the Actors Studio in New York in the 1980s. It wasn’t a school then, it was a workshop for professional actors. And I would clean the bathrooms in exchange for one session with Strasberg, or Arthur Penn, or Elia Kazan. I trained and worked in the theater, and I did make a living doing only theater in New York. My focus was to learn about my craft. And they were flying me to Puerto Rico every week to do a TV sitcom called Cuqui: A Woman Like You, and I was Cuqui. I got tired of the traveling, and I told the producers that I didn’t want to do this anymore. I came back to New York, and I was cast in Lean On Me. And then Puerto Rico called again and said they needed me back.
I was in the middle of my shoot, and they had to eliminate my biggest scene. My character was bigger than what you saw. That character had a lot of the comedy in that movie because I was the reproduction teacher. And Morgan Freeman, in his compassion, he said, “Listen, don’t worry about it. You go, you do that, when you come back we’ll keep on trucking. Actors are faced with that all the time.” I went to Puerto Rico, did that shoot, and when I came by my scenes were eliminated. But because [Morgan] knew it, that’s why you hear my name said three times in that little scene in the gym. Because of his love for me as an actor. I didn’t do much in that movie, but I went to a casting and the director said, “Oh my god, you were incredible!” I didn’t do anything, but it was him. He lifted my character so I would be noticed a little bit.
In films, Latinos are nonexistent. Except if you’re a man, and you’re working as a cop or a gangbanger. Very few women. Where are we? I’ve been lucky that I’ve gotten a few parts here and there. There’s many things I will not play. I will not play a maid. I will not play an illegal immigrant who is pleading to be saved. I don’t want to play the victim. Even in The Walking Dead, they asked me to do a—no, I don’t want want to be eaten by any zombies. If anything, I’ll be the zombie who will eat you. I’m very selective in things that I do. That’s why I made my film, because I wanted to get away from the stereotypical and put a thought in people’s heads that we can be sophisticated and educated and look good. This is what I see when I go back to my country. But we’re never portrayed as that in the films out here.
AVC: The Pest isn’t a particularly sophisticated movie, but it is one headlined by a Latino actor, which isn’t very common.
IC: It was shocking when I saw the movie. It’s a very young people’s movie. He’s farting and all that. When I read my part, I saw a very campy take. It’s not real, it’s farce. That’s why I agreed to the lunacy of the mother. We were supposed to do a tango, but John [Leguizamo] decided at the last minute that he wanted to do something funky. It was over-the-top fun.
AVC: Teen Wolf gave you the opportunity to play a more intense type of matriarch. Is it fun playing someone more heightened when you have so many grounded roles?
IC: It was like a breath of fresh air to play this character. They had her knitting in a scene, and I told them I wanted to do needlepoint because the needle pinches and plucks and pinches. Let me use that as a weapon. I love playing Araya Calavera. The men were serving her instead of her serving them. She was mean, but there was a method to her madness. She says to the Teen Wolf, “You don’t cross my border, I will not cross yours.” I thought that was the crux of her character. She’s defending her territory. She’s a mafiosa in this little Mexican town, and she’s the queen. I loved how she could kill somebody and remain cool. And I enjoyed her intellect and her planning strategy. This is her turf, and she’s going to protect her side of the border. And not dealing with drugs, which is very important.
AVC: As a gay man who comes from a conservative family, this character resonates with me a lot. Especially her feeling that the scandal of being openly gay is worse than the act. That’s something I dealt with personally. Do you think that stigma against homosexuality is diminishing within the Latino community at all? Is there more work that needs to be done?
IC: Oh absolutely, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Especially in the Latin American countries. I would say it’s a little less strong here, maybe, although you carry that with you like Alma. When you come here and you adapt yourself to society—nobody cares about what their neighbor does. It’s very different from Latin America, where Alba Villanueva has to live with what her neighbors say about her because of her daughter getting pregnant. You live with that shame for the rest of your life. Because people will gossip and remind you. But here it’s different. Who cares? You don’t even know who your neighbor is, and if you do, maybe you don’t commiserate or socialize with each other. My sister is gay. I go to Puerto Rico and she invited me to a dinner party, and there’s a doctor and a lawyer and all these women are incredible. And they have to do it in their home. It’s not a public thing. The younger people are breaking the taboos now, but the older people that still have to answer to their families—what will they think? What will they say if they know? You cannot say that publicly.
It bothers me, the labeling. Even now, my film, they put “LGBTQ.” Why? Why don’t they put “heterosexual film” next to the other ones? We just won an award in Puerto Rico for Best Overall Romance Story. Overall. It’s not gay, it’s not straight. It is what it is: the human experience. And we’re all humans, we’re all here together. Why are we labeling each other to separate ourselves each other? You’re pegged to this experience and that’s who you are. Why does society feel the need to define? Let you define who you want to be and don’t cater to any labels. The prejudice is very prevalent in my generation. Gay women needing to stay at home so they don’t shame their families with their sexual orientation. That is changing with the new generation, who is saying, “I don’t care. And if you don’t understand who I am, let’s talk about this.” It’s different now.
I hate so much that it’s done in the name of religion. If you’re a religious person and you believe in Jesus Christ, why are you having any prejudice against your brothers and sisters because their sexual orientation is different from yours. What the hell is that? Because it says in Leviticus? Who wrote that? It also says I came from the rib of a man. I don’t come from any rib of any man. When people get into the religion that way where it forms prejudices and separations against each other, that’s the wrong purpose of believing in something. If there’s an earthquake we’re all going down that hole.
AVC: With both Switched At Birth and Jane The Virgin, class struggle is an important part of the story, and taking pride in your heritage and where you come from. Is that something you struggled with coming from Puerto Rico to the United States, or did you always hold on to that pride?
IC: In Puerto Rico, I was brought up in an era when Eisenhower was the president, and my father was serving in the United States Army. I was brought up in a very Americanized Puerto Rico, ’40s to ’50s, and in an American college where the nuns only spoke English. When I went to a school with Spanish-speaking nuns, some of the books were still in English, so you still needed to learn the language. It never occurred to me that I was not an American citizen, because that citizenship was given to Puerto Ricans just before entering World War I. Very great strategy so that our men could go and serve and get killed.
When I came here, I didn’t see any difference between me and the rest of the Americans. But I was made aware that I was brown, that I was different, that I was not like them. So when I came out here, I found out that I was supposed to not belong. That somehow I had to be pegged into a corner of difference. You’re Puerto Rican, so therefore you’re not white. In my country, they considered me white, whatever that means. I think it means social strata. I never knew that there was this prejudice here when I came to the country. It was a revelation, and it has reinforced my Puerto Rican-ism. I know that I’m different, I know that I come from a different culture, and that this has been an acquired culture that I honor.
I know that I work here in America, where the unions are more abundant in the craft that I partake in. I never came here to stay here. I came here to study with the intention of going back. But I started to work immediately. I got an agent in my first year, and all of a sudden I’m doing union work. And once you experience union work, and one leads to another, I got involved in my craft and didn’t think about going back because I knew that I was going to get benefits. I knew that I was going to get my pension and everything, and I stayed here working under union rules because I do enjoy the benefits and the seriousness it is taken as a profession. It’s not just a hobby that we do because we love it. But I still love my country and I want to go back and live in it if possible.
Jane The Virgin is the first series regular I had. I was going to retire before I booked it. With Switched At Birth, that was a recurring character. I was supposed to be a series regular, but they went with a young man who is one of the deaf characters. So after three years of recurring in that character—which was very interesting because I learned how to sign, I was exposed to another kind of world—I said, “Okay I have three pensions, my social security. I’m going back to Puerto Rico!” I was getting ready to do that, but that’s when the audition for Jane The Virgin came, and I didn’t want to do it because I was busy doing jury duty and I didn’t even think it was a pilot. But I ended up in this audition and all the producers were in the room when I walked in. I didn’t take it too seriously, I was very relaxed. I was about to leave the country, and now, going into the fifth season, I’m still planning on going back to Puerto Rico when the show finishes. But as they say, “You make plans and God laughs.”
AVC: One Day At A Time and Jane The Virgin have a lot of casting crossover. One Day At A Time cast members Rita Moreno and Justina Machado and showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett have all appeared in recurring or guest roles on Jane The Virgin. Were you trying to find a way to be on the show or was that something where they reached out to you?
IC: Gloria Calderon Kellett, I’ve know her since she was a theater playwright. I always followed her work around town. When they brought her on the show, it was a great opportunity to reconnect with Gloria again, and she offered me the part to play against Rita. And I loved it because when they brought Rita to Jane, we never had a scene together. She says, “Hi, Alba,” and I go, “Hola,” but that’s it. They took her to Andrea [Navedo], they took her to Gina, everybody played with Rita except me. Which I thought was tragic because these are the two abuelas. Why am I not playing against her? But life had other plans for me, and Gloria offered me this part, which was great because it’s about a boyfriend! You don’t see older Latina women having boyfriends and stuff like that. And here they are having this catfight over this doctor.
I was very grateful that I had the opportunity to play with Rita, which is an honor to play with Rita Moreno, please. And secondly to be in that wonderful new version of One Day At A Time that is so now and speaks to the younger generation and to the open-minded people. My sister introduced me to that show! She sent me a message, “Oh my god, I love that show, they deal with the sexuality of the daughter!” That made me curious to see, and then Gloria came in to guest star. They had the part in mind for somebody else, but the other actor couldn’t do it and I was there.
It was great fun, and Norman Lear was there at the taping of the show. He’s my idol, I adore him so much. Those were the programs I watched when I came out here in 1975. That’s how I learned my Americanisms. And then I did a pilot for ABC that he produced, and that’s how I met him. He’s my idol and my boyfriend. I told him, “I don’t care if you’re married, you’re my boyfriend.” When I finished the scene with Rita, he said, “This is like a Golden Girls kind of thing!” And I thought, “Oh, yes!” Let’s see, who knows? Maybe a Latina Golden Girls will ensue here. That would make me stay.
AVC: I want to watch that show really bad. Let’s get that spin-off in the works.
IC: Let’s hope so. He just mentioned in it passing, but woo! [Sings.] “Who knows? Could be? Who knows?” Like the song says in West Side Story.
AVC: You’re an ensemble member with Teatro Vista in Chicago. What made The Madres the project for you to get back on stage and reunite with the company?
IC: I worked with Teatro Vista when I came to the Goodman Theatre to do Electricidad. They were an ensemble company, and I was fascinated by the amount of talent in those people. I made them make me a member. But they said, “You don’t live here!” And I said, “I don’t care! I want to be part of this company, part of the talent here.” This was a great opportunity for me to reunite with the company again because this is a very important play. This story needs to be told to the rest of the world. I’ve told many people what it’s about and they have no idea, they’ve never heard about it. This is a situation that has been happening since 1977 in Argentina, where these mothers, after their sons and daughters and grandchildren started disappearing, they started to picket right in front of their White House. Demanding where are they who have disappeared? And it took these women to go out there and do it.
Nobody out here knows about this and it’s been going on since 1977. Now, with this country wanting to be so isolated with the current president, it’s important that we expose these controversies and these plights that people are going through in other parts of the world. Because also to honor the freedoms that we have here in the United States. It shows you other dictatorial regimes and the consequences of it. Although with this administration, they are catering to some dictators, they kind of like the dictators. I think some of the people who follow the president now won’t care, but I think most of the country would be very interested in knowing what’s going on in the rest of the world. And to appreciate what we have here. People aren’t disappeared, never to be seen from again, and then given no explanation from their own government. That I know of. It’s a very important play with an important message that this reality, this truth, is exposed out here in the states.
AVC: How does this matriarch character compare to characters like Alba and Adrianna?
IC: I don’t think she has anything to do with them. Josefina is very much a homemaker. This is very traditional in Argentina. Even though you’re capable of working outside, you’re supposed to be more traditional. You cook, you clean, you’re in the house and you take care of your family. That is your pride. And my characters, up until now, they take pride in their family, but I don’t think they are as traditional as Josefina. This experience with her daughter and her granddaughter is what makes her come out of the home. She’s born into a new person with a new awareness. It’s like when you’re very sheltered about something, and then all of a sudden it’s right in your face. What do you do about it? She becomes a militant for that cause. You don’t see Alba or Alma picketing. They’re not really involved in any political stand, except for Alba when she became a citizen and they turned the portrait of Trump into Obama. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you appreciate about working on stage rather than in front of the camera?
IC: You’re there vibrating and breathing with people. You’re feeling the people with you, and we’re all going on a journey together. And you enlighten people about their own souls, about themselves, about the rest of the world that maybe they’re not aware of. That’s what makes me very excited about doing theater work. You cannot compare it. When I do my television work, I think in terms of theater anyway. I think in terms of how I can move the people who are watching, the same way I would if they were there in person in a theater play. That’s my challenge as an actor.