Christian Serratos as Selena
Photo: Sara Khalid/Netflix
"Selena: The Series" Star Christian Serratos On Playing "La Reina" & The Importance Of Latinx Identity In Hollywood
For countless U.S.-born Latinas, aspiring creatives and Selena admirers alike, the Queen of Tejano music made it possible to dream. A down to earth, unabashed fronteriza (or, border-lander), she represented a new kind of stardom that continues to fuel her enduring legacy—especially one that has resonated fervidly with the Latinx community generation over generation.
Such was the case for the 30-year-old actor Christian Serratos, who's been impacted by the late Tejano icon. So, when the opportunity arrived to play her idol on Netflix's new show "Selena: The Series" (out Dec. 4), it was almost unreal.
"To have looked up to her for so long and then been given the chance to play her, I mean, I can't even—it's a dream!," Serratos tells GRAMMY.com over a Zoom call. She's wearing an off-white sheer blouse decorated with a bow, with her seafoam green nails adding a pop contrast; her hair is black, luscious and in a half ponytail resembling one of Selena's usual 'dos.
Born and raised in Pasadena, Calif. to parents of Mexican and Italian ancestry, the actor mentions that there are "so many things that really connect" her with her character: "Being Mexican-American in this industry, and trying to find yourself at a young age. She experimented a lot with her look. I experimented a lot with my look. She struggled with her language. I struggled with my language."
Serratos began acting as a teenager in the mid-aughts, landing several supporting roles on TV shows like "7th Heaven" and "Hannah Montana," before moving into film with the Twilight trilogy. More recently, she played Rosita Espinosa on "The Walking Dead." "Selena: The Series" is her first starring role.
Co-executive produced by Selena's father Abraham Quintanilla and her sister Suzette, the series arrives 25 years after the beloved singer's tragic death at just 23 years old. It also marks the first TV show to recount her life and musical journey, over two decades since the eponymous biopic was released, the film that propelled Jennifer Lopez's career to superstardom. The Boricua actress and pop star even took to social media to share her enthusiasm for the upcoming series. "Playing Selena was kind of a landmark moment in my career and I was so excited when I saw the trailer and heard about it. It's a great way for this generation to know Selena," J.Lo wrote.
In our interview, the rising Mexican-American star details what new knowledge on Selena season one imparts and why it's important for her to represent Latin identity in American media. She also reveals that posthumous Selena music is underway!
How did you prepare for the role? Did you take dancing classes and dialect training?
Yeah. As a fan, I had already been watching a lot of her performances and videos my whole adult life. Obviously, I still did much more research now that I was going to be playing this person. I was really comfortable with a lot of the iconic Selena that we know. I felt really confident in the long hair in her early 20s.
What I think makes our first season so special is that we're seeing all the hard work that she put in to get to where she was. And we're going to be seeing so much more of her music that we'd never heard before. She has so many famous songs, "Techno Cumbia," Baila Esta Cumbia" "Amor Prohibido," "No Me Queda Mas," but to hear [older] songs like "Besitos" is going to be really strange for some people and then really exciting. They are just as powerful as her later stuff. I hope that they all become just as loved and played as her other songs.
We haven't seen Selena played in this magnitude since the 1997 eponymous biopic. How does the series differ?
I think there might be more comparisons with season two, but season one touches on her childhood, from her life as a child to age 19. Those formative years where she's figuring out who she wanted to be in life as a woman, but also creatively as a musician. We haven't gotten to see that anywhere before. Even some of the moments that we show on the show are rare footage. All the awards that she won as a 15-year-old girl we haven't seen before. Copying those speeches perfectly is going to be really fun for the fans. I was so grateful that her family was involved in our production and had these moments for us to watch and study, because I think being as close to accurate as we can is best for the fans.
it’s the Tejano music for me pic.twitter.com/bv6PWF3T6d
— Con Todo (@contodonetflix) December 4, 2020
What's another thing that you learned about Selena that you were previously unaware of? What stood out to you the most?
Her family life. I didn't know to what extent she, her family, and Los Dinos toured the country and Mexico in a van for many years, and how often she was on the road. It's impressive for those kids to have learned these songs in a Spanish before they were really comfortable with the language. They were children, and they were also really good at what they did—for [her brother] A.B. to have been producing these songs at such a young age. Selena started to write some of the songs too. I think that's just a testament to what incredible artists they were. She became an icon and we love her in our culture. She's an incredible artist, musician and writer. That needs to be talked about more.
Her family was involved in the production of this series. Selena's sister Suzette Quintanilla is one of the executive producers. How was it like to work with her actual family?
It was invaluable to our show. There are things we wouldn't have had access to if it weren't for them in terms of her life at work, like photos and stories. There are many special and intimate moments. And Suzette was nothing but lovely. I'm so grateful they are allowing us to do this, and that they allowed me to have the chance to portray her. For that, I can't thank them enough.
Did you ever contact Jennifer Lopez, who also famously portrayed Selena in the '90s?
I considered it a lot. I am a huge fan of her and what she's done. She's also broken so many barriers being a Latina. I have so much respect for what she did in the movie. I would love to thank her for her portrayal as Selena, because that was also very inspiring to me, and to a lot of young girls. Hopefully I'll get the opportunity to do that.
One of the things you have in common with Selena is that you're also Mexican-American. How important is it for you to have Latin representation in Hollywood and in mainstream American media?
So important. Selena straddled what I think is a very special place of [being] Mexican and American. She did such a good job at demanding that she be accepted for both things. There are so many things that I really connect with when it comes to Selena: being Mexican-American in this industry, and trying to find yourself at a young age. She experimented a lot with her look. I experimented a lot with my look. She struggled with her language. I struggled with my language.
I've been in this industry for a very long time, and so often I was [seen as] not enough of either, which became an insecurity of mine. But I'm so proud of being both things. I just want to keep telling stories about Mexican people and my culture. I think the industry is changing and that makes me very happy.
For so long, especially as a teenager, when I asked for equality, most people thought I was asking for a lot. It was hurtful and frustrating that I was being told by the people who were supposed to be on my side that I wasn't allowed to ask for certain opportunities. That's really hurtful for somebody who's very young. To have somebody like Selena to say, "No, this is possible," is incredible for our culture.
Christian Serratos as Selena | Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
In the '80 and '90s, female representation in Tejano music was almost non-existent. Then Selena earned the Queen of Tejano title, thus breaking another barrier.
She was definitely a pioneer. Most industries are male-dominated. But you're right, Tejano music was really male-driven, and there were only a few women who were trying to change the game. She did it in a very unique way because they blended so many different sounds. So yes, she's somebody to be very proud of.
Selena also represented a new kind of beauty standard, embracing her biculturalism, being down to earth, and donning such an iconic look. One of MAC's best-selling collections is inspired by La Reina. How exactly were her beauty ideals woven into the series?
John Stapleton created the Selena look for the show and he's from MAC. It was really cool to be experiencing what she experienced. She was a huge fan of MAC makeup and we were using a lot of the same products that she used, which I think is really important for our show and the story. It was just really cool to feel I was getting closer to her. I think that's why we all love her, because we know that we would have been her friend. She was so authentically herself. She was so powerful on stage, but she was very down to earth. That's what made her so compelling.
What is your favorite Selena costume?
Her purple jumpsuit [from her final concert at the Astrodome] is what I think people want me to say. And I love the purple jumpsuit. It felt so incredible wearing it. But she actually had that fabric in four or five different colors, and a few different outfits in that fabric—green, blue and another purple-ly color. I thought those were so interesting. I really loved her ruffle-ly big skirt and sleeves. But I also just really loved when she was down-home Selena, and just wore a big t-shirt, jeans, a bun and no makeup. On the show, when I got to do that and wear a big t-shirt, it really felt like I was Selena instead of the icon.
You've previously acted in "The Walking Dead" and "Twilight." They're quite contrasting from your role with "Selena." How did your previous roles help you with this one?
Any project that you do, you should be learning. And I have learned. I always know how I want to conduct myself in the next space. "The Walking Dead" is my family. I grew up there. I learned such great habits there and I'm so appreciative to that cast and crew and network for being there for me, and then allowing me to do "Selena." And in my Selena experience, I learned from that too. I just want to keep taking all these good vibes into the following projects I do. And also these relationships. That's kind of what I do, I go into every set and I find my family and then I keep them with me forever and ever.
Some actors have stated that when they play a character, certain traits of their character stick to them off camera. Did you see that happen with Selena?
No. At least not yet. But I did notice that a lot of people said that there were similarities between me and her, which was always so comforting to hear that. She definitely taught me to feel a lot more comfortable with how silly I can be sometimes, because so often to be professional in any industry, if you want to be considered a serious business woman, you have to use your business voice.
Selena was always so herself. So I became a lot more comfortable with not doing the telephone voice or talking to a business person in a different way. I'm just going to always talk the way that I talk, even if it's silly or embarrassing, or if I think I shouldn't. I'm not going to tell myself I shouldn't do something. If I cuss, I won't feel bad for it. I'm going to try to be myself always. And that should be fine.
With the upcoming series, the next generation will learn about who Selena was. What are some of the things that you would like the new fans to know about her?
I just want them to see the hardworking woman that she was, this hardworking Mexican-American family. I want them to see what they accomplished. I think what they did is so powerful, so fresh and very inspiring.