If you thought Selenis Leyva was badass in Orange is The New Black, then you're not ready for her in her newest film Chapter & Verse. Directed by Jamal Joseph, the film takes place in present-day Harlem, New York and follows an ex-con's life after prison — and his new job at a local food pantry with Selenis' character, Yolanda. Selenis co-stars in the film along with Daniel Beaty, Loretta Devine, and Omari Hardwick. The film touches on hot topic issues like gentrification, police brutality, gang violence, and the Black Lives Matter movement, just to name a few.
Selenis Leyva is the epitome of a strong woman. Her roles on screen perpetuate an image of a woman who is in control and confident. In Chapter & Verse, Selenis' character, Yolanda, is a food pantry supervisor who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go after it.
In an interview with Selenis, she compared her two characters — Gloria from OITNB and Yolanda from Chapter and Verse — saying that while they’re both strong women, Yolanda is more outwardly confident, whereas Gloria’s confidence comes with some hesitance. On the Netflix hit OITNB, Selenis' character Gloria is a mother figure to the younger Latina girls in the prison and claims her territory in the kitchen after a bit of a turf war with another inmate. While nurturing, she is very protective of her girls and never afraid of confrontation.
“I love portraying strong women,” Selenis says. Speaking as an Afro-Latina, Selenis says playing powerful Latinas are some of her favorite roles. Admitting that she can be shy and even a bit awkward when out of her comfort zone, Selenis says, “These two women are what I want to be,” and that she loves embodying a woman who is in control.
Coming from Cuban and Dominican descent, Selenis says she pulls a lot of her inspiration for her roles from her culture and from her parents. “My mother was a very strong woman, she never had to say anything, but when she did you knew it was gold.” She pulled plenty of inspiration for Yolanda from her mother and father as well, saying, “My father was the same way — he was a very generous and strong Cuban man.” As for herself, Selenis says she always pours a little bit of herself into her roles. And in Yolanda, Selenis says she put some of her own proactive characteristics in her: “I’m a doer, I like to get things done and kind of micro-manage and I think there‘s some of that in Yolanda.”
While being an Afro-Latina actress brings empowerment, it also comes with its downsides. The film and theater industries haven’t quite caught up with modern times, so there aren’t many diverse roles for Latina women. “I do tend to get cast in a lot of the same ‘sassy Nuyorican’ or ‘light skinned black girl’ roles, but it’s part of being a Latina actress,” Selenis says, explaining that while she loves those roles and sees the value they hold, she would also like to see a door open for Latina actresses to diversify their roles. She says she still sees the haunting stereotype of Latinas being sex objects in today's film industry: “I have yet to see a role written for a Latina woman that is very complicated and deals with heavy emotions.” In her personal experience, she says the objectification has followed her through other works. Citing past plays she’s done, Selenis says she’s read reviews of her performances and can only find comments about her curves and body: “I still feel the struggle.”
As for her future, Selenis says she hopes to see more progress for Latina actresses and to diversify her own roles. “My dream role would be to play La Lupe,” Selenis explains, naming the Cuban singer with a big voice and a bigger personality. Until then, Selenis will continue pushing past her comfort zone and embodying women we strive to be like. On a parting note, she offers words of wisdom to young Latina actresses as someone who was once in their shoes: “Be smart. Don’t rely only and solely on your looks and your body. We have to deliver substance.”
Paladin and The Harlem Film Company will release Chapter & Verse in New York on February 3, 2017 and in Chicago and Los Angeles on February 10, 2017.
Check out this clip of Selenis in Chapter & Verse:
Photo and video courtesy of Chapter & Verse.
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