Meet Paulina Chávez, a 17-year old actress from El Paso, Texas, and the star of a brand new Netflix Original: The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia.
The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia follows the titular Ashley (Chávez), as she navigates not only being a 15-year-old girl, but being a 15-year-old college grad with a PhD who also just so happens to be a rocket scientist and robotics engineer at NASA. Created by Mario Lopez, with many episodes directed by the one and only Eva Longoria, this new Netflix comedy is bringing Latinx representation to television screens with an added dose of girl power.
We had the chance to sit down with Paulina just four short days after her new Netflix series hit the little screen (and a gigantic screen smack-dab in the middle of Times Square, we might add) to discuss her budding acting and music career, her activist work, what it’s been like to be part of a show like The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia, oh, and Mario Lopez’s skin.
To start things off, can you talk a little bit about how you started acting in the first place?
I started when I was in 2nd grade, I was 7 years old. My mom actually worked at the elementary school that I went to. There, Carl Dickerson started a drama team way before I started. It brings these kids together and they work hard. They put on a yearly production of shows like Cinderella. And I did that throughout elementary school. We did productions like Little Mermaid, Aladdin Jr., Beauty and the Beast, it was a lot of fun. After that, I went on to middle school and I tried theater there, but I wanted more. I convinced my mom to travel and take me to acting classes. We would go to Dallas a lot. It’s like a five hour drive and we would do a daily trip. Five hours there, take an acting class, and come back. I’m really thankful for my parents for believing in me. Eventually, I got signed with my manager and everything has been crazy. I’ve been auditioning for 4+ years and submitting self-tapes, and this one landed.
And how did the opportunity for you to become a part of The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia come about?
I actually got the audition on a Wednesday night. It was late and it was due early Friday morning. When I read the script, I was immediately captivated. It was so funny and it was about a Latina who has two Phds. And for her to be Latina, people don’t really see that on TV. There’s Latinas everywhere that are entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists—but they’re not showcased on TV. I taped it, I submitted it, and I prayed for the best. A week later, I got the call that they wanted me to go directly to testing which is insane, because there are usually so many auditions you take before doing the tests. I went to L.A. and that’s when I met Mario Lopez. It was insane. I remember walking in, there was just a line of producers and then Mario was at the end. He comes up and he hugs me. I’m trying to play it cool, I’m just like “Oh, it’s so nice to meet you!” As I hug him, I turn to the other producers and I’m like oh my god, it’s Mario Lopez! And as soon as we disconnected from the hug, I’m cool; I’m trying to play it off.
But, we rehearsed it, they gave me notes. I was put in front of a lot of Netflix executives and it was insane, but I think I pulled it off! The next day, we flew back and my manager says “Hey, call CESD [Chavez’s agent] so we can let you know what we’re hearing.” As soon as I hear that—there’s a lot of yeses and nos in this business—I prepare myself for the worst. They liked me but I’m too tall; but I’m this, something like that. But my mom was like “No! You have to think positive! You’re gonna get it!” I call my manager, I’m like “So, what’s up?” and he was like “So, how was your flight?” I was like “It’s good, so, what are you hearing?” he’s like “Oh yeah...I just wanted to let you know that you booked it.” Just so nonchalant about it! Obviously my mom and I were like “Are you sure you got the right girl?” It’s been a crazy journey.
It seems like it! What has it been like getting to portray a character like Ashley? What other cool themes have you encountered while playing that character?
It’s been incredible. I’ve learned so many hard words that now I’ve forgotten. But the one I was thinking of is anthropomorphize. Anthropomorphize—I don’t know if you caught it in the 3rd episode where we’re working on the robots—but it basically means to give human traits to a thing, which is the robot, Ichabod. So that’s the one word I’m really stuck on and I think it’s because that’s the first episode that shot so that really stuck. But aside from learning the words, I mean, with the character, you get a lot of family stuff. You see the relationship between Ashley and Victor (Jencarlos Canela), who is a sweetheart. We’re honestly like siblings even though he has to play my uncle. And of course the relationship with Brooke and Ashley, who have been long-time best friends, and now that they get to reconnect Brooke is guiding her. Their friendship is wonderful. I’ve learned a lot about multicam. I hope to direct soon.
You talked about this a little bit too, but I wanted to dive into it a little more because it’s so important to so many people. What does being part of a show that is bringing more Latinx representation to TV mean to you?
I mean, it’s an honor. It really is an honor to play such an inspiring character like Ashley Garcia. And it’s much needed to have a show that is out of the ordinary. You don’t see a lot of scientists who are Latinas, who are main characters, and they’re females. That is very important! Or, who are so young and dedicated and driven. It has really been an honor because we need a lot more Latina representation and Latinos in Hollywood. We need more of that. And I think this show really opened the door to have more stories like this, to tell more stories of the amazing Latinos and Latinas who are scientists and entrepreneurs and engineers. My sister is an engineer! My older sister, she’s a civil engineer. They’re out there. And we know they are. So we need to showcase them on TV.
Mario Lopez, who is one of the creators on the show and he actually guest stars on the show as the cafe owner, right? And then Eva Longoria directed a couple episodes. Could you talk about what it was like working with her and working with Mario Lopez?
Eva Longoria and Mario Lopez are amazing. They always want to help out the community as much as they can. Eva Longoria is a producer, actor, director and I think maybe a writer; She really does it all. And it’s just inspiring to see her in action. She has inspired me to be a director and producer one day. And she is just such a passionate, intelligent person and I admire her so much. Her foundation, the Eva Longoria Foundation, helps Latinas. She focuses on Latinas in education focusing on STEM and helps them build entrepreneurships and gets them out of the cycle of poverty. I’m in awe of her. I love her so much.
Mario Lopez, oh my gosh, can we just talk about his skin for a little bit? His skin is perfect. I had a couple of scenes with him and I was just staring at his face—his face is just so pretty! And the dimples! That man really does not age. And people always ask me is he really nice in person? And yes, he really is. He’s the nicest person ever. And I’m just so thankful for the opportunity that he’s given me, him and the team. I’m really grateful for this.
Continuing the conversation on women in STEM, there aren’t really any other shows out there that are depicting girls of color in STEM or even girls in STEM to begin with. Have you felt any pressure about having to act in this role?
A lot of people have asked me that. And people are like “You’re gonna have big shoes to fill.” I think I’m ready for it. I always go back and volunteer at my old elementary school. I help with choreography and help as much as I can. And Mr. Dickerson always tells me they miss me and look up to me and I feel like having them really brings me confidence in the shoes to fill.
You’ve had experience in a lot of different styles of acting from theater work to commercials to thrillers. What has been the best part of working on a comedy series like EUAG?
I’ve been learning so much from everybody. I never even thought I was gonna do comedy. I never really thought I was good at it. I never thought I was funny, and so every time I went to classes I would always do dramatic stuff. But then when we had to do the Disney workshops, then I really had to kick it up hard and that’s when my acting teacher was like oh, you’re actually funny. I trained so hard on comedy, but I was also trained on being natural and dramatic. I didn’t want it to be like fake, I wanted it to translate. So I kind of tried to make it a balance because I know my character is really hyperactive, so I found the balance. But, in working on a comedy like this, it’s been a blast. We [also] have a live studio audience one of the days that we shoot, it’s amazing to interact with the crowd.
And you don’t just do acting, right? You do music too! I understand that you’re recording your first EP...
I am! I’m working with [castmate] Jencarlos Canela. We’re going to do something alternative: Indie-pop/rock meets Mariachi. Mariachi is my root. When I was little—I was probably four or five—my whole family, would cross over to Mexico and we would go to house parties with my aunts. We would stay up so late, I would probably crash at nine, but usually at the end before I crashed everyone would just sing rancheras and it was a blast. I grew up listening to Mexican music and I always sang Mexican music. When I moved to San Antonio, I had the opportunity in middle school to be part of mariachi group. I got to learn an instrument and we also got to do vocals. It’s in my blood to do it. My grandma from my dad’s side, she’s a beautiful singer and I think that’s where I get my passion for it. We’re [Jeancarlos] still working on it.
You’re also doing some other really cool activist work too! Tell me about your scholarship program.
That’s the main one that I’m working on. This year would have been my graduating year, I graduated a year early, so I’m doing a scholarship for South West ISD and Legacy High School. Those are the two schools, I would have gone to either one of those, so I’m doing a scholarship for Latinos so that they can have an opportunity. It’s geared towards the middle-class, because it happened to my sister. She applied for a program to get a scholarship for college and they ended up not giving it to her because we were middle-class, because our parents had “enough” money. I don’t know if we’ve gotten any responses yet but hopefully we do and we do get to give that kid an opportunity to pay for books, at least.
Is what happened with your sister the experience that sort of inspired you to start this program?
Yes, that and Eva Longoria’s foundation. I want to help Latinos. Latinos helping Latinos.
Would you consider yourself a feminist?
For sure. For sure. I think I am a feminist. I have always been for girl empowerment. My whole family is women, except for my dad. My dad is a feminist, though. Growing up in a household with women who are just so independent and strong really inspired me and I did become a feminist along the way. My older sister Jessica—she’s like a hardcore feminist. I get it from her.
Lastly, are there any future projects you’re working on that you’re excited about or can tell us anything about?
I don’t even know if I can talk about it. They’re all pending but I do hopefully have a potential couple of things in the future, so look out for those!
Stream The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia now on Netflix.
Photography by Russell Baer
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Aliza is a Creative Writing BFA student and former BUST Magazine intern! When she's not writing, reading or scrolling through TikTok for hours on end, you can find her consuming copious amounts of iced coffee or doing something witchy. Follow her on Twitter @alizapelto.