Because to people of color, life is about race. We aren't doing that on purpose or asking for it — it's genuinely the space that we occupy.
Aja: So, were you born and raised in New York?
Coral: I was raised in Harlem, but I was born in the Dominican Republic. I was just a few months old when I left DR, so I grew up in Harlem all of my life.
Aja: Oh, yeah that’s a native! What’s your favorite thing about being a New Yorker?
Coral: From a very young age I was always exposed to a lot of different types of people. There are so many different ways to be a New Yorker, to be an individual here. Everyone’s expected to express themselves in their own way—and it’s not just about physical appearances either. Being a New Yorker is about a vibe, an attitude, a perspective. I only really realized this when I actually left New York for the first time. Because elsewhere, people can be expected to look or act or be a certain way. I was never really aware that racism could even exist until I got a scholarship to attend boarding school [at the Peddie School in Hightstown, New Jersey]. When I got there, I realized that the way you look actually has a lot of bearing on the way you’re treated, because so many of those kids grew up with people that were a lot like them. That was the first time in my life where I was like, “Oh, I’m new to you guys. You see me as different.” It was the first time that being a Latin woman was held against me. Even when I went to NYU, there were so many people that were moving to New York for the first time and experiencing diversity in so many ways for the first time. I learned that I was going to be treated a certain way because I looked a certain way, or because my name sounded a certain way. It became a real learning experience about the innate acceptance of the New York community I was raised in.
Aja: That’s so true, for New York and most urban places actually, maybe suburban now as well. So, you enjoy the diversity of the city. Well, it’s a midterm election year and this time around the stakes are the highest they’ve been for at least a generation. As a young millennial, what do you believe can help get everyone from our generation that’s eligible to vote to the ballot box this November?
Coral: On a similar subject, I was just talking to someone recently about how the worst thing that anyone can say is “Don’t make this about race.” Because to people of color, life is about race. We aren’t doing that on purpose or asking for it—it’s genuinely the space that we occupy. Our bodies and the way we look are naturally politicized just because we are the ones suffering from a lot of oppressive economic and social policies. As frustrating as things are right now, what’s really magical is that people are finally realizing that for some people, there’s no escape from these issues. People are keeping up with these things in a new way and staying engaged in a new way. And I don’t know a better method to push people to the ballot box than just making sure they have a genuine interest in the matters at-hand.
Aja: You sound hopeful that the things that are happening and impacting people every day all over the country, and the entire world for that matter, will drive them to the polls. I wish I shared your optimism. Speaking of hopefuls, how do you feel about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first Latina to win the Democratic congressional primary race here in New York?
Coral: She’s the definition of the American Dream. Despite all the difficulties and obstacles she has faced, she’s just worked her ass off to get where she is now. She was a bartender a year ago, and soon she’ll be in the House of Representatives. She did that herself. I was talking to someone the other day, like “We gotta get campaign shirts with her name on them now, because in twenty years she’ll be fucking running for President.”
Politics rules the realm of virtually everything that has to do with entertainment today, probably more than any other recorded period in history. But that’s partly because aside from the chaotic occurrences in the nation’s capitol on a day-to-day, there is politics in everything. Respectability politics, workplace politics, showbiz politics. Peña has had her own experiences in the political spectrum of acting, seeing firsthand the disparities in the availability of roles for actors of color, namely ethnic roles that are not stereotypical. Add those dynamics to the milieu of being a woman with ambition and already you have the equivalent of an obstacle course to book a role. She references a time when a theater teacher observed her acting and was surprised at the range of her performance dexterity.
“She told me, ‘it’s okay if you can’t do classical work, you’re very urban,’ It was infuriating to experience—like many people, that teacher didn’t associate people of color with classical work because they’re used to seeing white faces perform those parts,” Peña explains.
“It doesn’t matter how I look or how I sound”; when I’m on stage I’m a different character. It’s something a lot of actors of color face—feeling like you have to perform for people like that even when you’re not acting. Like you always need to work to convince them that you actually can be something other than the clichés they want you to be,” Peña says. To her, having graduated and immediately gotten two part-time jobs and still cleared her afternoons and evenings for auditions, the notion that any person aspiring to do what they are passionate about being diminished is unacceptable. Peña, who is family-oriented and proud of her heritage, recalls her humble beginnings growing up in Harlem where the importance of hustling cannot be understated; it’s Uptown culture.
“Nine months after graduating, I got the role on 24: Legacy. At the time I was living with my grandmother in a one-bedroom apartment. I was working the 5:45 AM shift at Soul Cycle so that I could get off at noon, take a nap, do my hair + makeup and go to auditions,” she passionately states.
Remember though, that is a part of fortune: those balancing tests. The sacrifice that goes into doing anything worthwhile is one of the paramount components that shape any person’s prosperity. Surely, Peña has had her bouts with disappointment in her career although still budding. She considers it felicitous that she got the opportunities to follow through on specific roles but there are plenty that she misses out on. However, it is her admirable ability to see the bigger picture, even in unfavorable instances, that sets her talent and grace a part from her colleagues and her competitors.
Aja: What was your first acting experience like, and how have they changed over time?
Coral: I guess the first time that I was like “Okay, I’m an actor,” was when I was studying at RADA in London during my junior year at NYU. It was the first time I was like, “I can actually be whoever I want to be.” I can be a clown in this scene, I can be a man in this scene, I can be someone’s dad, I can be someone’s mom or someone’s lover. That’s what Shakespeare, if done right, allows you to do. It was really great to break all those barriers, to realize that I know what acting is. And that was the first time I was like I am an actor, I’m not just trying to be an actor.
Since then, I’ve done a bunch of TV shows, including 24: Legacy; I did The Post; I did a chemistry read with Alden Ehrenreich for the female lead in the Han Solo movie; and this year I did another chemistry read with Joe Keery for a series regular role on Stranger Things. Even though getting close to these big projects can end with disappointment for a variety of reasons, I have to remind myself that getting that far is an accomplishment on its own. I’m an actor—it’s a privilege in and of itself.
Aja: What’s the one thing you remember to keep your sanity and drive while working through this business on a daily? Do you apply that to your overall life as well?
Coral: The importance of your work comes from you, and not from outside validation; you have to have confidence in yourself. That being said, art is not a selfish craft, and if you want to be an artist—in any medium—I believe you have to do it for selfless reasons. You can’t want to do it just so people will tell you that you’re great.
For example, it was a really tough pilot season this year, because for a long time I was in consideration for this series regular part on Stranger Things, but I ended up missing out on the part to someone else. When the other actor got the part, it kind of destroyed me because I really was so eager to represent my people as a woman of color on this show. For the first time, I felt really insecure and like I let my people down.
Still, I feel like that selfless mentality has kept me going. I feel like I always have room to grow and always have room to get better. If this is a failure, the next one could be a failure too, but eventually down the line I will create something that’s going to positively affect someone. Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it’s about working hard until your moment comes.
Aja: That’s so powerful. Your capacity to look beyond yourself and consider all that you represent in simply being in the discipline is awe inspiring. That positivity is likely part of what affords you such great opportunities. Like, what was it like working with Meryl Streep?
Coral: It was great. It was really, really nice. She was a very sweet and very honest person. When she got to set, she said hi to everyone; she did her own thing. She’s a very selfless person, which I think is why people like working with her over and over again. Like I said, this shouldn’t be a selfish industry. You’re doing work in order to serve your scene partner or your director; everyone is trying to motivate the other person.
Aja: And Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg? Wow!
Coral: Everyone was just really kind. It was the same with Steven Spielberg—he would come up to me and ask, “Are you having a good time? Do you need anything?” And I’m thinking, “What? You’re checking up on me? You’re Steven Spielberg!”
Coral’s Cool Story
On the set of The Post I was surrounded by true pros, some of the best actors alive. I felt like such a newb. I remember Carrie Coon and Tracy Letts—who were in the movie and also happen to be two of the actors I look up to most in the world, kept checking in on me throughout filming. I was so appreciative of that support.
I happened to be on set during the last scene of the movie, and right before we shot the very last moment of the very last scene, all the background actors suddenly disappeared and the PAs came out with these champagne glasses. As they were handing them out to the actors, Steven stood up and said, “You know, I have a tradition where I like take a moment before we officially wrap to just talk and tell everyone how much I appreciate their hard work.” He said, “I can say without a doubt that this is the best ensemble I’ve ever worked with in my whole life. I had my first pick on every actor for every character in this whole thing. Everyone here, you’re the first person I wanted. Thank you so much for coming on this journey with me.”
Then Tom Hanks said, “If someone told you a couple of years ago that you’d be in a movie that Steven Spielberg’s directing, you’d tell them to go fuck off. But now here you are.” We all laughed but I swear I must have been trembling. Steven added that another tradition he has is for everyone to get in a huddle for a big group picture with all the principal actors. So as the cast got ready to take the picture, I suddenly got very nervous and started to walk on the outskirts of the group. I then heard one of the film’s writers, Liz Hannah, and Steven say “Coral, get in here! You’re a principal actor, Coral get in!” Liz then said something about the character I played, who was named Nancy. She said, “I named her after my Mom, and every time we rewrote it, I could never take that character out. We felt that she represented so much, so thank you so much for playing her.” That was something that I’ll never forget. So then we took the picture! I think I was sandwiched between Tom Hanks and someone else but I don’t really remember because I pretty much blacked out at that point. And then we went to a bar in Harlem. That felt extra special to me.
Oh, I want to play a Bond villain with all my heart. I want to be a villain in a James Bond movie—and I’m not talking about some sexy femme fatale. I want to play a scary, dark bitch that wears suits.
Between shooting, changing looks, locations, eating and cooling off, there was an abundance of good energy in the room and there is no doubt in our minds that Coral was the source. Her confident swagger is nearly extinguished by her modest disposition. She repeatedly refers to her accomplishments in lieu of luck; however, it is more likely the result of her gratitude. She aims to outdo herself and she does, effortlessly. [Hell, her poses were mostly improvised and keep in mind she is not a tall person but it seemed as though there was a high-fashion supermodel on set. She fully commits to her roles and that is why she is astounding]. If it’s luck that has gotten her this far, nickname her Clover.
“I got very lucky that I have a skill with a corresponding job that requires those skills. That I like to do this and there’s a job for what I like to do,” Peña said during the interview. “A lot of people have skills or things that they love to do but they end up saying, ‘Shit, how do I make a job out of this?’ I got really lucky that we live in a time where, if you like art and like acting, then you can decide to be an actor.”
Aja: What is the ultimate dream role or character you’d want to portray?
Coral: Oh, I want to play a Bond villain with all my heart. I want to be a villain in a James Bond movie—and I’m not talking about some sexy femme fatale. I want to play a scary, dark bitch that wears suits.
Aja: Nice, I could totally see you in a super sleek pantsuit with your slick back! On that note, we know you’re in a new NBC series called The Enemy Within, alongside Morris Chestnut and Jennifer Carpenter. Can you tell us a little about your character “Anna” and what should we expect from the series?
Coral: I wish I could say more but you’ll have to wait until it premieres this winter! I auditioned for a guest spot for the pilot and then they called back and wanted to give me a different role in the series before I could even audition again. It was a great compliment, and I’m really excited for what’s to come.
Aja: Is it shot in New York, too?
Coral: Yes, it’s shot in New York and I’m really excited!
Aja: What else does our Rebel Muse have cooking up?
Coral: Just constantly working, and reading scripts. It’s non-stop; it’s how I like to be. I’m not slowing down anytime soon.