A slice of life in East LA has come to the small screen with the new Starz series, Vida. It’s a realistic tale of two sisters in the Latinx community dealing with the good, the bad and everything they didn’t know – like their mother was queer.

Actress Elena Campbell-Martinez enters the story in the first episode as ‘Doña Lupe’, the local spiritual healer or curandera, who speaks to the dead and offers sage advice to the grieving sisters.

Earlier this year, Elena appeared in Clint Eastwood’s terrorist attack biopic, The 15:17 to Paris. She is also recognized as the housekeeper in CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, as Gloria’s old hair salon boss on Modern Family, and for recurring as ‘Lisa’ on Amazon’s Hand of God. Originally from Texas and a graduate of Rice University, Elena credits her passion for acting to her Mami from Guadalajara.

I recently caught up with Elena Campbell-Martinez to talk about Vida and more.

What can you tell us about your role in the new Starz series Vida?

ELENA: In Vida I am Doña Lupe, a curandera (a spiritual healer) that lives in the building that the sisters have just inherited. Doña Lupe has known the sisters their entire lives. She is the person that Lyn in particular relies on as she’s feeling lost. Doña Lupe provides spiritual comfort, healing treatments and sage advice from herself and from the spirits.

How was it working on such a Latinx-focused show?

ELENA: Working on a show that was Latinx-focused through and through—from the writers, to many of the directors, the cinematographer—gave us the chance to experience what it means to NOT be “the other” in a show. Our languages (Spanish/Spanglish) and cultural traditions were simply the canvas and colors with which this beautiful story was painted, without needing to be explained or asterisked in any way.

Any interesting stories from the set you can share with us?

ELENA: For the first episode, we spent a full day shooting the velorio scene which takes place in La Chinita, the bar the girls’ mother owned. The art department created a beautifully old, rundown neighborhood bar, rich in painstaking detail which was fascinating to explore. Latinx actors and extras filled the “bar”, so as I spent hours weaving through the crowd, serving traditional Mexican food and drinks, seamlessly transitioning between languages as we improvised conversations about the deceased, I felt like I was at a real family funeral.

For my role as a curandera, I did research on my own, plus I received a lot of information and coaching from the showrunner Tanya Saracho, who has lots of personal knowledge about the tools and practices of the curandera -- everything from the use of specific candles, herbs and prayers to the proper way to smoke and spit. This is spiritual calling with a rich set of traditions, so it was important to honor that and get it right.

What would you hope audiences take way from watching it?

ELENA: I hope that Latinx audiences see elements of their experience effortlessly woven into a TV show and feel that same relaxed enjoyment that we felt in not being constantly in explaining mode or feeling like “the other”. I hope that non-Latinx audiences see their own family stories—both dramatic and humorous—reflected in the show. There is a universality to the idea of trying to come home as an adult and dealing with your sister, for example. And I think it will be fun and interesting for people who aren’t as familiar with Latinx cultures to get a little peak into intimate spaces they don’t normally get to see on TV.

And, what’s been the biggest lesson for you from this opportunity?

ELENA: The biggest lesson for me has been the possibility of a significant shift in the way that Latinx people are portrayed on TV. Tanya Saracho took a bold step by staffing an all-Latinx writers’ room in order to avoid the whitewashing or brown-facing that happens when Latinx stories are told by others. She put an inclusive, female-led production team in place. The experience of shooting a series with that kind of leadership and diversity has been one of excellent quality and respect throughout.

Got anything else coming up we can watch for the near future?

ELENA: I’m currently starring as ‘Matilde’ in the second season of the award-winning post-apocalyptic YouTube comedy web series, Couch Potato Chronicles. In this funny and TV-obsessed show, I do my best to keep my family together, as it appears we are the only survivors on earth. Episodes 1-4 are currently available, with new episodes posted every Monday. Soon I’ll be reunited on screen with Alejandro Patiño (my Couch Potato Chronicles co-star), in director John Butler’s new indie feature film, Papi Chulo, starring Matt Bomer. This summer I’ll make an appearance as ‘Detective Bregman’ in the new NBC sci-fi thriller, Reverie.

Find out more about Elena Campbell-Martinez at: www.CampbellMartinez.com
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