The bags were almost packed as Julissa Calderon prepared to embark on a trip to Europe after finishing her last day as a BuzzFeed producer. When she thought her next few months were planned out and a new chapter was about to begin outside the U.S., she received an unexpected call from her manager.
Over the phone, her manager broke the news that she was selected as one of the finalists for the role of Yessika Castillo for the Netflix show Gentefied despite being passed multiple times. It was the furthest Calderon had gotten in an audition since she decided to move to LA.
“Usually [the chemistry read is] down to the last two, three, four people, that’s it. But they had passed on me [before], so how did they see my work?” Calderon said. “At this point, I had put in my two weeks notice as my last day of BuzzFeed [and] I was going to Europe.”
She knew she couldn’t pass the chance, and before she realized it, her plans had taken an alternate route than what she had planned.
Calderon told a crowd of 35 people in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom during Thursday’s University Lecture Series how she was nervous about her accent after being told to fake it to better fit the role. In front of the casting directors, however, she decided to proudly show her Dominican and Miami roots.
“I was like, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do this accent [from East LA], I’m just going there, I’m going to do [my accent] and if they really want me, they’re going to either get a coach or this is just what you get,’” Calderon said.
As she finished her lines and was about to walk out the door, she had a gut feeling and began to speak with the casting directors — something people wouldn’t do after an audition.
“Something inside of me told me, talk. And you don’t usually talk after your auditions. You say thank you and you walk out,” Calderon said.
“[I told the casting directors] ‘Listen … there’s no one out there in that room waiting that is going to do a better role than me for this girl. I am her, and I promise you, you’re not going to be sorry that you chose me for this girl. Thank you so much.’ And I walked out.”
She got the role of Yessika Castillo in the Netflix show Gentefied, and she began filming the following week. Her authenticity and confidence were key behind the reason she got the role. Her impression was so significant that even the casting directors decided to rewrite the role to a Dominican girl who moved to LA — just like she had done in real life.
“I get a phone call from one of the executives … and she’s like … ‘You left everything out on that floor when you came in here today … I just wanted to tell you that, because you were just you, because you were just so confident in who you were as this Dominican girl, we’re going to rewrite the role,’” Calderon said.
Calderon spoke with that same authenticity about her family bonds, how she went from being a waitress to a producer at BuzzFeed and landing a role in Gentefied during the hourlong lecture moderated by Diana Hechavarria, associate professor of entrepreneurship in the School of Marketing and Innovation.
Throughout the lecture, she engaged the crowd with anecdotes that drew laughs and applause, such as the one when she saw her face on a billboard in Times Square with her family. Calderon said she wanted to show them that the sacrifices they made for her had paid off.
“It was mostly for them to understand their efforts,” Calderon said. “And for my mom and her two sisters that were there, I was like, ‘Your efforts did not go unnoticed. For all the work that you’ve done’ … so it was bigger than me. Literally.”
She said her family has motivated her to keep going in her career. One of Calderon’s biggest inspirations was her grandmother, who was so kind she would let anyone walk into her home to eat dinner. She was also inspired by her great aunt, who she said left a legacy in the Dominican community in New York.
“I figured what do I have to lose, [my family] came from nothing,” Calderon said. “They had to leave [the Dominican Republic] and they fought in a time where it was harder. They didn’t have the opportunities that I have now. So for me it was that, it was the fact that like my family has done so much. I need to do so much for them as well.”
Her mother supported her interests throughout the years, since she was a child wanting to audition for every play and even years later when she decided to study theater after two semesters of studying pre-med at UF. Although it seemed like a drastic change, Calderon said she knew she was going to figure it out.
“I didn’t know how I was going to get here, and I didn’t know what I was going to do to get here,” Calderon said.
A year and a half after graduation, Calderon landed an audition in LA. She bought a round-trip flight, but once there, she took a leap of faith and decided to stay. While juggling auditions and three jobs in LA, she met an intern at BuzzFeed who saw a “light” in her.
“He passed [my resume] onto the [casting directors] and they called me and the rest is kind of history,” Calderon said.
Although it hasn’t always been easy, Calderon said she is proud of being authentic and her roots. In her different roles on and off the screens, Calderon continues to inspire communities about Latin representation and its diversity.
“Ten of us could stand up right now, that are Latinos, and we are not going to look alike,” Calderon said.
“We’re also not going to sound alike, our countries are different. We understand that … And so I think that we gotta continue to talk about this, because a lot of people don’t know it. And that’s OK, too.”
Additional reporting by Leda Alvim and Alexandra Urban.