My ‘Ethnically Ambiguous' Looks Helped Me Succeed In Acting. Here’s Why I Walked Away.

"When I arrived at the Austin studio for my fitting for the Netflix series, I was fed the usual lines — lies — that so many actresses hear."
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One of the author's acting headshots.
One of the author's acting headshots.
Photo Courtesy of Desiree Prieto Groft

“You got three degrees so you could take off your clothes?!” my mother asked over the phone as I sat outside the studio in Austin, Texas, where I had been cast as a “beautiful immigrant” for several episodes of a Netflix television series. I was already regretting telling my family.

“I thought you were a feminist?” she continued. She was right. And even though my degrees weren’t in math, I knew that if I were to take off my clothes for a role, I could make more money by going down to the Yellow Rose strip club.

“I am a feminist,” I replied and hung up the phone.

I wasn’t always an actress, and I wondered how I’d arrived at that destination. During the height of the Great Recession almost 14 years ago, I’d lost my jet-setting job at a European travel company and decided to go to graduate school. I hoped that by the time I finished my third degree in New York City, a full-time teaching or copywriting job with a salary, 401K and health care benefits would come to fruition.

Unfortunately, the rising “gig economy” meant that I would need to get even better at hustling to make a living, so I sent out photos and found work as a “background actor”— just fancy words for an extra.

I told myself I’d only do it until I found a “real job,” but since that wasn’t happening, I graduated to struggling actress. By then, I’d worked for television stations, a theater and taken on-camera acting and sketch comedy classes.

Casting directors called me “ethnically ambiguous,” an official industry-wide term denoting people of color. Sofia Vergara had just become the highest-paid actress on TV, Mindy Kaling had a show, and Archie Panjabi from ”The Good Wife” had won an Emmy and scored a deal to star in her own drama.

Because I was born in Laredo, a former professor told me that I should play up this aspect of my identity by writing about being a “single, Hispanic female from the Texas-Mexico border.” Then I’d get more work.

While I was thrilled with the new coup for diversity in media, TV, and film, I wasn’t sure how I felt about being labeled based on my demographic characteristics and specifically my skin color.

On the other hand, I needed to eat.

“Playing the ethnically ambiguous card meant that my feelings, too, would remain ambiguous. Did my role really require me to wear that bright turquoise dress and tribal earrings, or was this another stereotype heavily associated with my ethnicity and the color of my skin?”

I struggled with the contradictions. I felt grateful for the paychecks and community, which I conflated with being seen: I was “casted,” validated and accepted. Not to mention my gratitude for the buffet-style meals and craft services — a snack table for break time with coffee, sodas, fruit, cheese and bagels.

Still, playing the ethnically ambiguous card meant that my feelings, too, would remain ambiguous. For example, did my role really require me to wear that bright turquoise dress and tribal earrings, or was this another stereotype heavily associated with my ethnicity and the color of my skin?

After I’d been around long enough, gruff production assistants in headphones started asking me, “Union or non-union?”

Union meant you had your SAG card and got paid better rates and therefore got access to better craft services tables with sushi and quesadilla stations. Production assistants waited around all day, too, and were paid similar rates: a generous $112 for twelve hours or $88 for ten hours. But directors often kept everyone around longer, content to pay penalties for every six hours of filming they went without feeding.

But when I was cast as a Manhattan socialite, I had to lay off the free food: It turns out that to look rich, it’s like you’re poor again because you can’t eat anything.

I danced around the main cast in ”Made in Chelsea.” I also played a reporter on ”Unforgettable,” and I was cast as an office worker on ”Blue Bloods.” When I played a gala guest dressed in gold sequins on ”The Mysteries of Laura,” Debra Messing singled me out, maneuvering around me in her long red ball gown. “Right behind ya, babe.” Apparently, I had blocked her spot on set while excitedly rehearsing a crossover the director asked me to do behind her.

A young Caribbean man I’d met on the set of ”The Mysteries of Laura” recommended I apply to be a model for New York Fashion Week. So I sent out the requested photos of myself along with my size two measurements.

In what seemed to be a stretch of the limits of the concept of ethnic ambiguity, I received an email reading, “Congratulations. You’ve been selected for Fashion Week’s Fashion Has a Heart.” It was for African-American Fashion Week.

Unfortunately, it didn’t pay. Unless you were the 1%, acting could follow the trite motto: “We can’t pay you, but in exchange, we offer you exposure.” Tell that to my landlord, I’d thought. But then the exposure came.

“Wow, we saw you!” my mother texted after ”Unforgettable” aired. “I’d recognize the back of my daughter’s head anywhere.”

While I waited to hear about a Target commercial, she also texted, “I hope you get it and the residuals, too.” My parents talked about residuals like they knew what it meant.

“See, mijita?” my mother once said, after seeing an old Laredo high school peer in a Spanish-language Hallmark Card commercial. “She must get residuals.”

My father nonchalantly suggested I get an agent. When I explained how competitive New York was, he said, “I know, I’ve seen ’Seinfeld.’”

The author wears gold sequins on the set of "The Mysteries of Laura."
The author wears gold sequins on the set of "The Mysteries of Laura."
Photo Courtesy of Desiree Prieto Groft

I finally scored my first SAG waiver working for a month as a background actor on an $80 million feature film starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, ”Sisters.” It paid my rent in Chelsea and fed me. I also got singled out again, by Tina Fey herself, as I was doing an expert job dancing, smoking and drinking.

“Hey? Guys? Can you lower your cups?” she asked. Apparently, I had blocked her spot in front of the camera, too.

While I continued to juggle job applications and interviews at schools and in the corporate world, I wondered if I should give up my big career goals and keep cobbling together acting gigs. Like an undercover cop deep underwater, I forgot which side I was on.

I even served aboard a 100-year-old sailing yacht between gigs, because struggling actresses are also servers. It’s a rite of passage. As we sailed through the Hudson River, alongside the Statue of Liberty, a cute guy in a pair of torn Toms asked me, “So, what do you do besides this?”

“I’m an actress,” I blurted out so involuntarily, with such an odd enthusiasm, it was like I was coming out of the closet after many years.

Unfortunately, my New York City rent kept increasing. And then my father had a heart attack. My mother’s cancer would soon follow. I found myself returning to Texas more and more, questioning why I was still in New York. I put my belongings in storage and intensified my efforts to find a full-time job while also accepting background acting gigs.

Eventually, it was spring in Texas. The bluebonnets began to flourish. Spring would bleed into summer, the heat creating ripples on the horizon. I hoped that those weren’t just mirages in the distance, but that a real job lay ahead.

“I wondered if I should give up my big career goals and keep cobbling together acting gigs. Like an undercover cop deep underwater, I forgot which side I was on.”

When I arrived at the Austin studio for my fitting for the Netflix series, I was handed a few pairs of skimpy lingerie. I was told the scenes required me to be locked in a cage half-naked. And then the young woman in fitting fed me the usual lines — lies — that so many actresses hear when it’s time to get naked:

“You mean nobody told you? Casting didn’t say anything?”

I said, “No, thank you,” and left. That was the end of it, or at least that is where the story ends when I tell it to most of my family and friends.

But I’d only made it halfway through the parking lot when the young woman in fitting ran after me to negotiate. The Texas sun scorched the dark asphalt as she put her hand above her brow and squinted. “What if we put you in a camisole?”

I said yes at first. And I allowed this person I’d just met to take some pictures of me in a bra and panties. But I hated the way I felt in front of the lens. Like the camisole I was wearing, I felt transparent. I finally walked away, for good this time.

When we are in periods of limbo, the waiting is hard. But the funny thing is that when the answer does finally arrive, it is like a clear summer day. When I put that role in my rearview mirror, I was suddenly sure how I felt about being a single, Hispanic female from the Texas-Mexico border, about being labeled based on my minority status and specifically my skin color. I knew that I was so much more than “ethnically ambiguous.”

So I committed to moving to Austin, where I worked for a dear friend and started adjunct teaching. Eventually, I started teaching full time and used my acting skills for my own writing, publishing and audio projects, which enabled me to use my degrees and keep my clothes on. No more part-time, freelance, contingent workforce. No more background acting. I would not be an extra in my own life anymore.

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