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FilmMonthly: What did you want to be when you were a young kid?
Valerie Cruz: Gosh, I don’t know. It wasn’t an actor early on. I didn’t want to be an actor until the end of high school and that’s when I went off on that path. Growing up, I think there was a point where I wanted to be a veterinarian. It only lasted a few years. I think that was something that I wanted to do. I think I wanted to help people. I mean, I think I’ve always grown up thinking that I want to help people in some way or another. I think it sort of took shape in acting but that was sort of always at the center of what I wanted to do, I think.
FM: How did you get into acting?
VC: I started acting at the end of high school. I did a play and kind of just decided that was the route that I wanted to go or the road I wanted to go down so I went to school and I studied. I auditioned for a bunch of theater programs and different schools and then I chose to go to Florida State. Then midway through college, I auditioned for the BFA program that they have there and did that. And it’s kind of how I got started. I had gotten into USC at a time and now in hindsight, I’m really glad that I had the type of schooling that I did. I think because I came to it later and that I didn’t go after being in a city that was associated with acting, it really gave me the opportunity to learn about the craft more and what it takes to be an actor. And from sort of the inside out rather the outside in and I think that, I mean, I still miss school to this day. I just remember learning so much and absorbing so much and learning about all this great playwrights of our time and directors. We had amazing guest speakers and teachers at my school and it really was a great place to have my eyes opened to that whole world. So I would say that’s how I started.
FM: What would you say is the easiest and hardest part of acting?
VC: I think the hardest part is not knowing. I think that’s the hardest part. The nature of the business. You know, not knowing where your next job is going to come from. Making plans and then having to suddenly be cancelled because you have a new job. There’s a lot of moving around involved and needing to be flexible with your schedule. And I think that’s the hardest part because sometimes you feel like your schedule isn’t entirely your own. You know, you don’t have a nine to five job where you go in and there’s the security of you know when you’re getting your paycheck, and you know when you’re going to be going to work or when you’ll be leaving and when you’re getting your vacation time. I say that’s the hardest part of the job and the easiest part, I think, is actually getting the work because if you have a real joy for it. You know, I don’t think everyone always has that opportunity to love what you’re doing every single day you go to work. You know and you have some days that are harder than others but there’s definitely, especially with working on this show, those days where I’ve gotten in my car grinning from ear to ear because in the scene it’s been pouring down rain on our heads and being knee deep in the mud and facing whatever physical challenges we had for that day, late shooting, I’ll go home feeling really great. Like I’ll have a scene with Jason (George) and I’ll feel like we found something special, and be completely excited and happy about it driving home in my car. So I think the actual work work component is easy. I mean, you love it. They say if you love what you do, it’s to a degree, effortless in some way.
FM: How did you get involved with Off The Map?
VC: I’ve worked on something for Shonda (Rhimes) before. I think with all the pilots a lot of times, they have people they’re looking at, but I had to go in and audition. I mean, the part wasn’t just offered to me. I had to go in and audition for it and test for it and go through the normal hoops one has to go through to get a job during pilot season.
FM: What drew you to this show in particular?
VC: It’s a Shonda Rhimes show. She’s not only incredibly successful over at ABC, I think that she’s an incredibly talented woman, smart woman. And to be honest—and Jenna (Bans), who is the creator of our show, and Betsy Beers, who is Shonda’s partner over at Shondaland. You know you have a show that’s headed by, spearheaded by three women essentially, and to me, being a woman in this business, that was, to me, sort of a big appeal to me right from the get-go. We’re in a very male dominated industry and to have the opportunity, which I hadn’t before, to work on a show that’s spearheaded, the executives were women, I thought was interesting and rather inspiring, so that was definitely a huge thing for me in the beginning. And you know, reading the script, it was interesting. It was something that wasn’t being done currently on television and I thought it had a lot of potential for a lot of different types of people and could tell a lot of different stories.
FM: What do you think audiences will love the most about the show?
VC: Other than Martin (Henderson) taking his shirt off? I don’t know. (laughing) I’m just kidding. You know, I think like all of Shonda’s shows, it’s very character driven and I think at the end of the day, there’s tons of cool things that happen. People jump off cliffs and there’s hang gliding accidents. You know all kinds of action and stuff. But at the end of the day, I think that the base component of any good story telling, whether it’s our show or other shows, are you know, the character and that’s what I think that’s what people are going to love the most and be drawn to the most are the characters and what’s going on in their lives. Everybody will be drawn to specific ones, but I think that’s what makes people come back every week to watch a television show.
FM: Do you think viewers of current medical dramas will find comfort in Off the Map or will push away from it?
VC: It’ll probably be a little bit of both. I think both are accurate observations. I think some people embrace change and some people are really resistant to it, so I think we’ll find a new audience and we’ll also be taking from the pool of people that are interested in medical dramas. You know you would hope that people would be interested in seeing, because a lot of the stories, I mean, they’re absolutely, what are true in the way that doctors have to improvise, given the situations. And you know, it’s definitely glossier than like, I’m sure doctors are experiencing out in the middle of the Amazon and doctors without borders. It is a TV show. But the content and the subject matter are actually what people are dealing with in other parts of the world. And we hope that we’ve gotten to be such a global culture. That’s another reason why I think this show is so topical. We’re thinking more outside of our living rooms. People are traveling more and getting more involved with the world and I think we really have to, you know, since 9-11 things have really changed. So I would hope that people would be interested in the show for those reasons alone because we are thinking more globally as a culture.
FM: Do you feel a personal connection to your character, Dr. Zee Alvarez?
VC: I feel pretty well connected to all of my characters. You know, I think you start to really—they’re kind of like your children in a way, because you put so much time and effort into creating and fleshing out who these people are. So I feel, by the time I’m done, my character is like another sibling, definitely a kindred spirit. [Dr. Zee Alvarez and I are] alike in some ways and different in a lot of different ways. And I think that she’s dynamic and strong and, you know, a bit of a type A personality and a little controlling. And then what’s interesting about her is when she’s in situations that she can’t control, sort of, how she evolves, you know, what happens when life throws you curveballs and you can’t really anticipate them; you can’t change them, and I think that’s where you start to see a little more of her vulnerability. I think she definitely is emotionally challenged in some areas of her life. I think I have some of her strengths, some of her weaknesses. For sure I can identify with them, but we’re definitely different people also.
FM: What do you hope that audiences will learn from your character?
VC: I guess, at the end of the day, maybe, that it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to open up and let yourself go. I think that they’ll kind of gleam inside from that. It doesn’t make you emotionally weak to care. And then, I don’t know. Some jungle medicine. (laughing) Hopefully I’ll learn some jungle medicine from her.
Off the Map airs on Wednesdays at 10/9CT on ABC. You can catch up on previous episodes on abc.com.
Jessica Machen is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Chicago.
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