America's Next Latino Superstars

Three of Hollywood's hottest young Latino actors are packed into a vinyl-upholstered diner booth, touching each other and giggling.

"Your show is all over the place!" Gina Rodriguez says to Francia Raisa. "My freaking 14-year-old niece was all like, 'Oh my God, you're gonna go, and you're gonna be with her today -- oh my God!' And I was like, 'I'll touch her for you.' " Rodriguez, star of the indie darling and Sundance smash hit "Filly Brown," then lays a hand on Raisa, who plays the resident bad girl on ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" and is sitting to Rodriguez's right. Raisa in turn reaches across Rodriguez to Tyler Posey, the lead on MTV's "Teen Wolf." "I'm going to touch you for my sister," she says. Posey, undaunted, meets the challenge head-on. "I just wanna get some too," he says and reaches for Rodriguez and Raisa. The scene dissolves in laughter.

Not long ago, if you wanted to gather three up-and-coming 20-somethings for a conversation on what it means to be young, Latino, and making it onscreen, you would have had a short list from which to choose. But in the last decade, as the 2010 Census taught us, America has become browner. So too has its entertainment. Diversity in TV casting is now, if not the norm, also not the exception. Stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Benicio Del Toro have proved that mainstream -- aka white -- moviegoers aren't afraid to buy tickets to a film with a Hispanic name above the title. Posey, Raisa, and Rodriguez aren't yet on that level, but they already have careers that other actors, no matter their ethnicity, would kill for.

Have there been moments when you've been going out on auditions, not hitting anything, and thought, "I'm gonna go do something else"? 
Francia Raisa: There are still moments. Even if you're very successful, you still have to audition. It's always, always discouraging. I'm very blessed. I've been given great opportunities for the short amount of time that I've been in this industry, but I still get very discouraged every day.

Gina Rodriguez: To give over is very hard, especially in this industry, where it is very void of truth and honesty and connection. I'm sure you guys have been through that, where you can get discouraged not just by the transparency of the people around you but by the transparency of the industry, where it's a game that you have to play.

Tyler Posey: The business sucks. That's what she's trying to say.

What do you do when the business sucks? 
Posey: I don't know. I don't think it's that the business sucks. I think there are just certain aspects of it that are artificial and fake. It doesn't suck. Sometimes the people do.

Raisa: Sometimes the things people do just to book a project, that gets discouraging.
Rodriguez: Because you're like, "I'm not going to do that."

Raisa: It's a hard business, but I feel like it's my calling, so I'm going to fight every day to be a part of it, to pursue my purpose.

Rodriguez: Before you said that, I was very much thinking "purpose." You say, "When the industry sucks, what do you do?" You remember why. You remember your purpose. I don't believe my purpose is to be a famous face. I believe my purpose is to use acting as a tool, to speak to the youth, to speak to young Latinas, young girls. I know growing up for me in Chicago, it was very tough seeing five Latinas, five of them. Growing up it was J.Lo -- who did we grow up with?

Raisa: J.Lo, Salma Hayek, Penélope Cruz -- 

Rodriguez: They're all beautiful! They're stunning! I'm like, "I don't look like that."

Raisa: To this day, there are only five of them. 

Rodriguez: And they're all sex symbols. I look at them and I think, "Wow, you're beautiful." But I think to myself, What is my purpose? To be the girl that is relatable, that is touchable, that is real. I thought I could never be that. But now I have that opportunity.

Raisa: That's how I got into the business. A movie spoke to me when I was 16, and it changed my life.

Which movie? 
Raisa: "Thirteen." My life was headed in that direction. I was not paying attention in school. I was sneaking out of my house. I was partying. I was drinking. I was heading that way. Fortunately, I still respected my body, but I felt myself slipping toward that attitude of, "Whatever, it's fine." I watched the movie, and it was so relatable to me. I went, "This is why I want to be an actress." I want to do projects that kids can relate to, and that speak to them without having someone yell at them or scold them. Now I'm on a TV show that does that.

But how do you do that when you're in your 20s and you don't have the same leverage as more-established actors might to pick and choose? 
Rodriguez: Right after Sundance I had a situation where I was presented with a project to do. Who am I to turn down a project that would put my face out there significantly? Except I don't want to be a movie star. I want to be an actress. I want to be Meryl Streep. I don't want to be naked on Maxim. It's not easy as a 20-year-old to say no. Edward James Olmos said to me, "Gina, you're starting, and people are going to come at you like vultures. This is your heart. And when you say yes, you shave a little bit of integrity off of it. Then you say yes again, and you shave a little bit more -- and by the time you're on your death bed, you have nothing left." I said no to the project that could have changed lots for me. 

We were talking before about seeing the same five faces over and over. Does that make it more daunting to build a career if you feel like you're competing for one of four or five slots? 
Posey: I don't really think about that. I just try to be, not unique or original, but just myself. People seem to like that, so I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing. I've never really felt pressured that I'm not really going to be one of the four or five.

On "Teen Wolf," you're not playing a Latino character. 
Posey: I don't really know. I think he is. The mom on the show looks Latina. I have to be. I am. You've got to make character choices. I feel like he has Latin roots. It's never come up, but maybe I could incorporate something.

Raisa: There's no way of acting Latin.

Rodriguez: That's what makes it even cooler. He's just a kid who can act and tell a story.

Raisa: And turn into a wolf.

Rodriguez: That's what we need more of. I want to book the projects that are like, "female, brunette, early 20s."

Is it harder to get seen for those parts? 
Raisa: Oh my gosh, yes, it is. Very hard. The minute people even hear my name, they're like, "Oh, she's Latin."

Rodriguez: I was literally told the other day, "The producers are going to see ‘Rodriguez,' and they're just going to know." 

 It's so frustrating when you walk into an audition room and you see white, white, white, white, white. You're like, "What am I doing here?"

Rodriguez: That mentality can be so restrictive and restraining, to say that there are only five slots. Instead, you should be saying, "There are five slots. I can't wait to create 17 more." 

Raisa: If anything, I just put myself in one of those five slots. I'm like, "All right, I'm in. Cool." 

Posey: The creator of my show always mentions, "Yeah, he's a good actor, but he's also ethnic. And he's the lead of our show, so that's going to help us." It's weird the way that he says it, but it's true, and it's cool, and I'm totally stoked.

Rodriguez: We need more angels like that, people who are saying, look this is actually a good thing.

Raisa: My executive producer is great about that. She hires a lot of ethnic people on the show. 

Rodriguez: Having people of ethnic backgrounds in positions of power, like James Lopez at Screen Gems. He's an angel for us. They just did "Think Like a Man," all-black cast, and it's hysterical. It's completely relatable to anybody's comedy. It's not shticky. It's about having people in that position that think this could actually be something beneficial and profitable. It's that mentality that's like, "Hey, listen, there's a demographic that's already built in here. How do we talk to that demographic? How do we make millions off of them?" We do it by putting this guy as the lead in "Teen Wolf."

How much of the show's following do you think are kids looking at you saying, "Hey, he's Mexican, and he's the lead on a show"? 
Posey: There's a lot. A lot of kids tweet me and say, "You've inspired me to start acting." Some of them are Latinos. I think that's one of my favorite parts. Whenever I tweet my fans, I go through the list of tweets that they've sent me. Some of them are like, "You're so hot! Please tweet me! It's my birthday!" But I really go to the ones that are like, "You inspired me." Those are my favorite ones, and I try to talk to those people and really connect with them -- because if I am helping them, I want to go further than just being this kid onscreen that they see and go, "I could do that too." I want to push them and say, "You can do it."

Raisa: I can tell you that being Latin and being in this industry, and seeing you on a billboard, and seeing you in the front -- 

Rodriguez: So baller!

Raisa:  -- and I was like, "He's Latin! I am so proud! It is changing!" And there were billboards everywhere.

Rodriguez: It's those kids that are walking, holding the hands of their parents, looking up on Sunset Boulevard and seeing your face. I saw the one on Crescent Heights and Sunset, and I was like, "That kid's Hispanic. That is super dope."

Posey: That makes me feel cool. I'm getting chills.

Raisa: You did a lot -- for me, for a lot of other Latino actors.

Rodriguez: We think that what we do only encourages people to make art. But it's not just the acting, which is beautiful.