Roselyn Sanchez traded a successful career in Puerto Rico for a chance at Hollywood stardom. Now her gamble’s paying off.
This feature originally appeared in Complex's August/September 2003 issue.
Roselyn Sanchez doesn’t slump. She perches. Relaxed but hyper-alert, the actress exudes a calm sense of certainty. If she has anything to prove, it’s only to herself: Nine years ago, at 21, Sanchez left behind a successful acting career in her native Puerto Rico and moved to New York, armed with preternatural confidence, a childhood vision of movie stardom, and a rough grasp of English. Today, she is poised to bum rush the doors J. Lo and Salma Hayek opened for young Latinas in Hollywood. With roles in Chasing Papi, Basic (with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson), and Boat Trip (co-starring Cuba Gooding Jr.), all within the last year, Sanchez is already one of the hottest young Puerto Rican actresses in the game. Now she’s about to follow another move from the J. Lo playbook, showcasing her singing talents on an upcoming album.
Like Jenny from the block, Sanchez is sexy in a way that has depth. “She’s a gorgeous girl, and she has a lot of charisma,” says Brett Ratner, who directed Sanchez in Rush Hour 2 alongside Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. “She’s interesting to look at, but if she wasn’t talented, she wouldn’t be where she is right now. A lot of actors are getting success because they’re attractive, but they’re getting places without the training, and it shows in their work. Roselyn, on the other hand, also has a tremendous work ethic and great training.”
Sanchez is also, he says, ferociously hard on herself. “After certain scenes she shot, I found her in her trailer crying because she didn’t think she did well,” Ratner says from his Hollywood office, “even though I thought she was wonderful.”
At 30, Sanchez isn’t a kid, but she retains an innocent air that hints at her wholesome past. She describes her childhood as “super-normal.” The only girl in a middle-class family with three brothers, Sanchez was raised in San Juan, where her father Efrain ran a wholesale food business, and her mother Olga was a school teacher. She attended private Catholic school, and began studying classical piano at six. The first record she bought was a 45 of “Stuck On You” by Lionel Richie. “When I was a little girl I was very much into Lionel Richie, Madonna, and Menudo,” she says with a husky laugh. “To this day, I still love Menudo. That’s part of being Puerto Rican, loving Menudo.”
Roselyn is part of that new generation where you don't have to be a white Anglo-Saxon American with blond hair and blue eyes to be a big movie star. - Brett Ratner
Another boricua tradition she upholds is culinary tastes: As we sit and talk, she unabashedly scoffs down a plate of breaded steak, chicken cutlets, and avocado salad, and gently teases her assistant because there are no tostones to be had. We are sitting in the spacious penthouse of the Hudson Hotel in Manhattan, and Sanchez [note to the fellas: Start salivating here] is buck-naked except for a thick white hotel bathrobe.
When she was 17, Sanchez landed a role on a hit Puerto Rican comedy variety show called Que Vacilon! (What A Party!); like J. Lo on In Living Color, she started out as a dancer on the show. Over the course of three seasons, however, Sanchez moved on to choreography, began appearing in comedy sketches, and finally became the show’s host. Offers for TV commercials began pouring in. Then she won the Miss Puerto Rico Petite pageant, and at 21, she beat women from all 50 states in the Miss America Petite contest. “I was like, wow, this is crazy,” she says in rapid-fire English, occasionally breaking into Spanglish. “I went back to Puerto Rico and the president of the pageant said to me, ‘You’re so accomplished already in your island, what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I want to be an actress and I want to be a singer but I don’t see myself here. If I’m gonna do this, I want to be excellent.’ I can’t stand average people. He said, ‘Where do you want to go? New York? L.A.? Do you want to go to Mexico and do soap operas?’ I said, ‘Ultimately I want Hollywood, but I want to study so I think I have to go to New York.’ And I just left.”
She spent three years in New York, staying with family in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. She’d never been on the subway before. Her English was limited. So for the first year and a half, she did TV commercials in Spanish. She also appeared in a Marc Anthony video, and performed in two Spanish-language musicals.
While struggling anonymously in New York, Sanchez wrote, produced, and starred in her one-woman play, Out Here On My Own. “I invited my parents and they came, and my father cried when he saw it. He didn’t know that I would dress like a little boy in the Bronx and walk to the bus, to the subway, and then go to McDonald’s to put on my makeup and change. Or that I was taking the subway late at night. I was a baby. I didn’t know how to write a check. I didn’t know what credit was.”
In 1996, after two years of English and speech lessons, her first audition in English was for the soap opera As The World Turns. “I don’t even know how I got it because I was so bad, it wasn’t even funny,” she says, erupting into the loud staccato laughter that punctuates almost every phrase. “I was really struggling for money at that moment. I was working as a hostess, and it was my first job ever. I was the worst hostess in the history of restaurants. I felt like, I didn’t come here for this."
I would dress like a little boy in the Bronx and walk to the bus, to the subway, and then go to McDonald’s to put on my makeup and change.
Having already had a taste of success in Puerto Rico, paying dues in NYC was all the more humbling for Sanchez. But a combination of faith in her future and stubborn pride kept her riding the train down from the Bronx. “It was hard, but I had no choice,” she says. “It was that or go back to Puerto Rico, and there was no way I was gonna go back without succeeding—that wasn’t gonna happen. So I was like, I’m gonna deal with it and suck it up. I knew it was gonna happen—it was just too vivid in my mind. I’m not that special. I knew I was gonna have to go through what everybody goes through. When I look back, it wasn’t even that bad compared to people that I know––they really struggled. I always had parents and they were only a phone call away.”
In New York, Sanchez also began a long struggle to eliminate her accent. “I’ve been trying for years and years,” she says, suddenly wiping a tear away. “I would love to have the ability to play Anglo, Italian, Latina—any of these—and be able to do all of these accents and talk perfect English. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I’m just not that gifted or what, but I know that I’ve been trying for years and I still have an accent. So I don’t know what it is.”
“There are a lot of movies I would die to get, and I go in and I know I nailed the audition, but they say, ‘We just don’t believe the character would have an accent.’ But I know that one day, I’m gonna be very lucky and get that movie that will take me to the next level and my accent will become miraculously less and less of an issue.”
Perhaps some of Sanchez’s tenacity and fighting spirit can be traced back to the countless evenings she spent as a child watching Puerto Rico’s legendary boxers slug it out on TV. “To this day, my favorite sport is boxing. People laugh at me. I go to all the big events. I would take a beating if I attempt to go with a pro, but as a workout, I love it. People often ask me, ‘Why do you like it? It’s so physical and aggressive.’ But as a Puerto Rican, that’s part of the culture. Boxing and baseball are our two biggest sports, and we have amazing Puerto Rican fighters. Because I grew up with four men in my house, you just watch boxing, that’s what you see. And I love it!”
Her childhood love of boxing was still very much in force five years ago, when Sanchez married a professional boxer she met in Los Angeles. The marriage was ill-fated, though, ending in divorce two years later. “This topic is a little sensitive,” she says. “It’s really hard for me to think that I got divorced so young––I have a big problem with even saying that. I just don’t like it. I thought I was gonna get married once in my life, and the fact that it didn’t happen is a big disappointment. It didn’t go well, because we just weren’t very compatible. We loved each other immensely, but it became a war. Because we loved each other, we realized, this is not healthy.”
“I learned many things. I was a little girl and I became a woman. First of all, he was older than me, so I was dealing with someone clearly more experienced than me. And I give him that. I became stronger. Before I got married, if you gave me a song or a script about a broken heart and how a woman would deal with that, I would make it up. After that, if you give me material about love and dysfunction and emotions, now I understand. So I feel like it made me a better actress and a better singer. Now I don't have to make it up. I know how it feels. It's not that I hate men, or don't want to deal with men now. Of course I was hurt. But I would love to get married again. I just have to heal.
To this day, my favorite sport is boxing. People laugh at me. I go to all the big events. I would take a beating if I attempt to go with a pro, but as a workout, I love it.
Earlier this year, director John McTiernan chose Sanchez to play an army ranger in Basic, despite the fact that the part was originally written for a man. Even more important to the actress, given her efforts to eliminate her accent, was the role in 2002’s Boat Trip. “For me it was a big accomplishment,” she says. “Because the role wasn’t written for a Latina––they wanted a white girl. I said, ‘I don’t even want to go in for the audition. I have an accent, you know—don’t waste my time.’ But they convinced me, and that same day, they changed the part. And I suddenly realized, it’s about finding the right girl. It doesn’t matter what color she is.”
“I think her issues about her accent were imposed on her by people as she was coming up through the ranks,” says Bonita Labossiere Mohney, Sanchez’s vocal coach. “A lot of the people who were casting her wanted her to be accentless, but that’s part of who she is. That’s part of Roselyn.”
Still, as Mohney points out, the actress’s insecurities haven’t held her back. And Ratner, the director who gave her that first big break in Rush Hour 2, notes that Sanchez is not only making her own dreams come true, but also paving the way for others: “Roselyn and Salma and Jennifer Lopez have created an opening for a lot of Latina actresses,” he says. “Roselyn is part of that new generation where you don’t have to be a white Anglo-Saxon American with blond hair and blue eyes to be a big movie star. I think the timing for her is perfect. She’s young, beautiful, and talented. And she has the world ahead of her.”
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: STYLING by Nikki Sarent/Celestine. FIRST IMAGE: Bra by Victoria's Secret. SECOND IMAGE: Top by Joie / knickers by Dolce & Gabbana / shoes by Diavolina. THIRD IMAGE: Top by Catherine Malandrino. FOURTH AND COVER IMAGES: Shirt by Ghost / bra and briefs by Victoria's Secret / shoes by Dolce & Gabbana.