'We Want to See Ourselves': 'Selena: The Series' Star Noemi Gonzalez on Representation in the Netflix Series

Noemi Gonzalez talks about collaborating with Selena's sister Suzette, representation, and learning how to drum for Netflix's 'Selena: The Series'.

Noemi Gonzalez, 'Selena: The Series'

Image via Netflix

Noemi Gonzalez, 'Selena: The Series'

Selena was an icon who had vocal talent, a great fashion sense, insane dance moves, and charisma unlike any other. She was born to be a star! In Netflix’s Selena: The Series, we get to see the family’s origin stories and see Selena’s rise to fame, and the key people in her family and in her life, who were instrumental in her success. Selena wasn’t the only talented member of the Quintanilla family; her sister Suzette could more than hold her own on the drums.

Portrayed by the equally talented Noemi Gonzalez, this television iteration gives of more of Suzette’s heart, business acumen, managerial spirit, and love. Complex got to speak with Gonzalez about the representation that influenced her as an artist, collaborating with the real-life Suzette Quintanilla, the technical challenges the role provided, and more.

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As an artist, who were some of those early icons that you looked up to from television and music that inspired you?
Well, I didn't know I wanted to be an actress when I was younger. I thought I was going to be a music teacher. I started singing in the choir when I was very young. My mom is a wonderful, incredibly strong woman who always gave me strong women to look up to. So, I was largely influenced by Selena and even Diana, Princess of Wales.

When I was younger, I felt seen with the movie Selena and Jennifer Lopez’s amazing lead performance and that stellar ensemble cast. Also, La Bamba had a huge influence on me. I watched it over and over while filming this series. I love Rosanna DeSoto, who plays Connie, Ritchie Valens' mom. I adore Elizabeth Peña as well, when she was in La Bamba, and then when she was in Rush Hour as Chris Tucker's love interest, I was like, "Yes!" Other influences include Barbara Streisand and Beyoncé, for sure. It's just been amazing to have such dynamic women from all backgrounds to feel seen, but it was especially comforting to see myself represented in Selena and La Bamba.

Yes, absolutely! I'm a huge fan of the film as well, but what the series has more time to do is flesh out the characters of those closest to her a bit further. What was the creative partnership between you and Suzette? Did you two collaborate closely on crafting your portrayal of her?  
Suzette Quintanilla, I want to give her so much love. She has been incredibly giving and generous, not only to Selena: The Series, but to Selena's legacy as well. It's been 20 years since we've had a presentation of Selena and this family went through humility, success, and grief—all in the public eye. The fact that she keeps giving so that her sister's memory and music stay alive is profound and connected to me when I had the awareness of what I was here to do for this role.

Suzette also provided tapes of family memories and events that shaped how the scripts were going to be delivered from our brilliant writer’s room led by Moisés Zamora. All the cast members got to listen to these tapes; there were like three day’s worth of tapes that gave us the space to work on our characters objectively as well. While nobody in the cast got to work with their real-life counterparts in it, we did have our own background, archives, and then the series' interpretation of these real-life people. So, it was nice to then be the actor who gets to interpret it all on our own. 

When you finally met Suzette, what was that like? 
I cried the first time I [had] an interaction [with] her through Instagram. I was in the makeup chair and I just looked at the girls and the girls looked at me and took a moment to be like, "Oh my God. What is life?" Later, when I got to meet her, it was a very profound experience. It was very beautiful and I just made sure to meditate before that day so I can honor my first interaction with Suzette Quintanilla, the Quintanilla family, and Selena.

Noemi Gonzalez, 'Selena: The Series'

Suzette is an outstanding drummer, but she’s so much more and her business acumen grows so much. What other sides of Suzette will we see in the series?
Truly, what I really loved was that I think when we think of smart individuals, or successful individuals, I think we think of someone who's articulate and speaks fast or is nerdy or even the traditional businessman in a suit. Nah, sometimes it's a cholo that's like, "Dude, we need to go over here. We need to buy that." Or, "You know what, they're missing that over there, and I'm going to learn how to provide that." Where you come from is valuable and don't let your background, the way that your voice sounds, affect where you could go.

Specifically, with Suzette, she was emotionally intelligent. She felt everything and it was trying to understand the inner workings. And because of that, she was able to eventually become the CEO that she is today. That that makes her the person that's leading this legacy.It goes to show you that you put your mind to it, and you stay focused and you don't get in your head about anything, and that you can be your own CEO.

What about the technical challenges of learning to play the drums for this role?
I had some musical background just because I was a trained singer but had never had I applied my musical knowledge to an instrument. I didn't have any familiarity with the drums and then I get on it and I'm like, "Oh, this is an incredibly demanding instrument." Not that any instrument is simple, especially when you’re new to them, but with drums, you use all of your limbs. People don't realize you're floating almost. It's a lot of coordination. Plus, I was also acting. There were moments where I was playing the drums and a new beat was taught to me and I was like, “ There's no way I'm going to get this. I'm going to call it a day and going to sleep on it.” The next day I get on it and I'm doing it. It was a really fun challenge to have all those elements in play. It was incredibly rewarding to see who I am when I learn something difficult when I learn something challenging when I learn something so foreign. The beauty is that I had Selena's music to always ground me. I always had her music to get me excited and pumped. 

How much time did you have to practice before and during to get familiar with the drums before shooting? 
Production was wonderful and gave me two hours a week, Mondays and Fridays, with my drum instructor. I made sure to rehearse day and night, 30 minutes every day, because I had three weeks to start learning and start playing the drums on camera, originally. Two and a half months later, I had to play the live version of “Como La Flor,” which is a six-and-a-half-minute song, and play it like I've been playing it for decades. I've never been on a set as an actor and a musician, let alone a drummer. So it was interesting to go to set with the reality of balancing both acts, [like] when I knew that I had to do “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” and then do emotional scenes after that. How am I going to give my all to the “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” performance, but maintain the energy, and the focus, and the grounding emotional space for the acting scenes? It was such a blessing to do.

Honestly, by the grace of God, my instructors, Selena, Selena's music and the memory of Suzette—who had to go through this as a little girl with her musically enthusiastic siblings—really shaped my character and made me have a lot of gratitude for Suzette, Selena, and Selena Y Los Dinos.

'Selena: The Series'

What do you hope that fans of the film and newcomers take away from the series? 
Gonzalez: Number one, I want fans to come in with a clean slate and know that there's beauty in enjoying the journey. I want them to take away to be a light when the going gets rough. Selena had the best humility, attitude, and work ethic. She was breaking barriers as a woman in a male-dominated genre. And so, you look at her example of what to do, especially in these challenging times, to stay light and to lean into that when things are so heavy. I also hope audiences embrace this presentation of the Quintanilla family. I love this family’s story and how they all contributed to Selena's success, and I am glad that the fans and the public get to enjoy it right before the holidays. So, I'm excited about that opportunity. And I hope everyone can start to feel those vibes.

What is the legacy that you want to leave as an actress, and how does your portrayal of Suzette tie into that?
For me, as an actress playing Suzette, it matters to me that I imbue in my work a sense of consciousness that I'm very aware of how I give to my roles and how they are forever, and how right now, especially at a time of representation being so magnified, that when you have this opportunity that these characters, these stories, these backgrounds are valued and that they are accessible and relatable to all. You're going to want to see more, not just from me, but from my fellow castmates, from other shows and movies that are coming out that are not just Latinx. We need a lot more Latinx representation, and that's going to happen with this show. We want to see a difference, we want to see ourselves, and we want to see our neighbors.

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