Francia Raisa is not a rookie when it comes to acting. She was on The Secret Life of the American Teenager for five seasons alongside Shailene Woodley. The actress also starred in the Life-Size sequel, she was part of the cheer squad on Bring It On: All or Nothing, and is now on grown-ish. The 32-year-old knows a thing or two about creating television for a younger audience, and she says the key that makes the Freeform show, which is currently on Season 3, so beloved by its viewers is its ability to present the truths and realities of life, but with a dash of humor.
The actress, who plays Cuban-American Ana Torres on grown-ish, has been in the business since she was a teenager. She has been one of few lucky Latina actresses to land roles on TV shows and movies in an industry where her community is highly underrepresented (a recent study showed that only 4.5 percent of speaking roles in Hollywood went to Latinx actors). She takes pride in opening doors for other young actors and is working hard so that one day, people will land roles solely on their talent and not based on where they come from. Her character on grown-ish is complicated. She is Latina, but she is also Republican, which is the opposite of Raisa, who has been vocal about her political stances on social media. Ana is firm in her beliefs, but it doesn’t affect her relationships with her friends, whose views, values, and opinions differ from hers.
The show hasn’t been filming due to the pandemic, so Raisa used the time off to connect with herself and her fans through yoga. She began hosting Instagram Live yoga sessions, in which she helped her fans and fellow celebrities stay fit while gyms and fitness studios were closed. While the workouts got her in tip-top shape, for Raisa, fitness is more about her health than anything else. In 2017, she donated one of her kidneys to longtime friend Selena Gomez, so Raisa relies on exercise and a nutritious diet to stay healthy. Not only does it help her healthwise, but it also keeps her looking young enough to play characters of any age on TV. Francia Raisa recently gave Complex some insight about her character’s journey on grown-ish, what makes the show unique, and what she hopes Hollywood will be like when more people who look like her start getting a chance.
Ana is Cuban, Republican, and super religious. What is it like playing her?
With Ana, it was very interesting for me because I'm not Cuban. The most familiar I am with the Cuban culture was Ricky Ricardo and Cuban food. So it was exciting for me to dive into more about the Cuban families and just the culture in itself. When it comes to the Latinx community, I think within us, if you're Latin, you're not just Latin. You're either Mexican or, in my case, I'm Mexican and Hondureña. Or you're Dominican, or you're Puerto Rican. We all, within the Latinx community, come from different cultures. So it's almost like, how do we tell the story?
I'm excited to be able to represent that and be embraced in it and welcomed in it. I have a lot of Cuban friends, and they're like, "Girl, if you need any help, call me." So that's been nice. I think that's one of the biggest rewards because I've been guilty of it before. Let's say someone was Cuban, and they booked a Mexican role, I'd be like, "Excuse me? She's not Mexican." But we segregate ourselves by doing that. I learned my lesson not to do that anymore. We're actors, and it's our job to act, especially when it comes to Latin culture. I can understand the Cuban culture just because I grew up with a Mexican-Hondureña family, and we understand the dialect. So it's definitely been really rewarding.
What is it like playing someone with opposing political views as your own?
It has taught me a lot of grace. It's taught me a lot of patience. It's helped me understand something that I didn't understand before. I had to dive into it and really understand what happened and why most Cubans are Republicans. It's a very fascinating story, obviously stemming back from Fidel Castro. It's been tough in some situations, but I'm glad that I was able to do this. Especially in this last year, although I did lose some friends, I didn't lose a lot of friends, which could have happened because I was able to understand and respect different opinions.
We don't see people talking about God or their religion in young adult shows like they do on grown-ish. What has that been like for you?
When I first got the script, I was so happy about it because it's so real. It's real to me. I also grew up Catholic. Mexicans are huge in Catholicism. I did all of the sacraments minus marriage. When I first converted to Christianity, I had a similar experience as Ana, where I walked in, and it was a bit of a shock to me. I was like, "Why is everyone wearing jeans?" And Ana experiences that too. It definitely opened me up to a whole other world.
I think it’s just such a touchy subject. We don't [usually] talk about politics, religion, or money, and now that's invited, it's welcomed, and I think it's important. It was definitely nice for me to act out what I actually lived in real life with Ana, which is amazing that I was able to do that.
What do you think makes Ana and the show so special?
I think Ana is just special. And Ana, especially with what happened in the last year, being the only one that's different from her friends and they were still able to have a really great friendship, really said a lot to our viewers. I'm so happy that, in my career, I have been a part of projects that stand for something. They deliver a message. That was my goal when I first started acting. I want to deliver positive messages to my audience because that's what television did for me when I was growing up. The movie Thirteen changed my life.
I think the show in itself, we talk about real topics and we use humor to deliver our messages. It definitely builds community, and I think that that's what makes this show special. We’re a comedy so I think we can be a little more forgiving with some of the topics we touch. Like the Dave Chappelles of the world, they speak a lot of truth, but with humor, so it makes people listen. And that’s what I love so much about this show, in particular, is we do speak about a lot of topics that are talked about in reality and a lot of growing pains and we touch on a lot of things that are very sensitive but we do it in a very classy way. I gotta give a shout out to the writers because they bring a lot of truth but [add] humor to it and they start a lot of conversations, they are all conversation starters. I think everyone is an amazing actor as well and we’re also very good looking so I think that also plays a part. Best looking cast that exists in Hollywood. Remember I said that.
You're representing Latinos and Latinas on the show, which is still so rare to see on TV in 2021. What does that mean to you?
Honestly, I can't even believe that I've worked as much as I have in this business, considering that I am Latina. I'm happy to have been a part of the movement to break down that door for us. I didn't even realize that I was a part of it until Diane Guerrero (Orange Is The New Black) actually brought it to my attention. Because it is tough auditioning and not seeing roles that are specifically for you. I remember a time when I would go to an audition and just see everyone blonde, and then it was me. So I was like, “Oh, I didn't get the part.”
But it's definitely changing. It's getting better, but it's not there yet. I can't wait until we get the opportunity to be leads in any type of project, and not just specifically Latinx films or television. There are still roles that are far and few between, but I am so honored that I have had such a great career and aspire to just keep going, and I have my hopes and dreams, too. So I hope I'm able to accomplish and break down even more barriers.
Can you share some of those dreams and goals?
I'm a black belt in Kenpo Karate, so one of my biggest dreams is to be in action films. I got a taste of it with a movie called Christmas Bounty, and I just fell in love with it. So I definitely want to do more action projects. I also want to go behind the scenes. I'm currently working on a project behind the scenes that I should be announcing very soon. That's been a different experience. It's a lot of work. I just want to create more opportunities for more people, more women like me, and just not having it be such a big thing of where someone is from. If you're talented, you're talented, and you deserve the part, you deserve the part. You just get it. I just hope that at one point, it gets to that.
You have been able to connect with your audience through fitness on social media during the pandemic. What inspired you to host these Instagram Live workouts?
It was for selfish reasons. I was like, "If I don't do this, I'm not going to work out, and I need to work out." So I was like, "Well, let me just do a live." [Yoga] was a hobby I picked up in 2019, just because I didn't have any hobbies and I had turned 30, and I was like, "I don't know what to do with my life. All I do is work. I have no hobby." Then I took it to social media, and I got really positive feedback. So actually, it fed me more than I thought. Sometimes you do things for selfish reasons, and it becomes a selfless act, and you don't even realize it. That was really rewarding. It was fun while I did it, and it got me in really good shape. So thanks to everyone for taking my class.
Why is it important to you to encourage people to workout? Not just to be in good shape and to look good, but also to be healthy, especially in the Latinx community.
Exercise and health are super important to humanity, period. But for us Latinos, we suffer from certain autoimmune diseases that some other cultures just don't. That's just facts for Black and brown [people]. So, considering that I have one kidney and I've had certain health scares, it's definitely important for me to stay on top of it. I don't know if that attributes to me looking as young as I do, so I'm going to keep that up. I'm just going to tell my viewers, workout, eat healthy—I'm not the healthiest all the time, I still love my fried chicken—and drink a lot of water. Maybe you will be drinking from the fountain of youth like I have. That's what I think my secret is.
Tune in to watch Francia Raisa on grown-ish on Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on Freeform.