9-1-1: Lone Star's Gina Torres on How COVID-19 Shaped the Second Season of the Fox Series

CUL_PS_Gina Torres
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"This is what the spectrum of Latina looks like. That's super important. We make money. We are viable. We are green."

Over the course of Gina Torres' career, she's played basically everything. "I would not have gotten this far if I wasn't game. I've played a witch. An assassin." From The Matrix franchise to Suits to the cult classic Firefly, she's done it all, and now she can add a Ryan Murphy series to her resume with Fox's 9-1-1: Lone Star. "There are things that come your way that you just don't say 'no' to." She plays Tommy Vega, a paramedic forced to return to work because her husband's restaurant was closed due to coronavirus. "We're doing this in real-time. We are, for lack of a better phrase, embracing the pandemic, understanding that we're playing frontline workers." Important to Torres is her presence in Hollywood as a prominent Afro-Latina actress. "I'm coming forward and being all who I am and never, ever sacrificing one for the other. That was an industry problem." But she says things are changing, that Hollywood isn't forcing actors to choose one identity over another. "This is who we are. This is what the spectrum of Latina looks like. That's super important. We make money. We are viable. We are green."

What was it like approaching a role that is so timely?

Listen, we're not playing characters, we're playing people, right? This is what their world looks like right now. We would be doing a complete disservice not to acknowledge every level of sacrifice and danger that they're putting themselves and their families in as well. So I loved that part of it because it really brings it home. We absolutely still do the epic heroic storylines, there is plenty of escapism still to be had, but the beauty of the show and why I keep falling in love with the show every week is that it always comes back to the person. It always gets personal. It always brings you back to the humanity of the situation.

What was it like shooting under COVID-19 conditions?

To some degree, we have become accustomed to the new dance that we have to do. When you're part of a business that takes hundreds of people to make it happen in close quarters. How do you reimagine that? How do you make that work? I'm so happy to report that they got busy. The problem-solvers got busy, the studio execs got busy. They put their money where their mouth is and put us back to work with many protocols in place. We don't get to wear protection when we're in front of the screen so when we're in front of the camera, the crew has everything on, they've got gloves and double masks and shields to protect each other and protect ourselves. So that's hard, it's hard to see your crew members suffering and being overheated. Also what's hard is that I cannot identify anybody on the crew. Not one. I saw my wardrobe person having lunch the other day in a corner social distancing and I had no idea it was her, it was the first time I'd seen her face. [laughs]

Was it difficult joining an already established show?

Part of having a long career is being everybody's house guest, it's kind of popping in and popping out on established shows, shows that have their rhythm that has gone on for years, people that have relationships and you're just kind of inserting yourself in there. This was a little bit different in that I wasn't going to be popping out. Our showrunner, Tim Minear, really took such good care of me in crafting this character.

With 9-1-1: Lone Star, you're now part of the Ryan Murphy universe. Are you prepared to play a witch or a killer or something?

I would not have gotten this far if I wasn't game. I've played a witch. I've played an assassin. How do you say "no" to Ryan Murphy? You just know it's gonna be good.

Did you think the dress you wore to the royal wedding would become such a viral hit?

I suspected it because Suits was such a fashion-conscious show, especially my wardrobe. Forty percent of it came off the runway and another 20 percent of it was actually just built for me. So I had a feeling. Suits was also huge in Europe and still is very popular in Europe. I expected they'd be wondering what the heck we were going to show up in, but I wasn't that concerned about it. I wanted to be comfortable. I really didn't think that there would be that many eyes on me because it's a royal wedding, and we were the Americans and there was royalty at the royal wedding. So I just figured yeah, a dress that I liked that I found online and it fit was great.

Are you surprised Firefly has remained such a fan favorite?

That's not something you can predict. You hope that it has a life, not 20 years later but while you're actually doing it. The fact that it resonated, not even so much immediately, but it was like ripples on a pond and now it's become generational. That's an extraordinary thing and really is a testament to good storytelling, good characters and hitting on our basic need for family and belonging and wanting to feel safe.

Do you think things are changing for Afro-Latinx actors, and what can be done to create more change?

Education is the key. I'm coming forward and being all who I am and never, ever sacrificing one for the other. That was an industry problem. As far as I was concerned, I would always present myself as Afro-Latina, even before that term was even the thing. Is it changing? Yes, it is changing because we don't feel a need to have to choose anymore because quite frankly, it's exhausting to shift and move and mold. So to be able to just say, this is who I am and this is why we didn't just spring up out of nowhere 10 years ago. This is what the spectrum of Latina looks like. That's super important. So right now we're in a stage in our history where we have to explain that, we have to say this is what it is. Hopefully, very soon we won't have to anymore. We can just be and celebrate and not have to do all the code-switching that's involved. But right now we have to create that space. The money is there. Listen, I have survived in this industry long enough to know that so many of those excuses were about survival and protecting an image and a hierarchy. We make money. We are viable. We are green.