On a blustery cold Valentine’s Day night, Brooklyn Nine-Nine actress Stephanie Beatriz warmed a crowded Bailey Hall with conversation about her love for storytelling and the media industry.
Moderated by Prof. Samantha Sheppard, performing and media arts, the talk covered many aspects of Beatriz’s career, from playing “stereotypical” Latina characters that made her uncomfortable to performing as the “complex” Rosa Diaz on NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
During the Cornell University Programming Board event, Beatriz also answered audience questions, which ranged from her favorite scenes that never made it to the screen to first date advice.
Beatriz first found acting through a “fluke” in junior high. She couldn’t afford to pay for art class and the choir teacher “didn’t think the class was for her,” so she ended up in a storytelling and debate class.
Acting in school plays through middle and high school, Beatriz described always being drawn to stories, but as she looked toward her future, she didn’t see room for herself in the TV industry.
“I had this very clear thought of television isn’t for me, because only beautiful people are on television,” she said. “And really only white people are on television.”
But Beatriz said she had a “blind faith,” and decided to study theater in college.
“I had this faith about my reason for being on the planet,” she told the audience. “[Acting] felt like a vocation.”
When she was cast in her first TV roles, which included guest appearances on ABC’s Modern Family and Disney Channel’s Jessie, it was “tricky” to address race. The characters she played were “really full of stereotypes,” so she had to balance needing stable employment with her own comfort and values.
After her early TV appearances, Beatriz’s agent asked what kinds of shows she would be most interested in, to which she always replied: “Parks and Rec.”
Eventually, she heard about a pilot for a new show, created by Parks and Recreations writer and producer Dan Goor and co-creator and producer Michael Schur.
“I was shitting my pants,” Beatriz said of the dream opportunity, which became Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
She originally auditioned for Amy Santiago, the love interest of Jake Peralta, played by Andy Samberg. But Goor and Schur ultimately cast her as another detective who became Rosa Diaz, choosing Melissa Fumero for Amy instead. She joked that this was because she didn’t have “chemistry beyond friends” with Samberg.
Representation has been at the forefront of Beatriz’s career, because its absence was initially a barrier for her. After feeling discouraged as a child from pursuing an acting career because she didn’t see people who looked like her on screen, being cast alongside a fellow Latina in Fumero wasn’t something Beatriz expected out of the industry.
Even still, there was dissonance, because she was always able to see herself in other’s stories.
“We’re all going to see movies where the lead is a white person,” Beatriz said. “If I’m able to put myself in that person’s shoes, and I don’t look like that person … why can’t that be flipped?”
Rosa Diaz eventually came to represent Beatriz in more ways than race, after writers wrote a story arc about her sexuality. Beatriz, who is bisexual, said a lot of the aspects of the arc were even inspired by her own story.
“I was so fucking thrilled,” Beatriz said of the writers’ decision to make her character bisexual. “I’d always been secretly playing Rosa as queer.”
Representation in Brooklyn Nine-Nine has also been a draw for the audience, whose support revived the show after its original host Fox canceled the series following the fifth season. The first audience question came from Gaby Dickson ’20, who asked the actress for recommendations about similar shows.
“Stephanie Beatriz and I have a similar background: I’m also bi, and I’m also Latina,” Dickinson said. “I can count on one hand the amount of bisexual Latina people there are on TV. It matters to me that I see myself reflected in the pop culture I consume. It matters to me that we see more humanity.”
In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Beatriz has also found new interests beyond acting: She directed the show’s episode “He Said, She Said” in season 6.
Beatriz also discussed her experiences dabbling in animated series — including voice acting in episodes of Bojack Horseman and Bob’s Burgers — which is something she’d like to continue.
Even though her middle school choir teacher wasn’t sure about her singing abilities, Beatriz will also soon appear as Carla in the movie adaptation of musical In the Heights. Audience members were eager for Beatriz to spill details about the awaited film, especially the choreography and political themes.
“I’m really excited for you to see a new side of me,” Beatriz said.
Looking forward, Beatriz hopes to instill a kind of trust in her audience — that people will go see movies and shows solely because she’s in it because they know she’ll “tell the story in the most honest way possible.”
“You’re already that for a lot of us,” responded one audience member.