Imagine working in an industry and landing a job where you’re placed in the same space as someone who is the best at what they do. If you’re an artist, imagine sharing a studio with Gerhard Richter. If you’re a writer, imagine looking over Cormac McCarthy’s shoulder as he completes a short story. If you’re a musician, imagine recording an album or jamming out with Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan.
While very few people will ever get the opportunity to do something that amazing, it’s a scenario Dominican-American actress Coral Peña found herself in earlier this year when she was cast in director Steven Spielberg’s new political drama “The Post” and given a role where she would act alongside three-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, who is considered by many as the greatest actress of her generation.
“The Post” tells the story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish information from the Pentagon Papers in 1971 after courts ruled that the New York Times stop publishing the leaked documents. The film is told from the viewpoint of country’s first female newspaper publisher, Kate Graham (Streep), and Post editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). In the film, Peña plays Nancy, a young government employee with the U.S. Department of Justice, who meets Graham at a U.S. Supreme Court hearing where the publishing of the top-secret files and freedom of the press were to be debated.
In her scene, Peña absolutely holds her own with living legend Streep. The scene starts with Nancy accidentally bumping into Graham who is waiting in line to get into the court. Nancy lets her know there is another entrance she can use to get in. Although Nancy is working for, as Streep’s Graham describes, “the other team,” she voices her approval of Graham’s decision to publish the papers, which revealed that the U.S. government had lied to the public and Congress for years about the reasons the country entered into the Vietnam War.
“My brother, he’s still over here,” Nancy sadly tells Graham as they walk down the hall to the court. “I hope you win. Besides, I like someone telling these guys what’s what.”
In the following scene, Nancy is seen getting berated by her boss for showing up late to court, although her tardiness is not her fault. The two scenes work wonderfully together as audiences see Nancy recognizing the courage of a powerful woman in an industry run by men, followed by an indication of the fight that still needs to be had for women to be given the respect they deserve in the workplace.
During an interview with me, Peña, who was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated with her family to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood when she was a baby, talked about landing a role in a Spielberg film, how she was able to stay calm for her scene with Streep, and what she thought about having the only speaking role in the film by a person of color.
“The Post” has a limited release December 22 and opens wide January 12.
Talk a bit about the audition process for a film like this and how you booked the role.
[The audition] was pretty standard for such a big film, which was surprising. I went in once and met with the casting director. We did the scene a couple of times and she asked me a few questions about myself and then I walked out. Then we found out [the role] was down to two people. They kept asking me, “What is your availability?” I was technically under contract with the [Fox] show 24: Legacy. I think they were freaking out about my availability. I kind of knew leading up that there was a possibility that they would choose me. Then I got the call. I don’t think anyone really knows how to react when someone tells you you’re going to be in a Steven Spielberg movie.
When did you meet Steven Spielberg on the set and what was that experience like for you?
I was on set the day before I had my scene [with Streep]. I saw someone bee-lining towards me. I turned and it was Steven Spielberg walking in my direction. I was like, “Oh my gosh, he’s walking right to me!” He comes up to me and he goes, “Hey Coral! I’m so excited you’re here. It’s going to be a great day tomorrow. I just wanted to introduce myself.” I thought, “You don’t need to introduce yourself, you’re Steven Spielberg.” Then, I saw him talking to Meryl in the corner and he turns and starts to wave me over. He was like, “Come over here!” So, I go over and he’s like, “You guys have a scene together. I wanted to introduce you to each other.”
So, were you nervous the next day when it was time to shoot your scene with Meryl?
I wasn’t nervous because in my head I kept thinking, “If I make this really normal, I won’t mess up.” I was so calm and everyone else on the set was freaking out. I would do my scene and go back to my chair and eat a snack and everyone was like, “What the heck?!” [Actor] Zach Woods (HBO’s “Silicon Valley”), who is in the movie, asked me if I was a child actor because I was so calm. But, yeah, everyone hung out and treated me like I was part of the main cast. Everyone that was working on this movie was so passionate about it. You have these really big names and incredible actors who were there to make art and do a job. There was not one person that had any sort of ego. From the beginning, there was this tone that we were here to make something great, and also to have some fun.
How did you feel being the only person of color with a speaking role in the film? Were you conscious of that fact?
This is something I knew very early on, especially since we were doing a movie based on real events. Every person is based off a real person. And surprise! This is what America looked like during that time. A lot of these high-profile positions were white people. This is really the only fictional character [in the film]. It was kind of amazing they had room for this character.
Since your character is fictional, how did you go about creating her from what you were given on the page? Did you have conversations with anyone before shooting?
I was able to talk to [co-writer] Liz [Hannah], and [co-writer] Josh [Singer] and Steven [Spielberg] a little about the role. They were all open to talking. Liz told me that my character was in the original script. She’s named after Liz’s mom. Steven felt like she was an important character in an important scene because above all else, this is a feminist movie. It’s about women supporting women and not always having the opportunity, but seeing how they are the powerhouses behind so many events. He felt Nancy and Kate’s conversation meant that no matter what side you’re on, you should be happy that there is a woman on one of those sides. It was really exciting to play that out.
When did you become a U.S. citizen? How did that decision come to fruition?
I got the opportunity to study abroad in London. I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). I got a Visa to go. When I was there, I didn’t really have the chance to travel so much. It bummed me out because I saved all summer to explore. When I came back the U.S. after studying, it was time for me to renew my permanent residency. It’s about the same price to renew your permanent residency as it is to get your citizenship. Then, I got really lucky because I was still a student at the time, so I was able to apply for a program that allowed me to get my citizenship for free as long as I was a full-time student. The fact that I could now afford to be a citizen on top of realizing that it’s hard to have a Dominican passport to travel brought me to the conclusion that I should become a citizen.
What do you embrace the most from your Dominican background?
The music. I think when you grow up as a Dominican-American and you wake every Sunday morning and your mom is blasting some bachata or merengue and you’re just trying to sleep, you ending up saying, “Ugh, I hate this music!” Then, when you get older, you realize, as much as you try to listen to other music, you always go back to [Dominican music] because it brings you joy. Now I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I’m turning into my mom!”
What do your parents think about your early success in Hollywood?
I grew up with my mother, but I do know my father. I think my father is really proud of me working so hard. My mom is happy as long as I’m happy. She doesn’t know anyone [in Hollywood]. I told her, “I’m going to be in a movie and Steven Spielberg is directing it and Meryl Streep is in it,” and she had no idea who anyone was. Even my grandmother knew who they were. My mom was like, “Well, it’s because your grandmother watches more TV than I do!” But I think for my mom, it’s all the same just as long as I’m happy, which is really great.
You’ve only been in the industry for a short time, but have you learned anything yet about diversity in Hollywood and what being Latina means going forward?
I started working professionally only about two years ago. In college, I got so nervous because of my last name, which is clearly Latin. I thought I might change my last name for SAG (Screen Actors Guild) to be more ambiguous. Upon graduation, I found out it was really great to have a Latin last name. I think we’re getting so many Latin writers and producers and people behind the scenes now. They’re allowing [actors] to be Latin, but not constantly defined by their Latinness. I can see that [diversity] has gotten better, but there’s obviously a long way to go.
Do you anticipate any challenges as a Latina actress in this business?
It’s hard for me to imagine with the way the industry is going that I would get any backlash for my last name. But I feel lucky that we’re in an age where if I did, I could speak out about it and not be punished for it. I actually talked to a professor about changing my name. He told me that now is actually the time to be an individual. He said people are really excited about individuality and that I shouldn’t change it. I don’t think I would’ve anyway because I know I would’ve been a lot happier representing my true self instead of having to hide behind ethnic ambiguity.
So, what do you ultimately want out of this industry?
As an actor, I think the main goal is to always have the opportunity to tell amazing stories. One of the things I took away from working on “The Post” is now I know that when I finish a project, I want people to go, “Oh, I really liked working with her.” I want people to see me and think, “She is going to do her job well.” Hopefully, that’s how people view me.
This interview was first published at Remezcla.com on December 21, 2017.