After a handful of seasons as a recurring character and then a series regular on “Orange is the New Black,” Selenis Leyva – the half-Cuban, half-Dominican actress who plays inmate Gloria Mendoza on the Netflix original series – is starting to turn more heads, and has found herself in one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer.
While her role in the newest Marvel Studios film “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a small one, Leyva is not taking anything for granted. She realizes movies like this don’t come too often, and takes pride in the fact that filmmakers saw something in her that resonated with their vision for the reboot of the franchise.
In “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Leyva plays Ms. Warren, a high school physics teacher whose student, Peter Parker (Tom Holland), is coming to terms with the responsibilities he has adopted as superhero Spider-Man, which include battling a villain known as the Vulture (Michael Keaton) as he tries to annihilate the world. In the original comic, Ms. Warren is actually portrayed as a male science teacher.
Easily the funniest of all the Spider-Man films, “Homecoming” also feels more genuine than the others for the simple fact that Holland, despite being 21 years old, portrays Spider-Man as a real teenager with real teenage problems. Holland is not some actor in his late 20s, as was the case in past movies starring Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield, and it shows.
The authenticity of the film is strong, especially during Peter’s interactions with his fellow students at school, a setting that is important in keeping with Peter’s boyish character makeup. As Peter’s teacher, Leyva adds to that sense of community. She is someone looking out for the best interests of her students. In one particularly funny scene, Ms. Warren catches Peter’s nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) secretly hacking away in a computer lab during the homecoming dance. When she asks Ned what he is doing, he makes up the worst possible lie any kid could give an adult in that situation.
During a recent interview with me, we asked Leyva about her new film and if she feels “OITNB” has given her more opportunities as an actress. We also discussed the latest season of “OITNB” and how her character has evolved over the last five years.
Do you think OITNB has opened more doors for you in Hollywood?
Absolutely! “OITNB” has propelled my career and given me a wonderful platform so people could pay attention. I’m still the same actress that I was before “Orange,” but now people are more interested in me because of the platform that I have. Now with this movie, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” I certainly feel an even a bigger platform has opened for me. I’m so happy and fortunate that Marvel and Sony decided to open up the possibility of this character being a Latina woman. It’s such a wonderful cast. It’s really, truly diverse.
What was your relationship like with Marvel growing up?
What kid doesn’t obsess over Marvel and superheroes? For me, it was huge. I have to tell you, my family is very excited that I’m a part of this film. They think I’m cool! It’s like I have street cred now.
Would you like to see a Latina superhero movie happen?
I know that’s next. I think that’s what we’re winding ourselves up for. We’re seeing it with African-American superheroes. It would be nice to see a Latina superhero. Latin women are strong and fierce and devoted and have superhuman strength already. When I was little, I always thought my mother was a superhero with everything that she did. She always had everything in control. I had a superhero mom.
How did you prepare for your more emotional scenes during Season 5 of “OITNB?”
I focused on the moment. Gloria has been such a huge part of my life for the last five years. I love her and I’ve grown to really feel for her. The actress in me really takes her story line to heart. It was really easy for me to go there as a mother myself and feel the character’s pain. What I’ve always wanted to do as an actress, no matter what role I played, is to be authentic, to be real and to be natural. This season, I was able to showcase a little bit more of my talents on the show. I’m really grateful for it and feel really fortunate that it was such a strong character.
Since snacks play such an important role in Season 5, what snacks do you prefers the most: Hot Cheetos or Takis?
Oh my God! I was all about Cheetos, but after shooting Season 5, my daughter got me into Takis. They’re amazing! They burn you. They stain you even more than Cheetos. But I have to tell you, putting them together is a good combination – Hot Cheetos and Takis. You just made my mouth water.
How do you feel Gloria has changed in Season 5?
We’re showing a more vulnerable side of Gloria. Gloria has been the one that takes care of everyone. She’s strong. We’ve already seen her be sassy. We’ve seen that side of her. I love the fact [the writers] peeled all that back and exposed her the way they did this season. As an actress, I felt so fortunate to be able to go to different places with the character since Season 1. She fell apart this season because she was focused so much on her personal life, but I have a feeling we’re going to go back to a more ferocious Gloria Mendoza.
When do you start shooting Season 6 and what are you looking forward to the most?
There is no start date [for filming] right now, but I know it’s going to be somewhere between the last week of July and sometime in August. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens after the chaos of Season 5 and having all these key characters in a dangerous position. People are getting on buses and we don’t know if we’ll ever see them again. We don’t know what happens when all those men with guns go through those doors. I can tell you that [show creator] Jenji Kohan is not afraid to get really down and dirty. So, I have a feeling Season 6 is going to start with a bang!