It wasn’t an easy life growing up in Spanish Harlem in the mid-’80s where actress Paula Garcés says her neighborhood was “dangerous” and “drug-infested.” She learned to escape her surroundings when her mother encouraged her to consider a career in the arts.

After going to a performing arts school in New York City where she fell in love with acting, Garcés found an agent and began her career in the commercial and television industry. Her first role was at the age of 17 when she landed a part in one episode of “Law and Order.” From there she went on to her first feature film, “Dangerous Minds” with Michelle Pfeiffer, in 1995.

It was at this time when Garcés found out she was going to be a mother at the age of 19. Still, Garcés persevered despite others telling her she was not going to be able to pursue her dream to become an actress with a baby on the way.

Garcés proved everyone wrong when she landed a recurring role on the daytime soap opera “Guiding Light” in 1999 and earned small roles in a handful of feature films including “Clockstoppers” and “The Station Agent.” In 2004, Garcés accepted the role of Maria in the stoner cult flick “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.” She reprises the role this year in the sequel “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” which opens in theaters April 25.

Via phone from New York City, Garcés, 34, talked about her movie career and what it was like to film her first sequel.

You were born in New York City, but you lived in Colombia for a while. Tell me about that transition.

When I was about five, my mom went back to Medellin, Colombia. We stayed there for about five years. We also lived in Ciudad Mexico for about a year and Brazil for a couple of months. Then my mother decided to come back to New York.

What do you remember and miss about Colombia?

I remember going every weekend to the farmhouse. I remember riding horses and running free through the mountains. I think my mom made a very wise decision to have part of our upbringing close to nature like that. I miss the people. I miss my friends and my family. I stay very close to my culture. I eat Colombian food constantly. I speak and read in Spanish. I love salsa. All that stuff is very close to me.

I read that your mother was very supportive of anything that had to do with the arts. How was it growing up and deciding exactly what you wanted to do with your life, whether it was dancing, singing or acting?

My mom – being a single mother with two daughters – obviously didn’t want us hanging out in the streets. She basically made us audition for different dance schools and different art programs. In the beginning, I really wanted to be a dancer. Later on I got a summer program scholarship at a performing arts school in New York City. At that school they didn’t only have dance classes, they had art and acting classes. That’s when I really realized that I loved acting. Then, when I was about 15 my braces came off and I met an agent. My first five auditions, I got them all.

With that great of a start, how did you handle rejection later on in your career at such a young age?

I would tell myself, “I’m only human.” There were times where I would get upset if there was a certain project that I wanted and didn’t get. But it just motivated me for the next one and the next one. At the time I would go out for everything any thing possible.

So, for you it’s always been about working steadily in this industry?

You know, I was so naïve when I first started. I come from humble beginnings so anything that I got I was so appreciative. I was very much a dreamer. A lot of people would tell me, “You’re not going to be able to act for a living. The odds are against you.” I guess that’s what motivated me. Every time someone would tell me I couldn’t do something, I felt like I could do it more. I’m not the type of actor where there has to be a certain size to the role for it to be important or meaningful to me. I believe that anything that comes your way, if you think I can learn from it, it’s worth it.

What was it like filming your first sequel “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay?”

I was excited for the sequel because I new it was going to be directed by the writers of the first one. The reason I did the first movie was because of them. I was sent a very early draft of the script and it was the first time where I read a script and was laughing out loud. The movie turned out to be fabulous and became this cult hit. When they called me to do the second one, I felt very confident that they were going to do a great job.

When it comes to comedies, do you think there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed? What some people find funny others might find offensive.

There are lots of things [in “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”] you will laugh at and think, “I don’t know if I should be laughing at this. What does that say about me?” But I think that is what is good about these certain types of comedies. It’s the type of comedy that I like. It’s the comedy that makes you think. The reality is that this movie – while people may confuse it as just another stoner film – it really isn’t. It’s a film that really touches upon issues that we are dealing with today. It makes you laugh, but then it makes you think about the social, racial and political climate that we are living in today.

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