What do Salma Hayek, William Levy, Diego Boneta and Gael Garcia Bernal all have in common? Besides being (really, really ridiculously) good-looking, these camera-friendly actors all got their start on Spanish-language soap opera dramas.
Better known as telenovelas, these Latin American soaps – prime time productions that differ from their American counterparts in that new episodes are aired multiple times a week with a pre-determined series end date – have been an established form of entertainment since the 1950s, yielding scores of small screen stars. But over the last ten years, novela exports from Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and other Latin American countries have dominated the U.S. Hispanic television market, creating an avenue for scheming villains, lovelorn hunks and poor maids to become Hollywood heavyweights.
“We all had to pay our dues by starting somewhere and in the same way many American actors start their careers by doing commercials, many of us got our start in novelas – the best quality television available in our countries,” says “Rock of Ages” actor Diego Boneta, who grew up in Mexico City and moved to the United States to pursue a Hollywood career at 15.
For Boneta, who was asked to be one of the judges at the 2012 Miss Universe pageant, working in Mexican novelas helped him launch a successful acting and singing career that made him a Latin American superstar well before ever landing in Hollywood as a teen.
“I always had big dreams of working in Hollywood and penetrating the general market, but it just so happened that by working on novelas, I was able to create a fan base, record albums and sell out some of the biggest venues in the world,” says Boneta, who spent several years as part of the cast of “Rebelde,” which was taped in Mexico and was broadcast in more than 60 countries including Romania, Brazil, Albania and Croatia.
For Hollywood executives, casting novela stars in mainstream projects serves a dual purpose: these celebrities are able to attract Latino fans and are seasoned professionals accustomed to grueling production schedules and routine memorization of lengthy scripts.
“There is no denying the fact that we are trying to tap into talent that attracts the growing number of Latinos in the country,” says Grace Wu, the executive vice president of casting at NBC Universal.
Wu, who has cast telenovela stars like Mexican actress Kate del Castillo on NBC primetime shows like “Grimm,” adds that “novelas are a training ground for real talent and breeds stars that have great crossover appeal – and as the competition for U.S. talent heats up, we have more incentive to look outside this country and tap into other platforms to find fresh faces.”
Even so, novela stars – who often work seven days a week and are often encouraged to pursue voice lessons and model – aren’t guaranteed Hollywood success overnight.
Quite the contrary, says 22-year-old Boneta, who said he had to put in long hours with a diction coach to erase any indication of a Spanish accent. He has also trained extensively with an acting coach and learned how to play the guitar; valuable skills that have helped him land a lead role on the MTV hit show “Underemployed” and earn a music deal with singer Adam Levine’s record label.
“I would walk into auditions, introduced as a bonafide Mexican superstar and casting directors would have no idea who I was,” recalls Boneta, who won “Best Movie Actor” at the ALMA awards in September. “And after introductions, they’d often say ‘oh, but you don’t look Mexican’ – not realizing that Mexicans come from a variety of backgrounds. That was really frustrating.’”
Nely Galán, a seasoned entertainment producer with credits like FOX series “The Swan,” says that attempts to typecast Latinos in Hollywood are anything but uncommon.
“One of the things that telenovelas do well is find extraordinarily beautiful people but the cost is that Hollywood producers often typecast them heavily,” says Galán, who advocates for greater Latino presence on mainstream television through her grassroots organization, “The Adelante Movement.” “For a long time, black men and women were hyper-sexualized in Hollywood and we’re experiencing that right now with the way Latinos are portrayed in entertainment. Sofia Vergara is a beautiful woman, but has her exaggerated accent help her become a mainstream success? The answer is yes.”
But as Televisa – a mass media company which Time Magazine recently named the largest Spanish-language broadcaster in the world – continues to produce nearly 50,000 hours-worth of telenovelas each year, the pool for Latino talent can only continue to grow exponentially outside pre-conceived notions of what Hispanic actors should look like and how they should be cast.
“These actors are extremely hard-working, professionally trained and I can tell you that there is no hesitation to cast one of these Latin soap opera stars in a lead role,” says Wu. “Someone like Kate [del Castillo] is a great leading lady because she is a wonderful actress.”
“She transcends novelas and really does have mainstream appeal as a strong, beautiful woman – and that type of talent something I am always on the lookout for. It’s the type of combination which makes me take notice of novela stars.”