Former lawyer turned actress, producer, and media entrepreneur Eli Zavala is paving the way for Hispanic & Latinx storytellers. Between her films and non-profit, she is fighting for better representation of minorities on the screen. NYC-based Zavala was born in Mexico, and after graduating from law school, realized her true passion was in film. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and then continued at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and The Linklater Center. Notable roles include starring in the feature film “Still the Earth Moves”, directed by Pablo Chavarría Gutierrez, and her latest production, the short film “El Carrito” which was featured at SXSW this year. Aside from her acting, she founded La Filmadora, a home for storytellers of underrepresented backgrounds, and is the Chairwoman of Cinematográfica y Escénica de México a LatAm non-profit with the mission of fighting misrepresentations of minorities on the screen. She is also a creative executive at Splinter Pictures, a NYC-based film production company focused on creating highly artistic and character-driven stories. Read on for our full interview below on how she shifted career paths and is a driving force for the Latinx community.
Can you tell us about your background? I understand you are from Mexico? What was it like growing up there?
Yes, I’m from Mexico, and currently living in NYC. I studied law at ITESM and while there became part of Phi Delta Phi and functioned as its Commissioner of Honor and Justice; my area of expertise in the field is Copyrights and IP. the eldest of three siblings (one sister and one brother),
Is your family also in the film industry?
Not at all! Nobody in my family is in the film industry, but there has always been a certain inclination towards the arts, from my dad playing the guitar and singing, my mom doing ceramic and jewelry, or my sister enjoying singing and my brother playing the piano, I even played some violin when I was a teen! My parents encouraged, my siblings and me, to nurture a creative vein since we were kids. Nevertheless, I was the only one who pursued a creative career professionally.
You graduated from Law School prior to pursuing your career in film – can you share what inspired the shift?
Well, it wasn’t too much of a major shift but more like a next step because, on my end, it wasn’t like an “either-or” type of situation, but more like a natural move since I studied law and specialize in IP knowing that I wanted to create stories (either in film, tv or theatre) as a living, so it was pretty natural, and until today is part of my bread and butter, since talking about IP or copyrights is a daily occurrence.
You studied dramatic arts at Escuela de Teatro in Monterrey as well as at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles and at The Stella Adler Studio of Acting – what challenges did you face shifting from a background in law to immersing yourself in the dramatic arts?
It’s interesting, because, from my point of view, the spirit of the law and the core of acting are quite similar: they aim to uncover the truth in a very impartial way. So, in a fortunate way, my experience and law background nurtured my approach to acting, especially in the early stages of the homework that I do while discovering a character. The main challenge in the early formative years as a professional actress (and I say early because you never really stop learning, the curiosity about human nature is endless) had less to do with my background in law but with an endless search for the truth.
One of your early breakout roles was starring in the acclaimed feature film “Still the Earth Moves” directed by Pablo Chavarría Gutierrez – can you tell us about the film and how it impacted your career as an actress?
It is one of the films that I’ve enjoyed doing the most, Pablo is a cinematographic genius and a very generous collaborator that now I’m lucky to call my friend. The film is truly a piece of cinema and quite a trip for the senses where the underlying discourse is the force of nature, the endless cycle of life, the creative feminine, and even the destructiveness of toxic masculinity. It’s one of those films that are timeless, so, in that sense, it has impacted my career not only as an actress but also as a producer because this was the first collaboration with Pablo that also got a nod from the BFI Sight & Sound as one of the best films of the year, which also meant that the path taken then was indeed the best one to take for me (perhaps not the easiest, but definitely the best).
Your latest film “El Carrito” was recently featured at the SXSW Film Festival – can you tell us about your role as Nelly in the film?
Nelly is the lead character in the story. She is an immigrant woman that trusts nobody until life makes her realize that she can rely on others if she just opens up a little bit.
How did you get into character for the role?
I relied on the community of street vendors here in NYC, I shadowed one of them and even got to be part of a community kitchen where I could witness from firsthand experience the bond that food vendors have among themselves, the bustle of prepping and cooking in a kitchen like this and the hustle that comes after when you hit the streets.
What resonated with you the most playing Nelly?
The immigrant experience, the solidarity and community experience, the fact that she is a woman of color living in a place with customs, habits, and even a language different than the one you were born in, and that’s precisely one of the things that I wanted to bring to Nelly, that whole spectrum of subtle and truthful emotions that comes with those experiences and bring them to the fictional world of Nelly’s story.
Aside from your acting, you are producing films as well as being involved in a number of inspirational initiatives. Can you tell us about Splinter Pictures, your NYC-based film production company? What sort of productions do you make?
Splinter Pictures is all about Storytelling Outside The BoxTM, it’s a boundless creative house always looking forward to pushing the envelope of storytelling, its focus is to create highly artistic, character-driven stories and elevated genre content.
You founded La Filmadora, a home for storytellers of underrepresented backgrounds – can you tell us about La Filmadora?
Of course! La Filmadora’s ethos is cultural authenticity aiming to tell stories that are universal through multi-cultural and cross-cultural narratives. Its purpose is to tear down misrepresentations and build a better representation of minorities on the screen. As you said, is the home for storytellers of underrepresented backgrounds and a special hub for Hispanic and Latinx creatives.
You are also the Chairwoman of Cinematográfica y Escénica de México a LatAm non-profit with the mission of bringing better representation and fighting misrepresentations of minorities on the screen – can you tell us about your work with them and some of the initiatives of the non-profit? How did you get involved?
I provide guidance, advice, and recommendations on a variety of subjects, among them their annual programs, one of them is “Breaking the Glass Screen, Stories with Female Protagonists”, aiming to bring visibility to narratives where female characters are brought front and center.
We understand you are committed to fighting stereotypes on the screen – can you tell us what inspires you with this mission? Are there specific stereotypes you fight against?
The inspiration comes precisely from the lack of diversity, representation, of cultural authenticity; and I have to say that for a few years now, that landscape is improving, but there’s definitely a lot of work to do still.
What advice would you give to an aspiring actor or filmmaker who wants to break into the industry? Do you have any words of wisdom you live by?
In general, I always say: “choose whatever it is that, in the end, is going to bring you peace of mind”; and I´ll add: learn the rules of your craft, then experiment and always stay true to your own vision, march to the beat of your own drum.
You currently live in New York City – can you share some of your favorite local past times when you aren’t working?
Walking by the riverside of the Hudson, I like to the farmers market at Union Square or going to Di Palo’s in Little Italy, and then cooking a nice home meal; I love picnics, so I just grab some good prosciutto, a block of parmesan or brie, a bunch of nuts and hang out at the park. I love going to MoMI or MoMA, going to the NY Library for the Performing Arts followed by a coffee at Indie, and going to arthouse and underground cinemas…one way or another some of my past times are linked to my craft, it’s unavoidable on my end I just enjoy doing what I do so much.
What can we look forward to from you next? Are any other films or projects in the works for 2022?
Yes! You bet! There are a few projects on the works, 2 features, a couple of docs where I’m EP, and well, let’s just say that the next few months are going to be quite dynamic.
For more follow Eli on Instagram: @Eli Zavala
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