Karla Souza On Being Mexican-American & Celebrating Her Immigrant Culture
I don't watch a lot of movies with subtitles. It's not that I don't like them, it's just that subtitles require focus and when I'm home watching a movie, I'm likely also working, Instagram stalking, cooking food, playing indoor fetch with my dog, Swiffering, texting or doing some other random activity like painting my nails (who am I kidding? I never paint my nails). You know, it's the whole girls-who-multitask thing.
When I was invited to interview How to Get Away with Murder's Karla Souza about her new film Everybody Loves Somebody, though, I was automatically in — even if it meant I was going to have to set aside two hours to just sit and watch the television screen.
I am so glad I did. Everybody Loves Somebody is an incredible film that perfectly presents the Mexican culture and language in a way that movie lovers from all walks of life will love. I'm not Mexican. I've never really been to Mexico. All I know is that I love their food and think the Mexican culture is beautiful. But this film explores what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a Mexican-American woman and what it means to be in love.
Check out what Karla Souza had to say about her new film Everybody Loves Somebody, representing Mexican-Americans in Hollywood and really embracing her roots.
SheKnows: I love that Everybody Loves Somebody is a bilingual film with both Spanish and English. I don’t think that we see many mainstream movies take the bilingual route. Do you think that’s something that should happen more often — like even Marvel films could have a character or two that speak a different language and have subtitles?
KS: Oh, for sure. It represents the world as it is, and I think that, you know, the more inclusive we are with that, the better the movies and the better the representation of us will be. I think it’s not an easy task because there’s not enough Latino writers that are being given opportunities to write things — and I say this because I’ve been given a lot of bilingual movies in the past because of my career in Mexico, and they’re like, “Oh, it’s going to make sense for her to do this.” A lot of studios want to hit that demographic, but they sort of do it without starting in the right way, which is having someone who knows the culture, and enjoys the language as well, to be able to write these things. I would get very frustrated reading scripts that were bilingual but maybe not bicultural. And this one really loves both cultures, represents them in a very accurate, genuine, authentic, fun, fresh way, and it includes so many more people because it has that language aspect to it. And I hope that we start trendsetting, you know, like having bigger movies also include that. Because I think it’ll definitely change a lot of what’s going on right now.
SK: Absolutely. I really enjoyed it. I know I’ve said that three times, but I just haven’t seen a movie that’s done it that well. It so perfectly hits a variety of demographics that maybe wouldn’t necessarily both go see this movie, so I thought it was really genius. When you come across a situation like that, how empowered do you feel to let the “powers that be” know that they’re not hitting the culture aspect of it in the right way?
KS: Oh, very. I don’t only say I won’t do it, which is probably the biggest sort of action that I could take. People follow my movies for a reason, and that’s because I believe in them, and I don’t want to just make movies for the sake of making movies. I felt really strongly about this script because, like you said, it’s a very specific way of life. It’s a very specific tone, and romantic comedies, if done badly, can be catastrophic. I knew that [director/screenwriter] Catalina Aguilar Mastretta had an amazing take on the female psyche and the modern woman and the modern immigrant woman living in the U.S., and I really saw the need for a story told of our daily lives without being a statistic and without just trying to hit a demographic, and I felt that with this one.
What I do feel with the different scripts that they give me where I feel like this is done for one of those reasons, I share my point of view. I don’t just say, “No, thank you.” I say, “I feel that this represents Latinos in a wrong way, in a bad way.” I tell them I think it has too many stereotypes, that even the way they come in and out of Spanish doesn’t really make sense, it feels forced. I explain that as Latinos, we can also be professionals. In the movie, she’s a successful doctor that has diverse patients. And I also have to be careful of what it says about women. I get a lot of scripts that only talk about women’s appearances and what they look like. I think we’re tired of having to meet this standard and not being asked what our talents or abilities are. So I also really pay attention to whether the script embodies a full female character or if they’re just wanting a two-dimensional objectified woman. So I also have that aspect to take care of as well.
SK: Well, amen to that! Now, in Everybody Loves Somebody [no spoilers!], there are some moments when your family puts the “when are you getting married” pressure on your character. And this is something that I think is prevalent in society — I’m 28 years old. I’ve been with my boyfriend for eight years, my mother asks me every other day when I’m getting married. How do you feel about the pressure put on women to get married?
KS: Oh, I bet! It’s funny because it’s put on by women and men. Society makes women feel like, oh, you’re getting old. The patriarchal society has made women believe, first of all, you’re only valid and valuable when you’re young. All the products that are sold to us — those anti-aging products — are telling us that there’s a due date. Wisdom and white hair might not be as valued as in different cultures. Our society really needs to take a better look at what we’re selling, because I think women being empowered will be as beneficial to men as it is to us. When we see society telling women that they have a certain time, that they make women compete with each other, the older generation competing with the younger generation. They’ve made us believe that there’s not enough men out there for us or that we’re only hired because of our looks and not because of our abilities.
There’s a lot of lies out there that we should catch and that have taken me a lot of time to sort of see, and reading up on it and getting educated on it. I’m reading right now a book that’s about how images of beauty have hurt women along the decades. It’s a very educating but infuriating thing to see, how we don’t have equal opportunity because they’re demanding so much more.
In the movie, the sister tells my character, “No, don’t you want to be with someone?” I think the family — especially in this movie — they know that the reason that Clara doesn’t want to have an emotional, intimate relationship is more because she was hurt so badly from heartbreak that she’s then being closed off and cynical. She’s seen all the ways that it doesn’t work, and all the reasons it doesn’t, so she’s become more and more cynical about finding someone she could be with for that long a time. It’s sort of like they’re encouraging her to open up again, but it does sound like they’re pressuring her, like society does. I think that, for sure, we as women should try and realize that it’s more about having someone to share.
Something I was adamant about was that the movie wouldn’t end with, oh, marriage saved her. They’re married and she’s OK. I was very pushing on having the ending be that she made an inner growth of healing so that she can then have the ability and the space to love and be loved by someone else, and that love is open-ended and doesn’t mean they’re going to get married tomorrow and all her problems are solved. She is in a forever-growing process. I feel the movie did that very well and not finishing off as “a woman’s life ends when she finds the right guy,” you know.
SK: Agreed, and I think that’s so great that you encouraged that, and you speak your voice when it comes to that. I spoke to a director last week and I told him his female character didn’t have the depth or the layers that the male characters did, and he said, “Yeah, I mean, I thought she was OK, but I guess I haven’t thought about her that much. Writing women roles is hard.”
SK: Yeah, and I told him to write female characters as if he’s writing male characters, and then just make it a woman. It doesn’t have to be that different.
KS: I told my friend — we were working on a movie together — and he gave me a script and asked me to give him notes. And they were all male characters, and I said, “You know what would make this character more interesting?” And he asked what — and it’s this road trip between three guys, basically, one older man, one 30-year-old and a 13-year-old mechanic. And I said, “If you make the 13-year-old a girl, and you make her an Indian-American mechanic.” And he said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Yeah, don’t change anything in the script about him, and just make it a her.” And he flipped out — now of course he’s doing it. I should have asked for credit — but he has no idea how amazing it is that a character that was written as a boy can be equally written for a girl. It’s like you said, just write a character as if it were a man, and then turn it and make it into a woman. It’s like, we’re human beings, after all.
SK: It’s amazing to me that concept is so difficult in Hollywood for people. You mentioned something you specifically look for when you’re reading scripts, specifically bilingual or having to do with Mexican culture, is that they really capture Mexican culture. What do you think is the most beautiful thing about your culture?
KS: Oh, my goodness. I love family. In this movie, my character is a successful OB-GYN and yet she goes back to her teenage years when she’s with her parents. Like, that’s me. I could be working as a professional, but she reverts to that family life, playing those games and those competitions and having that much fun with the family is something that I grew up with, and the Mexican culture has a lot of, you know — Sunday is the day you spend with your family, and you have 40 to 50 people at your house, the uncles and the cousins, and I grew up with that. I know that that’s a tradition that I want to keep alive and I also want to share. And I love that in this movie, you almost want to go and hang out with this family. That, and the music in the movie is very much hand-picked specifically because it’s our history and our traditions. The themes are universal. And also the food. Mexican food is one of the best culinary experiences that people can have. There’s a lot of things, even the landscape that we show in the movie of Ensenada in Baja is just spectacular. There’s so much more — I wish we could have shown more, but I’m glad we didn’t see the typical, you know, border-sombrero-tequila thing that we normally do. It was a different take on that immigrant sort of life.
SK: Are there one or two Spanish or bilingual films that had an impact on your life growing up?
KS: Sadly — and I think this is why it’s so important that we do this more — I don’t have that guiding light. You know, “Oh, that Sleepless in Seattle bilingual something,” like, it doesn’t exist. I don’t have it in my memory, and that’s why I thought it was important to make it. I don’t know if you remember, there was one called Women on Top or something.
SK: I don’t know if I’ve seen it.
KS: That was with Penelope Cruz, but I think, again, that was only in English. But there’s not one I really remember that really did it accurately. Yesterday, all my friends from the show How to Get Away with Murder, I did a screening for them at Four Seasons. And they were just so in love with the movie. They freakin’ loved it. And I was surprised to see that it translates, because even if they had to read subtitles at some points, they really connected to the story. So this movie is as much for the general market as it is for Latino audiences. That’s a really exciting prospect.
SK: Absolutely. That’s exactly what I recognized when I watched it. I had no idea that it had subtitles, and at first I was like, “Oh man, I can’t work while I watch this movie because I’ve got to read the subtitles.” But I fell in love with it, and I thought it was done so well because it does hit so many different markets and resonates so well. I do want to ask, were you ever asked to downplay your diversity or your heritage when you were climbing up the Hollywood ladder?
KS: For sure. I even did it myself because I thought that I didn’t want to only be doing stereotyped jobs. When I was asked to change Laurel into a Latina for How to Get Away with Murder, I was terrified, because I thought, no one’s going to know how to do this because the American take on my culture is never accurate. Until they hired a Latina to write for Laurel, I was scared that she was going to fall into stereotypes. They promised me they wouldn’t do that sort of "defining nature of my character is that she’s Latina." It has nothing to do with that. She just happens to be a Latina. I think that, you know, that fear still comes from exactly what we’re talking about. There’s not enough of those inclusive projects where I feel like I’m interpreting a human being and not just a statistic or a nationality.
SK: And speaking of How to Get Away with Murder, what is the difference between how Shonda Rhimes writes women and other people?
KS: Well, I think, especially with this show, we have Viola Davis and Pete Nowalk as the showrunner. [Rhimes and Nowalk] have definitely, from the pilot, brought forth a woman who is unapologetically herself, unapologetically flawed, and is as vulnerable as she is powerful. I think we only seen men written in that way, and I think Shonda Rhimes came to change television for women forever. I’m grateful to be in that family.
SK: It’s a good family to be in. Last question: What kinds of real change do you feel most passionate about making in the world?
KS: I’ve been transformed by stories, and I think that storytelling is definitely sacred. I take it very seriously because my life has been changed, whether it was a movie, a play, a piece of writing, poetry, a painting. I feel that the power that storytelling has to change people, to bring them together, to have that cathartic sort of experience, is something that definitely has helped my life be worthwhile and better. So I guess that it would be for me to keep making art that touches people in a way that nothing else can.
SK: Well, I think that this movie is phenomenal, and I want to thank you for doing it, and we hope that your career keeps skyrocketing. We’re huge fans and we’re on your side, so keep kicking ass.
Everybody Loves Somebody opens in theaters Friday, Feb. 17.
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