"It's a blessing to be able to portray a Latina in a positive light": 'Grown' star Maria Corina Ramirez on the age we live in
Maria Corina Ramirez acts, writes, and directs. We caught up with the multi-talented Venezuelan-American who writes and stars in 'Grown' for an interview
When eight-episode web series 'Grown' premiered on Complex TV this past May 22, it became the New York-based media platform's first-ever scripted series. The television show keeps true to the former magazine's roots of exploring youth and pop culture, delving into a topic that is seldom talked about, let alone represented in media — the brotherhood between Latinos and Caribbeans that exists in Miami, one of the country's largest and most diverse cities.
An official description for the show reads, "Draped in the culturally capricious backdrop of Miami, a chaste, digitally dependent twenty-something is forced to coexist with his promiscuous problematic cousin," though there are some subtler themes that it looked to dissect, the most notable of which is the portrayal of Haitians on-screen.
Maria Corina Ramirez is a Venezuelan-American actress who has spent practically her whole life in the Magic City and who, along with Haitian Americans Joshua Jean Baptiste and Edson Jean, co-wrote the script for the revolutionary show which wrestles with death, relationship, finances, and what it's like being an outsider in your own country.
I got the opportunity to speak with the actress about her starring role in the show, the vessel through which it attempts to tell its unique story and the problems with the representation of minorities onscreen today.
"The experience has been lovely working with such a diversified cast," she said of her time on the show. "I also had the opportunity to be one of the writers on the show and we've been working on it for a really long time prior to even getting the green light for the project, just for the love of the craft. The creators of the show are two of my best friends [Joshua and Edson] from college so it's been a beautiful experience to be able to tell this story with them."
I pointed out how working with friends is not always what it's cut out to be and that pointing out mistakes and being critical can often take a backseat. I was curious whether this meant that differences in creativity led to any clashes between the trio, but Maria says that never proved to be an issue.
"Obviously, when we're in the creative space, we like to talk about it and joke about it as a 'secret space' because it's where the three of us can run wild with our ideas," she explained. "We give each other the space to pitch out ideas, no matter how bizarre or odd they may seem. We always listen to one another, and that's something that was drilled into us at school."
"We learned to collaborate as an ensemble and learned to put our egos aside so we can work towards something bigger than ourselves, to treat the creation as something bigger than you," she continued. "So when you go into that space with that idea, it's not about 'Oh, they didn't like my idea!.' It's not personal. You know can creatively flow, and if it doesn't work for the story because the other two are not in agreement, you can just move along without taking it as a slight."
While she does admit that they've had creative disagreements between themselves on the days when they're writing and it gets "passionate," she says it's all forgotten at the end of the day, and that they're always excited to come back and work the next day.
"We'll spend 30 minutes debating a small detail of a scene, but we enjoy that we never let it get to our heads or let our ego get in the way. It's something that needs constant practice and it's human nature to go the other way and put that ego as the frontrunner, but we've had a lovely experience with one another" she laughed.
'Grown' came to life because the three saw an opportunity in a contest, 'Project Greenlight,' where the winner could win financing for their production of a short form digital series. Originally set to be a 6-10 minute episode series, it went on to become something much bigger.
"Because we had been working on it for so long and had so much material, the companies involved felt good about the material," she said. "So, they decided to expand it and that's when the collaboration with Complex and Adaptive studios happened. Adaptive were the people behind the competition, but then, in conjunction with Complex, they decided to expand it and provide the funds to be able to do it as an eight 22-minute episode series."
President Donald Trump's ascendance to the Oval Office has vastly changed the outlook for minority communities in the country. The billionaire mogul's hardline stance and crackdown on immigration in combination with his 'America First' rhetoric has left an estimated 57 million Hispanic and Latino Americans wondering 'What next?' Maria says it's at times like these that make her proud of her role.
"Playing this character on the show has been a great blessing," she said, referring to the current political climate in the country, adding that it was "refreshing and a blessing of a responsibility to be able to portray a Latina in a positive light in this day and age."
"It was nice to represent the Latin community and the female Latina in a positive light. My character is a hardworking Venezuelan woman who's grounded and who has a very good idea of what's right and wrong and she's very honorable and is a little bit of a Jiminy Cricket for Josh, who is her best friend and main character," she elaborated on Robin, the character she portrays on the show.
'Grown' follows two coming-of-age Haitian-American men, Wes (Edson Jean) and Josh (Joshua Jean-Baptiste), as they navigate a transitional chapter in their lives. Josh has recently suffered the death of his mother and thus moves with Wes, and the pair is forced to grow up and confront the realities of a thankless world. To strike a delicate balance between humor and a gravitas necessary to convey its intended message, the show utilizes dark humor.
"We wanted to focus on the realities of the situations some of these characters go through. So, a lot of the things they experience aren't necessarily the positive ones. We touch on the themes of fatherlessness and how these two men are trying to figure out what it's like to grow up and what it means to be a man without either of them having had any father figure in their lives. It's more of a serious subject," she elucidated.
"Wes's mother passes away as well, and there's a lot of questioning of their relationship with women. That has such a serious tone," she continued. "But, at the same time, because 'Grown' is based on a lot of real-life anecdotes, there was a lot of comedy in those dark times."
Maria also poignantly pointed out a running theme in life — comedy in tragedy. "A lot of the time, our life is the funniest in our darkest moments, so we wanted to explore that," she said. And more so than just explaining the comedy and the dark moments, we wanted to explore the reality of these experiences and not push too hard to be overly dramatic or funny and be real and authentic."
All three of the show's creators studied together at The New World School of the Arts in Miami. But besides having the advantage of kicking off in old stomping grounds, is there any other reason they picked Miami in particular, I asked.
"Yes, absolutely, a huge reason," Maria said. "The three of us are from Miami, grew up in Miami and we always felt that Miami gets underrepresented and misrepresented a lot in the media. Most people, when you say Miami, think of the beach and bikinis and drug cartels and we've had a different experience living here and growing up here."
"Miami is a beautiful melting pot of Caribbean cultures and there's a lot more to it than the stereotypes we see in the media. So we wanted to specifically explore that and showcase that to the world. That was something we were very adamant about — being able to tell the story of our Miami, as we knew it, in Miami. It wouldn't have felt as authentic if we picked up and took it somewhere else."
Most often, in television as well as movies, we see Latin characters are woefully underrepresented or even when present, type-casted to a certain type of role, whether it is the sassy servant, or trusty sidekick, or the barrel-chested womanizer with the thick accent. I asked Maria why she felt this was so.
"I think, honestly, it is so because the people writing the stories and the people in the power position to put forward mainstream stories have not been people of color," she said. "Now, things are changing and it's only going to continue to change if we step up to that position and if we continue to be given that opportunity as well," she said.
She clarified: "I don't think anyone has tried to underrepresent us or misrepresent us. It's not about vilifying the other group but I think it has been about our lack of presence in those rooms behind the scene — the writer's room, in the director's chairs — that has led to the problem of our misrepresentation."
Maria, to her credit, seems to be playing her part in rectifying the problem. 'Grown' proved to be a home for an incredibly diverse cast. Besides Haitian-Americans, it hosted Argentinians and Dominicans, and each got to do something they rarely, if never, get the opportunity to do — speak their language and represent themselves in a positive light.
"We were lucky enough to run into so much Miami local talent," she said. "A lot of the cast members actually went to our school as well. But they had to do their auditions too and the executive producers and the people at the top had to approve their auditions. It wasn't as if we were just plugging in all our friends, she said, adding that it was "lovely to work with them on a professional level" and that it was "a very exciting experience."
Considering the success of season 1, what about season 2, I queried. "Creatively, the three of us, which is anything that is in our control, we have been thinking of the second season," she admitted. "A lot of the audience has been asking for it and we have all these ideas in mind and the goal is to continue the show and continue for a second season. Hopefully, it comes to fruition and it's in the plans; it's in everybody's plans. We don't have the confirmation a 100% yet but it's definitely something that we're planning for."
When I ventured into the topic of future projects, Maria excitedly mentions she, along with Edson and Josh, was working on some other projects, and that she's also working on an upcoming feature. However, that's as far as I got, and she apologetically told me that she couldn't speak too much about that.
Multi-talented Maria writes, directs, and acts. But, hypothetically, five years from now, if given the choice to pick just one, what would she go with? She thinks for a few seconds before emphatically answering "Acting! Because I can be slick and say I could have written what I'm acting. I'll be doing both!" she chuckles.