What if the United States finally had its first woman and Latinx president? That’s the world Disney +’s newest show Diary of a Future President imagines. It tells the story of Elena, a 12-year-old Cuban-American girl who grows up to be POTUS (played by Gina Rodriguez). Before she becomes the most powerful leader in the world, we get to see who she was as a little girl navigating life during the most daunting time of all—middle school. “It's important to have shows like Diary of a Future President because it is written by a Latina, created by a Latina, Latinos are in it, and it’s directed by a Latina,” one of the show’s stars Selenis Leyva tells HOLA! USA.
In the series, Selenis, who previously starred in Orange is the New Black, plays Elena’s single mother who is raising two children on her own while juggling her career as a successful lawyer. It’s a family dynamic audiences don’t often see when it comes to Latinx families. The actress, who is of Cuban and Dominican descent, was excited to get to portray a Latina who isn’t struggling but instead thriving. “I just was drawn to that, of us in a positive way, without the struggle,” she shares about her part in the show.
Besides starring in groundbreaking roles, Selenis is also striving to leave Hollywood a more diverse place. “It has been a proven fact that unless we go in there and start writing for ourselves, and we start casting each other in our own projects, it's not going to happen,” she adds with a promise that she will venture into producing, writing and directing in order to tell more stories with Latinx families at the forefront.
Keep reading to find out more about the new Disney+ series, her upcoming memoir—which she wrote with her sister Marizol Leyva— to tell the story of Marizol’s transition as a transgender woman and of course, what Selenis would do if she was currently in the White House...
HOLA! USA: What drew you to this role and project?
Selena Leyva: “Before I really got to know the role, [it] was the representation, finally of a Latino family in a positive light. She's a lawyer; she's a single mom. She's raising two really smart, great kids. One who becomes president. I just was drawn to that, of us in a positive way, without the struggle. It felt smart, and it was a departure from my last role. Gina Rodriguez is also wonderful, and I wanted to work with her, and I believed in her vision.”
Was it a collaborative set? Did the director take in your account of a family dynamic?
“This is based on the creator Ilana Peña’s middle school experience. As we went along with the process, I really did feel that everyone got to really collaborate with where we were going with the characters and the developments of them. To be honest with you, it was already so beautiful on the page, that all I had to do was show up and deliver the lines because it was really so specific already, that I didn't really have to do much.”
If you were to become the president of the United States, what would be your first order of business?
“One of the things that I obviously would tackle is the immigration issue. It's been unfortunate, horrific and a nightmare. I still can't believe that in 2020 we are still having these conditions for people and especially children. Immigration would be my top order. Also, the environment. I think that we are neglecting the realities that there is climate change and we have to pay attention to what is very concrete evidence that we need to do more, in order to hopefully slow down the process of where we are. I think that strikes me, right now. And giving back to all these laws that have been taken away from the LGBTQ community and women's rights. All of those things. It's basically cleaning up whatever mess somebody else left behind.”
This show is going to show little girls and Latinas in particular you can do and be anything… were you raised to believe you can be anything?
“Growing up you really do believe you can be a superhero and can do anything. It's later on in life that you lose that spirit. I was like, ‘I'm going to be an actress. I'm going to be on television. I'm going to be in the movies.’ And then it wasn't until later on that I started going, ‘Wow, how can I be in the movies? How can I when I don't see anyone who looks like me?’ And very early on I realized that the roles that were being offered to me, whether they were in theater or in television, were very specific. It was always the maid, or the drug dealer's girlfriend. I was pigeonholed into this world where I thought, ‘I don't want to do that.’ Not that there's anything wrong with telling various stories because everyone should be heard and stories matter, but something is wrong when you tell me that's all I can do.
I want to do the Meryl Streep roles, I want the opportunity that Nicole Kidman has. I want the opportunity that the Viola Davises of the world have. Why not a Latina? I think that unfortunately we're still very behind when it comes to that. This is why this show, in particular, is so important to me because I grew up not knowing that I could do this. I didn't have an idea of what being brown on the screen meant or looked like. There's going to be a little girl and a little boy somewhere out there who is going to be like, ‘Yeah, I could do it. I see myself. I see my mother. I see my grandmother. I see my family. I can relate.’ That's exciting.”
Is your daughter going to watch the show?
“She's 16 years old, so she's going to watch because I'm her mother [Laughs]. She was also on set with us for the episode that Gina directed, the first episode. My daughter was able to sit there and watch Gina direct us, and I thought that was so powerful. She's looking into colleges and wants to be a film maker. She was really moved and inspired to see so many women who look like her, in front and behind the camera. And she went home and she was like, ‘Mom, this is pretty amazing.’”
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
“I'm hoping that audiences take away from the show that you can achieve greatness. And it doesn't matter where you come from. You can be a little girl, a little boy, you can be from wherever you come from, you can be an immigrant to this country and still achieve success. You could be a single mother and do a great job in it. I'm hoping that families will sit together and watch with their children. We do touch on a lot of different things, but this is a show for everyone. It's about a Latinx family, a Cuban-American family living in Miami, but it is a human story. I invite everyone to watch it and have conversations with your children and let them know, yes, you can make it to the White House if you choose.”
Did you ever keep a diary of your own growing up?
“Yes, I keep a diary. I have maybe over 20 diaries from my childhood that are there and don't want to get rid of because it's always nice to go back and read what you were thinking at that time and then realize where you are now.”
Speaking of writing, you are releasing My Sister with your sister Marizol. How has it been to be so open with her transition?
“There's something very vulnerable about being an artist, in general. There is also comfort knowing that it's not your voice. You didn't write it. Where with this, when you do a memoir, you are sharing your life. And there was something liberating about that. But at the same time, it was very scary and still is because when the book comes out in March, I'm hoping that people will understand the message that we're trying to give, which is, this journey wasn't easy.
When my sister transitioned, the whole process even before transitioning was difficult because we didn't have the education to navigate all of this and help her through it and help ourselves. Ultimately, we got to the other side because we listened, because we cared, because we loved her and respected her. We are hopeful that in sharing our story all those families with someone in their family in the LGBTQ+ community will be open and understanding and realize that the person that was there is always there. And they need love and respect to thrive. When I think about my life, I'm happiest when I'm living my truth. This is a celebration of that, of my sister living her truth This is a book about empowering, supporting, and I do believe, saving lives.”