Actor Mishel Prada didn’t intend to move to L.A from Hialeah, Florida (in Miami-Dade County). One of her visits just never ended and now, L.A. is home. Mishel first discovered her love for acting while performing in plays for her church. She landed her first lead role at six years old in her school’s production of The Little Red Hen. Now, Mishel stars as Emma in the female dominated Starz show Vida. The show has been praised for its all-female production team and well-rounded representation of the Latinx community. The show’s existence, let alone seeing herself as the leading role, was difficult for Mishel to imagine considering not too long ago she was consistently rejected by agencies because “[they] already had an ‘ethnic’ one.” Mishel is first-generation Dominican-American. In addition to acting, her talents include cooking, writing, making strangers feel like old friends and more. She has a simple but noble passion: to show through storytelling that all people are at their core the same, and any differences should not scare us, but should be cause for celebration.
I’ve been told you are an amazing cook. If you could have dinner with three people, dead or alive, who would they be and what would you make?
I would say my grandma, my great grandma and my great-great grandma. My grandmother was born in the Dominican Republic and there’s a lot I don’t know about my family history. It would be kind of amazing to sit down and discover things that are ingrained in me by these women who have passed along their struggles and victories.
I’d serve the sancocho—this really hardy soup. It’s got whole pieces of corn on the cob, garlic, plantains, and pumpkin. The soup has African Caribbean roots. It would be wonderful to sit there with them sipping rum and eating soup, which is also my favorite food in the world.
That’s the first time I’ve heard soup be someone’s favorite food.
I love soup. I think part of it might be that one of my earliest memories was my great grandmother—I guess I must have been too young to really chew—but I remember being on the table and her feeding me just the broth.
Was that in the DR?
That was in Miami.
And are both your parents from the DR?
I have a pretty big mix. My father’s side is Puerto Rican and a bit of Mexican. My mom’s side is mostly Dominican, but the interesting thing about the Caribbean is that there is such a blend of ethnicities. I have European, African, Hispaniola Island native roots, all sorts of things. It all converged in the Caribbean.
You know the native people in DR were the Taíno tribe, which Columbus basically wiped out. But there’s a beautiful fusion there. Maybe eventually the entire world will be like us. We’ll all just be this big, brown mix.
That is the dream.
Right! Which is also why food to me is so beautiful, because every meal that we have has a history.
Speaking of history, let’s back up a bit and go to your beginnings. What was it like growing up in Hialeah?
Where we grew up was very Latin. There were stores with signs that’d say, “We speak English,” but English would be misspelled. It would be “i-n-g-l-e-s”—like, hmm, do you really speak English? Haha. I always thought the whole country was like that until I started traveling a bit more and realized the rest of the United States is nothing like Miami.
What was leaving Hialeah like?
Hialeah can be kind of a bubble. When I moved to L.A., people would talk about Jack Kerouac and the like being their big inspirations. I said to myself, “You know what ok, I’m not going to pretend that I grew up with that.” I had Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino and Nina Simone.
Did you always know that you wanted to act?
It was always something that I loved. I loved the idea of storytelling and watching movies….There’s this amazing thing that happens sometimes when experiencing film, or music, or paintings—where you see something tangible that expresses exactly what you’re feeling. And I enjoy being able to explore people that appear different than me. But, then figuring out the ways we are the same so that I would be able to embody them. Acting wasn’t always something that I thought I’d make a career of and be a part of in the way that I am now. And I feel really, incredibly lucky and thrilled that it’s where life has taken me.
You’ve said you’re always writing. What are you working on now?
My creative partner Jessie Hill and I are always writing. We co-wrote the two short films we worked on together, along with other screenplays and different ideas. We’re almost done with our feature. But we’re just exploring being two women writing from our point of view and enjoying that. For me, writing and acting always felt like two distinctively different things. Then, I realized that it all comes from the same instinct—which is to tell stories and to uncover characters.
What stories do you hope to tell?
Well, there’s this idea, which I agree with, that there are are a certain amount of basic stories but there are different nuances in those stories. As humans, we want similar things: we want to be loved; we want to be accepted; we want to feel comfortable. We all have very similar desires, but there are nuances, different versions and various experiences within them. And that’s really exciting. We still have a long way to go but we’re moving towards a place where telling other perspectives is accepted.
What has it been like to work on Vida which has an all female production team?
Most of the heads of our department were women. It was exhilarating that we were given this opportunity and everyone worked so hard and poured their hearts into it. And that’s kind of the dream right?
It’s something that I didn’t ever think was a possibility. I mean, men can be wonderful and amazing, but there was something uniquely special about being in this room of women and being around Tanya Saracho, our Showrunner. Her passion and her love is so infectious for this world that we’ve been creating.
And to know that it IS possible. Coming on set really felt like coming home. This is the first TV work that I’ve done, and being brought into such a supportive environment where you could feel, from every single person involved, how excited they were about the project was something rare and significant … it’s really hard to put into words.
What do you mean when you say that this experience was something that you needed to know was possible?
Years ago, when I first decided that acting would be my profession, I’d meet with different agencies or managers and kept hearing: “Oh, we love you but we already have one ethnic person on our roster.” I was like, “Oh, ok, cool.” And that is not so much the case now. So much so that I’ve heard a lot of people say how hard it is to be White in Hollywood now, and that’s an interesting statement. I always want to say to them, “Do you know that even just a few years ago I literally couldn’t get a manager, more than once, because they already had ONE ethnic person on their roster.”
I’m so sorry that that happened to you.
But it makes it that much more exciting to be a part of this story now. Having Vida be all Latinx and inclusive of everyone: gay, straight, queer, trans. It’s really a privilege to see this and get to be a part of it. All those things lead you to where you need to be. And yeah, it can be a struggle but it’s made me that much more passionate to be in a position to tell these stories. This is our space and we’re going to tell you what it’s like to be us.
There was a moment in the trailer that really stuck with me, when your character and her sister were called “white-tina puta” walking down the street. Can you talk about what that moment represents and the tensions within the Latinx community?
Friends will see photos of some of my family and they’ll say, “But they’re Black.” And I’m like,“Yeah.” And they say, “You can be Black and Latina?” And I say, “Yeah! You can be White and Latina.” Going back to nuances—people don’t really think about unless they know that they exist. Specifically with the White-tina puta thing—which is really funny- our showrunner actually got called that, so she put it in the show.
Going off that, I understand that to be accepted, you can’t be too light skinned and you can’t be too dark skinned, is that sort of right?
It’s easy to paint the Latinx community with a broad stroke but yes, skin tone can be an issue even amongst the Latin countries. I personally haven’t really seen that explored on television before. In the end, hopefully we are broadening the amount of stories that can be told. But we’re just taking it one step at a time. In our show, I don’t feel we’re giving exact answers. If anything we’re posing questions that people are going to be able to talk about. And I know in Tanya’s next series, she’s focusing on including a lot more Afro-Latinx people to try to tell as many different stories from the Latinx community as possible.
Vida tackles many complicated topics from the gentrification of the Eastside of L.A., to sexuality, to showing well-rounded characters of color, to coping with family loss, sister-sister relationship. What was dealing with all that like?
Taking on Emma the character was challenging, in a way that was great. Bringing her to life took a lot of digging inside myself. And when you’re creating these characters that feel unlike you, you’re essentially turning up the volume on the parts of you that are like them and trying to carve away the parts that don’t completely fit them. There was a lot going on with her: shame, her sexuality, accepting her past, and a complicated family history.
That’s interesting. Going into more about character work, how does your personal style differ from Emma’s?
Emma’s wardrobe was actually one of the first things I used to begin building her character. It was important for her to show that she believes she has moved on from her Eastside L.A. roots. Her style influences are very french, very modern and current. She is full capsule wardrobe vibes, very functional yet stylish. Emma is also very apprehensive to look inside, so her outward appearance is important to her. She feels it allows her to look as if she has it all together. We are different style-wise in that I LOVE vintage stuff. I like to reimagine the past and embrace it. I have treasured memories of my mom taking me first-thing Saturday morning to the Red, White, and Blue thrift store (that’s where the sales were) and I’d find these fun and whimsical things to restyle as my own. It was a time of bonding for us. My grandmother did with her, too.
What were some of the questions you had to ask yourself throughout the acting process for Vida?
Can I actually do this? Haha. You say yes to the show and of course you move towards the challenge. But the insecurities didn’t go away. You still have to push and push out of your comfort zone to find that rawness, face that, and move forward. Working with the directors and Tanya, there was no: “Oh, well that’s good enough.” It was always: “Nope, you can do better. Go further. Push, push, push” to really excavate that honesty within you and find out what’s on the inside.
And where were you when you found out you got the part?
I was actually helping somebody else do a self-tape for an audition. It was insane, because I knew I was going to find out that day and I found out in the middle of helping a friend. I didn’t want them to feel that their moment wasn’t about them. So I had to be like, “Oh, Ok, cool, yes, great.” And it didn’t really sink until probably another day or two. Not only am I taking on a role that is really important for Latinx people, but queer people and women….It really sunk in as I was walking onto the Warner Brothers lot for the fitting. Like wow, this is really happening. We’re doing this, and I get to be a part of it.
About a year ago, the show was announced and I was so excited. I thought, oh wow, this is actually getting made. That’s amazing. Cut to a year later, I’m one of the people bringing it to life, breathing life to these characters. This is some really cool stuff happening right now.
And what was your family’s reaction?
They’re so excited. I think sometimes my mom’s like, “Cool, you’re doing that acting thing.” And then seeing the trailer, she’s like, “Oh wow! That’s a real show.” When I called her to tell her, initially, she was like, “That’s great sweetie.” And I’m like, “Mom, it’s kind of a big deal.” And she’s like, “I know. It’s great. It’s great.” There’s a lot wrapped up in this show that I don’t think she fully understands, which is cute. But when I did this Ford commercial that ran in Latin America, my mom was really proud of that because everyone she knew had seen it. And I’m like, “Mom, no, not the Ford commercial!”
Aw that’s so funny. And what has been your biggest takeaway from being part of the show?
That it’s possible. We’re seeing a lot of status quos being broken. And it’s a really exciting time. We have a long way to go, but it is possible to work on something that is heartfelt, and to get along with the people that you’re working with, and be inspired by each other.
What keeps you up at night?
Nothing, I could sleep on a sidewalk. I’ve slept through fire alarms and trumpets playing.
And lastly, what advice would you give to your 12 year old self?
It’s no one else’s fault when you are not happy. It’s up to you to move away from people that don’t love you and poke holes in your dreams. You teach people how to treat you. Also, there are people that aren’t going to like you—that’s okay.
(Interview by Adriana Gallina, Photography by BB)