Exclusive: OFF THE MAP’s Valerie Cruz Interview

valerie cruz

Valerie Cruz only got into acting when she was in high school, but once she decided it was her passion, she went all in, earning a B. F. A in theater from Florida State and then quickly scoring the role of Grace Santiago on Nip/Tuck. Since then, there has been no stopping her. In addition to starring in the supernatural crime series The Dresden Files, she had key recurring roles in both Dexter and True Blood and this year she was the dedicated and dynamic Dr. Zita Alvarez on ABC’s medical drama OFF THE MAP, which just finished its first season.

Daemon’s TV talked to Valerie about working on Off the Map, how Zita changed from the pilot, and the differences between network and cable shows.

It seems like the ‘Off The Map’ season flew by. I can’t believe it’s done.

Valerie Cruz: I know. It has flown by. It’s kind of crazy. I’ve been out of the country for the last five episodes, I feel like, or four. So I don’t even know what’s going on. I don’t know where we are. It has flown by. It’s really strange, but in a way it’s a flown by. Then when I think back to the beginning when we shot the pilot in Puerto Rico, it’s been a full of year. I think February of last year we were shooting the pilot in Puerto Rico.

The pilot wasn’t shot in Hawaii like the rest of the show?

Valerie Cruz: No. The first episode, we went back and shot a lot of the parts of the pilot which is pretty customary for any television show and so those parts were shot in Hawaii. But half of the pilot, or at least a third of it, was shot in Puerto Rico.

What stood out most for you about Zita when you decided to play her?

Valerie Cruz: It’s funny because the role changed. The original role was that she was a nurse and then they went back and retooled the pilot. So I think the initial thing that stood out more than the character was just the company of people that were working on the project itself.

I was really excited about working on a project that was helmed by all women because a lot of television, as other industries, is very male dominated. I think the prospect of just the overall tone of the piece and that it was sort of from a–I don’t want to say a female point of view, but I think the approach in having worked on the show and with them, it is sort of a different point of view. The approach is very different. I think the writing tends to be a little bit more about character development in general with most of her shows. I thought that was really exciting. I thought I’d be able to glean a lot and we had a lot of female writers on the show. We had male writers as well. That’s not usually the case though. It’s usually very male dominated. So that was exciting.

I also just felt that the tone, thematically, of the show is global and I felt that we were at a point in our world where people are starting to think more globally. It was an opportunity and I felt a good platform for people to see what goes on outside of their own little microcosm. I think people are more open to that now than lets say that they were ten years ago.

What brought about the choice to make Zita a doctor? Was that your suggestion or simply a writers’ decision?

Valerie Cruz: Actually, it was really flattering and great. I had worked a lot on the character because it was smaller in the original pilot and I’d done a lot of back story work on her and when they came back it was a writers’ decision. I think ultimately it was Shonda [Rhimes] and they felt that they would be relegating her to hanging up IV bags and wouldn’t be able to incorporate her as much into the nuts and bolts of everything going on.

I think it was a really good thing. I think it’s a good thing to see Latin characters that are doctors and that are highly functioning people and aren’t just relegated to secondary roles whether that be in healthcare or any other industry. I think it was good, but it was definitely story driven. I don’t think it was politically driven. I’d like to think that it was some of the things that I came up with, but I didn’t specifically say that I needed her to be a doctor. I was perfectly fine being a nurse, and in fact, it was weird to have to go back and retool the mindset because they are two totally different entities, nurses and doctors.

I think with our show, with the latitude that the doctors take there isn’t a lot of nursing. In reality I have to take my hat off to nurses. They do a lot of the caretaking and a lot of the day to day and checking on the patients and I think that TV sort of waters down what they do quite a bit because when have you ever known to be in the hospital and the doctor is there 24/7? it doesn’t happen. It’s funny that I had to retool my thinking about that a little bit. It was good, awesome. Ultimately it was great and it allowed me to be more of a part of what was happening.

How do you feel about how she developed throughout the thirteen episodes?

Valerie Cruz: I think it was great. I was very blessed and we had amazing writers that were incredibly open to listening to us. If you sat down and thought about, like, ‘This is the direction,’ or you had questions, they would sit down with us. Actually, I’m just really happy. I feel like they started to really incorporate the ways that we felt. If we ever had issue with something it was an open forum to be, like, ‘I’m not sure if this resonates with what she would do.’

A lot of my back story, some of my back story came from the original back story that I wrote on the pilot for myself, just ideas that I’d had about her. They asked me if they could incorporate it into what we were doing. I said, ‘Yeah,’ and I think that was an actor’s dream, to have so much ability to really create. You never have say when they’re writing away, but to actually have some input that was valued and listened to, I think it was a really great creative environment in that sense, one of the best ever to be honest.

Zita and Otis were such a popular couple on the show. Was that a fun storyline to play?

Valerie Cruz: Yeah, it was. It was a fun storyline to play, Otis and her. I’ve known Jason [George] for a while and working with Jason. He’s a very open actor and I think it was great to explore that side of her with him because that’s sort of what makes her a dynamic character to play because she’s so different with different people.

This is your first regular role on a network show, right?

Valerie Cruz: Yeah, on a network show. I’ve been mostly in cableville.

How different is it in terms of the process or the creative environment?

Valerie Cruz: It’s huge. I would say that the last thing that I was working on, on cable, I think it was ‘True Blood’, but they shoot that a lot like a movie. They take a lot of time with it. They have the luxury of time and I think on a network show there isn’t so much time.

Unfortunately, with network shows, too, and my hat’s off to our writers because they really have to work within very specific perimeters that cable doesn’t have to work inside of. They’re very limited and I think that cable has the luxury of doing things, whatever it is, but just to the farthest reach of their imagination. Whereas with the network shows you have to water things down a bit or try to approach the content through a different angle. It’s not the obvious choices.

You’ve had some great roles. Isabel on ‘True Blood’ might be my favorite, but I really liked Connie on ‘Dresden Files’. Anyway, they’re all very different, so how have you avoided any typecasting?

Valerie Cruz: I don’t know. I want to say it’s luck and I want to say that it was always my intention. I never wanted to be very typecast because I’m fighting the double Latin typecasting thing at first. I kind of put that out to the universe and I don’t know if that’s exactly why that happened.

Ialso don’t know if I’m someone that pops into people’s heads immediately, like, ‘Oh, yeah. Valerie. That’s who this character is.’ I often times have to go into the room and create something for them to see it because often times people only see me as whatever it was I doing last because it’s so different. Sometimes people don’t even know that I did both things.

Right after I did ‘Dexter’ I did ‘True Blood’. I would go on auditions and nobody knew that I had been on ‘True Blood’. They’d be like, ‘Who are you on “True Blood”?’ I’d talk about it and they’d be like, ‘What?’ They’d think about it and go, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, yeah.’ So it’s kind of like that and it’s the same thing with ‘Nip/Tuck’. I was really young. That was my first job and playing somebody older. It’s funny. I think I probably get recognized now more for ‘Nip/Tuck’ then because I was very different from who that character was, particularly at that time. So it’s kind of a catch 22.

Some days I think, ‘I wish I was just that person,’ like where they’d go, ‘Oh. Valerie.’ But in other ways I think, like you said, I’ve had the opportunity to play a lot of different and varied characters that are pretty special. I don’t think I would change that, for sure.

Are there certain things that you look for in a role or a project?

Valerie Cruz: To work. If any actor says that they look for something specific, I think that they’re all at the end of the day, I think it’s so fear driven, like, ‘Will I work again?’ I think we’re all looking to work and I think we’re all looking to work on quality material that you feel is going to be worthwhile and be exciting. But at the end of the day it’s a career and I think that people forget that. There’s a fraction of actors in the world that really have the capacity to be specific about what exactly it is that they want to do and can get those jobs. I think for a lot of other actors it’s not that way.

Yes, if something is terrible and awful you’re not going to go out for those things. But within that I think that sometimes you might be working on projects that you don’t necessarily love, but you have to find–you can’t judge it or else you can’t do the material. I think sometimes those are the projects that surprise you because you have to work harder to really find something special and create something special. I think that’s not a bad thing, to not be in the position to always pick and choose exactly what it is that I want to do.

Now you’re playing the waiting game, seeing what’s going to happen with ‘Off The Map’?

Valerie Cruz: Yeah, it seems that way. I’m going on auditions for some feature films and some other projects and sort of waiting. That’s unfortunately the bane of our existence a lot, this waiting game. It’s unfortunate.

Are there any other shows on right now that you’d love to guest star on?

Valerie Cruz: I’ve been wanting to get on ‘Mad Men’ forever, but it’s really interesting, that time period there wasn’t just a lot of like dark people. I think now they have some African American people, but it was a very, very…just the period of time. It’s not like it’s not truthful and honest, and not that I think that I’m relegated to that, but I think the people on there have a very specific, dated look. ‘Mad Men’.

’30 Rock’ I would love to do. I think that show is hysterical. I feel like I’m so lucky in that a lot of the shows that I’d like to be on I’ve done. Definitely ‘Mad Men’ is high up on my list. I’d love to do a mini-series or something over at HBO. I think that do really cool and interesting stuff.

Have a safe flight to wherever you’re going –

Valerie Cruz: Thank you. I’m actually headed to Atlanta to do ‘The Mo’Nique Show’.

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