In ABC’s new comedyCRISTELA, Fridays at 8:30 PM, series co-creator Cristela Alonzo plays the title character, a graduating law student trying to balance work and family.
Carlos Ponce plays Cristela’s brother-in-law Felix. Although this is Ponce’s first network comedy, the actor/singer/songwriter was a regular on MTV’s HOLLYWOOD HEIGHTS and had recurring roles on LIPSTICK JUNGLE and 7TH HEAVEN, as well as a host of film roles. Ponce, born in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami, is a star in the world oftelenovelas, which play all around the world; as a musical performer, he fills stadiums.
At a Q&A session that ABC holds for CRISTELA and the Television Critics Association, Ponce says, “This is really a dream job for me. It’s kind of what I’ve always wanted to do. Unfortunately, in Spanish, we do stereotype ourselves a lot. As [Alonzo] was saying about her [real-life] mom liking [stories about] lawyers and pilots, I’ve played ten lawyers in the novellas. It seems to be the modern-day Cinderella story, and for some reason, in Spanish, I have not done one comedy, and all I’ve done in English is comedy.
“I’m ‘Cubarican,’ Cuban/Puerto Rican parents, born in the Caribbean and moved to the States in ’86 is comedy. At home, we’re always laughing, and when I got to this job, and all of a sudden, check it out, I’m not working, [within the story] I’m laughing at home with family, so it is a dream job all the way around. I’m having a blast.”
Later that day, Ponce attends a party thrown by ABC for the TCA at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where he talks about his new role and his career overall.
ASSIGNMENT X: With CRISTELA, did you decide you wanted to branch out, did you see this specific opportunity, were you happily ensconced in what you were doing and ABC reached out to you …?
CARLOS PONCE: No. I’ve been back and forth for quite some time. The thing is, and what’s a little complicated about getting primetime Latin actors into Hollywood is the fact that they’re comfortable. You go to Mexico and they have their primetime leading roles and they’re comfortable. I live in Miami, and this [American comedy] is the television I watch. I don’t even watch my Spanish telenovelas. So I’ve always been intrigued by it and I’ve done a lot of things – a few movies here in English and I’ve been in and out of pilots and some shows that hit the air and got canceled and some failed pilots as well, so this is just how Hollywood works.
AX: Do you always play Latino?
PONCE: I have played Caucasian – I do have a Miami accent, so I have to work really hard to neutralize that one [laughs], but I have – I have a few times.
AX: Had you worked in the multi-camera format before?
PONCE: No. Well, I did a little arc in that show EVE, with Ali Landry that was awhile back, but I think that’s the only one in English. I’ve never done this, but it is to me a dream job in Hollywood.
AX: Does CRISTELA have a live audience?
PONCE: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I love that.
AX: Were you originally a theatre performer?
PONCE: I went to school for musical theatre. That’s where I started. I worked at New World in Miami, and that’s what I was aiming for.
AX: So you feel like you’re doing what you set out to do?
PONCE: No doubt. Absolutely. I had a music career in Spanish, so I’ve sung in stadiums all over the world, in Spanish, obviously, and I miss that part. I miss that immediate reaction from the crowd, I miss that.
AX: Is CRISTELA’s live studio audience feeding that?
PONCE: Oh, yeah, absolutely. This is just a little taste, but just getting back in there, having conversations and exchanging anecdotes and having people react to them and laugh is fantastic.
AX: Do the writers come up and change the dialogue while you’re on stage, where they run up to you and go, “Say this instead”?
PONCE: Yes. We got that a lot on the pilot, but what we also got was the ability to free-style a lot of things, which is not very common, as you know. So the fact that you can come up with things and say it, and if they work, we keep them, it’s great, because then everybody develops their own characters.
AX: Do you tend to ad-lib more in English or en Espanol?
PONCE: En Espanol. I’m working in English – I did a movie calledCOUPLES RETREAT with Vince Vaughn, and I was allowed to ad-lib a lot of things at the end of the day. That one, when I saw the final cut, it gave me a lot of confidence.
AX: Cristela Alonzo was talking about how all telenovela stories center around either lawyers or pilots. You said you’ve gotten to play a lot of lawyers. Have you gotten to play any pilots?
PONCE: No. But right now, with the hottest novela, it’s Senor de los Cielos. I just played a lawyer and I’ve played my eighth lawyer. It’s always lawyers and pilots.
AX: What is Felix’s job in CRISTELA?
PONCE: He’s a contractor. Lays floors and walls, and I do that myself at home. I’m opening a little business in Miami and I just met with a guy, with a general contractor and I said, “Scratch all this from your quote, because I’m doing all this.” [laughs] And I am.
AX: Are you going to get to do any of that in the show?
PONCE: I’m going to get to act like I’m doing something [laughs].
AX: Are they giving you any physical comedy?
PONCE: I don’t think so. It’s not about that at all. It’s very dialogue-y, it’s very witty, it’s super-smart. I think it really relates to us; I think it [avoids] all the mistakes that I’ve seen before when studios and networks try to cater to the Latino demographic, because just trying to cater to that, I think it’s a mistake, because you limit your audience. This is a family. It happens to be Latin, but it has the problems of an family that is immigrant, that came to the U.S. in search of the American Dream, and like MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING was a big hit because Italians could relate, Cuban, French can relate to the story, I believe that this is MY BIG FAT GREEK SHOW [laughs].
AX: Have you done a Television Critics Association press tour before?
PONCE: No. I did something similar to this in Africa two weeks ago.
AX: What were you doing in Africa?
PONCE: Our telenovelas don’t last thirty years – they go to six months or twelve. Four of mine are on the air in Africa right now, so they flew us over there to Mauritius Island – it’s this, it’s not an upfront, it’s more of a lineup for the press and the critics and stuff. But it was new to me – it was the first time I did it in Spanish, and two weeks later, I’m doing it in English.
AX: Do you see yourself continuing in English-language television or going back to the telenovelas, or …?
PONCE: I don’t think I can abandon the whole telenovela world. I like it, it’s fun. I am ambitious, and there are a lot of things that I want to do, and yes, this is definitely a trampoline or a catapult into different areas that I want to venture in. So yes, hopefully.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?
PONCE: I’m always active with the music and writing and producing for the different telenovela songs, I do a lot of that.
AX: What style of music?
PONCE: It really all depends, because I cater to the project itself. If I’m singing, if it’s my music, it’s always kind of like pop/rock, acoustic. I just did a small role in a movie, SPY, with Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham. That’s for Memorial weekend next year. It’s very funny. Pretty much between this and those things, it keeps me busy.
AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about CRISTELA the series?
PONCE: I can tell you it’s real and people will appreciate it. When you mentioned slapstick, it’s not. We don’t have to dress it up. It’s very authentic, it really is, and I think that’s going to show.