Actress Danielle Camastra was 17 years old in 1996 when she auditioned for the role of late Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla for the biopic Selena – a role that eventually went to Jennifer Lopez.

Her and her mother drove 150 miles east across Alligator Alley (I-75) from their home in Cape Coral, Florida to Miami so Camastra could try out for the part. The year prior, Camastra had graduated early from Cypress Lake High School Center for the Arts in Ft. Myers. Becoming an actress was a dream she knew she wanted to pursue.

“I was so young,” Camastra, told Remezcla during a recent phone interview. “I vaguely knew of Selena. At the time, I think I remember seeing her in a Coke commercial.”

Despite her unfamiliarity with the Queen of Tejano, Camastra, whose mother is from Colombia and father is an Italian-German New Yorker, was excited about her first attempt at kick-starting her career in acting. As one of the roughly 26,000 young women and little girls who showed up for the open nationwide casting call held that year in Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Antonio to fill two roles (young Selena and adult Selena), the chance of getting a callback to move forward in the process after only one audition was highly unlikely.

So, it felt like a miracle when, a few weeks later, Camastra found herself on a Warner Brothers studio lot in Hollywood screen testing with six other finalists, including Lopez, for the lead role of Selena. Camastra described it as a “whirlwind” experience.

“I was thrilled to be in Hollywood, but I was so green,” she said. “I had never been on a movie set. I was learning as I went. I remember once [the producers] said, ‘We’re going to send you some sides (a set of lines from the script),’ and I was like, ‘What are sides?’”

Camastra’s lack of experience didn’t deter Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, who thought she “looked more like Selena” than the other actresses. Quintanilla was an executive producer on the film and his contract with Warner Brothers gave him the final say on casting.

Camastra’s lack of experience didn’t deter Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, who thought she “looked more like Selena” than the other actresses.

“I was rooting for her,” Quintanilla said. “To me she had the same body type and the same facial structure as Selena. Also, I wanted to give somebody a break that was not part of the entertainment business. I knew how hard it was to get through that door.”

During the first screen test, Camastra remembers Quintanilla telling her mother how much her daughter reminded him of his.

“He went up to my mom and said, ‘Wow, she is so much like Selena,’ said Camastra. ‘She has her essence. She laughs just like her.’”

During her second screen test, Camastra said filmmaker Gregory Nava approached her and said the role was between her and Lopez.

“At that moment I thought, ‘Whoa, this is like a dream come true,’” Camastra said.

Remezlca was unable to get a hold of Nava, but via email, Selena producer Moctesuma Esparza confirmed with the words “all true,” when asked about Camastra’s standing during the final round of auditions.

While Selena casting director Roger Mussenden admits Lopez was the overall favorite to win the role, especially since she could sing, dance, and act and had worked with Nava before on the 1995 drama Mi Familia (My Family), he was definitely open to the idea of an unknown actress making an impression and earning the part.

“You never know,” Mussenden said. “I could’ve found somebody else. I remember Danielle was the first one in line in Miami. She was a lovely girl. She was good and new, but too new.”

Courtesy of Danielle Camastra.

Ultimately, it was Camastra’s age and inexperience that kept her from landing the role of a lifetime. Throughout the process, however, Quintanilla was hopeful.

During her second screen test, Camastra said filmmaker Gregory Nava approached her and said the role was between her and Lopez.

“[Producers] kept pulling me aside saying, ‘Mr. Quintanilla, we’re not here to teach somebody to act,’” Quintanilla said. “I told them to give her a couple more tries. I remember she was getting nervous. They pulled me aside again and said, ‘Look, [Jennifer] doesn’t look exactly like Selena, but with make-up and clothing we’ll make her look like Selena. I was already tired, so I said, ‘Alright, let’s go with her.’”

Looking back on the experience now, Camastra doesn’t think she would have been ready for the heavy responsibility that would’ve come with playing the title role. She was also very aware of why she was auditioning in the first place. She knew she was there “at the expense of this incredibly tragic loss.” At 17, Camastra said she was not able to process the mixed emotions she was feeling.

“It was definitely a very reflective time in my life,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is so much more than a movie.’ I wanted to do a good job and wanted to make her proud and honor her memory, but there was always this hesitation.”

A year after Selena debuted at theaters and catapulted Lopez’s career into the stratosphere, Camastra decided to give acting another try and moved to Los Angeles. Her first screen credit came in the 2000 sports drama Price of Glory, starring Jimmy Smits, Clifton Collins Jr., and, coincidentally, Jon Seda, who played Selena’s husband Chris in Selena.

Courtesy of Danielle Camastra. Still from ‘ESL.’

Since her debut, Camastra has starred in a handful of feature and short independent films and has been able to sustain herself as an actress with plenty of commercial work, including for companies like L’Oreal, Coke Zero, Verizon, Budweiser and Levis. She also recently started her own “socially-conscious company,” Love + Kind, which helps empower communities in Tanzania, Africa to create sustainable environments by working with local artisans to produce and sell handmade goods, like wrap skirts made out of kitenge fabric.

Now living in Venice Beach, and at a place in her personal and professional life where she is happy, Camastra credits the decision to audition for Selena 21 years ago for the start of her own unique journey.

“It really set the course in many ways for who I am today,” she said. “Selena has always had a powerful presence over my life. While I can articulate that now, I couldn’t back then, but I felt it. I fell in love with who Selena was because I got to see a glimpse inside her soul – a glimpse of this amazing, beautiful person the world lost far too soon.”