Isabela Moner is on the brink of a breakout. After roles in action flicks Transformers: The Last Knight and Sicario: Day of the Soldado she’ll be seen next in the warmhearted comedy Instant Family. And that’s before she gets to play what’s likely going to be the highest profile project of her budding career, Dora the Explorer in the live-action adaptation of the beloved animated series. She may not be 18 yet but the Peruvian-American actress is already learning the perks and perils of being a Latina actress working in Hollywood.
In Instant Family she plays Lizzy, the oldest of three siblings who are in the foster care system, having been taken away from her mother who’s battling an addiction problem. It’s Lizzy who unwittingly endears herself to house-flipping couple Pete and Ellie (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne). And when they decide to care for her, they’re encouraged to take on her younger siblings as well: accident-prone Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and tantrum-prone Lita (Juliana Gamiz). The film follows the hilarious antics of two clueless would-be parents as they try to readjust their lives to care for these three kids. It’s based on director Sean Anders’ own experience taking in foster kids; he wanted to use the signature broad humor of his movies (Daddy’s Home, Horrible Bosses 2) to tell a story that’s so often wrapped in melodramatic trappings.
Moner was drawn to the script because she so how close it was to Anders’ own heart. She saw in Lizzy a character that loves and values her family and her culture. It’s why she, at first, makes life hell for her foster parents: she wants nothing more than to live with her mom.
“My goal when it comes to acting is to be as flexible as possible, to be a chameleon when it comes to the roles that I play. I don’t want to be stereotyped as one kind of character,” she told Remezcla over the phone. “My other goal is to represent my Peruvian side, how proud I am of being a Latina.”
That may prove to be easier with a project like Dora than with, say, a movie like Sicario: Day of the Soldado which, as many of the Latino critics canvassed by Remezcla agreed, was a bit of a MAGA wet-dream that vilified as many bad hombres as humanly possible. Not that the controversy around the loathsome politics of that Taylor Sheridan-scripted film fazed her.
“I think you’re always going to get that when you cross Hollywood with politics,” she shared, offering a rather toothless defense of the drama. “There’s always going to be backlash from either side of parties. The reality is that it’s happening all over the world, kidnapping, drugs, cartels, conflicts. This story happens to take place in Mexico. The story could’ve taken place in South America. Or in Africa. I don’t think the goal was to make a political statement.”
But to hear her talk about her experiences working on Instant Family and the upcoming Dora film (which is being directed by The Muppets helmer James Bobin), she’s finally getting to work on sets that value input from the very people their respective projects are trying to portray. Moner particularly praised Anders’ collaborative spirit while shooting Instant Family. He not only cast Joselin Reyes, an actress who holds a Masters in Social Work to play Lizzy’s mom, bringing a needed gravitas and lived experience to that role, but he was the one to ask Moner to contribute a song to the soundtrack, making full use of her song-writing and singing skills.
That collaborative spirit extended to wanting to be empathetic to the story at hand. The core of the movie is a tricky proposition: The foster care system is intent on keeping families together, which becomes a problem for Pete and Ellie when Lizzy’s birth mother reappears and moves to reunite herself with her kids. This led Anders to be receptive to how the story of a white couple adopting three Latino kids away from their mother might read. For starters, the film outright calls out the way it could be read as a “white savior narrative” (Wahlberg’s Pete embarrasses himself when citing Avatar as a reason why he’s wary of adopting Latino kids, prompting his social workers to ask: “So, we should put you down for ‘whites only’ then?”). And working with Reyes, Anders arrived at a balance that, as he shared in a press conference for the movie, neither sugarcoated this story nor vilified Lizzy’s birth mother in the process.
Just as committed to honoring the story he’s telling is Bobin and the entire crew behind Dora the Explorer. The family film will star, among others, Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria, and Michael Peña. (Moner admits they have one token white guy, Wahlberg’s nephew Jeffrey Wahlberg, who just replaced Micke Moreno as Diego.)
She’s been having a blast filming and there’s a comfort she’s felt while on set being surrounded by so much Latino talent. “I’m just glad they’re making this movie and are respecting it,” Moner added, “They’re not using Google Translate in the scripts to write Spanish lines. They consulted someone who actually speaks Spanish! And that’s something I hadn’t seen before. And I’m not taking it for granted.”
Instant Family opens in theaters on November 16, 2018.