Jaina Lee Ortiz on How Her Homicide Detective Dad Helped Her Land the Lead Role in ‘Rosewood’

Photo: Jeff Daly/FOX

The fall season is upon us, as is the new TV lineup. The current schedule has more to offer than ever before – at least for those who are already used to seeing people who look like them on their favorite shows. But the list of options has never been quite as extensive for Latin@s, as we remain woefully underrepresented in media.

Fox has taken some steps to remedy that situation, producing successful shows with diverse casts like Empire and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The network recently earned an “excellent” rating from GLAAD for its inclusive programming, and it’s looking to continue that streak with Todd Harthan’s Rosewood, a dramedy with a Latina lead.

Rosewood stars Morris Chestnut as Dr. Beaumont Rosewood, Jr., a brilliant and handsome pathologist whose heart condition finds him racing the clock to do some good in his life. When Rosewood lends his services to the Miami police department, he finds himself partnered with Detective Annalise Villa, who’s played by Jaina Lee Ortiz.

Sparks — and punches — fly whenever the good doctor and homicide detective are on screen, so Rosewood is likely to draw comparisons to other crime-solving duo shows like Castle and Bones. Ortiz is a relative newcomer but she more than holds her own in this charming twist on the odd-couple trope. Ortiz, a New Yorker by way of California, looks at home in the Miami heat, whether she’s salsa-dancing while doing recon at a nightclub, pulverizing a punching bag, or trading quips with her ridiculously charming partner.

We spoke with the actress in the lead up to Rosewood’s September 23 series premiere. Ortiz talked about short-lived triumphs — like being cast in The X-Files creator Chris Carter’s Amazon pilot — as well as the uphill battle of auditioning for roles in an industry that hasn’t always been that welcoming. Ortiz gave effusive thanks to Fox for giving her the chance to lead a primetime series, but we’re pretty sure the network is just as lucky to have her on board. Check out our interview to learn more about this talented young actress, as well as her co-star’s not-so-secret vice.

“My father is a homicide detective, and I called him for advice.”

Please tell us about Detective Annalise Villa.
Detective Villa is a powerhouse — she’s sexy, she’s smart, she’s strong. She knows how to fight (and dance), and she’s great at her job. I’ve always wanted to play a character with the range that Villa has — she’s confident, but vulnerable. She was born and raised in Miami, and is just trying to succeed as a detective. But she ends up bumping heads with this super-charming, optimistic pathologist named Rosewood. Their relationship is very interesting because they’re polar opposites — she’s a pessimist, he’s optimistic. But they say opposites attract, so who knows? There will be love triangles and lots of drama on this show.

From the looks of the promo, your characters have lots of chemistry. What’s it like working with Morris Chestnut?
He’s such a gentleman; he’s one of the sweetest, most respectful people I’ve ever met. And he really welcomed me when I came aboard — he made me feel like I had been doing this as long as he had. I really admire that. I’m also jealous of his diet because he constantly eats cookies, but he just happens to have a six pack. So every day on set, I bug him about his cookie habit.

Photo: Justin Stephens/FOX
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“I moved out to LA five years ago from New York — and in five years, I’ve heard yes twice.”

What was it about the role and the show that attracted you?
The minute I read the description and Villa’s breakdown, I said to myself, “this character is me.” I don’t have to be anyone else — when I walk in that room, I can be Jaina. I don’t have to pretend to be feisty or tough or badass.

How did you prepare for the role?
My father is a homicide detective, and I called him for advice. He had all the answers for me. And being raised by someone in law enforcement was my research for the character. I think it gave me a one up on the other actresses.

Landing a series regular spot on a network drama is an impressive feat, especially when it’s only your second role ever. How did that feel?
I moved out to LA five years ago from New York — and in five years, I’ve heard yes twice. The first time was [for a role in] Chris Carter’s Amazon pilot The After. My second yes was Rosewood. I was over the moon when I joined The After: I got to work with the creator of The X-Files!

It was a bit heartbreaking [when the show wasn’t picked up]. I thought it was my breakout role. I had to start all over again — auditioning, being rejected. I felt I always come so close, but I was still seen as inexperienced. So when Fox came along with Rosewood, it blew my mind. Ordinarily, to lead a show, an actress would need a huge social media following or major experience. And I had neither. So for Fox to take a huge risk on an unknown actress like me, and give me the opportunity to take on a character like this? It’s a huge, huge blessing, and I’m so grateful to Fox Studios and Fox Network for that.

Jaina Lee Ortiz as Detective Villa.
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“Ordinarily, to lead a show, an actress would need a huge social media following or major experience. And I had neither.”

What do you like best about working on Rosewood?
We have so much fun. I get along with Morris very well. We never did a chemistry-read before I got the part, but the first time I met him, I felt like I’d known him for years. We have an amazing crew and writing staff that’s also very diverse. I love working with [established performers like] Lorraine Toussaint and Domineck Lombardozzi. We also have new faces like Gabrielle Dennis and Anna Konkle in the cast. There’s a lot of good energy within everyone. We all just hope everyone enjoys what we do.

We’ve talked about the chemistry you have on screen, as well as possible love triangles down the road. So is the show going to go the old “will-they-won’t-they” route?
I feel like with shows like Castle or Bones or The X-Files, the audience always wants them [the lead characters] to end up together. Rosewood and Villa are very different, but they end up learning that they need each other in a way that’s not clear at first. They have their own issues — Villa is struggling emotionally, and Rosewood physically. Opposites attract, but just when you think they’re about to hook up, the show will throw a curveball.

Rosewood premieres September 23 at 8 p.m. on Fox. Ortiz will be live-tweeting the series premiere over at @jainaleeortiz.