Boricua Actress Luna Vélez on Working With Viola Davis and Her ‘HTGAWM’ Character’s Dark Past

How to Get Away With Murder has returned for its third season and while all the familiar faces were accounted for, the Viola Davis show introduced us to a new character that will no doubt find herself at the center of this year’s murder-filled plot. That would be Soraya Hargrove, the Milford University President who has no qualms with going head to head with Davis’s Annalise Keating. Played by Dexter alum Luna (Lauren) Vélez, Soraya is, in true HTGAWM fashion, a woman whose appearances deceive.

She may look poised and in control with a smile at the ready, but as Vélez told Remezcla, there are a horde of skeletons in her closet that will slowly begin to come to light as the season unfolds. It’s a role, she also noted, that she’d almost willed into existence. She’d had such a great time working with Davis at an off Broadway production over a decade ago, that she’d been hoping she could find a way to work with her again. The actress, who’s been working consistently since her breakout role in 1994’s I Like It Like That and has an upcoming indie titled Adrift premiering later this fall, is set to have a busy year ahead.

We called Vélez to talk about her stint on the #TGIT show, her decision to make an indie about the heroin epidemic, and ended up discussing the lack of Latinos at the Emmys all the while gushing about Viola Davis (as one does). Check out our conversation below.

How did your involvement in this season of How to Get Away With Murder come about? Were you a fan of the show?
I’ve been a huge fan of the show ever since I heard that Viola Davis was going to be on it. She and I did a play at the Roundabout Theater called Intimate Apparel. It was such an amazing experience and she was so brilliant in it—I don’t think she ever left the stage and I remember being struck by her incredible talent and her strength, the character work, and fortitude. She just commanded the stage for two hours. I got to play her sort of best friend who ultimately betrays her (as best friends do), which was an incredible experience. And I’ve been following her career, of course, because everything she does is pretty brilliant.

I love the show and I kept putting it out there that I’d love to do something on it and really put a lot of energy towards it. I kept speaking to my manager about it and kept saying that there’s going to be something where I’d get to work with Viola and we’re gonna be able to jam together on screen. Sometime in July I went out to L.A. for a meeting and I got a phone call and they said “Do you want to come on the show?” Yes, of course! I was very excited. I met with the showrunner, Peter Nowalk, who’s just wonderful. He said, “Look, it’s gonna be a very slow burn. We really want to move with the character slow and let it grow into whatever it’s going to be in the show,” which has been a really great process. As the storyline unfolds it’s become something I can really sink my teeth into. And most of my scenes have been with Viola so, how’s that for a dream coming true?

Seeing as you’d performed with her before, how does it feel to work with Viola on the show?
Well the thing about stage, and what is the most exhilarating about it is, once you get going you can’t stop the train. Our scenes were so intense in Intimate Apparel. I played this gin-swilling, piano-playing prostitute (which is a lot!) who ultimately steals her husband. Viola’s character is a seamstress and she makes all this beautiful intimate apparel for all the different characters. So I was taking this crazy ride with her every night. And everything that could happen did happen. Everything from a glass breaking on stage to, there’s a letter that Viola is reading to me in one scene from her soon-to-be husband that just flew off the stage. And I jumped off the stage to get it. And she helped me back up to the stage. Those kinds of things are just in the moment; they’re on the edge. What’s different on TV and film is that you get to grow into it even in the scene. Because you do various takes and you start with one idea, and you work on it – but the one thing that you never know is how it’s going to affect that other person’s energy. It’s been very organic for the both of us in terms of how the dynamic between the two characters has developed.

I know the show depends on secrecy so as to keep its twists and turns fresh for viewers but is there anything you can tell us about what’s coming up for your character?

She’s a nice girl. She’s a class valedictorian. She’s that sort of person and as the show progresses, we find out her deep, dark secrets.

I wish I could share that with you! But I don’t know! That’s the truth. I have no idea what happens until we get the scripts. But what I can tell you is that the character that I play, the president of the University, Soraya Hargrove, fascinates me. It’s a very powerful position for a woman to have and she, like the character I played in Dexter, is a political animal. A different kind of political animal. Soraya believes that you can draw more bees with honey than with vinegar. She’s a consummate politician. She tries to do everything with a smile and really just works everything from a very different angle. She’s a good girl. She’s a nice girl. She’s a class valedictorian. She’s that sort of person and as the show progresses, we find out her deep, dark secrets, some of which have been revealed (though I can’t tell you!). But I will tell you that as an actress it’s been… wow. It’s such an interesting dynamic to play this woman who presents this picture of perfection (she’s got the perfect family, the perfect career) and then we find out that not only is she not perfect she’s got skeletons (some pretty ugly ones—like everyone else on the show does) in her closet.

I’m always curious whenever I talk to performers who have been in the industry for a while whether it truly feels like opportunities for Latino talent are that much better than say, ten or more years ago?
Well, I’ll tell you, watching the Emmys this year I was shocked. I believe the only Latina was America Ferrera. She did present but there were no women nominated and I found myself thinking about Viola’s speech (how interesting: a full circle moment) last year saying that awards cannot be given if roles don’t exist. And if the roles aren’t there we can’t do the work that gets noticed, that gets you the opportunity to stand up on that stage. So that to me was very telling. That there was no role that was nominated or any actress or actor that was nominated. It’s a weird thing. It comes and it goes. Everything comes in waves and sometimes I do feel like there’s a lot more coming than there used to be, but the business itself has changed. In some ways the cult of celebrity has taken over rather than looking for really talented actors. And that’s a completely different trend that completely impacts who you watch and what types of show you’re seeing. So have things changed since I did my first movie, I Like It Like That (1994)? In some ways yes and in some ways no.

It’s funny because we published a piece precisely on the lack of Latinos at this year’s Emmys here at Remezcla.
It’s interesting. I haven’t read it but I’d love to. It’s one of the things that I certainly noticed. And I thought that it’s just a shame. It’s funny because I’d just recently started watching Orange is the New Black because I did an independent film with Laura Gomez [who plays Blanca Flores in the Netflix show]. She’s such a wonderful actress and a great human being. But this group of Latinas. The diversity was in the group itself! And the work is so wonderful. I’m like “How is there not a single Latina from Orange is the New Black, which is one of the hottest shows on Netflix, nominated?!” Couldn’t you at least have gotten them to show up on stage? To me that was just a glaring omission.

Speaking of Laura, tell me what drew you to the project you worked with her on, Adrift?
Well, it’s about a family who’s trying to live the American Dream, and due to this horrible heroin epidemic that’s happening in our country, loses it. I play Cecilia, who’s the mother of three boys. She is a professional woman and she’s trying so hard to hold onto her family and make sure that it doesn’t fall apart. But she spends so much time of her time and attention on her youngest son, who’s an addict, to the detriment to her marriage and her job and her other sons. It’s about this downward spiral that ensues. It’s so tragic and it’s in part based on a real story—this really is happening all over the country. And it’s just a tragedy in middle America. Just the toll and how many lives it claims every single day. It actually is a pretty amazing piece and I don’t say that because I’m in the film, but because I think it’s a very important message and it’s very timely. We worked really hard on this movie. It was a true indie—sometimes a guerrilla indie—but I am very proud to be part of it. And we’ll be premiering at the International Puerto Rican Film Festival in New York during Hispanic Heritage Month and I’m very excited about that.