Liza Colón-Zayas

Liza Colón-Zayas on Representation: “Let’s Normalize Seeing People Who Look Like Me”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 13: Liza Colón-Zayas attends Paramount's "If" New York premiere at SVA Theater on May 13, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Marleen Moise/WireImage)

Liza Colón-Zayas laughs when asked what kind of animated character she would play if she lent her voice to one of the imaginary friends in her new film IF (short for Imaginary Friend). The live-action/animated fantasy features several oddball creatures – from a pink alligator to a kitten dressed in an octopus costume.

Colón-Zayas thought maybe an animal from the feline species might work for her. “Something small but with a gravelly voice, like some kind of bobcat,” she suggested.

How about an ocelot, a medium-sized spotted wild cat known for its efficient climbing and swimming skills? “No, a chubby puma,” she responded.

Maybe Colón-Zayas will get to play a chubby puma if there is a sequel to IF, a film written and directed by John Krasinski (A Quiet Place) about a young girl named Bea (Cailey Fleming) who can see the imaginary friends abandoned by the kids who imagined them.

Colón-Zayas never had an imaginary friend growing up, but that doesn’t mean the youngest of five children didn’t use every corner of her imagination to develop her own exciting narratives.

“I was always playing make-believe, [but] not with one specific imaginary friend,” she said. “I just liked to create stories and act out the roles by myself, do the dialogue back and forth, jump off the furniture, and do my own stunts. My imagination was huge!”

In IF, Colón-Zayas, who is of Puerto Rican descent, plays Janet, a nurse taking care of Bea’s grandfather. She interacts with Krasinski, who plays Bea’s father, a live-action character. Krasinski also plays an animated marshmallow. When Krasinski shared the story with Colón-Zayas, she said she immediately fell in love with her character.

“I love that [Janet] is so compassionate [and] is so generous and brings light to the room,” she said. “I’ve seen many [people] like Janet. I’m so glad we got this reminder.”

Like her character, Colón-Zayas brings light into any room she steps into. Whether it’s on the stage of an off-Broadway play or on the set of a TV series like The Bear, the New York City-born talent has a style all her own. And she’s happy no one has tried to change who she is or how she’s presented herself in the entertainment industry. As Colón-Zayas puts it, if she is cast in a role, “people know what they’re getting” right from the start.

I had to learn that I could just be me, that Nuyorican from the South Bronx, and embrace that.

“Whatever pressure I’ve felt, it’s because our society has … ingrained [it] in my psyche,” she said. “I had to learn that I could just be me, that Nuyorican from the South Bronx, and embrace that. That’s what I tell young actors: Don’t compare yourself to nobody else. Even if they look like you, just be you. Whatever is weird about you, whatever is kooky, that’s the goal.”

Today, the goal for Colón-Zayas is to add to the conversation about Latine representation in Hollywood. When Latines are cast in movies and TV series, she said stories become more profound, unique, and original.

“We are the backbone of this country,” she said. “We got a lot of stories. Let’s normalize seeing people who look like me. I love that [IF] is on the right side of that.”

IF premieres nationwide at theaters on May 17, 2024.