Melonie Diaz on Working With Her BFF America Ferrera & How a Spike Lee Movie Changed Her Life

Ryan Piers Williams’ sophomore film X/Y is a series of snapshots of four twenty-something friends in New York in which wires get crossed and friends, lovers, and colleagues weave in and out of each others’ lives at random. Girlfriends cheat, roommates paint naked, and best friends fuck married people. As per my recollection, this is a fairly accurate portrait of that meaningless yet golden age.

Sylvia (America Ferrera) feels suffocated in her relationship with Mark (Piers Williams) and sleeps with Jason (Common), forcing Mark to move in with Jake (John Paul Phillips). Meanwhile Sylvia’s best friend Jen (Melonie Diaz) has no idea what she wants and despite yoga and meditation and various sessions of retail therapy, is still a hot mess.

There are stand out performances from the entire cast showcasing Piers Williams ease with actors including his wife, Ferrera, with whom he shares the screen in the film’s steamy opening scene, one that immediately imbues it with intimacy. Paul Phillips offers a blistering portrayal of heartbreak, and newcomer Danny Deferrari holds his own against the always believable and ever present Melonie Diaz.

Cool, collected, and deeply observant, Diaz plays it as it lays. She is able to slip into the skin of any character with the ease of a chameleon. Over the course of dozens of films, from Double Whammy to the more recent Fruitvale Station, and Itty Bitty Titty Committee in between, she has emerged as one of Hollywood’s true talents. She’s a hustler who keeps herself busy with a feature a year as well as appearing in a variety of TV shows. And yet despite increasing visibility, she stays true to the independent spirit that got her in game in the first place.

Below she discusses her craft, her early years in the Lower East Side and the deep yet imperceptible effect that Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre may have had on her psyche and desire to explore the world through story.

Am I right in thinking that you and America Ferrera have each other on speed dial? My impression of how you got the role is that she threw up a Bat-Signal and you just landed in New York and said, “I’ll do it.” Is that basically how it happened?

Melonie Diaz: Well, America and I did Lords of Dogtown together years ago when I was nineteen and so was she, and that’s when I first met her and we just clicked instantly. She and I have become very, very good friends. And I was actually there when she and Ryan [Piers Williams], her husband, met. I was around for that period, too. So I know them very well. When they called me and they were like, “Hey, we have this part and we’re wondering if you would want to do it.” I was like, “Duh, Obviously.” Ryan is super talented and America has such good taste. It’s always fun when you get to work with friends. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does happen, I feel like you have to jump.

Just in terms of preparation, what is the first thing you do when you’re presented with a character?

MD: I think about how do I connect with this person and what is it about this character on the page that I really identify with. Who are people that I know that are like this, who have similar stories and behave in that way. Maybe I draw from the person that I was four years ago. You know? Or maybe I have a best friend who is kinda crazy like that, and then I start thinking about those people to make it real for myself. I don’t really think you become anybody else; I feel like you are that person in a different light. I’m not method or anything like that. I’m just trying to be that self.

All of the characters in the film are incredibly flawed, but I think Jen in particular. How do you not pass judgment on her when you’re playing her?

MD: You can’t judge the people that you play. Like me, Melonie, I don’t ever come from that place. It’s not right to judge people. You have no idea what their journey is, what their stories are and how they have become the way they are. So as an actor, I try to come from a place of being very, very open. And as a person, too. I think that’s where the good stuff comes from. I think Jen is a hot mess. She’s a mess. I’ve been a mess in my life too, plenty of times. Even with friends and family, we’ve seen them through their crazy cycles where life is falling apart. Those are times when life gets sticky, but they’re also very interesting. So would I do the same things that Jen does? Personally, at this point in my life, No. Have I? Yeah, I’m not gonna lie, yes. I think judgment is just unfair and it’s unfair to the character.

The other thing about Jen that I liked is that she she’s just Jen; she’s not Latina Jen. And that was also the case for America Ferrera’s character in the film. You guys are just playing people. Do you perceive yourself as a Latina actress or as an actress?

“There’s a kind of lack of imagination when it comes to women of color in this industry.”

MD: I’m an actress. I’m Puerto Rican and that is a part of what makes me who I am but at the end of the day, I’m an actress. I loved that about the movie too. When I saw it I felt the same way. I think a lot of television and film tends to put you in a box. There’s a kind of lack of imagination when it comes to women of color in this industry. I think we can be a lot of things. And I think X/Y shows that. America’s character was in this high power office job and has her shit together but Jen’s a mess. She doesn’t know what she wants to do. I think we are all those things. But I’m not even going to deny. I embrace who I am, but at the end of the day, I’m an actress.

So throwing it back. Growing up in the LES in the nineties: What was a day in the life of young Melonie, right before the cameras and the lights?

MD: I had and still have my group of three best friends that I’ve known since I was twelve. We would just walk around in circles in the Lower East Side trying to find things to do: eating at Odessa, hanging out at each other’s houses, going to house parties and, you know, things like that.

Then you ended up at the Henry Street Settlement. You’ve said the acting bug bit you. But what was it about acting that got you?

MD: It’s interesting because no one in my family is an artist. Maybe it sounds kinda cliché, but just the idea that you can express yourself. I like people. I like collaboration. I feel like it’s a craft that you can do and be so many things. When I went to the Henry Street Settlement, it just made sense to me. It wasn’t a job; it was something that was really fun.

When you were growing up and before you became an actress, looking at movies and television was it important for you to see Latino actors and to see those stories? Did that resonate with you?

“When I saw Do the Right Thing… It was the moment when I saw someone who looked like me. It changed my life.”

MD: Honestly, the one actress that has been my hero is Rosie Perez. When I saw Do the Right Thing, that intro was everything to me. It was the moment when I saw someone who looked like me. It changed my life. It really did. And now I know Rosie personally, and that also trips me out all the time, because that was the main movie that made me feel like I wanted to be an actress. She’s still a really big role model of mine.

So the last question, bringing it full circle. Can you tell me what your favorite movie was when you were ten years old, again before the movie stuff happened? And now, what you would say your favorite movie is? What are those two bookends in terms of the media that you consume?

MD: So there was an encyclopedia type show. It was a collection of fairy tales with Shelley Duvall… A fairy tale series. I forget the name of it.

Of course, yeah!

MD: I had that on repeat.

Faerie Tale Theatre!

MD: Yes! I loved Faerie Tale Theatre. Oh my god. I watched that so much. And I think, wow, revelation: maybe that’s an entry point in some way. I never even thought about it. I’m having a revelation about how that probably affected me subconsciously. Yeah, I liked Faerie Tale Theatre. So much — it was everything. And now, I really love that show Transparent. I feel like it’s a game changer. It’s a television show, but it feels like a long movie. And it feels very independent, which I like.

X/Y is available on iTunes and Amazon starting March 6, 2015.