Christian Serratos on the Selena You Don't Know
Christian Serratos isn’t the kind of actress who just wings it. “I’m a Virgo and I’m a Virgo to the T,” she says. Instinctively, I know this means she’s methodical and precise, someone who’d spend hours and hours rehearsing a scene until it’s damn near perfect. She and I share the same astrological sign. When I mention this to her, there’s a quiet, unspoken acknowledgement of what it’s like to be so persnickety. “I am — as you know, being a Virgo — a control freak,” she tells me.
As the star of Netflix’s new two-part show, Selena: The Series, Serratos relied on her laser-sharp discipline — plus the help of several coaches— to achieve Tejano icon Selena Quintanilla’s signature flick of the wrist, lip pout, and instantly recognizable hip sway. On set, she’d ruminate over her characterization of the musician until it felt organic enough to call wrap. “I don’t like people blowing smoke up my ass,” she says, remembering what it was like to shoot in Rosarito, Mexico. “So if something doesn’t feel like Selena, or something doesn’t feel honest or right, we’re going again. We’re going until I can’t go anymore, we’re going until tomorrow, until I can’t walk, whatever it is.”
Serratos, best known for her roles in The Walking Dead and the Twilight movies, brought an unmistakable intensity to her portrayal, but what other choice did she have? Twenty-five years after the tragic murder of Selena in 1995, her legacy remains the stuff of legend, a story that everyone feels deeply connected to regardless of whether you grew up speaking Spanish, English, or like Serratos, who’s Mexican American and grew up in Burbank, Calif., both. For the 30-year-old actress — who was only four when Selena died — the idea of not nailing this performance wasn’t one she entertained. When she first emerged in the white buster and matching pants worn to perform “Como La Flor,” her seamstress burst into tears. For Serratos, that served as a reminder to avoid becoming self-important. She told herself, “Be cool and commit, be cool and be honest, be cool and don’t fuck this up.”
“In the beginning, I was trying so hard to keep my composure and I realized that I really couldn’t maintain it, that I was going to crack under pressure,” Serratos says of filming her first few scenes. It’s easy to imagine that part of that pressure came from knowing she’d be held to the high standard set by another household name: Jennifer Lopez. The pop star played Selena in the iconic 1997 film of the same name, and her ascent — blockbusters, hit albums, international renown — is still synonymous with that career-defining role.
Serratos is aware that viewers, despite the tired act of pitting two women against each other, will draw comparisons between both projects (“This is a show and that was a film”). But the burden of living up to someone else’s portrayal isn’t one she could afford to focus on. Instead, she honed in on Selena’s spirit, on what she believes Selena would have wanted. “I wouldn't have been there if it weren't for her,” she says, referring to the role as if it were ordained from above. “If it wasn’t OK with her, I don’t think I would have gotten it.”
With part two in the can, Serratos — dewy-skinned and immaculately manicured without the glare of a ring light in sight — appears relaxed at home in L.A. when we meet on Zoom in mid-November. Dressed in an oversize silky white blouse that could pass for pajamas, she seems to have let go of the Virgo rigor the Selena role demanded of her. But within minutes of saying hello, that pointed attention to detail returns. “One second,” she says frantically, “Hold on. Sorry. I’m incredibly irresponsible and didn’t charge my computer.” She plugs back in, recharged and camera-ready. It’s then that our chat, much like her rise in Hollywood, continues.
Read on for more about the actress’s audition process, her favorite Selena songs, and the truth about working with the Quintanilla family.
InStyle: How are you? It must be thrilling to know that the world is about to watch you transform into Selena.
Christian Serratos: I'm excited! I'm a bit nervous because it's a lot of responsibility. She’s a person that people not only love and admire and respect, but feel very connected to as if they’re her family, like this is their person. Diehard Selena fans are going to be shocked, the same way I was shocked, when they see how much we don’t know about her. I’m really excited for people to see this Selena.
How did you react when you learned you landed the role?
It’s really hard to say because it was such a process. By the time I started reading for it, we were shooting season nine of The Walking Dead. I was auditioning over six or seven months, sending in scenes and scenes and scenes, but also songs and songs and songs. By the time I found out that I was going to be playing her, the novelty had worn off because I was in it already. I had made the decision that, “I am playing Selena, this will work, I will make this work.”
That’s the definition of manifestation. How did you prepare before filming in Mexico began?
I reached out to a dialect coach, my vocal coach, personal trainer, and was going at it as hard as I could. In between scenes for Walking Dead, at lunch breaks, I was doing hour-long training sessions. Once I found out that I was going to be playing Selena, I had like seven days to pack up and move to a different country to start filming. There was no time to breathe.
Season one explores Selena’s childhood, but there’s not a tremendous amount of available information about her youth.
Right, which is why our first season is gonna be so interesting. It’s really hard to delve that deep into the Selena universe and find those images. In one of the first promotional photos released, we see me playing her at around 12, 13, or 14, and she has this very short, permed, curly hair. And we all knew that people were going to go, “That’s not Selena!” Like, we imagine that Selena was in that purple jumpsuit with long hair and bangs and red lips from the time she was 10 until she was in her 20s, you know? But that’s just not the reality.
Having her family has been invaluable. We had all these photos and we had some actual footage of her as a very young kid in the early '80s, when she was less influenced by flamenco, which is what we think now when we think of her stage presence. But she was more influenced by Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul and held herself differently, performed differently, danced differently.
Tell us about working with Selena’s family. Suzette Quintanilla, her sister, is an executive producer and you also have a producing credit. How did that influence the experience?
You can see it on the show. All these nuanced family moments, we would have no insight to these things if it weren't for them. I got to talk to Suzette very recently and it was so fulfilling. I'm so happy that we did it more recently because I think I would have been very intimidated and overly emotional if we had done it any earlier. I’m so grateful that they gave me this opportunity and they’re allowing us to tell her story again. Nobody needs a resurgence of Selena. Selena stands on her own. Selena has always been here and she will always be the icon that she is. It’s so important to see this hardworking Mexican American family succeed and work hard and break down barriers for success. It’s more prevalent and relatable now than ever.
Selena was Mexican American, but like so many Latinxs, she didn’t speak flawless Spanish. Are you fluent?
I’ve always felt less comfortable speaking it, but I understand almost everything. And so to be surrounded by people that spoke the language that I heard growing up in my house was incredibly comforting. Mexican people are so warm and you just feel really embraced by them. And they all wanted me to succeed. Even in between takes when I was like, “Oh, am I not saying this right?” There was never an embarrassment. I would just scream to the crew, scream to anybody, “Yo! How do I say this?” And they would help me.
Especially now being a mom, I just want my child to know her heritage and her culture and her language. It’s so important. It’s not the only way to connect and you can have pride in your culture and heritage without knowing the language at all, but to know it is so comforting. It’s grounding and calming. I’m also in love with language. In quarantine I started to learn Farsi just because I thought it was beautiful. And I think if we were able to talk with each other more, maybe we would stop being such dicks to each other.
When did you first discover Selena’s music?
I don’t even remember the first time I heard Selena or how I was introduced to Selena. She was just kind of always around. My first favorite song was “Baila Esta Cumbia.” It still is one of my favorite songs. After working on the show, I think it became “Si Una Ves” and “Que Creias” because they happen to be her more powerful songs and they were so fun to perform. I also really loved doing the songs she did when she was a kid, covers like “Parece Que Va a Llover” or “La Bamba.” I can't wait to take these songs into some really awesome karaoke nights.
So many viewers will draw comparisons between the Netflix series and J.Lo’s 1997 movie. Did you take that into consideration and did it weigh heavily on you?
I took a lot into consideration. This is a very specific role. There have been a lot of biopics, but I don't think there's a person that people feel such connection with, like, this is our family. I think that’s what made her special, too. She made everybody feel like she was part of their family. And so there was a lot of pressure on me.
There were a lot of thoughts about if I wanted to walk into something so nerve-racking, if I could deal with that pressure, but I really trusted what I was willing to put into this job. And I know that nobody's going to make everybody happy, and that's okay. But as long as I committed to being completely honest and respectful of who Selena was, then that was all I could do. And that should be enough.
The most beautiful part about her was her spirit. She was an incredible artist. She was incredible at a lot of things, but it was her spirit that really touched us all. So I just had to focus on that and know that she was guiding me through and I wouldn't have been there if it weren't for her. If it wasn’t OK with her I don’t think I would have gotten it. And so I just had to trust that.
I grew up watching that movie and I love that movie. And I have so much respect for Jennifer and I thought she did an amazing job. And I know there's going to be comparisons. And that's OK, that's just the facts. But this is a show, and that was a film. And this is starting from a different space. This is starting from a much younger year. And I'm so grateful that nowadays there doesn't have to be one, you know? We can love both.
Let’s talk about hair, makeup, and the costumes. Was there a moment where it all clicked, where you felt like you’d become Selena?
I had those moments often. The first thing we ever tried on was the purple jumpsuit and that was pretty surreal. [Adela Cortázar] is our wardrobe designer and she’s insane, like, incredible. Everything she does is immaculate, done to perfection. One of her seamstresses, Cristina, was with me a lot and I put on the white bustier and the pants that I wore for the “Como La Flor” performance and she was the first person to cry when she saw me. I went, “Woah, this is crazy.” It didn’t make me feel any different. I just realized that everyone else felt like something was going on here. So I was just thinking to myself, “Be cool and commit, be cool and be honest, be cool and don’t fuck this up.”
And getting to work with Rodrigo [Basurto], our choreographer, was amazing. He not only is really good at what he does, but he’s got incredible energy. Learning those movements with him was amazing. He trusted me and wanted me to trust myself, which takes a lot of pressure off, you know? And then the hair and makeup was incredible. I had struggled to feel like Selena in the first season because it wasn’t the Selena that I knew or that most people know. That was a little trickier for me. Once we got out of her teenage, child years and started to get a little closer to the Selena that we know, I started to feel a lot more connected.
Telling yourself “don’t fuck this up” is noteworthy considering you’ve been acting for many years. It’s clear you felt the pressure to perform.
I am a firm believer that once you say things out loud and you purge them from your body, you tend to feel better. In the beginning, I was trying so hard to keep my composure and I realized that I really couldn't maintain it, that I was going to crack under pressure. So I just started being really honest with everybody. And I just started telling people, “I'm nervous,” or, “God, today, I don't feel like I could do it,” or, “I didn't like that,” or, “Let me do it again.” Things became a lot easier. Being vulnerable with people creates a different bond.
I also don't like people like blowing smoke up my ass. So like, if something doesn't feel like Selena, or something doesn’t feel honest or right, we’re going again. We’re going until I can’t go anymore, we’re going until tomorrow, until I can’t walk, whatever it is. And that makes me really proud about what we did.
First celebrity crush.
Jonathan Taylor Thomas.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
I had toast and coffee and some fruit and I'm starving, so I'm going to order again.
Any favorite places to order from?
Gracias Madre. I ordered from Gracias Madre a couple nights ago.
What do you wish more people knew about you?
I don't know. I tend to think of myself as pretty private, but … I don't know if people think I'm cool, but maybe they should know that I'm not as cool as I come off. But that probably is my uncoolness speaking because I probably don't come off cool at all.
If you could only watch three movies for the rest of your life, which three would you choose?
Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Sex and the City. And I'm gonna say this one because I was talking about it today and it's a really good movie, About Time.
If you could only use three makeup products or tools for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
Does skincare count? It would probably be all skincare. It would be, fuck me, I don’t know. An eyebrow pencil. It has to be an eyebrow pencil. Maybe like the Dior eyebrow pencil. And then a face wash. And just like a really delicious face oil.
What was your last binge watch?
The Queen’s Gambit. I love that actress [Anya Taylor-Joy].
If you could eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Pizza or dark chocolate.
Selena: The Series premieres on Netflix on Dec. 4.
Join us for some Small Talk as we sit down with some of Hollywood’s biggest breakout stars.
Photographs by Nolwen Cifuentes. Styling by Samantha Sutton. Hair by Bryce Scarlett. Makeup by Jenna Kristina. Beauty direction by Kayla Greaves. Production by Kelly Chiello.