Stephanie Beatriz’s Bisexual Awakening, Onscreen and Off

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Photo: Nate Taylor

When Stephanie Beatriz first auditioned for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, she read for the part of Amy Santiago. Casting director Allison Jones thought she should try reading for Rosa Diaz, then known as “Megan,” who was described as “tough, smart, and scary as hell.” While she did screen tests for both parts, Fox ended up casting Melissa Fumero as Amy, a decision that Beatriz thought would sink her chances because she couldn’t imagine that a network show would cast two Latinas in the same show. But as fate would have it, there could be two. “Melissa’s perfect for Amy,” Beatriz tells me over matcha lattes in Silver Lake on a typically sunny spring day. “I think my Amy would have been a lot more irritating to people.”

On the fifth season, the show veered closer into Beatriz’s own life when the stern and tight-lipped Rosa Diaz comes out to her co-workers, and then her parents, as bisexual in the 99th and 100th episodes of the show. “[Dan Goor] called me and said, ‘Would you be open to us exploring a story where Rosa comes out as bisexual?’ Beatriz remembers. And I was like, ‘Absolutely. Yes. I’m so excited! Yes! Yes! Yes!’ It was like, tens, tens, tens across the board.”

It was a decision inspired in part by Twitter: After Beatriz herself came out, the social-media engine did its work and began to dream that maybe her character, who had long given off queer vibes, might be interested in women, too. And as a bisexual actor, Beatriz has thought long and hard about what what representation means both as a character on a show and for herself as an artist. In a long conversation ahead of last night’s season finale, we discussed how bisexuality is often portrayed as villainous, her own coming-out process, and what she wants to see in the next season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

I saw you were at the GLAAD Awards. How was it?
It was amazing. At the after-party, all these teenagers kept coming up to me. One girl was like, “I’m genderqueer, and I just love your show. I’ve never seen anyone come out on a show I love before.” I was trying to think back, and the first gay character I ever saw on TV was Wilson Cruz on My So-Called Life. And then Ellen after that, and then it was a desert for a long time. Unless you count Will and Grace, which I do, but I don’t, you know? I loved watching the development of [Will’s character], but for me, I didn’t see myself. It was a cast of brilliant comedians, but they’re all white, and it was a gay white male. As a Latina bisexual person, I still don’t quite identify. I can sort of claim it, but also I can’t.

When was the first time you realized you’re bisexual?
My mom took us to see this Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Houston Museum of Art when I was, like, 11. And all I did was stare at the boobs. There were boobs everywhere.

Was that your root?
Kind of, which is real fucked-up because those paintings are wack. They’re all like, torn spine and lots of blood. There’s that picture, “My Birth,” where it’s just her spread legs and the head coming out that’s all twisted. I remember trying to slightly block out the head and try to figure out, “What’s the vagina part?” Museums were probably the root for me because it was free rein to stare at the beautiful bodies in all the paintings. I was obsessed with the Roman era for a long time, and half the ladies had a tit out. Thanks, mom, for my art education/investigation into the world of bisexuality!

I took a drawing class at a gallery when I was in middle school, and I remember on the way to the bathroom, there was a giant painting of a naked man, and I’d just be like …
Are we allowed to stare at this? No, we’re really not supposed to, but everyone was like, “Isn’t it beautiful?” and “Look at the lines” and “Notice how the painter used texture on this woman,” and I’m like, “Mhm. Boobies. Boobies, boobies. Boobies, boobies, boobies.” For someone who doesn’t identify as straight, it’s so freeing to stand in a group of people and not feel like what you’re doing is wrong. And, maybe you’ve internalized, “I know maybe I ‘shouldn’t’ be looking at this this way,” but to be standing in group of people wandering through a museum and looking at these beautiful bodies and appreciating them, it’s secretly freeing.

When did you come out?
I came out slowly. Here’s the thing: Some of the time, I’m in a couple that passes as straight. I could choose to stay in that straight-passing world, and that would be fine, except it doesn’t feel authentic. So there was a long time, where I was like, What is the point of stirring the pot with my family, especially if I don’t have someone that I really, really love that identifies as a woman to meet my parents?

So what changed?
The majority of my job is being an open channel, and if I’m not being very authentic with who I am in myself, then it doesn’t feel like I can dig down deep and get to really vulnerable stuff, or stuff I have never felt before. So, it was a slow progression of coming out to some friends, to my sister, and then publicly, and having my parents react with the public coming out, which hasn’t been an easy road, but I think they’re okay.

Did they find out through Twitter?
No. They found out through the internet because my dad likes the internet. My mom called me, and was like, “Dad’s worried about you.” That’s how she puts it first. And then we talked through things. It’s difficult because so much of the Latin-American community connects so deeply with their religious roots. Because of many reasons. You could go back to the colonization of South America. But, it is this foundation of faith and family. And for many immigrants in this country, the church can be a cornerstone of feeling like you belong here. It can be the beginning of your community. When my family’s home burned down, the church helped them get back on their feet.

Have they seen the episode?
My parents watch every episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, so I know they watched that episode. They haven’t specifically said anything to me about that episode yet, but I feel like they’re going to get there. I just have to wait for that, because they’re doing their best.

Have you always played Rosa as queer?
I’ve always thought that if you were to ask Rosa, she would say, “Yeah, I date whoever I want,” but that is not something she would ever discuss with anyone at work, because she’s Rosa. She’s not going to talk about her personal life. Rosa probably dabbles in polyamory, too. I don’t think she’s like, “This is the one person,” except for Pimento. Pimento is such an exception to the rule for her, that she thought, “Oh, this is who I should marry, because I felt so strongly,” and then things really shifted after she went to jail. So I had always played her with that in the back of my mind. Ready to shift gears any time, because the writers are ultimately in control of where your story line goes.

How did the episode come about?
Last year, before we started season five, Dan Goor had some separate meetings with all the actors, asking them, “What do you want to see yourself do this season?” He called me and said, “I just want to be very sensitive about this, and I really want to hear your honest answer. Would you be open to us exploring a story where Rosa comes out as bisexual?” and I was like, “Absolutely. Yes. I’m so excited! Yes! Yes! Yes!” So it was like, “Tens, tens, tens across the board.” As we got closer, he decided that it was not only going to be one episode, but two, and it was going to be the 99th and 100th episodes, which is like, “You sneaky, brilliant bastard.” Because Fox was going to publicize those episodes anyway. So here was this Very Special Episode that was going to get all this attention, and guess what, one of the characters is going to come out to one of her co-workers as bi.

Did you have a role in developing the story?
Dan had me come in, meet with all the writers, and talk about my own coming-out story a little bit. Talk about things I wanted to see in an episode. All along the way I was asked, “What are the things that are really important to you to have happen in these episodes?”

There were a lot of lines we put in when Rosa came out to her parents that were things I really wanted to stress. Like the phrase, “Bisexuality’s not really a thing.” “You’ll grow out of it.” “It’s just a phase.” “Well, you can still marry men, so there’s still a chance.” Which is really fucking exhausting. Get ready for that conversation for the rest of your life, right? My partner is a man, I’m engaged to be married to him, and I’m not polyamorous, so there’s a weird thing, where people will look at me and say, “But now you’re straight, right? Because you’re engaged to be married to man.” No, that’s not it. The realness is that for the rest of my life my sexual desires will include my gender and other genders. Just like when you marry someone, your sexual desire for other people just doesn’t drop away and disappear. You still see people, and you’re like, “Damn!” even though you’re committed to one person.

There were multiple rewrites, but the main thing for me was that the character said “bisexual” and that she said it so many times. She names her sexuality, versus many bisexual characters that you see in television in the past that have just happened to date men and women, and they’re just fluid and sexy, and sometimes they’re a fucking villain.

They’re often villains, and their sexuality is almost seen as amoral.
Yeah. Most of the time they’re hypersexualized villains who get murdered. How awful. For those of us that identify that way, to be growing up and that be the only representation of ourselves on television? It feels like something you do have to keep secret, because what if that is some amoral part of you that you need to push down? Because where do you get your truth? You get it from television and media. So if your truth is not reflected anywhere, then do you exist? Or do you matter? Will you be able to have a happy life?

Those are the things I thought about a lot while we were shooting that episode, because for a long time I remember thinking, “Well, I guess you’re not gonna get to the level of happiness and success that you see is possible on TV — it’s only possible for straight white people. That’s who gets to be happy and successful.” Maybe some black people also. No Latino people. No Asian people. You guys don’t exist really. And that gets in your head. You don’t realize how deep that shit gets in your head. But it gets in there.

There’s sometimes a schism that happens between race and sexuality: If you’re queer and a person of color, they can feel separate. Almost like you have to pick one. Did you ever go through something like that?
Which fight are you going to fight. I definitely feel like many times in my life. I’ll use this as an example. The day after the election I woke and immediately burst into tears, because I thought, Oh, god. There’s so many people in this country that don’t want me here because of the color of my skin, because of my sexuality, even what I’ve chosen to do with my life, to be an artist. They don’t want me around. The American Dream is not for me. A lot of times when I was a kid, I just straight up wished I was white. I wished that I was white because it looked so easy and fun. They didn’t have the same problems. They didn’t eat weird fucking food. Their moms that weren’t unable to be understood by the woman at the cash register. I hadn’t had that feeling in a really long time, and the morning after the election, I had that feeling, which was devastating to me because it’s not really what I want. I want to be who I am, but I felt in that moment, wouldn’t it be so much easier if I was?

The answer is maybe. My partner’s straight, and he also felt like shit that morning. But [my race and sexuality] have always been woven together in the fabric of who I am, and now more than ever, they feel publicly part of who I am. That people who identify with two things see me and feel like they are represented. Sometimes, it’s one of the two things, and sometimes it’s both. And I love that.

I’m curious how you reacted to Terry Crews accusing a Hollywood agent of sexually harassing him.
We’re all in support of him. He told most of the cast about the events the day before he went public with it. He was talking to us about it and was asking us what we thought. Of course, we all rallied around him and were like, “That is in-fucking-sane. We cannot believe that happened to you.” All of us feel nothing but utter support for Terry because we’re living in such a fucked-up world in that a man’s worth is directly related to his masculinity. And he was attacked on that masculinity, like anything that makes him less than a fucking terminator machine man suddenly makes him weak.

And for him, specifically, he said in a couple of interviews, what would have happened in that moment if I, a giant, very strong black man, had punched out this very powerful Hollywood player? What would the story be like now? I’m amazed he came forward with that story. I’m in awe of his ability to use his own experiences in life and say, “I’m going to put myself out here, and there’s going to be a shitshow, and guess what? I’m going to be okay no matter what.” He has such faith in God. He has such faith in his marriage and in his family and in himself. More than anything else, I think he has opened the door for men to feel like, if they have been sexually assaulted, they’re going to feel they’re allowed to tell that story.

Have you ever had difficulty advocating for yourself?
I do think that as an advocate for myself on set, I’m very direct. We had a guest star once who — I will not name names — but he came on and he was calling everyone “baby” and “honey” and “babe,” and I jokingly said to someone in the makeup trailer, “Oh, I wish he would call me babe.” Let’s see what happens. And then sure enough once we hit set, he did speak to me that way, and I said, I’d really prefer it if you called me by my name. And he was like, “All right, sweetie.” And then I stopped and said, “No. I am actually serious. I am not sweetie. My name is Stephanie, and I’d like you to call me by my actual name.” And he was a little bit of an older guy, and I don’t think he was used to anybody talking to him that way, especially not a young woman.

But that was our show. It’s our house, and I wasn’t going to let him come into our house and disrespect the crew, the other actors, myself. It was really great that I felt really supported in that. Everyone around me, the director that day, the crew, our creators, rallied around me and said, “Yeah. You did the right thing. Thank you for speaking up and making sure that you felt comfortable in your work environment.” In that way, I’m a really good advocate for myself. At this point in my life, I’m not afraid to lose a job because I feel like I’m not being treated equally or fairly on a set.

I don’t know if that would have been true always because there was a time when I was a lot younger and didn’t know I could be an advocate for myself. You can say “no” all day long. You might get fired, but you can say no. And sometimes I have taken those roles because I needed the money or I needed the health insurance, and I have no judgment against people who do that.

What were some of those?
I definitely felt stereotyped, like the spicy Latina kind of thing. I feel like the emoji in the fucking salsa dress. And that doesn’t feel great. I can do that accent all day long because I grew up around that accent. My mom actually has that accent. And I’m not against playing characters with that accent, but I want them to be complex and interesting people.

It’s not the accent that’s the problem.
It’s not. One of the most complex roles I ever played was a maid, Lydia. It’s a beautiful fucking play by Octavio Solis. This woman is an undocumented immigrant. And the play is this magical-realism exploration of this family in El Paso, Texas, in the 1970s, and this maid character comes into their lives and she does everything for them. So, I’ll never say I won’t play a maid because maids are fucking amazing. Nannies are amazing human beings.

Before we go, let’s talk about the season finale of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which guest stars Gina Rodriguez as your love interest. Did that casting happen because of Twitter, too?
Mm-hmm. The casting was heavily influenced by myself because we’re friends and the first thing I ever, ever, ever did on film was with her. It was this very small short, in 2008 or something, for the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. It was called Super Chica, and it’s never been released. It’s just like a lab. I was like, you know who would be great for this casting? And I gave them multiple names, people that were dreamy dreams, and Gina was one of them. Hollywood is crazy because if you’re working, you’re constantly working. There’s all sorts of scheduling and stuff and maybe you have a day off, but you don’t have the whole day. You’ve got a photo shoot or whatever. But she happened to be free in this time period and it worked out.

You don’t kiss in the episode!
No. I know! I was mad, too, but listen. [Next] season, I am going to hard-core push for that. Even if it’s not Gina, we need to see Rosa kiss a girl. I want to see the circle get completed. We’ve seen her in a male and female relationship. We’ve seen her be really involved in that relationship. I want to see the other side of bisexuality, which is someone who identifies as her gender. So, that’s the other side of the circle, and once we close that circle, then it’s whoever she wants, which is who Rosa is. But for storytelling purposes and for presentation purposes, it’s important to close the circle. In season six, I would like to see her kiss a girl on that screen.

Your “root” is a reference to the canonical queer film But I’m a Cheerleader and describes the thing that made you gay.
Stephanie Beatriz’s Bisexual Awakening, Onscreen and Off