Judy Reyes spent eight seasons as nurse Carla Espinoza on Scrubs, four seasons as Zoila Diaz on Devious Maids, and, when the show’s finale airs later this year, will have spent four seasons on Claws as Quiet Ann, the muscle behind the show’s money-laundering nail salon. She knows what it’s like to be a permanent cast member on a major series. But like so many actors, she’s also had plenty of experience with the pop-in, a.k.a. taking on recurring or guest-starring roles that involve a few episodes of work.
In the past five years alone she has had recurring stints as a news executive on Succession, a friend of Pamela Adlon’s Sam on Better Things, a member of a support group on One Day at a Time, the former wife of a private investigator on Search Party, and as TV showrunner Dina Milagro on Jane the Virgin, a character who appeared periodically during the five-season span of the series.
Since it’s Character Actor Week here at Vulture, we got on the phone with Reyes to talk to her about the challenges and joys of taking on recurring roles, what it was like to pretend to run a series on Jane the Virgin, and which show she would love to appear on in the future. (Hint: It’s on Netflix and it’s a period piece with a lot of sex scenes in it.)
How did the Jane the Virgin role come about?
I forget how I met Gina [Rodriguez] — she’s just a sparkling little light. I believe I met her through Eva [Longoria] at an event. From the first season they had invited me to come on. The show was just such a huge hit, and so terrific and original. I was like, Of course I’ll be part of it. And they just kept inviting me back, which I was so grateful for. So many people just know me from that show. When the show came on, I’d get tweets and texts all the time, “I love you from Jane the Virgin.” [The role] was something fun and different: a successful television exec who has a romantic side. A lot of the times when you’re asked to be a guest, you only see one particular side. But it was a terrific opportunity to play something really fun that I’d never tried before.
I’m guessing they couldn’t talk to you about a long-term plan for Dina from the beginning because they probably didn’t have one. But what did they tell you about the character?
I don’t even remember asking what it was about. I really didn’t! Because I just loved all of them on the show. What’s so fun is so many of my friends continued to be a part of the show, particularly Latino people. They continued throughout their entire existence to give really terrific little arcs for guest stars, to people like Justina Machado and Rosario Dawson and Gloria Estefan, for heaven’s sake. It was an honor to be a part of it, to be truthful.
The character you played, Dina Milagro, was the showrunner of a telenovela. Were you able to pull from your own experiences with showrunners? Was it interesting to explore that side of the process?
It really was. To show that powerful side that often isn’t written about women, that unapologetically sexual, powerful person in charge — it’s most often left up to men to play those kinds of roles. Offscreen and on, as a matter of fact. You don’t get to see a Latina showrunner at all. So it was just an exciting opportunity to do that and, as a Dominican American, to put those flavors of force, of strength, of power, of sexuality, and use it to my advantage. As I said before, this was something completely original: somebody who’s a writer, who runs a show, who has an affair, and has all those feelings and all those emotions throughout their whole recurring arc.
I was thinking before I got on the phone with you that, especially recently, you’ve often been cast as women who are powerful or in positions of authority. Dina was like that, your role on Succession was like that. Even on Claws, your character has a great deal of strength.
For a while, right after Scrubs, I was asked to be the sassy cop or the sassy mom, because that was kind of the nature of Carla on the show for eight years. That just didn’t feel right to me. I come from a group of actors from a theater company that are constantly challenging themselves. It takes a brave choice. You go get help to reinvent yourself because sometimes you just have to do it, and you say no to the things that feel a little too familiar. I worked on Quiet Ann, for example, for Claws and I think after that, it was much easier for people to leave [Carla] behind, even though that’s how they know me, and say, Well, let’s see her for this. You have to challenge yourself first.
What are the challenges of doing a recurring character or a guest role? Are those hard to do when the ensemble is already pretty well-established?
With Jane the Virgin, for example, and Search Party that I did not too long ago at about the same time — I think Succession as well — I’ve been invited to come on the show. It is challenging, but that’s why you do it, right? I think it gets really old to play the same thing all the time. To have the opportunity to rise up to a challenge that the people of that show are entrusting you to do because they appreciate your work — I appreciate it. It gives people permission to see me in a different way other than how they learned about me.
Do you also feel you’re getting offered a wider breadth of roles now because the TV landscape has gotten bigger, and there are more diverse roles out there?
I think that certainly has something to do with it. I think my résumé, my experience, my reel, so to speak — that gives people more confidence and more faith in me. There’s a little bit more of everything. I can’t say that it’s enough, you know, especially for women or Latinos. But I think there is so much more out there. As a result of the variety of roles that I’ve played, I get asked to do different things. Sometimes you just have to say no to things that feel like there’s not enough. I think that takes experience. I do take even more chances the older I get instead of worrying so much about not working.
I also think when you get older, you’re maybe more equipped to say no, because you have a clearer sense of what you want to be doing and what your sense of purpose is.
I agree. I agree, 100 percent. When you do take those risks, you have an idea. It’s like, I’m not doing that shit. Oh, but I’d love to do that. [Laughs.] You know it’s true.
As a recurring actor, I would imagine it’s more comfortable on a show like Jane the Virgin, where you’re surrounded by a Latinx cast. I’m sure there have been times on other shows when you were the only Latinx person in the room.
That’s true. Particularly on Jane, it was a very welcoming, very supportive environment. People were familiar with and fans of my work, and asking me what I think, and what I would like to do with the character. And yes, you have to be prepared to be wrong, and not be offended by direction, which I think often happens [to actors], too. When you come from a place where you’re among the top three to five people in the cast, but you’re coming into, again, an environment which works a specific way — which I find exciting. Then the fact that there’s so many Latinos there, again: exciting, thrilling, to be part of something that’s starting something, so to speak.
But also, there was Claws, and Search Party, where even if it’s behind the camera, you’d see a good 25 to 55 percent of the people working there who are people of color. Same thing with Claws, with such a diverse cast, in front of and behind the camera. And then you go back to a show, which has also happened, where you are the only person who’s Latinx, and it’s a little bit disorienting. But it still gives you the opportunity, and you have more faith in your contribution, if that makes sense. Because you’re outnumbered, and you’re used to it.
Having played a showrunner on Jane the Virgin, would you ever want to be a showrunner yourself?
Oh, God no. That is one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever, ever seen anybody do. It’s really, really hard. You have to have an energetic, micromanaging personality that’s intuitive and on top of everything. It’s like the mom for a show. [Laughs.] I would never. You need to be approachable but strong, and you have to manage every crisis that comes your way. A producer I wouldn’t mind. But not a showrunner.
Last question: If you could play a recurring role in a series that you have not appeared on yet, what show would you want to do?
Wow, what a good question. A recurring role on a show that I haven’t been on yet … Bridgerton.
Right? Why can’t you have a Dominican girl on Bridgerton?
You totally can!
I know, I would love to. Are you kidding me? That was such a fun — talk about over-the-top and sensual and crazy show. I just loved it.
Well, we’ll put that out in the universe and see what happens.
Yeah. [Laughs.] Thank you.
This interview has been edited and condensed.