We Talked To ‘Roswell, New Mexico’ Star Jeanine Mason About Otherness And Representation

credit: Marc Hom / The CW

The late-’90s sci-fi cult fave Roswell, a three-season WB/UPN series about star-crossed teen lovers, one alien and one human, is officially back, and its reboot has a Latina twist that more accurately reflects the book series, Melinda Metz’s “Roswell High,” it was based on.

The CW’s Roswell, New Mexico, which debut on January 15, brings us back to the border town aliens landed in more than a decade ago. The series, created by Carina Adly MacKenzie, tells the story of what happens to protagonist Liz Ortecho, a jaded 28-year-old, played by Miami cubana Jeanine Mason, who discovers that her teenage crush, Max Evans, is an alien who might have played a role in the death of her late sister Rosa, which sparked racist and xenophobic attacks against her Mexican-American family, including her undocumented father.

The series creatively tackles present-day issues impacting Latinx and immigrant communities, including immigration — even mentioning President Trump’s proposed border wall — a country divided, rising bigotry, otherness and a yearning to belong, while also presenting viewers to an intelligent, complex millennial Latina female character we rarely see in network television.

Mason, 28, chatted with FIERCE about the current need for the Roswell, New Mexico reboot, what she likes most about her character Liz, widening the representation of Latinas in television and authentically telling our stories, how the series approaches timely issues of otherness, what’s to come for Liz as she navigates her new relationship with Max while investigating the death of her sister, the benefits of dating an alien and so much more.

FIERCE: Roswell, New Mexico debut last week and has already received a lot of praise. Congratulations! What is it like for you to take on the lead role of one of the most exciting reboots in recent years?

Jeanine: I mean, it was a lot of things, honestly. It felt to me like I could now step into something that I felt prepared for, a sense of representing myself and representing my culture, and taking on the task of being a knowledgeable mouthpiece for those things and feel confident that I could do the job well. So I’m very proud of that. It’s also amazing to me how few network shows are led by Latinx people, so to now, in retrospect, realize how small that number is, it makes me anxious because I go, OK, we have a lot of ground still to cover and the few of us in these positions of representation have to be aware of that, so that we can do what we need to do for our jobs fully. And that is opening up the door a little bit and, the second part, which I think is the most important part, is lending a hand and pulling in more of us into this position. It’s representation, access and power. Representation is the first, and with representation we have a little bit of access, and, for me, that means the ability to bring in friends, to be an advocate for myself and my community and make more space for that. Lastly, to have power. From there, to work our way up the ranks so that we are in positions to really make change.

FIERCE: I know that you’re personally a big fan of the character you play, Liz Ortecho. What is it about her that excites you?

Jeanine: I love that she is shameless. I love that she is the smartest person in most rooms she’s in, that really excited me. I thought, how fun would it be to play someone who has all of the answers? And then, in these circumstances of our show, she is presented with something that leaves her dumbfounded, that absolutely turns her world upside down. I’m a lover of words, I’m a lover of stories, so I just thought that was a fun protagonist in these circumstances who I get to play around with.

FIERCE: You were 8 years old when the original Roswell debut on the WB. I know you didn’t watch the show when it aired but that you did have the chance to binge it on Hulu recently. What do you think of the direction this reboot has taken compared to the original, particularly its bold and direct take on the very timely matter of immigration?

Jeanine: Absolutely, in the original book series, which all of this is based on by Melinda Metz called “Roswell High,” the protagonist is named Liz Ortecho, so it felt to me like this reboot was honoring Melinda’s story a little more closely and honoring an element that we didn’t get to see in the original series. It was the right property then to revisit, because such a big part of this story is there for us to explore, which is that she’s Mexican American. And we’re honoring that this is New Mexico and it’s a border state and it’s 2018, and the decision to make it 2018 and make her a woman, 28 years old, ten years out of high school, out of where we first met these characters, she suddenly is very clear about the ways that she is shafted and that her family is unsafe in this world and has all the confidence to be a vocal advocate for what she thinks is right. So what a fun place to start a show if the heart of the show is this woman who is on fire.

FIERCE: Talking about the heart of this show, for me it’s a story about a people divided, bigotry and this wanting to belong in modern US. How do you think exploring these themes through aliens is an effective way to approach issues that are impacting our country today?

Jeanine: It’s a show about otherness. It’s a show about feeling like you belong and who’s to say where you belong and how absolutely ridiculous the labels we give ourselves and the paperwork that says this attributes to who and where you are a part of. We meet Max and Isabel and Michael Guerin, our alien trio, and they are wonderful. They are such big contributions to their community. Max is a protector, he’s a police officer. He has this beautiful scene later in the season, where he talks about remembering every death he’s witnessed, every person he couldn’t save, and I think, that is a person who not only is a part of our community, period, because he wants to be, but we are lucky to have him. In that sense, it feels like what a smart device to pose questions about belonging and what are we doing by asserting otherness on people who are such contributions to our world and making them feel unsafe, making them feel like a monster, like you’re going to dissect them.

FIERCE: In the pilot, there’s a scene toward the end where Liz and her father, who is undocumented, briefly talk to each other in Spanish, without subtitles. That really stuck out to me. Why do you think this was important? What message do you think it conveys to viewers?

Jeanine: I love it. That is the part of the world that they live in represented authentically. I live in New Mexico now — I mean, I’m back in LA right now, but that’s where we shoot. I’m a Spanish-speaker, but it’s been so fun to me to witness that code-switching that happens all the time. It’s an honest example of the way people communicate there and the way the community operates. And it’s all the better for that — people love it. We made decisions early on, bold decisions, honestly because it was the pilot. This is actually my seventh network pilot and only the second one to get picked up, so I just approached it like, I’m just going to do what I want to do. Who knows if this is going to get picked up? So we quickly said, you know what, they will speak Spanish in the back, in the kitchen. They probably hired a lot of family and they live above the family business, so I think they would speak Spanish back there. And between Adly MacKenzie, our showrunner, and Julie Plec, our executive producer who directed the pilot, they were completely on board off the top. There wasn’t any hesitation, and so I had that scene in the pilot, where, it’s so small but I think it’s the first time we hear Spanish, and I say to someone in the back something along the lines of “thank you, goodnight, get out of here” kind of thing. And throughout the season, Carlos Compean, who plays Arturo Ortecho, my dad, he and I just had free rein to throw in little things here and there, and it was always expressed to us that it wouldn’t be subtitled, which I love. You’re not going to miss anything if you don’t speak Spanish. I think you understand what’s being said, and especially with Carlos, who is so beautiful in this role, and I think you’re going to love it more for that because you’re completely enwrapped in it. You’re completely a part of our world, and that is in my humble Cuban-American opinion exactly what we want: a nature of coming in, sitting around the table, and eating. And that’s what I think our show brings. It invites people in and says, get comfy here because we want you here.

FIERCE: In a previous interview, you stated that your character’s line “‘I’m a Mexican-American woman in 2018. I engage in combat just by getting out of bed in the morning” made you laugh and hurt. How do you relate to this sentiment as a 28-year-old Latina in the US today?

Jeanine: I mean, it feels like it is the task at hand right now for us to not one day make the decision to not engage, and that is a beautiful thing. I love that responsibility. I’m lucky to be surrounded by a primarily Latina network in Hollywood through this group called Latinas Who Lead, and we get together every now and then — it’s a lot of show creators and actors and producers — and we just help each other out and remind each other we are all there for each other. I’m grateful for the responsibility, but it is also, we are at a point right now where we don’t have the luxury of sitting down and throwing our hands up or disengaging. It’s not the time for that right now, and that’s fine and dandy. Let’s go. Let’s do the work, so it’s not on the forefront of every Latinx person’s day ten years from now, a hundred years from now.

FIERCE: I totally understand that. As much as I love teenage series and rom-coms, I also really appreciate that these characters are no longer in high school. We’ve jumped 10 years ahead, and you all are nearing your 30s, the age group of fans of the original series. What do you think we get by making these characters a bit older that we wouldn’t if this remained a story about teenagers?

Jeanine: This is honestly my favorite thing about the show. Because I am Liz’s age, I know I have a lot of things that, as open-minded as I try to be, I’m getting vieja and there are certain things set in stone for me. So there’s something so beautiful to me about the idea of presenting this absolutely absurd possibility, that sci-fi exists and it’s someone she knows and has loved for so long and is an alien. Even when I say it, it sounds insane, but that just feels so alive in my body, so much hope is infused and I’m looking at the world like suddenly anything is possible and that is particular to being an adult and having those revelations. At 18, your outlook on the world is a little cheerier. At this point, she’s jaded, she’s been shafted, she has her walls up and she’s left with her jaw on the floor, truly.

FIERCE: One thing that does remain the same in this series is the relationship between Liz and Max. What are some of the benefits of dating an alien?

Jeanine: I just got asked that for the first time, and I had just seen the pilot since it aired and I realized probably the biggest perk is that he could resurrect you, for sure. The other one I was talking about is he has this impact on electricity around him, where there’s sort of like an electric pulse that emanates off of him when he’s feeling any sort of intense feeling, whether angry or turned on or extremely happy, so that is a nice perk to be very clear as to your partner’s feelings and where they’re at. I would love that. And probably, I mean, I think the exciting thing about it is their potential, which we start to see as the series moves along. How much room do they have still to discover their capabilities? So I think the prospect of spending time with an alien, like living life with an alien, and I’m imagining what his instinct, especially Max who is a protector, to protect could lead to improvement in his ability. That would be fun.

FIERCE: Of course, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Ten years ago, Liz lost her best friend, her sister Rosa, and she’s learning that Max may be connected to her death. How difficult is this for her?

Jeanine: It’s the biggest betrayal of her life. She is someone who is very closed, and in our pilot and toward the middle of that second episode, she’s considering opening her heart up to him, as much as she can right now in her jadedness, and then she finds out that he’s been lying to her for so long. And for her, the thing we start to explore as we move on in the next couple episodes, it’s like, not only did you lie to me about the circumstances surrounding my sister’s death, which I’ve always had a feeling I’ve been lied to about. She’s a scientist. She has that intuition, that’s one of my favorite things about her, and she just feels something is off. So not only have you lied to me, which is just so gross and heavy and complicated, but it’s also the repercussions that that event had on her family. Her family, which has always been a positive part of the community, were ousted. They have been routinely attacked, and it’s been racially charged the attacks on their family business. And so 10 years of making them feel like outsiders, and it got so ugly. When Rosa died, she’s driving the car and killed two other girls in the vehicle with her. So suddenly it became something where you go, OK, she’s to blame, Rosa, in the story we’ve been fed. But am I hearing she’s not to blame? Because then the effects, the catalyst that that one lie created, and the way this impacted my dad. When I think about my dad’s health, when I think about him dealing with the burden of a child, which not only was troubled and passed away but took two other girls with her, it just gets so hard and heavy. And as awful as it is, it’s really powerful stuff to imagine for her, because right now it’s so heartbreaking that it’s connected to Max because that’s the last person in the planet that she would ever want that to be. The exciting thing is that she becomes such an investigator. Liz is the protagonist you can count on moving 100 miles an hour to figure out what happened, and because he’s involved, she needs to figure it out now. She feels guilty because she wants to clear his conscience. She wants to get to a point where she knows it didn’t have to do with him. But she’s also like, am I betraying my sister by not considering him as a suspect here more seriously. So the complications of it all were so fun for me to navigate. And it created such a complicated framework for Liz and Max to navigate and navigate their strong feelings for each other.

FIERCE: I’m really excited to watch them navigate this together. I want to get back to you, because this is such a meaningful role. How do you want young Latina girls and teens to feel watching you, a cubana playing a first-generation Mexican-American heroine of this CW series, every week?

Jeanine: That’s honestly been the stuff that I went to work on shooting this series, just doing what I know how to do, what I’ve been doing for 10 years, and now in retrospect, in going home for holidays in Miami to my big Latin network there and seeing a lot of my brother, who’s a little young than I am, his friends, who are fans of CW shows, and seeing how actually excited they were to see me up there, it makes me emotional. It is one of very few protagonist spots that we have on network television, and I am so proud. I take my job very seriously and I am just hoping that everyone appreciates seeing Liz, and that she does not apologize for an ounce of her existence and speaks from her full voice and all her intelligence, because she’s an educated woman. She’s a peleonera, she’s an educated fighter, and she’s a proud woman and belongs at the head of a show and she belongs on network television, and I hope people are enjoying her.

Watching Roswell, New Mexico Tuesdays at 9|8c on The CW.

Read: With Recent Castings In ‘Charmed’ And ‘Men In Black,’ Latinas Are Proving To Be The Magic Keys That Make Hollywood Reboots Work

Recommend this story by clicking the share button below!