Judy Reyes is a New York girl at heart,
but her role as Carla Espinosa on the hit comedy Scrubs forced her to relocate from New York City to LA. Luckily, Espinosa was given a chance to reconnect with her Bronx roots while starring in the independent film Gun Hill Road, which is currently competing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
We caught up with Reyes as she prepared to head to Utah to talk Scrubs, Gun Hill Road and her dream of one day hosting her own cabaret.
How did you get into acting? When did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?
I think it’s something I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was a kid. I was a bit of a couch potato. Back before there were VCRs, everything came on TV and I just loved watching it. I just didn’t necessarily make the commitment to pursue it until my late teens. I think most people really pursue it before.
I was doing just talent shows at my mom’s church and the woman who organized it was a member of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre Training Unit. They would offer free acting classes for anybody who wanted it. She organized this big talent show and I was already in college and had already started taking my basic acting classes and I just became a part of this big event that she was putting together.
Before you knew it, I was doing scenes from Bernarda Alba, singing a song and doing this dance number and I was so caught up in the event and how everything was such a success at the end that I just kind of knew. I know it sounds cheesy and corny, but I knew by the time that thing was over that this is what I wanted to do.
And actually, when I told my mom, she thought I was insane because I was in college and she was like, “Oh, are you crazy? No, no, just study teaching or be a social worker or something. Acting, no that’s impossible.” And I got so furious with her because for me it was an epiphany. I had this God given epiphany. “This is what you’re going to do.”
It was so clear to me. It was just like a moment, a flash. And I said, “I’m going to do it.” I slammed the door – which you don’t do to your mom in my house – and I literally never turned back. A lot of bumps in the road later, here I am still doing it. I know I made the right decision.
What was the next step for you? Did you decide to pursue a degree in acting at that point?
I was actually already in college. I was at Hunter College and they had a stellar acting program, it turned out. I took a few acting classes there and I got a job in a restaurant, so it was my part-time job because I was always working through college. And I in parenthesis “took some time off” and a good fortune of my career, I never had to go back. Never had to go back, never went back. So I actually never got my college degree.
Were you able to get roles fairly steadily and be an actor full-time?
I was. Once I got my restaurant job, I think I worked in that restaurant for four years on and off with some acting jobs in between. Right out of the gate, once I got representation, I book a lead in an independent film and I booked a play and actually got to choose between those two. When I came back, I got a Law and Order and then I didn’t do a thing for like two years. And that’s when I started to panic. That’s when I really had to recommit myself to “Is this what I really want to do?”
After reexamining and re-exploring, I really started to take my hardcore training in my classes and work in shoe stores and work in restaurants and make jewelry and do the ins and outs of what it really is to pay your dues and work really hard as an actor.
I became a founding member of what is now the LAByrinth Theater Company, which kind of was the home base to the agony of struggling as an actor in New York City. Because you get to play, it’s your playground. It was always kind of the life affirming, dream affirming place to go to whenever we had our doubts in the company.
When did you make the decision to come out to LA?
Actually, I moved out to LA once and I hated it so much I lasted nine months and I went back because I was so unhappy and, I would say, maybe psychologically and spiritually absent. My then fiancée was in New York City, my whole family was in New York City. I was actually such a mama’s girl – you know, first generation American, Latin family, living in the Bronx. I grew up there and I was just hating everything about this town.
“Nobody on the streets? What is that like?” “You have to drive everywhere? Fuck that.” “You need a car? I can’t handle it.” I was such a New York snob about everything. So I just went back after I got an agent and then I booked a pilot that took me to Toronto. I shot my pilot and then I took all my stuff and I went back home.
Then I just consistently started working from New York. All my jobs kept bringing me out here, but I would always go back home. Until Scrubs. Scrubs relocated me. It got picked up and I’ve been here since. I’ve been here for almost 11 years now.
You, of course, played Carla Espinosa on Scrubs. What was it like being a part of that show for so long and what’s it like looking back on the show now?
It was a diving experience. It doesn’t seem like such a long time, looking back. Very few shows are on the air for eight years. It didn’t feel like that because it really, truly was a blast. I’m very proud of the show, very glad to have been on it.
I grew up on TV, I’m a TV junkie. When I look at all the programs, all the comedies, that I love, Scrubs is definitely among the kind of shows I would have dreamed to be on. So I feel really lucky. Feel lucky to be around that ensemble, around all the good times that we had. I feel blessed to have been able to make people laugh as much as I laughed and to have had the opportunities and the acting moments that we got on the show. Not only to make people laugh, but to touch them emotionally. It was the best time of my life and it just set me up for the place that I’m at now to do the kind of stuff that I’m doing now. So I’m very happy to have had that.
Are there moments that stand out to you – either particular episodes or moments that stand out from when you were filming the show?
I loved doing the fantasy sequences. They were always a lot of fun. Working with John C. McGinley was always a blast. The musical episode always sticks out. Any time we can turn a side splitting, hilarious moment into a borderline weeping moment, it’s special for me. The wedding episode was wonderful for me. The episode where Aloma Wright, plays Nurse Laverne, passes away is a very special episode for me as well. All those moments really stand out.
And, to be very authentic, Zach Braff directing those episodes that he directed was always a lot of fun. He’s a really fantastic and fun director and he loves his toys and he really has a lot of fun behind the camera.
What can you tell us about Gun Hill Road and your role in it?
Gun Hill Road is a story about a man who comes out of prison after three years to reclaim his place in his family and in his neighborhood, determined to do things right and to be on the straight and narrow only to find that everything’s against him. His wife is estranged and his son is all grown up and going through this emotionally and physically extraordinary and challenging sexual transformation and identity crisis that’s literally messing with not only his own mind, but with the whole family dynamic.
I play Angela, the mom, struggling to keep it all together and all level, even through her own estrangement and challenges that she went through while he was gone. It’s a really powerful story, told from the Bronx point of view, if you will. From the Latin point of view. I think it’s going to make an impact on the Sundance audiences, let alone the viewing audiences once it hits theaters.
Have you ever gone to Sundance before?
It’s my first time there. I’m really excited. I know that independent films are enjoying a resurgence this year, so I think people are excited all around to be going out there and checking out what people are making and the kind of stories that people are telling. So I’m just really honored to be a part of a project that got us into that venue.
Have you seen the film yet? Are you someone who watches your own work?
Yeah, I have seen it. I think everybody cringes when they watch themselves, by the way. And the bigger the screen, the bigger the cringe. (Laughs.)
But I have to say, I think [writer/director] Rashaad [Ernesto Green] and the editors have done a really extraordinary job with the work that we did. We did a huge job in a very short amount of time with an even smaller budget and we had just an enormous amount of challenges daily just to get this film done.
So just the fact that it’s not only premiering at Sundance, but actually competing and the response to all the screenings is so abundantly positive so far, is a testament to everybody’s commitment to this project. People really believed in it. It was a really exquisitely-written script and they’re really doing right by it. So I’m just excited to see if everybody kind of responds to what we responded to when we decided, “Yeah, I’m in. I’m going to do this movie.”
How long did you have to film this movie and where did you film it?
We shot for, if I’m not mistaken, 22 days in the middle of a heat wave in the summer in the Bronx. Gun Hill Road is an actual street in the Bronx and the whole story is based in the Bronx, about a struggling, working class family. And that’s where both Esai [Morales] and I are from, so it was good to get back and reacquaint ourselves with our Bronx roots and our Bronx swagger to get into the characters.
What else is on the horizon for you? Any other projects lined up or any particular direction you are looking to go with your career?
Television’s been very good to me and as I said before, I’m a huge fan of TV and I’m definitely entertaining a couple of opportunities now that are coming my way. I’m looking forward to also exploring some stuff that’s going on in film. Nothing that I’m at liberty to talk about because nothing is confirmed. Also, to be a part of creating stuff in terms of producing and making parts for myself.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
These are the questions I hate. (Laughs.) Because if they don’t know it, it’s because I don’t want to tell.
Something that most people don’t know about me is that one thing that I really, really want to do is a cabaret act. I’m dying to do a cabaret act, but not the old standards that everybody does, but like freestyle urban contemporary music and set it to like jazz music. I think it would be really funny and really compelling. And tell stories in between, obviously.
I think it would be more of like a one woman show, but that’s too much pressure. Because you know how cabaret acts always seem so relaxed? You just get a drink, put on a long dress, invite a few friends, smoke a few cigarettes and start singing and telling stories.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
I have no idea. Maybe some teaching of some kind or maybe some kind of a political graduates type of teaching college thing. I would have had to get my degree, for sure. (Laughs.)
I really have no idea. The years as an actor have gone by so fast because I’ve had such a good time doing what I do and it’s been very good to me. I’ve just seized every moment and every opportunity that’s come my way with such awareness, I’m happy to say. Sometimes the opportunities were very lucrative and sometimes they didn’t pay a dime, but it’s all been so much fun and it’s all been so good to me.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. You can learn more about Gun Hill Road or purchase tickets to see it at Sundance by clicking here.