Actor Jaime Camil On How 'Jane The Virgin' Humanizes Its Telenovela Characters

Apr 9, 2017
Originally published on April 9, 2017 8:16 pm

The CW's Jane the Virgin is both a send-up of and a love letter to Latin telenovelas. So, not surprisingly, its plot is a little complicated. In the first season, Jane (a virgin) becomes pregnant after being accidentally artificially inseminated with sperm from Rafael, a married businessman who starts to develop feelings for Jane. On top of that, Jane's father, telenovela star Rogelio De La Vega, is back in her life. From there, things only get more dramatic.

Jaime Camil plays Jane's father on the show (now in its third season) and he's also a real-life telenovela star. He explains what sets telenovelas apart from American soap operas: "It's basically the same story with the same plot with the same actors told over and over again," he says, "but one story they're pirates, the other one they're accountants, the other one they run a PR firm. But it's basically the same thing, you know: The poor girl meets the rich guy but then the rich guy has a girlfriend. ... Lots of drama. Lots of intrigue."


Interview Highlights

On the character of Rogelio, who initially comes off as a vain, name-dropping celebrity

It's a very balanced thing that we have to accomplish with Rogelio because otherwise, even though he's perceived as a comic relief, imagine a character that just throws pies ... again and again and again and again. It's like, OK, enough, I need some depth. I need something, because otherwise a character just becomes this superficial clown. And so I thank [creator] Jennie Urman and her amazing team of writers for that because they really write beautiful material for Rogelio. They keep him grounded and they give him this beautiful, dramatic weight when needed with this lighthearted comedic tone that he has.

On how the show gives depth to its telenovela-style characters

Every character, especially mine, we may live in a completely ridiculous universe, or, you know, outrageous universe, but every single character, we come from a sincere and honest place. It's not from the tip of your nose out, it's from your guts and out. And I think that's the difference.

That's why, you know, when my character says phrases like, "I want my daughter to have the pleasure of knowing me," you're like, "Wait, what?" ... He just said something outrageous, but it comes from a very sincere and honest place.

And also what the showrunner is accomplishing very successfully is portraying Latinos as normal human beings. Not because we're Latinos we have to be saying, "Ayayayayaaay!" in every single, you know, paragraph, or having piñatas hanging from the ceiling of our houses, or having our walls painted shocking pink. ... It's a beautiful [portrayal] of the story of human beings. They happen to be from a Latino/Hispanic background, but, you know, Jane's family could be from Turkey, they could be from Vietnam, they could be from Hungary. It's just a story about humans.

On his career as a pop star and why he decided to transition to acting

I have accepted myself as an actor that is able to sing, and I love that. I started this business [wanting] to be a singer. ... I studied opera ... and I have a couple of CDs out and they did very well and we sold platinum and everything.

But to be honest, it's so much competition, especially in Latin America. ... In the U.S., for example, if you're a Will Smith and you're an actor and a singer and a producer, you're like, "Wow, that's amazing." ... But in Mexico or Latin America: "So, what are you? A singer or an actor?" You have to decide. ...

And while I was pushing for my music career, the universe was sending me a lot of messages. ... [Mexican actress] Lucero called me and, "Hey, [producer] Carla Estrada is looking for the new antagonist, el villano" — the villain — "of the telenovela Mi Destino Eres Tú." I'm like, "Oh great, yes, I'm gonna do it." Because if I do it I'm gonna get screen time and if I get screen time I'm gonna sell CDs and sell some shows. ... It was the universe or God or whoever slapping me in the face saying, "Numbnuts, wake the hell up. You should pursue acting, you shouldn't pursue music." Thank God I had the wisdom to listen and pay attention to those signs.

Radio producers Lucy Perkins and Gemma Watters, digital producer Nicole Cohen and radio editor Lauren Hodges contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The plotline in CW's "Jane The Virgin" is just a little bit complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JANE THE VIRGIN")

ANTHONY MENDEZ: (As narrator) All right, here we go. As you know, Jane was accidentally artificially inseminated.

GINA RODRIGUEZ: (As Jane Villanueva) But I've never had sex.

MENDEZ: (As narrator) Needless to say, her fiance was not pleased.

BRETT DIER: (As Michael Cordero Jr.) Please, for us, don't have this baby.

MENDEZ: (As narrator) But Jane decided to have the baby.

RODRIGUEZ: (As Jane Villanueva) And we're giving it to the father. He and his wife - they really want it.

MENDEZ: (As narrator) And speaking of complications, Jane has just learned that her dad is telenovela star, Rogelio De La Vega.

JAIME CAMIL: (As Rogelio De La Vega) I'm your father.

RODRIGUEZ: (As Jane Villanueva) All this time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you get all that? Oh, well, try and keep up. If you've not seen the first two seasons of CW's award-winning television show, "Jane The Virgin," you have a lot of fun to catch up on. But don't worry, our next guest is one of the stars of the show. Jaime Camil plays Jane the virgin's father, telenovela superstar, Rogelio De La Vega. And Jaime Camil joins me now from our studios at NPR West in Culver City. Welcome to the program.

CAMIL: Gracias, Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

CAMIL: How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bienvenido.

CAMIL: Gracias.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So "Jane The Virgin" is a sendup and, I guess, a love letter to Latin telenovelas. The show is loosely based on the Venezuelan show "Juana La Virgen." For people who may not know what telenovelas are, what are they?

CAMIL: Oh, my dear God. Telenovelas have been around for many, many, many years and decades. And it's what the Latin people love to watch. It's basically the same story with the same plot with the same actors told over and over again. But one - you know, one story they're pirates. The other ones, they are accountants. The other ones, they're are on P.R. firms, so...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Different than soap operas, though.

CAMIL: Most definitely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because, as you say, they're sort of short periods of them, and then they switch, right?

CAMIL: In Brazil, they call the Mexican novelas, the great Mexican tragedies because you only have two happy episodes - the first episode and the last episode. Every episode in between everybody suffers and cries. And it's horrible. And they murder people. It's just horrible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

CAMIL: But they love it. It's - you know, it's part of the culture.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I guess one of the things that this show really does is take the telenovela trope - all these things that happen that are super dramatic - but you ground them in reality. You know, you guys are real characters, and you show that - that sort of nuance of Latino life in the United States.

CAMIL: Well, first of all, yeah, that's one of the key elements of "Jane" - that every character, especially mine, we may live in a completely ridiculous universe or outrageous universe, but every single character - we come from a sincere and honest place. It's not from the tip of your nose out. It's from your guts and out.

And Jennie Urman, our brilliant show runner and amazing writer, very successfully is portraying Latinos as normal human beings. Not because we are Latinos, we have to be saying, ay yayaya (ph), in every single paragraph or having pinatas hanging from the ceiling of our houses or having our walls painted shocking pink. Jane family could from Turkey. They could be from Vietnam. They could be from Hungary. It's just a story about humans.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. You've starred in telenovelas in Mexico. You're a huge, actually, star in Mexico. It must be said.

CAMIL: Oh, thank you, Lulu (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It must be said. You play a telenovela star on the show. Describe your character. Are you playing yourself? I mean, where are you drawing your inspiration?

CAMIL: Usually, I do way more films in Mexico. I've done, like, 20-something films and only four or five telenovelas. And they're mostly comedic shows. They're not dramatic, like, you know, the classic novela. Why haven't you called me, Lulu? And then the camera stays there for 30 seconds without anybody talking.

So it's just a very balanced thing that we have to accomplish with Rogelio because even though he's perceived as a comic relief, imagine a character that just throws pies at your faces - ah, ah, ah (ph) - again and again and again and again. It's like, OK, enough. I need some depth.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's listen to a little bit of Rogelio at his finest because he is hilarious.

CAMIL: Oh, my God. Let's go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JANE THE VIRGIN")

CAMIL: (As Rogelio De La Vega) Some of my closest friends are non-celebs - Stedman, for example.

JUDY REYES: (As Dina Milagro) It's just your interested in different things. You like to talk about the Kardashians. They're more interested in Ta-Nehisi Coates.

CAMIL: (As Rogelio De La Vega) I assure you, I'm open to all kinds of jackets.

REYES: (As Dina Milagro) He's not a jacket. He's an author.

CAMIL: (As Rogelio De La Vega) I know. I was just making a joke. Come on, Dina. I can totally hang with nerds.

(LAUGHTER)

CAMIL: Oh, my God.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about some of the ideas behind the storylines. I mean, there's this amusing stuff, this funny stuff. But there's also a very difficult and current storylines. Is that deliberate? Is that important?

CAMIL: Totally. Jennie Urman likes to tap into the political situation or the political world as well as events like deportation or this and that and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to say, Jane's grandmother is an undocumented person who's lived in the United States for about 40 years on the show. And then she ends up in a hospital where she needs to show a form of ID and that leads to a threat of deportation. So what were the discussions behind that and showing that?

CAMIL: In the "Jane The Virgin" universe, we touch these subjects. And we talk about them in a way that you will talk about them if you're having coffee over friends, not like, OK, let's have this political discussion for 20 minutes of this show. No, it's just like, hey, this is happening. Let's talk about it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the responsibility of a show like "Jane The Virgin," which is so much tied to Latinos and Latino culture at this particular time in the United States when there is so much discussion about these issues?

CAMIL: Well, I think addressing the issues - it's enough about caricaturizar - how do you say that in English? Like...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not to make a caricature of them.

CAMIL: Let's - yeah. Let's stop with the caricatures of any minority or of any demographic - I mean, enough. The caricatures are just sickening to my stomach and to everyone's stomach for that matter. When there are issues, address them within the universe of the show and with the tone of the show. But address them because if we pretend they're not there or they don't exist, then we would be kind of like accomplices of this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk a little bit about your stint being a pop star. I want to listen to one of your songs from around the year 2000 because here at NPR, we like to bring this stuff up.

CAMIL: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARA ESTAR CONTIGO")

CAMIL: (Singing) Para estar contigo no medi tristezas. Convivi con ellas por que fueron esas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is "Para Estar Contigo," to be with you.

CAMIL: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Que romantico - how romatic.

CAMIL: Que romantico. The string - the strings are beautiful. Rudy Perez produced that album.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What happened to Jaime Camil the pop star?

CAMIL: I am so - estoy - I'm going to say this in Spanish because - I don't know. Estoy felizmente asumido como un actor que puede cantar. I have accepted myself as an actor that is able to sing, and I love that. But, you know, I started this business wanting to be a singer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And yet - and yet musical theater is a passion of yours. Last year, you starred in "Chicago" on Broadway. You played Billy Flynn.

CAMIL: Is everybody here? Is everybody ready?

(LAUGHTER)

CAMIL: That's what I love to do the most - to be - to do musical theater. That's - I can combine acting and singing and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You prefer it to TV?

CAMIL: I would say yes. If I have to decide what I'm going to do with my life, and I can only choose one discipline, it would be, without a doubt, musical theater. You know, it's a tough choice because I like to provide for my family. But I do...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're saying TV pays better (laughter)?

CAMIL: Most definitely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Unsurprisingly, yes.

CAMIL: But I love musical theater. So when I was invited to do Billy Flynn - and I'm very thankful. And, you know, they say that you never leave Chicago. You're only out on parole. So I might be called again to do like a national tour or go back to Broadway, hopefully. Let's see what happens.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you give us a little bit of a preview of that. Can you sing a little bit from "Chicago"?

CAMIL: Let me see if I remember. Unintelligible (singing) I don't care about expensive things. Cashmere coats, diamond rings don't mean a thing. All I care about is love. That's what I'm here for.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was great. That was great.

CAMIL: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jaime Camil - he stars in the award-winning show "Jane The Virgin." You can see it on the CW channel at 9 p.m. Eastern on Mondays. And I recommend it highly. Jaime, thanks so much. Muchisimas gracias.

CAMIL: A ti, Lulu. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING'S "OVERTURE")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Thanks for listening. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.