Although the acting bug bit Julee Cerda later than most, she’s wasting no time to make her mark on the screen and stage. With guest appearances on “Homeland,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “House of Cards,” “Nurse Jackie” and so many other terrific shows, Cerda’s resume is stacked high like her talent. In 2018, Cerda can be seen in “Children of a Lesser God,” the first Broadway revival of this 1980 Tony Award-winning play, at Studio 54.
How did you get your start in acting? When did you know you wanted to be an actress?
I started acting in my late 20s, much later than most actors. Pursuing the arts was something my parents did not encourage when I was younger. They were both first-generation immigrants with no college degrees, so it was really important to them that I attended college and got a “proper” paying job. I respected their wish because I saw how hard it was for them, especially as minorities trying to make it in America. After I graduated, I went to work for an advertising agency and started acting on the side while I was working. At first, it started out as a hobby, mainly because I wasn’t programmed to accept this as a career choice. It wasn’t until I was offered a hefty promotion at my job that I realized how miserable I was. So I quit my job and became an actress fulltime.
What is your worst audition story?
I once went on an audition for the role of a “Screaming Woman.” It was one of those auditions where you get the sides when you get to the office. So being the “green” actor that I was at the time, I didn’t prepare thinking I’ll just prepare when I get there. Lo and behold, when I got to the casting office, there were no sides because all I had to do was scream. Duh. Well, I couldn’t really rehearse my scream in the middle of a busy casting office, so I went into the audition room cold. Long story short, I can’t scream (at least not genuinely). So I let out this low, awkward, guttural sound and saw the casting directors gyrating because they were trying to contain their laughter.
What can you tell us about your upcoming play “Children of a Lesser God”?
It’s a beautiful, touching love story with a powerful political message about a teacher at a school for the deaf, portrayed by Joshua Jackson, and a remarkable deaf woman he meets there, portrayed by Lauren Ridloff. I find Mark Medoff’s play so provocative because it forces the audience to immerse themselves into the world of the deaf and hard of hearing—a world a lot of people are not privy to. To be an audience member and witnessing the intricate and poetic ways in which people that can’t hear communicate through sign language is profound. It creates a whole new awareness about the meaning of communication barriers and the ways in which the deaf community have always been expected to conform to the hearing world. It’s also visually stunning. From direction to set design to lighting and costume, I think the production team has done an excellent job bringing to life this important story.
What about your character? Do you relate to her in any way?
I play Edna Klein, the civil rights activist lawyer who steps in to defend the rights of the deaf and the hard of hearing at the institution. I’m the only character in this entire play that has no previous relationship with the deaf community and therefore tends to make a lot of common and naïve assumptions about them and their lives. This play takes place in the late 70s, and so from a casting perspective it’s an interesting concept for me to portray a minority female lawyer defending another group of minorities during an era when these groups experienced a lot more inequality. I can absolutely relate to Edna because a lot of the issues she faces are still relevant today. Kenny Leon’s choice for diverse casting, in a production that has been typically portrayed by an all-white cast, has made this play so relevant and relatable today.
How far along in the production process are you?
We just finished a one-month run at the Berkshire Theatre Group this summer, where it was well received by critics. And just recently, we received word that the entire production will be taking part in the first Broadway revival of this 1980 Tony Award-winning play at Studio 54. The play will open in the spring of 2018 with Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon directing. So although we’ve done quite a bit of work, there’s still a lot of work ahead of us.
What has it been like working with the cast? The legendary Kenny Leon?
This cast is perhaps the hardest working, most inspiring group of actors I have ever worked with. I am in constant awe of everyone’s commitment to the craft and watching them work through the challenges they face – from Joshua’s commitment to learning sign language, to Lauren’s amazing work ethic in making sure she is communicating all her lines without ever uttering a word, to Treshelle Edmond’s and John McGinty’s (both hard of hearing) voice work for the stage, all the way to veteran Kecia Lewis willingly taking on the role of “production mama” and being so available and helpful to us less experienced actors.
And as for the legendary Kenny Leon… when he first told me about the play last year, I was so inspired by the way he spoke of how he wanted to bring the play to life—by first immersing himself into the world of the deaf and hard of hearing. He didn’t just want to tell a story, he wanted to feel the story. So he spent time with a deaf woman to not only take sign language lessons, but to learn about the intricacies of her world and watching the ways in which the rest of the world perceived her (side note: that woman turned out to be Lauren Ridloff). I was so impressed with his commitment to the craft, and since working with him, he’s proven to be one the hardest working directors with one of the biggest hearts. He’s a lovely person inside and out and a truly magnificent, inspiring director.
Rapid fire: With each of these shows, can you tell us either one memorable moment you had and/or something you took away from the project?
Homeland? It’s fantastic to work on a show that has so much overlap with the politics of today.
Orange Is the New Black? The only time I’ve ever worked with a predominantly female cast and crew. Girl power all the way.
House of Cards? The sweetest, kindest bunch of people for the world’s biggest backstabbing show.
Nurse Jackie? Eve Best is a doll! This was my first TV show ever and she welcomed me like I was a neighbor just moving in.
What do you look for in a role? Have you become pickier as your career has progressed or more open?
I’m interested in roles that challenge our portrayal of gender, ethnic and societal stereotypes. Although it’s gotten better in recent times, there is still a lot of work to do. For example, when I first started out, the only roles that were ever available to me were roles like “Nail Salon Technician,” “Dry Cleaning Owner,” and “Masseuse.” I never booked any of these roles because, if you know me, I’m just not that type. So my manager and I decided to focus on characters that were more commanding and authoritative—more me. So then came roles like “Doctor,” “Research Lab Technician,” “Professor of Psychology at Harvard.” Better. But still stereotypes. And I’m not saying everyone does this. There are some fantastic productions that are pushing the boundaries on portrayal of minorities and I salute them. I’m just saying there is still a lot of work to do.
Working on streaming platforms to cable to everything in-between, is there one you prefer over the others? What are the pros and cons?
I don’t think I have a preference in terms of the work being done. There is some magnificent work coming out of newer mediums like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. To me it’s all about the quality of the programming. Saying that, the biggest difference is the audience reach. Obviously if more people can enjoy the program, the better. But perhaps that will be changing soon, so I try not to pay attention to which platform is better.
What are you working on that we can see you on in the near future?
I’ve just been asked to return to “Homeland” season 7 in the role of Reiko Umon, the press secretary for President Keane played by Elizabeth Marvel. It’s great to be back and working with such a great group of people.
Is there something you haven’t done yet that you really want to pursue?
Writing and directing. I’m so interested in the art of storytelling and have so many ideas floating around that one day, when I’m ready, I’d like to sit down and write my own piece and direct it.
What has been the biggest “pinch me” moment of your career so far?
2017 has been such a great year for me. From becoming a recurring guest star on “Homeland” to getting an offer to go to Broadway with “Children of a Lesser God,” I’ve had to recently remind myself how happy and grateful I should be and to enjoy this moment.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve started blogging about motherhood and style on my website: attachedtothehip.com. It’s been such a fun, creative outlet for me that allows me to embrace motherhood while still clinging on to whatever cool is left in me. If interested, you can follow @attachedtothehip on Instagram.