Eva Longoria on Building a Power Pipeline For Latinas: "I Hate When People Say the Talent Is Not Out There"
She became famous as an actress, but her real mission was to be the boss-and then give opportunities to women who might never otherwise get them.
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Once Eva Longoria became famous for starring in the TV show Desperate Housewives, she also became overwhelmed with pleas for her charitable support. "I was getting, like, 1,000 requests a week for, you know, dolphins in Japan and AIDS in Africa and sex trafficking in Thailand," she says. "All of that is important to fix, right? But I learned quickly, I couldn't do everything. And I wanted to stand for something." A mentor pushed her to define where she wanted to make the most impact, and she realized it was in helping the Latina community. She didn't want to just highlight the barriers women like her have faced; instead, she wanted to zero in on the ways they overcame. "How do we repeat success?" she says.
Entertainment was the obvious place to start. On the Desperate Housewives set, Longoria spent her free time interviewing the producers, directors, cinematographers, and screenwriters about their jobs. She wanted to learn how things were made so she could repeat them on her own terms. She launched her production company, Unbelievable Entertainment, in 2005, where she has been intentional about creating fresh projects and hiring new talent that widens representation for marginalized communities in front of and behind the camera. "As a producer, you assemble everybody, you hire the best people, and you create the jobs. That always intrigued me," Longoria says. She has since produced and directed a wide range of TV shows; in August she wrapped filming on her directorial film debut, a biopic called Flamin' Hot, about the Mexican-American janitor who invented the popular Cheetos flavor.
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As an entrepreneur and an activist, Longoria has also expanded beyond the bounds of Hollywood — cofounding the nonprofit Eva's Heroes, which enriches the lives of people with intellectual special needs; cofounding the Latino Victory Fund to raise Latino voices at every level of government; cofounding a digital platform called Poderistas, which aims to empower Latinas to transform their lives and communities; and in September, launching Casa Del Sol, a luxury sipping tequila that has philanthropic initiatives and a predominately female leadership team. Through it all, she says, she's become up front that her mission must always be larger than any one project she works on. "There are bigger things at stake than TV ratings and box office of your movie," Longoria says she often tells potential partners. "We've got a lot of stuff to fix in the world — and that's going to need your help."
Here, she talks about how she transformed her career and how she thinks women can make powerful, lasting change in their industries.
How did you prepare yourself for this transition from actor to producer-director?
It's about being resourceful. It's a lesson my mom taught me. I remember I was 6, and I was like, "Mom, I'm hungry." And she said, "Well, you'd better figure it out." And I did. I pushed the chair up to the stove, I turned it on, and I cracked an egg. I remember feeling so empowered by it. I did this, and I did it by myself. Everything I wanted to do — like becoming a cheerleader or going to college — my mom told me I needed to figure it out, and it taught me that you have to be resourceful in life and that there's a solution to everything.
That's how I approach everything. When I wanted to produce, I read books on it. I wanted to get the terminology right. I read a book about budgets and about getting an agent. I also asked a lot of questions. I wanted to be a sponge. Once I had success with acting, I used all of that as my film school. I spent nearly a decade on one show, Desperate Housewives, and you learn stuff if you're paying attention and asking questions. I thought, When am I ever going to get the opportunity again to be this close to something I really want to do? I was lucky to have some great mentors and lucky that they entertained all my curiosity and questions. So between being resourceful and asking a lot of questions, you learn a lot.
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Oftentimes, you were learning as you were doing. What were the benefits of that approach?
I think people, especially women, let perfection prevent progress. We think, I'm not ready. I don't know enough. I don't know if I could do it. But you only learn by doing. It doesn't matter where you start. Start with a feature, start with a short film, or start with TV. Whatever you want to do, just start. I didn't know how to direct. I got versed in it and educated myself as much as I could, and I still don't know everything about directing. But I didn't wait until they let me know everything about directing before I began. If you do, then you'll never get started on anything.
Are there any inherent skills you have that you think prepared you to succeed as an entrepreneur, a producer, a director, and a philanthropist?
I'm a woman, which means I'm a multitasker. I don't know why studios don't hire more women. We're natural directors over our lives. We're problem solvers, and that's what directing is. I have a great work ethic. If things have to get done, they get done. There's no, "Well, who's going to do that?" You are. There's no job too low for me to do. I've touched every rung on the ladder, from being an extra to being a production assistant to being a director. I think that has given me skills to understand all the jobs on set. Don't be afraid to work your way up that ladder, and then don't be afraid to create your own ladder.
As someone who is self-taught, and a woman of color in an industry where women and people of color aren't widely represented, did you ever experience impostor syndrome?
Yes! I faked it till I made it. I still get terrified every first day of filming. Every time when I'm behind the camera, I have butterflies in my stomach. I'm like, They're going to realize I don't know what I'm doing. But the irony is that I do know what I'm doing. I am great at my job. I am talented. I just use that anxiety, those butterflies in my stomach, to fuel and energize my goals.
How are you able to turn anxiety into productive energy?
I meditate a lot, and that centers me. If I walk out of my house saying, "I'm going to do my best today," it really changes how I approach the day. Words matter, especially the words you use to talk to yourself. And so I've changed my vocabulary a lot, too. Instead of saying, "I'm so busy," I'll say, "I'm so productive." Instead of saying, "I have to go to this meeting across town," I change it to, "I get to go to this meeting." Usually everything in your day is filled with stuff that's going to lead to what you're trying to achieve. So I think when that anxiety kicks in and the impostor syndrome creeps up, you talk to yourself and be kind with yourself. It keeps you honest with yourself, and that's who you need to convince with the impostor syndrome: yourself.
Through your production company, Unbelievable Entertainment, you have made it your mission to find and support new and underrepresented talent. What's your strategy?
That's the whole reason I started a production company: to be able to have the power to hire who I want and give those opportunities to people who wouldn't normally have them. I hate when people say the talent is not out there. The talent is there, but we don't have a pipeline of experience so we can support the people who are ready for that next step. Whether it's a writer's job or directing or acting, our community doesn't have the body of experience to show they could do that work, but that doesn't mean they can't do it. Part of the problem is building that pipeline of talent in front of and behind the camera.
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How are you building that pipeline?
I've built it into my deals; there's a little bit of a carte blanche with my budget. I want to be able to use this money and spend it on a writer or director I believe in. We just made our first film with Viacom with a Latina director, a female director of photography [DP], and a Latina lead. And Viacom fully supported it. They were like, "Go for it." They didn't ask how much experience the director has. They trusted my vetting process. And my director was in tears. It's her first feature. So now when she goes to the next job, she can say she has done a feature. It's the same in television. I've hired many Latino writers, and now they're getting promoted because their résumé says they did a show. Now they can move on to the next show and continue to build upon the opportunity we provided for them. You have to start somewhere.
It sounds like you're really intentional about how you use your hiring power.
Yes. Instead of unconsciously ignoring women and people of color, I am consciously hiring them. I think one of the mistakes studios make is that they're just unaware. I remember when I was producing Grand Hotel and I wanted a female DP, but they sent me Tom, Dick, and Harry. I had to then ask for a female DP, and they shared some with me, and I hired one. I really think they're unconsciously ignoring us most of the time. They're not plotting in their offices going, "Let's not hire women and people of color." They're just thinking of the Tom, Dick, and Harry they worked with on the last three projects they did. So it's just fresh in their mind. For me, what's fresh in my mind are women and people of color. When I suggest it, they do respond. And when I present people, they do respond. It's about continuing to put more of our community in front of the right people.
You often say that you aim to change culture through the media. Whether through your production company or the digital lifestyle community, Poderistas, you cofounded, is there a blueprint you follow to create transformative media?
Artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez says cultural change comes before policy changes, and we can change culture through media. For example, look at when I Love Lucy was on TV and people welcomed Ricky Ricardo into their homes. Then when the Cuban crisis happened, there was a consensus that Cubans were great. It's the same with marriage equality. Before the Supreme Court ruled on same-sex marriage, TV shows like Ellen and Roseanne got people comfortable with it. So, for me, I'm always thinking about the imagery we can be putting out that people who don't interact with us will watch. I'm thinking about what I can show that will make them laugh, relate, cry, and be entertained and will also make them less hesitant or less scared of change. We have the power to change culture through television and film.
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You're also astutely shifting the way communities think about themselves. Whether through inspirational films, like the upcoming Flamin' Hot, or TV series that empower the historically disempowered, like Devious Maids, you show and celebrate communities just how they are, however they are. How is that an effective way storytellers can help shift cultural perspectives?
I want to celebrate all the colors of our community in storytelling and show all the beautiful people in all walks of life. I remember when I made Devious Maids and was told, "Oh, you're perpetuating stereotypes of Latinas always being maids." First of all, it was the first TV series with an all-Latino cast. Second, three of the actresses' mothers were maids, so they were very offended that people thought their mothers' stories weren't worth telling. And third, maids were the moral compass of the show. The show is about them. They weren't peripheral characters. They weren't caricatures of themselves. They were driving the story. Then I did Grand Hotel, about a wealthy Latino family who owned a hotel and had a staff of all races. We're not singular. You can't define us singularly as one thing. You can tell these different stories and still touch on and celebrate universal themes like family, love, and community.