Eli Zavala recently garnered attention at SXSW for her starring role in the short film El Carrito, in which she plays Nelly, a street vendor in Queens whose life is suddenly upturned. It was an intriguing role for her, since she happens to be based in New York herself. But Eli isn’t just an actress; she’s also a filmmaker and producer. I spoke to her about the production of El Carrito, her own upcoming projects, and her thoughts on continuing to showcase more diversity in film.
Brittany Frederick: How did you get involved with El Carrito? Was it a project that you were connected to producing-wise or just something that came your way?
Eli Zavala: Just the good old audition process and agents. The project came my way. I liked the idea, I liked the background of the story, and I went to the office to shoot my audition, Then I got a callback, went to the casting office, and did the audition again. A few days after that, I got the part.
BF: Do you prepare any differently for a short film than you would for a full-length feature, knowing you have a more limited amount of time with the character?
EZ: It’s the same amount of effort. It’s the same amount of love that you put into building a character and to finding a character. This was a very special project because I got the chance to get in touch with the community of street vendors here in New York City. That was one of the things that really caught my attention about the process and about the project. Because for me, it’s very important when building a character to immerse myself in the world as much as I can.
Just because the story is shorter, the character is not. Actually, you have to go deeper because you have to put in more information and more nuances about the character. You have to be more succinct in terms of time, but the meat has to be there. It’s like a French menu. Maybe you’re not going to have this huge steak, but the little tiny bit of steak that you have is just as tasty as the whole filet mignon.
BF: Being in New York, how did your own personal experience and practical knowledge help you with portraying Nelly?
EZ: The first thing that I clicked with was the hustle, because everyone here in New York is a hustler. You’re always hustling. It’s kind of the ethos of the city. So I was like, “Okay, I understand what she’s going through. I understand where she’s coming from, because [like] Nelly, I’m also an immigrant.” That was such an important part for me to put into the character—that struggle, everything that comes with leaving the country that you were born in: a totally different language, totally different culture, totally different ways of living. Those were the things that Nelly borrowed from Eli.
BF: Representation is something that’s very important to you, and something that’s become more important to the entertainment industry. As a Latinx filmmaker, how would you suggest filmmakers can keep improving on the subject?
EZ: It’s cultural authenticity…It’s such a delicate balance between being culturally authentic and stereotyping. In authenticity lies the difference between one and the other. One is respectful of a culture and a tradition and a way of living, and the other one is trying to be respectful, but it ends up mocking a culture or a tradition. I’m not against someone that doesn’t have the experience talking about it—if you do it in a respectful way, having a consultant on hand and talking about your experience of it, not trying to talk about a culture without experiencing it first.
BF: What makes a fully developed, diverse character to you? Because putting a Latinx character on screen is one thing, but making sure that character is fully realized is another.
EZ: It has to be truthful. Rooted in the truthfulness of the circumstance—meaning you’re not going to put a diverse character just for the sake of having a different color or a different accent or a different form on the screen. It actually makes sense that that character is there in that moment in time telling this story. It has a reason. If not, it’s just like an ornament. It has to have weight, it has to have a reason for being there, it has to have an important, sturdy story moving forward.
BF: El Carrito showcases you as an actress, but what other projects do you have in the works from the producing side of your career?
EZ: Right now, we’re developing a couple of projects, shopping them around, which is amazing. Comedy and a couple of features—a thriller, a horror [film], a drama. And I got involved in, I think it’s going to be my last short film, a small animated feature. It’s so beautiful. Lastly, I’m executive producing a documentary about the LGBT community in one of the most homophobic cities in Latin America. My plate is pretty full. When I’m not in front of the camera, I’m full throttle behind it.
For more information on El Carrito, visit the film’s website.
Article content is (c)2020-2022 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.