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Keyla Monterroso Mejia is learning not to judge her characters — even if, at first, they seem a little annoying.
After memorable guest spots on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Abbott Elementary, the Baldwin Park native is leading Freeridge, a spinoff of the Netflix dramedy series On My Block. The show follows four high school students — Gloria (Mejia), her sister Ines (Bryana Salaz) and their friends Demi (Ciara Riley Wilson) and Cameron (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) — as they try to ward off a curse while dealing with family health woes, sibling rivalry and will-they-won’t-they relationship drama. Mejia’s character, Gloria, is a little intense, though generally well-intentioned. The type-A teen, sophomore class president and queen of devastatingly brutal clapbacks has taken on a maternal role in her family after the loss of her mother — but the audience first meets her amid a no-holds-barred schoolyard fight with her sister.
“[Freeridge] does a wonderful job of dealing with serious issues in a lighthearted way, whether it’s how being poor really affects the decisions that you’re able to make when it comes to healthcare or dealing with sexuality,” Mejia says. “It’s such great writing. It’s such a funny show and it has some wonderful moments of honesty.”
In the chat below, Mejia talks with THR about being complimented by Quinta Brunson on Instagram, her string of confident female characters and why she binged On My Block one more time before her Freeridge audition.
How did you get your start in acting?
This has been a really long journey, filled with more downs than ups, but it’s led me here, which is so much more than I thought was possible. Much to my parents dismay, I was able to persuade them to let me audition for a performing arts high school called The School of Arts and Enterprise in Pomona. They really didn’t know what it was about, but they tell me now, “You were so happy and you seemed so excited that, even though we were unsure of what this was, we didn’t wanna take it away from you.”
It just sort of snowballed from one thing to another. I was in a program when I was homeschooled for students who wanted to do acting and it sort of took off from there. I got an agent and a manager and I was able to get auditions from there, but it felt like really nothing was going on. Truthfully, the silver lining during COVID was that casting directors were allowed to see so many more actors than they were before and I was really lucky to be in that bunch. I was able to have this opportunity on Curb Your Enthusiasm that has completely changed my life, or at least launched me in a way that I could have never have expected or hoped for before that.
How was working on Curb?
It was sort of trial by fire and you kind of got thrown into the lion’s den. Not because of people — they were wonderful and they were the kindest people I’ve ever met — but it was just an intense experience to not only be thrusted into one of my first acting roles on a professional set, but to be thrown in with some of the greatest to ever do it in comedy.
Then you also had an arc on Abbott Elementary. How did you land that role?
That also really took me by surprise. I was a huge fan of the show and so was my younger brother. I remember Quinta [Brunson] had commented on an Instagram post that I did, and I didn’t think anything of it. Then months later, there I am on the set of one of the best comedies, not even just right now, but in my opinion of all time. It was a very surreal moment to get to be a part of a show that is so great, and that also shows a lot of diversity, not only in front of the camera but behind it. I just have so much gratitude for Quinta giving me that opportunity in a show that is really big and is doing so well.
She found you on Instagram?
Yes! She commented on my Instagram. She said something along the lines of “I think you’re really funny.” That was that and I didn’t think anything of it. Then months later she got in contact with my agents and they said, “Quinta Brunson wants to talk to you.” And I was like, “Excuse me? What? What do you mean? What is going on?” I had a conversation with her and she was very sweet and was just so kind. And I remember getting off the phone and telling my agents, “Please send me the materials as soon as you can. I wanna be as prepared as I can be for this audition. I wanna nail it.” And they were like, “No, I think she has you in mind. I don’t think you have to audition.” I thought that was insane. I was so, so grateful. The fact that she just trusted me from the beginning did so much for my confidence.
How did people respond to that role? Because that character was … a lot.
Yes. Oh my God. She’s a lot, to say the least. It was really cool. I knew people loved Abbott and how critically acclaimed it was, but I did not know how much people talk about it and tweet about it. So, that was a world that took me by storm. Some of my friends were sending me screenshots of tweets that they were seeing and saying, “You’re kind of going viral on Twitter.” It just was insane. That was my first time seeing people really talk about me in that way.
What made you want to take on this role in Freeridge?
On My Block did so much for me, personally, in terms of representation. The topics that they were taking on were things that I could relate to. To be a part of the spinoff was a dream come true. To be able to be part of the legacy for a show that did so much for me was just way more than I could have ever asked for.
What do you remember most about the audition process?
Because I was such a huge fan of On My Block, I was so, so nervous. I’m not at a place where I’m mature enough to watch the projects that I don’t book. So I thought, “Oh my God, I have to binge-watch On My Block one more time before the final audition because if I don’t get this, that show will be tainted forever for me with the pain of not getting this character.” So I remember staying up the night before and having to like completely binge all the seasons because I thought, “This is gonna be so heartbreaking if I don’t get it.”
Are there any common threads that you see among the characters that you’ve played?
They’re all these very confident women. It’s funny because they’re sort of the same woman in different situations. They’re women who are not afraid to take up space and they are very confident in saying what they want and being open with how they feel. It’s been really fun to play really strong, confident women. It’s given me a lot to learn because sometimes it’s easier to play it than to feel it in your everyday life. So that’s been really fun to be able to step in their shoes.
How would you describe Gloria?
Gloria is a strong-willed girl. She is sort of the glue that keeps everything together. She’s this really independent girl who had to grow up and deal with the cards that she was handed, and I think she does a really good job. She’s sort of like the mom of the group.
They tell you not to judge your characters, but when I was first reading the scripts, I was like, “Oh dang, Gloria’s a little annoying.” She’s doing a lot. She’s in everyone’s business and she is taking on a lot 24-7. But it was really nice to see her walls come down in episode four. It was a great gift from the writers that you’re able to see the reason why Gloria is the way she is. It’s just really wonderful writing and it really sneaks up on you, which is like real life. A lot of the time we’re not able to see why someone is the way they are. We just take them for who they are in the moment and make judgements. But it’s nice that you get to see these people and see the reasons why they have these habits or these feelings.
This was my first time having a script that really showed a character’s hardships. In the past I’ve done more lighthearted and more physical comedy. It was really scary at first to dive into something that was a little bit more serious because I had been in the swing of comedy for so long. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to do it justice. But I realized when you have great writing half of the work is already done for you. It was more fun than I thought I was going to have with dealing with tough topics.
Do you have a favorite episode or scene?
I really love all the scenes that she has with her sister, [played by] Bryana Salaz, who’s an incredible actress. It brings out a side of me as an actress that I have never felt before. You see us be really angry with each other, whether it’s physically fighting or with the words that we say, but you also see us in these more intimate moments. How at the end of the day, no matter what, she’s my sister and I love her and I’m gonna do whatever I can. Then you see us sort of come back and forgive each other and move forward. It’s an honest sibling relationship. I have a younger brother and I completely understand what it feels like to be the older sister and how we do some of the worst things to some of the people that we love the most. I don’t know why, we just do.
This season involves a mysterious box that the group thinks is cursed. Do you believe in curses?
I do. One hundred percent, I believe in curses. I believe in all the bad juju. I believe that spirits are real and I believe you can catch a ghost, as they say in the show. It’s really funny, actually. My mom is Mexican and in our culture there’s this thing that if you see an owl it’s a sign someone put a curse on you. I didn’t know this, and I remember driving with my mom and I was like, “Look! A pretty owl. It has a white face and white feathers and it’s so gorgeous.” My mom freaked out and said, “Turn the car around. We have to go to where you saw that owl.” We didn’t see it again. I go to work, maybe that following week, and in my bedroom [on set] there’s just this huge painting with three white owls. I remember asking the director, “Hey, do you think there’s any way we could get rid of this painting?” And she said, “Unfortunately, we have already done establishing shots of this room, so we can’t get rid of it.” So I chose to believe those white owls were not bad luck, but good luck.
I don’t want to get too spoiler-y, but what did you think about how the first season ended?
I have a lot of questions I want answered. They definitely gave us a couple of cliffhangers. Without saying too much, my character probably has the most heartbreak to go through in both of the situations that they leave cliffhangers with. So I’m very excited to see what’s going to happen in the future, but also very sad for what the possibilities are.
What kinds of projects do you see yourself doing next? Is there anything you would definitely never want to do?
Yes, I never want to do something where my character is the butt of the joke, or people are laughing at her expense. That’s definitely one thing I’ll never do. I have been so lucky that the characters I’ve played are funny because of the situations they’re in and how they respond, and not because anyone is laughing at them and they’re not aware. I’ve noticed also that I really feel fulfilled doing dramedies. I love comedy, but I also love when characters feel multi-dimensional and you’re not just seeing one version of them. I really like to see the different emotions that they come with and the way that they deal with life. I just want to be happy and I want to be fulfilled and feel proud of the projects that I’m in. I’ve been really lucky to be able to say so far that I have, and I want to keep on that trajectory.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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