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After decades in the business, Adriana Barraza shares her 'hope' for young Latino actors

The Oscar nominee also revealed to TODAY the dream role she has yet to play.
When it comes to issues in Hollywood, Barraza wants to see more opportunities for younger Latino actors and filmmakers. "There are Latinos working throughout the film and television industry, but perhaps it is a matter of opening the doors to those who want to tell different stories."
When it comes to issues in Hollywood, Barraza wants to see more opportunities for younger Latino actors and filmmakers. "There are Latinos working throughout the film and television industry, but perhaps it is a matter of opening the doors to those who want to tell different stories."TODAY Illustration / Hector Moreno
/ Source: TODAY

During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and pride. We are highlighting Latino and Hispanic trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the month of September and October. For more, head here.

Adriana Barraza is accustomed to making Hollywood history, and she's done it again with her latest movie, "Bingo Hell."

The Oscar-nominated Mexican actor, 65, worked with Mexican Canadian director Gigi Saul Guerrero on the movie, part of Amazon Prime's "Welcome to the Blumhouse" series. The project, which premieres Oct. 1, marks the first time a Latina actor in her 60s takes the lead in a mainstream horror-thriller-comedy film co-written and directed by a Latina filmmaker.

In the film, Barraza plays Lupita, the gutsy leader of a group of senior citizens who refuse to let their barrio be gentrified — and "one of the funniest, most extreme, foul-mouthed characters I've ever played," she told TODAY via email.

Barraza stars in the horror-thriller "Bingo Hell," which premieres Oct. 1 and is part of Amazon Prime's "Welcome to the Blumhouse" series.Prime Video / Youtube

"She is rude, tough and a fighter but at the same time she's a great, heroic woman who’s also an excellent friend and extremely loyal," Barraza explained. "Wonderful contrasts, right?"

In a career spanning decades, Barraza has racked up nominations for Hollywood's biggest awards. In 2007, she became one of only six Mexican actors to receive an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, for "Babel," directed by famed Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Adriana Barraza made Oscar history in 2007 when she became one of only six Mexican actors to receive an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.Hector Moreno

In the film, Barraza plays Amelia, a nanny in the U.S. who faces deportation after bringing the two American children she cares for across the border into Mexico without their parents' permission.

Barraza wanted to be a part of the film, which also starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael García Bernal, because it shined a light on the struggles of Mexican immigrants and those detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I am a woman who from a very early age became aware of what happens with the Indigenous people and immigrants in Mexico. The terrible conditions and misery in which many people in rural areas are living in and the reasons they migrate to the United States," she explained.

"I know many Amelias and the extraordinary story of 'Babel' gave me the opportunity to tell the viewer that anyone, not just this Mexican nanny, can make a noble decision that could be her tragic mistake," she added.

Barraza won raves — and the admiration of co-star Jennifer Aniston — for her performance in 2014's "Cake."Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

Growing up in "a family of artists" in Toluca, Mexico, Barraza played the piano as a child and fell madly in love with dance after seeing the Bolshoi Ballet when she was 8. "My heart wanted to be that," she said, remembering watching the dancers. However, her family's lack of money combined with her mother Celia's illness — Celia died when Barraza was young — made studying ballet impossible.

She began acting on a whim when she chose theater as an elective in high school. Before long, she fell in love with the craft.

By the time college rolled around, Barraza was performing onstage in two theater companies, and supporting herself working odd jobs. In 1975, she became a single mom when daughter Ana Carolina was born. At times, she recalled, she "went hungry, literally hungry" trying to juggle it all.

In 1989, Barraza unexpectedly landed a job directing a Televisa soap opera. Her "unexpected success" led to more directing gigs. But she still kept on acting. In 2000, her life would change forever when González Iñárritu cast her in his debut film, "Amores Perros."

Though her stellar performance received praise, it didn't result in many job offers. Still, her relationship with González Iñárritu had begun, and would ultimately lead to him casting her in her Oscar-nominated role in "Babel" six years later.

The nomination, which came at age 50 and after decades of career swings, made Barraza feel "that God was giving me one of the most beautiful rewards of my life."

Since the Oscar nod, Barraza has kept busy, filming at least one movie each year. She's also added SAG Award and Golden Globe award nominations to her list of achievements.

In 2014, Barraza found herself co-starring with Jennifer Aniston in the drama "Cake." She played Silvana, the big-hearted housekeeper who cares for Aniston's opioid-addicted Claire, a lawyer struggling with depression after being injured in a car accident that killed her young son.

While promoting the movie, Aniston gushed about the level of emotion Barraza brought to their scenes, describing the veteran actor as "extraordinary" in at least one interview.

For Barraza, acting opposite Aniston was "one of the most pleasant experiences" of her career.

"Like millions of viewers around the world, I am also a fan of 'Friends.' When I received the invitation to make the film I was very excited. Jennifer is pure sunshine," she told TODAY, adding that she was knocked out by Aniston's performance.

Of course, Barraza's been helping other actors deliver their finest performances for decades. She's taught acting classes for the past 43 years, and in September 2011 she launched the prestigious Adriana Barraza Acting Studio in Miami, where she teaches her craft alongside her daughter and her husband, Arnaldo Pipke.

"The studio was literally constructed by my husband. The walls built inside the warehouse, the floating dance stage, the big curtains, the painting of every inch of the studio, the incredible curtains, the grill for the lighting, the platforms for the chairs, etc., all constructed by Arnaldo, sometimes with a little help, but almost all alone," she told TODAY.

A decade on, Barraza says the studio's stellar reputation has made the challenges of running it worthwhile. "We’re very proud to be recognized as one of the top 10 independent accredited acting schools in the U.S.," she boasted.

Though acting and teaching take up much of her time, Barraza stays active in political causes. In addition to defending Latino immigrant rights and helping to give a voice to those detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, she's also passionate about supporting farmworkers and the LGBTQ+ community.

"I think that those of us that are privileged to have acquired fame for what we do have a duty to make our voices heard and make any injustices visible, no matter where they exist," explained the actor, who was named an ambassador for the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

When it comes to issues in Hollywood, Barraza wants to see more opportunities for younger Latino actors and filmmakers.

"My hope for young talent is that they be represented in all their depth of interests. That they are given the opportunity to tell universal stories," she said. "There are Latinos working throughout the film and television industry, but perhaps it is a matter of opening the doors to those who want to tell different stories."

"Look at the example of our three directors who are a source of pride for all Latinos: González Iñárritu, (Guillermo) del Toro and (Alfonso) Cuarón. They have all given the American screen fantastic new stories and new innovative ways of telling these stories," she added.

These days, Barraza is busier than ever. In addition to "Bingo Hell," she can be heard voicing a rainforest creature alongside Sofia Vergara in the upcoming animated feature "Koati." She also stars alongside Patricia Clarkson and Trace Lysette in the upcoming family drama "Monica."

Is there a dream role Barraza has yet to play?

"I would very much like to be able to represent stories of great Mexican everyday women," Barraza replied, "those who fight for their children, those who carry them forward despite all of life's challenges. I would like to honor their stories."

For more of our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, tune into TODAY All Day’s special, “Come with Us: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month,” hosted by Tom Llamas. Watch Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. EST at TODAY.com/allday.

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