As the country grapples with COVID-19, Cuban American actor Gina Torres says it's "incredibly humbling" and a "gift" to step into the role of a paramedic captain in the season premiere of the hit drama "9-1-1 Lone Star."
"I'm very conscientious of making sure that what we're putting forward — what I'm putting forward — is accurate and gives them the respect and the attention that they deserve for everything that they're doing day to day to day," Torres, 51, said of emergency workers who are "putting themselves at risk, putting their families at risk."
Torres plays Tommy Vega, a former paramedic captain in Austin, Texas, who hung up her uniform eight years ago to raise her twin daughters. She returns to work after her husband's restaurant goes under at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Torres, most recently known for her critically acclaimed portrayal of Jessica Pearson on the USA Network legal drama "Suits" and its short-lived spin-off, "Pearson," spoke about the chance to shed light on the sacrifices of front-line workers.
"They'd be the first to tell you, and not unlike 'Suits' or 'Pearson' when you talk to lawyers, it's not that sexy or dramatic a lot of the time," Torres said. "Having said that, I really do believe that the strength of this show is the focus on the characters — it is really character-driven and human-driven, and that's what these people are in the face of extraordinary circumstances."
A new role, and a reunion
It was a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic that Torres got a call from her old friend Tim Minear, the co-creator and showrunner of Fox's "9-1-1: Lone Star"; they had worked together on the cult favorite "Firefly" in 2002.
Torres had just gotten notice that her latest pilot was not going to be picked up by ABC. Meanwhile, Minear had discovered that his original female lead, Liv Tyler, would not return for the show's sophomore season, concerned about the commute between her home in London and the production in Los Angeles.
In a reunion that was nearly two decades in the making, Minear's initial phone call with Torres was followed up with an official pitch over Zoom for a new character that he had written with her in mind. Having played "overly accomplished, ridiculously capable and standalone" figures throughout her career, Torres was immediately taken aback by Minear's offer to portray a fierce first responder who is also readjusting to life as a working wife and mother.
"You try to have a game face during these phone calls (and say): 'Yeah, whoa, that sounds interesting. Oh, sure, uh huh, yeah.' But there was no game face, and I'd known him way too long for that, anyway, so I was just like, 'Yup, sounds great to me!'" Torres said with a hearty laugh, later saying she had casually watched the show a few weeks earlier.
"What's so beautiful and what I just adore about Tommy Vega and this woman that I get to honor is that she's not overly complicated," Torres said, comparing Tommy to other characters she has played. "She's going through what a vast majority of women and families have to go through every day, including myself, in terms of trying to find a balance and not winning that battle all the time and loving what we do but feeling that somehow makes you less than at home.
"In all my years of network television and in all the things that I've done that have rarely ever seen the light of day," Torres said, "I'm so excited about finally having a husband, children and friends — friends that I can talk to, that came over. One of the dear favors that Tim did me and the character is that there's already a really close and beautiful relationship with the characters of Judd (Jim Parrack) and Grace (Sierra McClain), so that helps quite a bit, and I'm just enjoying it so much."
Acting — and changing stereotypes
After more than two decades in the business, Torres said her years of experience have helped her to navigate the ebbs and flows of a competitive industry in which roles for Afro-Latinx actors, especially leading ones on prime-time television, are already "limited" — a word she has always hated.
"When I sort of led the charge and grabbed the horns of my career, really wanting to make my dreams a reality, 'limits' couldn't be part of my vocabulary," she said. "It really became my job to (change the minds of) people, whoever was in the room at the time, whatever habit of expectation and false information they'd fallen into regarding what any particular person or sex or ethnicity should look or behave like.
"Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't. But I did my best not to pander to that expectation or that bad habit, and I continue to do that," she said. "I call it a bad habit because it can be broken. You just have to stop behaving and reacting to things in that way."
Torres, a longtime advocate for authentic onscreen representation, said it has gradually become "a little bit easier to be heard" because of her powerful and memorable roles, as well as the connections she has formed with industry professionals and fans, but she acknowledged that "there is so much more to do."
"So many people are worried about quotas and overcorrection. I'm like: 'That's great. We're more than due for an overcorrection,'" she said. "Let's do the overcorrection, and some things will fail miserably, because more energy was put into the overcorrection than it was into the actual quality of the project, but that's OK. I can't tell you how many tens of thousands of hours of predominantly white programming is simply awful and mediocre, so why shouldn't we be afforded the exact same privilege? Honestly, it runs forever. It's just astonishing."
As the proud daughter of Cuban immigrants, Torres said she does not know whether her heritage has necessarily influenced her craft as an actor, but it has certainly fed her drive and passion, even in this new chapter of her life.
"It's such a part of who I am. It's the fabric of who I am," said Torres, an American Latino Media Arts and Imagen award winner. "You can be both — you can be Cuban and identify with your culture and love this country that we're in and be absolutely devastated by what happened" at the Capitol on Jan. 6. "Both things are absolutely true, so that's what continues to propel me forward."
When asked to preview her character's arc on "9-1-1: Lone Star," Torres excitedly teased the deeply human stories that drew her to the project, in addition to the Texas-size emergencies that made the "9-1-1" spinoff Fox's highest-rated new series of the 2019-20 season.
"It's tentative at first. It's a little prickly. She's been away (from the job of a paramedic captain) for a while. She's definitely a little guarded, but that softens up. Sooner than later, the characters really do become a team, and a close one," she said. "I would say in the midst of all the madness — from tanks in the streets of Austin to a volcano to a fire — there are some really beautiful human moments of bonding, fun, humor and light.
"I really do hope that when the fans of the show come in and watch the second season, they'll see themselves reflected in all kinds of ways — and honored, really truly honored."
Season 2 of "9-1-1: Lone Star" premieres Monday on Fox at 9 p.m.