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Zulay Henao

Immigrant Archive Project
Zulay Henao is a Colombian-American film and television actress. She has co-starred in a number of films such as Illegal Tender, Fighting, Takers, Boy Wonder, Hostel: Part III, The Single Moms Club and True Memoirs of an International Assassin. We sat down with Zulay recently and she spoke about her immigrant experience, her mother's outsized influence, her time in the military, motherhood and finally feeling comfortable in her own skin.
Show transcript
00:00
You know, coming to the United States as such a as a four year
00:04
old, there was a lot of confusion, you know, first of all, we
00:06
didn't come with my father.
00:08
So that was uh it was, there was a, there was a, an element of
00:13
heartbreak that I felt for myself.
00:15
I even felt it within the dynamic of the family.
00:18
My mom, um I remember a very drastic change in the way we lived
00:25
we lived in Medellin, Colombia in a house, you know, two floors
00:29
I had my own bedroom.
00:30
I do remember, you know, parts of my bedroom to living in a high
00:34
rise in Jersey City, New Jersey in the freezing cold.
00:37
And my sister and I used to share this bed that, you know, remember
00:41
they used to call it like a, it was like a foldable bed.
00:44
And um I just remember my mom working a lot and um I just remember
00:54
a lot of uh a lot of financial struggle those early years, just
01:01
a lot of, you know, put your head down and just go to work.
01:04
Um Yeah, it was um it was a big transition.
01:09
My grandfather who has, um, since passed.
01:11
Um, I'm gonna say now almost seven years ago and I miss him dearly
01:15
We were very good friends.
01:16
He was, uh, an old man who never felt old.
01:20
He was the life of the party.
01:21
He had moved here and he was working in the bar scene.
01:25
He owned a bar in, in, in Lower Manhattan and he was doing very
01:30
well for himself here.
01:31
He loved the hustle and the bustle of the city.
01:34
I think that I got that part of me that's, you know, like a go
01:38
getter and from him and my mom, but he instilled it in my mom
01:43
and then my mom passed it on to me.
01:44
He wanted his family here, his wife and the kids.
01:47
And I think that, uh, my, my mom was very brave.
01:54
You know, my father didn't necessarily want to come here.
01:56
They came separately, he followed her afterwards, but she
02:00
came here to, she went to move to New York City.
02:03
We landed in New York City, uh, with two little girls and then
02:08
we ended up in Jersey City and it was, I actually don't know
02:11
where we were.
02:12
Those first couple of months, I'll have to ask my mom, but I
02:14
know that we were in, in New York City and not in New Jersey.
02:17
And then we made a, a very swift move over over to Jersey.
02:22
My mom is still one of the most beautiful women, women.
02:27
I've ever seen.
02:28
She's very elegant.
02:30
She um was always, I think she wanted to be an actor, wanted
02:35
to be a performer.
02:36
She was approached at a very young age by modeling agencies
02:40
in, in, in, in Medellin.
02:41
But you know, her parents didn't allow that for her.
02:44
So she kind of was a frustrated artist.
02:48
And then, you know what we did, I actually uh got her on one of
02:52
my shows.
02:53
She did uh an episode of If Loving You is wrong.
02:57
Tyler wrote in a line for her.
02:59
She's became s eligible.
03:01
So she got to in some ways live out her, her dream of being on
03:05
camera and but she lives her dreams vicariously through me
03:08
Um She's big dreamer.
03:10
Big fearless.
03:12
She's fearless.
03:13
If I had what my mom had, if I had that thing, I would, who knows
03:17
where I would be because she's, she's a very fearless um loves
03:23
life like she's, everything is like, yes, go do it, you can
03:28
do it, you can do it.
03:28
My dad was much, a little bit more reserved, a little bit more
03:32
Um I don't wanna say fear based but just kind of like, hey, let's
03:36
keep, let's keep things together.
03:38
You know, that this thing about being an actor, you know, come
03:41
on like, you know, who do we know in that industry?
03:44
So he was very feet on the ground.
03:47
Stay focused, go to school.
03:50
And my mom was like, yes, let's, let's take acting classes
03:53
in New York and let's go do this.
03:54
So as soon as she started seeing the inclinations in me, she
03:58
started feeding and nurturing them and I will forever be grateful
04:01
to her for that.
04:03
It's a good, it's a good duality of um personalities to have
04:06
in a home and, but it's up to you.
04:08
Like which one are you gonna listen to?
04:09
You need them both, but which, which direction are you gonna
04:13
lean towards the most?
04:14
Um Because you can't stay in fear, you know, and I think that
04:18
we as Latinos as immigrants in this country have a long, hard
04:23
arduous job at getting over or kind of recalibrating and wire
04:28
ourselves for success in this country.
04:32
Because success to a lot of immigrants is not, you know, let
04:35
me go there and it's let me stay afloat and let me stay in fight
04:38
or flight.
04:39
Let me just be able to feed my kids.
04:40
But, you know, I wanted to evolve past that and that's what
04:43
my mom gave to me.
04:44
It's, this isn't about fight or flight.
04:46
This is about thriving and doing things that we love and, and
04:51
doing it with excellence and feeling good about yourself
04:54
and creating something for your family and for yourself that
04:56
you can be proud of.
04:57
It's not just about survival.
05:00
I always identified as um the little girl who kind of didn't
05:06
belong like we just didn't belong for a really long.
05:08
Why am I getting emotional?
05:09
This is so bizarre.
05:16
However, it's beautiful because I feel that waking up to that
05:24
part of me that was like, why do I feel this way is what's creating
05:29
this whole new evolution in me now?
05:31
And I'm so excited, took a long time.
05:33
But I read a statistic.
05:34
It takes that long, it takes that long.
05:38
It takes a long time to rewire conditioning, um inevitable
05:45
conditioning.
05:45
It's your, it's a survival instinct of our parents and of our
05:49
culture to create in us like this, you have to survive but keep
05:55
your head down.
05:56
You know, don't, don't make too much noise, don't make, don't
05:59
make a splash, just behave, get good grades, do all those things
06:03
And, you know, I woke up one day I was like, that's not enough
06:07
I need to exist and live and be fully myself and, and love, love
06:13
that part of me, love the fact that, you know, I grew up in a household
06:18
that we struggled financially because that makes me, you
06:22
know, it's making me more interested in, in even the financial
06:25
world and this is all new stuff.
06:27
This is all new things that have been evolving within me in
06:29
the last, I don't know, 85 years.
06:32
And, you know, now with this business that I'm launching,
06:35
it's, it, it, it really started from asking myself those questions
06:40
and asking myself tough questions about how I felt about myself
06:44
and where those feelings came from and how I could push past
06:48
them and use those experiences to fuel something bigger for
06:52
myself.
06:53
And so, you know, for, with acting, you know, it's, it's, it's
06:57
funny that that's, that's where this whole thing starts for
07:01
me because it's already a competitive industry, whether
07:05
you're Latino or not.
07:06
I mean, I live in a world of rejection so, you know, adding to
07:11
that uh a mindset that isn't wired for success, it's like an
07:15
interesting uh mix of the why, why am I doing this?
07:20
And now I understand that I had to go through all this denial
07:23
and I had to go through all these things to create this new thing
07:26
And I love, my passion is acting and I love being in front of
07:29
the camera and I love telling stories and I um I wanna do so much
07:34
more.
07:35
But now I feel like I finally can because I understand all the
07:40
reasons why I felt like I couldn't modern news.
07:44
My, the, the lifestyle brand for its Latino centric content
07:49
is a love letter to myself.
07:50
It's me saying yes to myself.
07:53
But also me understanding that if I felt that way and I've had
07:57
a level of success that, you know, I feel pretty happy with
08:00
my life.
08:01
And what with what I've created, I wonder what so many other
08:04
girls who are still trying to figure those same questions
08:07
out, who haven't gone to the self introspection that inevitably
08:11
will come with all those feelings, right?
08:14
And so it's a platform to ask really raw questions to um highlight
08:19
a lot of those um things inside of us that are there inevitably
08:23
by way of culture, by way of just, you know, socioeconomic
08:27
status.
08:28
Um how do we create um thought provoking content to allow for
08:35
women to find inspiration within themselves and stop looking
08:38
outside of themselves?
08:40
Because I was always looking outside of myself, like, who
08:43
can I be like?
08:44
And how, who look, who, who is the person and how can I emulate
08:47
that?
08:48
And this is reframing for me at least is that I am that and I can
08:53
look at myself and I can feel proud of myself with whatever
08:56
it is.
08:56
It doesn't, you know, this isn't about being an entertainer
08:59
This is just about um seeing ourselves differently at the
09:04
end of the day, looking in the mirror and, and it's not a, it's
09:06
not even just about body image.
09:09
It's about all the things, all the things that encompass being
09:12
a human being and feeling good about being here, feeling good
09:16
about taking up space, feeling good about um the, the the things
09:23
that you've chosen to do if you're doing good in the world,
09:25
but feeling good about what you're putting out, feeling good
09:28
about taking up space.
09:29
That that's the biggest thing is that for the longest time
09:31
I would cringe even sitting in a, in a setting like this when
09:35
people would interview me, I remember feeling like, but they're
09:38
gonna find out that I really have nothing to say.
09:41
And I'm not, why am I, you know, those were real feelings for
09:43
me.
09:45
And now I'm starting to understand that I can, I can take up
09:48
space and I have things to say and it may not matter to everybody
09:52
but it'll matter to somebody.
09:53
And that's enough when I went to the army.
09:57
This road to being an actor, an entertainer wasn't even on
10:01
the stratosphere.
10:03
For me, it's like, OK, had I not done that?
10:07
It would have never been, probably because it's just such
10:13
a, it's such a different lifestyle.
10:15
It, it's hard to even put into words what happens to you when
10:17
you're in the military, you, you, you leave life as you know
10:21
it and you enter this other reality.
10:24
That's very real to a lot of people that are still in the military
10:26
today.
10:27
That's why they call this civilian world and they're, they're
10:29
in another world.
10:31
You know, it's, they, they, they police themselves.
10:34
It's a whole different entity from the experience that we're
10:36
having here in the civilian world.
10:38
So when I was put, when I put myself in, in that situation and
10:42
I was there and I recognized um very early on at 20 how any, how
10:49
like small little decisions impact your life and how me going
10:53
to this thing and being able to travel and doing hurricane
10:57
relief efforts in impoverished areas of El Salvador.
11:00
I realized I was like, oh my gosh, I have it going on in my civilian
11:04
life.
11:04
It's really not that bad.
11:06
I can do something amazing with myself and I can, I can try this
11:09
acting thing.
11:11
Had I not been there or done that or had those really rough experience
11:16
I, I wouldn't have bet on myself and moved to New York City and
11:20
went to acting school.
11:21
That's what I did.
11:22
As soon as I mean, I drove from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to
11:26
New York City and I enrolled in HB Studios and my mom was like
11:29
yes, and my dad was like, I do, you know what, what is happening
11:33
Um But best decision I've ever made, I um I remember doing a
11:41
lot of off off Broadway productions and I remember giving
11:45
handing out uh flyers for managers and agents to come see
11:49
me and I had this manager come see me.
11:53
He was a manager at one entertainment and their big client
11:56
at the time was um Charlize Theron.
11:58
And so when they were like, come up to the office and after a
12:02
play that I'd done, his name was Jean Louis Jamaica.
12:04
Wonderful man.
12:06
And um they're like, we're gonna, we're gonna take you on for
12:09
a few months.
12:10
We're not signing you.
12:11
We're gonna take you on, we're gonna send you out to a couple
12:13
of things and the feedback that was coming back was she's very
12:17
green, but she's good.
12:19
We like her and then I booked a movie, like no extra work.
12:26
And I was like, wow, I really, I, I think I can do this.
12:30
It was Jennifer Lopez's first production from her uh New York
12:36
Rican Productions Company.
12:38
And it was a movie starring myself in a Marian and it was like
12:41
a dance movie.
12:43
I was scared the whole time because I'm not necessarily a dancer
12:47
But I just remember going to, we filmed it in Puerto Rico and
12:50
saying this is a big break because the, the other, the only
12:55
other thing I'd done before that was a Bud Budweiser commercial
12:58
with Carlos Biz and like, uh you know, I'd done like little
13:04
independent things here and there, but nothing of this level
13:06
And that happened the first year that I, you know, fairly early
13:10
on um didn't have money for a plane ticket because this was
13:16
the thing, this was the, this is what happened.
13:18
They had already hired the actress and she ended up not working
13:22
out.
13:23
Something happens within the production and she was no longer
13:27
doing the movie I had auditioned for it, didn't book it the
13:31
first time.
13:31
Then they reached out.
13:32
They're like, hey, would she fly herself down to Puerto Rico
13:35
uh to meet with the producers and to have a chemistry read with
13:39
the lead actor, but she has to fly herself out.
13:42
She's gotta be here like tomorrow and if, if she books it, she
13:46
can, you know, we will reimburse her and we'll fly her stuff
13:49
out.
13:50
My mom and I putting money together, it was like $400.
13:54
We're like credit cards or like, how do we do this?
13:56
But that's how it happened.
13:58
And she and I, you know, put that got, got a plane ticket and
14:03
I mean, my mom used to sit, you know, because parking in New
14:07
York City is expensive.
14:08
It was $30 then it's like $80.
14:10
Now it's a park in a lot in New York City.
14:12
It's crazy.
14:13
You have to.
14:13
It's like, I don't know, how do people afford a car there anyway
14:16
uh, she used to just park and drive around city blocks waiting
14:21
for me and, and taking me in her, in her, you know, uh what car
14:26
was it?
14:27
It was the Hyundai, a Hyundai.
14:29
I forgot the name, but it was a Hyundai like a little mini SUV
14:32
And we just drive a downtown.
14:35
Then we're gonna go up to this next audition is here and she
14:39
would just drive around and with our dog, our golden retriever
14:43
in the car and we'd go.
14:45
And so that was a big moment for both of us and we were on this
14:49
journey together.
14:50
I mean, we still are.
14:51
She's watching my baby now.
14:53
She's at home with my daughter right now as I'm here trying
14:55
to build this other dream I, we had this conversation off screen
15:01
Tony about our parents and I believe that they say that you
15:04
pick your parents.
15:06
And I did a hell of a job picking my mom and my dad.
15:10
They're fabulous.
15:11
She's, she's an amazing, amazing woman.
15:13
She did a, she, you know, we went into debt together for a lot
15:19
of these things early on school and you know how to get from
15:22
point A to point B and she did the same thing for all of us, supported
15:27
all of our dreams.
15:28
My brother um went to West Point and she was like, got him the
15:33
interview with the, the, the congressman or whoever it was
15:37
um at that time.
15:39
So she's, she's a badass.
15:41
I've been very lucky to play a couple of mothers and I absolutely
15:45
have brought in her love and uh her tenacity and her strengths
15:49
into my characters, which is very admirable.
15:52
Um And that all, not all moms are, sadly, I know a lot of people
16:00
that don't have the same experience or don't have that same
16:04
uh camaraderie or dynamic with their parents.
16:07
And um so I feel very blessed but yeah, she's definitely been
16:10
someone that I've drawn a lot of inspiration from even just
16:14
for me in life.
16:15
Like, what would, how would mommy handle this?
16:17
How does you know, how does she, how does she transmit this
16:19
energy?
16:19
She's very positive, very spiritual.
16:23
And um and she walks me off the ledge all the time.
16:27
I'm like Bobby.
16:29
So, yeah, she's still doing, she's still doing her job as a
16:32
mom.
16:32
It's never ending the poor thing.
16:35
And now I understand it now with my daughter, she needs me all
16:41
day.
16:42
Well, my daughter has completely shifted.
16:45
Um, my perspective on a lot of things.
16:48
I, I feel that her joy and her happiness to me are, are in priority
16:54
Um, you take so much attention off of yourself, you become
16:59
less selfish.
17:00
Um And I have a bigger responsibility now, not in terms of being
17:05
successful, but in terms of creating something that she can
17:08
be proud of and that she can look at me how I looked at my mom and
17:14
create.
17:15
Um So she can create a life for herself, looking at me as a mirror
17:21
like I did with my mom that she's happy with that she's proud
17:25
of.
17:26
And it's a big responsibility to be a mom.
17:29
And um I'm bringing a lot of those feelings and a lot of those
17:33
emotions into modern news.
17:35
Um Just last night, we had a conversation with some of our new
17:38
partners about and they have daughters as well.
17:42
And it's a big responsibility as a whole to say, I'm gonna try
17:47
to have this platform to create um change within the mindset
17:54
of young women.
17:56
So it's a tall order.
17:57
I'm not saying I can do it alone because I can't, I can just try
18:00
and create something for my daughter that she create a space
18:05
hold a safe space for her.
18:06
So that she feels always seen that she feels always heard and
18:10
she always feels like she can come to me with um with any problem
18:15
at all.
18:16
Like I could and always was able to, with my mother and that
18:19
we would figure things out together that she would never feel
18:23
um alone or not supported or Yeah, she was my mom always used
18:29
to tell me I'm not your friend, I'm your mom.
18:32
But now it's like I was always your friend but I needed to mother
18:36
you.
18:40
Ok?
18:41
Yeah.
18:43
If I were to offer advice to a young Latina woman who was trying
18:48
to work in front of the camera or trying to tell stories, try
18:51
to become an entertainer in any facet that um you have to believe
18:57
you have to see yourself there.
18:58
You have to have the vision and you have to believe that you
19:02
can get there because if you don't, nobody's gonna in, nobody's
19:06
going to instill that in you that has to come from you.
19:08
Not even your mother can do that for you.
19:10
You can, can have all the support around you.
19:12
You can have all of the.
19:14
But at the end of the day when you go to bed at night, you have
19:17
to live knowing some things and knowing some things means
19:22
you have to know that this is going to come to fruition you have
19:26
to live knowing a few things at least.
19:29
And then you can build from there.
19:31
You have to love, you have to love it.
19:36
Yes, because it's, there's, there's another aspect of it
19:39
that it's like you, you have to pay your dues and you have to
19:42
go through a lot of things too.
19:44
But you have to believe that you can see, you have to see it and
19:48
you have to believe that it's gonna happen.
19:50
If you asked me 24 years ago, if I had any regrets or if I could
19:54
do have a do over or do something different.
19:57
I I'm pretty sure I would say I, I would have, I would have said
20:02
I've had a lot because I've made a lot of mistakes and I've showed
20:07
up fractured to a lot of great opportunities or not my best
20:12
self or not confident enough.
20:13
But uh I just don't live that way right now.
20:18
And in this current incarnation of me, I just feel like everything
20:21
I've done has led me here even to this chair sitting with you
20:24
Tony.
20:25
And it's because of all those things.
20:29
Why change them?
20:30
There's no need to really change anything.
20:33
I am the proudest of this version of me that is um still coming
20:39
up with new ideas and visions and dreams and still going, I
20:44
can do it.
20:45
I am proud of the way in which I've learned to love myself.
20:54
I am proud of of the questions I've asked myself the hard questions
20:58
that I've asked myself and I'm really proud of becoming a mom
21:02
really proud of being a mom.