Gina Torres Was Told She Could Never Sell A Show With A Black Woman Lead. Now She’s 9-1-1: Lone Star’s Newest Hero
“I really got choked up about this,” Gina Torres admitted over the phone to Refinery29, a week before her debut on FOX’s emergency responders drama 9-1-1: Lone Star. She then recalled a conversation with her on-screen husband Derek Webster, who plays Charles Vega to Torres’ Tommy Vega. Tommy is a paramedic captain, wife, mother, and all around bombshell.
“We’re talking, and he admitted to being a little nervous about the love scenes that we had. I’m like, ‘Oh it’s fine. We’re just doin’ a little kissin’. We’ll be great,’” Torres continued. “He said, ‘I’ve never done this. In all my years as an actor, I’ve never played anybody who is intimate with anyone on screen.”
Webster, a Black actor, has been consistently working since the 1980s. “You can go 25 years in a career and never, ever, play an entire, fully realized human being,” Torres, who is Afro-Cuban, said.
Torres’ “catnip” part in Lone Star, as she called it, pushes back against that omnipresent threat. It gives viewers a look at a passionate marriage between two Black professionals — Tommy is canonically Afro-Latinx, like her portrayer, Torres confirmed — and the burgeoning lives of their twin daughters, who wake up with the recognizable traces of braids like real-life Black girls. While Tommy is a revelation unto herself in network TV as a rare Afro-Latinx lead, she is only the latest in Torres’ collection of boundary-shattering roles. In 2019, Torres made history with Suits spin-off Pearson as the first Afro-Latinx femme actor to create, star in, and produce her own series.
This battle for representation is one Torres has been fighting for her entire career — and one Hollywood decision makers once told her was impossible.
I don’t need accolades. If I did, I would have joined social media a hell of a lot sooner than I did.
In 2000, sexy sci-fi syndication series Cleopatra 2525 premiered in the U.S. It followed two futuristic warriors (Torres and Victoria Pratt), and one reanimated exotic dancer (Jennifer Sky), battling the evil robots who now run the world. Torres was at the top of the call sheet every day and contractually the lead talent on the project. “But, nobody knows that,” Torres said matter of factly (she still looks back at filming in New Zealand fondly). “I was not Cleopatra. It was one of those shows where we’re going, ‘Why would you name the show that? I don’t understand.’
“The producer, Rob Tapert, said to me, ‘Well we can’t sell the show with a Black woman as the lead.’ And I was like, ‘...Oh.’”
When it came time to do publicity for the series, Torres was pushed to the margins of the conversation (after all, the series wasn’t named for her character). “I just didn’t get as much attention as the other girls did. Unless it was all three of us. And I just thought, ‘Isn’t that interesting,’” she recalled. “I think my biggest disappointment was that even the Latina press was slow to roll — slow to come. Because I didn’t look like the Latina that they’re used to promoting.”
While glossy shoots aren’t everything for Torres (“I don’t need accolades. If I did, I would have joined social media a hell of a lot sooner than I did.”) this treatment has long enduring ramifications for careers. “There are huge overlaps between the amount of work that you get and the amount of work that you can get, because ‘celebrity’ is monitored,” she said. “You could be the best part of something. And not have your light. Not have a light shined on you. Because it’s next to you … That affects the next job.”
Still, Torres soldiered on. From breaking out in TV’s live action Hercules in 1997 — “They’re like, ‘Oh yeah! We know what to do with you.’ ‘You do?!’ ‘Yeah! Yeah. We’re gonna put you in leather. We’re gonna give you a sword.’” — she went from Cleopatra 2525 to everything from Joss Whedon space opera Firefly and a memorably apocalyptic guest stint in Buffy spin-off Angel to The Matrix Reloaded, 24, Hannibal, Suits (and aforementioned spinoff Pearson, named for her character), Riverdale, and now 9-1-1 Lonestar — with dozens of other roles in between. Although Torres’ characters weren’t always Afro-Latinx by name, there she was, representing her culture, and people, in plain sight.
Why wouldn't I want to be considered sexy and attractive and desirable?
All women want that. And to be able to portray that is empowering
“The moments and the minutes that I can string together adds up to years, explaining who I am and how I got here. I’m exhausted,” she said with a tired laugh, recounting memories of Hollywood brass wondering why a Black woman like her “speaks Spanish so well.” Despite the inherent exhaustion of constantly serving as an educational example of Afro-Latinidad on screens big and large, Torres is ultimately thankful for the opportunity.
“It’s one of those things that comes with the lunch, as they say,’ she added. “I can’t afford to be exhausted. There’s too much on the line. There’s too much work to be done.”
9-1-1: Lone Star, co-starring Rob Lowe and Sierra Aylina McClain, is the latest step on that very necessary journey. After years of playing what Torres calls “the show eunuch” — aka the character “not attached to anybody or anything” with a highly specific narrative function — due to her so-called “ethnically ambiguous” looks, Tommy has the kind of life that looks familiar to Afro-Latinx women. “To be able to play a woman who does have a family, as we do, who does have a loving relationship, which we do, and also a career — it’s fantastic,” she said. “It’s important that we put a name to [her Afro-Latinidad]. That we’re able to see and portray and represent everybody, and show that there are nuances to who we are.”
For Tommy, audiences will learn, those nuances prove she is someone who can wake up with perfect curls after a 24-hour shift, save a man’s life atop a cellphone tower, and still go home to seduce her husband. “Why wouldn't I want to be considered sexy and attractive and desirable?” Torres asked. “All women want that. And to be able to portray that is empowering.”