For Afro-Latines, seeing someone on screen who looks like you and also shares your cultural background is still rare. “When there’s not a lot of representation, you just try to find yourself in any character,” says Lee Rodriguez, who plays Fabiola Torres in Netflix’s coming-of-age comedy series “Never Have I Ever.” For years, she has looked up to the likes of Panamanian-Mexican Tessa Thompson and Dominican-Puerto Rican Zoe Saldana. Now, countless viewers are finding that much-needed and beloved representation through Rodriguez.
With “Never Have I Ever” premiering its third season on August 12, Rodriguez will return to her role as Fabiola, a queer, nerdy character that she says is much like herself. Feeling so close to the role, she hopes it's a portrayal that is offering inspiration to fans.
“It's such an honor to be a part of the show, let alone be that representation. It has really opened my eyes a lot and has really humbled and inspired me so much,” she says. “Everyone says this a lot, but it's so true: It feels good to see someone who looks like you on screen. It genuinely gives a sense of inspiration. It gives a sense of like, ‘Oh, I can do that, too,’ or ‘I can be in this space and be myself. … I really love that. I really love when people feel like they can see themselves through Fabiola and feel represented. It's truly an honor.”
Similar to Fabiola, the 22-year-old California native is the daughter of a Mexican father and African-American mother. “My mom is a little bit similar to Fabiola’s mom in the sense that she’s very expressive and has a big personality,” Rodriguez shares. “It was really fun to work with Tembi [Locke] because the way that she played my mom Elise was really similar to my [own] mom. Also, my dad on the show — we only see him a couple times — but the character of my dad, his name is Victor. Funny enough, my actual dad’s name is Victor.”
In the first two seasons of “Never Have I Ever,” we get to see and know Fabiola as Devi Vishwakumar’s (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) tech-savvy best friend. She is the captain of the high school robotics team, and is learning to navigate her sexuality while entering into a romantic relationship with Eve (Christina Kartchner) that brings a new group of friends around her. Throughout seasons one and two, there’s a lot of character growth for Fabiola, so it begs the question as to where we will find her in season three. “There’s so much that happens in season three with my character that they don’t show in the trailer. Fabiola is still the supportive friend, being there for everybody, but there’s a lot of relationship stuff that she’s struggling with — with her current partner,” Rodriguez explains. “There’s a cliffhanger at the end of episode two with Fabiola, [and] I'm really excited for people to see what Fabiola is going through.”
While Fabiola and her friends Devi and Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young) begin to navigate romantic relationships in seasons one and two, and will continue to nurture old flames and ignite new ones in season three, at its core, “Never Have I Ever” is a series about this beautiful, dynamic, and sometimes complex friendship among the three young women characters of color, a lovely portrayal we don’t often see in popular entertainment. “Man, having good supportive friends or people that are really there for you or tell you if you're in the wrong [is so important]. ... They're just your No. 1 support system. It's so important to see and have,” Rodriguez says. “I feel like any time Devi does something, Fabiola and Eleanor will be there to be like, ‘Hey, that's not cool.’ It's good to have friends that call you out on things. I'm glad that this show does that. I'm glad that it shows a strong female friend group.”
This strong on-screen friendship has transcended to real life as well. According to Rodriguez, she, Ramakrishnan, and Young have built a sisterhood outside of the series where they’re there for each other and support one another. “I’m glad that by doing this show, I was able to make real-life, new best friends,” she says. Despite each of their hectic work schedules, they make time to spend together off the set — and it’s always a good time. “We go out and eat lunch together. We go to Universal CityWalk, and we walk around and talk. Sometimes we forget that people recognize us, so we’ll get stopped every five minutes, and we’re like, ‘Maybe we should go sit down and eat,’” she shares, laughing. “We have sleepovers, which are so fun. During our last sleepover, we made TikToks and played Dance Dance Revolution. It was so fun.”
Apart from her on-screen persona, Rodriguez, who in addition to acting is also pursuing a career in music, considers herself to be a chill person who is focused on being the best she can be in her personal and professional lives.
“Behind Lee Rodriguez is Laronza, my first name, which is me at my core, someone who is very goofy and loves to sing randomly at every second of the day. It’s [someone] who feels deeply and cares about the people around her, and cares about leaving an impact on the world. Someone who cares about my dreams and being a good friend, a good sister, and a good daughter,” she says. “I’m just trying to be more selfless and more self-aware, trying to do better every day and growing. That pretty much sums me up.”