'Empire' Breakout Star Jamila Velazquez Aims To Leave Her Mark On And Off The Screen

'Empire' Breakout Star Jamila Velazquez Aims To Leave Her Mark On And Off The Screen

From off-Broadway to FOX, Jamila Velazquez is the girl next door you want to remember.

 

When Jamila Velazquez first watched FOX hit drama series Empire she knew deep inside she was made for the show. “Where was my audition for this?” she  recalls thinking to herself. Little did she know back then that a year and a half later, she’d be on set as Laura Calleros, the lead singer of a girl group called Menage a Trois and bad boy Hakeem Lyon’s (Bryshere Gray) new love interest.

Today, we’re sharing time and space in a brightly-lit conference room at VIBE’s headquarters. Jamila is equal parts cute and casual, clad in a black crop top and a pair of dark denim jeans. Her curtain of long black curls falls well down her back, complimenting her pair of dark hickory, almond-shaped eyes.

Born to a Puerto Rican and Dominican mother and a Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican father, Velazquez was raised in the Longwood-Hunts Point section of the South Bronx. Growing up, she attended Catholic School, and by the age of six was enrolled in acting class. Both a remedy for reading comprehension and a way to have some fun.

This is where my dreams started, right here in the Bronx. —Jamila Velazquez

“My Catholic school is actually right across the street from my old house,” she remembers. “I was in my grandmother’s house the other day and I was thinking, ‘This is where my dreams started, right here in the Bronx.’”

When she was just eight her acting teacher saw a glimmer of talent in her, which led to booking her first role on an off-Broadway play. “I felt like I had a purpose in life,” she says of her developing acting career. “And I told my mom at eight-years old, ‘This is what I’m doing for the rest of my life.’’

That sense of determination followed throughout high school. She would trek everyday from Rockland County—where she moved when she was 11—to Midtown Manhattan to attend the Professional Performing Arts High School. At first, she was a vocal major, but then switched to drama her sophomore year. Eventually, all of her hard work would pay off. 

Guest-starring in Law & Order as Pilar Morenas, alongside Mariska Hartigay (Officer Benson), was the 20-year-old’s first big break. She then appeared on ABC’S Twisted as Sarita, and played a small part in Orange is the New Black thereafter, around the same time she booked her role on Empire.

I think it was really important to have a young woman on the show that was prepared to say ‘No, I’m about my work.’ —Jamila Velazquez

Jamila has this around-the-way-girl demeanor, which makes it incredibly alluring to exchange everyday anecdotes with her. You nearly forget you’re talking to an actress from one of cable TV’s hottest shows out right now. The encounter feels more like a conversation about life with an old friend. Not to mention, her sweet personality is very reminiscent of Laura, the character she plays on-screen.  

“I’m definitely quiet and pensive like Laura is in a lot of ways,” she says. “When people first meet me they think I’m shy and to myself ‘cause I am, naturally.” Yet, there’s one major difference between her and her fictitious persona: “She's a lover and wants to make everybody happy, I’m more of a fighter.”

Still, she identifies with Laura’s work ethic and reluctance to sell herself short as a woman fated for superstardom. “I feel like my character is extremely transparent and I love that. She isn’t compromising for Hakeem’s womanizing ways,” she says as she works up a hand gesture for emphasis. “I think it was really important to have a young woman on the show that was prepared to say ‘No, I’m about my work.’”

She hints at a more serious relationship maturing between Laura and Hakeem, which only gets steamier as the new season unfolds. Laura even loses her virginity to Hakeem, as you probably already know with the new season premiere. She also alludes we will get to see more of Laura’s personality this time around, as well as her talent as a musician and performer. “It’s nice to see her grow,” she says. “You’re going to see the difference. She was kind of innocent, now she is becoming more of a bad ass.”

And while she is very appreciative of her new role, she isn’t naïve about Hollywood’s issue with diversity. For her, it’s important to break the mold and venture into roles that don’t fit the Latina stereotype. “I feel that as a Latina it’s hard to know where your career is going to go as an actor, because you don’t want to get type cast,” she explains. “You don’t want to be playing the same 16 And Pregnant or the girlfriend of a gang member. It’s always the same roles and we’re always kind of shown in a negative light. Like we are always the problem or the antagonist, instead of being the protagonist in some ways. We don’t have many Latina superheroes or things like that.”

She admits that some progress has been made with shows like Jane The Virgin, but she still feels very passionate about representing the complexity of her Latino heritage in more positive ways, on and off screen. An important moment for Velazquez happened during her first season on the show, when she sang “Yo Vivere” by Cuban legend Celia Cruz. 

“It was important to me because I know how much it means to my family,” she says earnestly. “And just the fact that I get to sing in Spanish on the show is really special for the members of my family, who only speak Spanish and don’t necessarily understand me when I’m speaking English and acting on TV.”

It’s a major feat for the star, who just a year ago was watching the show from the comfort of her mother’s home. Elizabeth Sanchez couldn’t be more proud.

“It’s surreal. Sometimes it just doesn’t sink in that she is in the show,” says mami, dressed in a long indigo dress, paired with black heels and silver hoop earrings. “I’m very grateful and proud that she is actually realizing her dreams. I see her on the show and I’m like ‘OK, but you still need to do your chores.’”

Jamila, a triple threat of good humor, beauty and brains, says if she wasn’t an actress she’d do something in forensic science. Is it any wonder she was stoked for her role on Law & Order? “I’m super obsessed with detective shows and forensic files,” she says dissolving into a fit of giggles.

Meanwhile, this multi-ethnic Latina is working equally hard on a singing career, crafting up alternative rock-inspired songs for your listening pleasure. You can spin one called “Nothing Like You” on YouTube, which she composed while still in high school. She co-wrote the track as it was inspired by her personal experiences in love. Her process, she notes, are about writing songs that first start out as poems before they bloom into fully-versed ballads.

Jamila is now draped in a Daniel Silverstain Pac-Man inspired jacket and leaning cool in black stiletto heels on 5th Avenue, bustling with crowds in commute. Her stylist, Laura, calls for her: “Stand here and work your magic.”

Like a true natural, she doesn’t need much direction. The camera loves her and her star aura, which would soon command attention. Passersby in suits and skirts do a double take, with a look on their face that reads ‘Who is this girl? I’ve seen her before.”

Be so good that they can’t forget you. —Jamila Velazquez

“Oh, look Jamila, they’re playing music for you,” her mom says as Rihanna’s “Work” blasts from a passing SUV. She does a little side-to-side shoulder lean in approval, when suddenly, a cluster of tourists from Mexico stop at a short distance.

“Es famosa?” questions one of the stylish-looking women. “No, no creo” says another in disbelief. Finally, one of them, towing a Dear Soho shopping bag, quenches her thirst for knowledge. She approaches Jamila’s mother and asks her who the young lady is.

“Ella es mi hija, y es actriz en canal 5 Fox en el programa Empire,” Elizabeth quips proudly. “Oh,” says the woman, now smiling as one of her cohorts begins to snap cellphone pictures of Jamila.

Back at the office, when asked what’s the single most important piece of advice she would give to young Latinas, Jamila put an emphasis on hard work and letting that do all the talking. “Be so good that they can’t forget you.”

Main Image Credit: VIBE VIVA/Stacy-Ann Ellis