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.”