‘There’s never been a role like this’: The ‘surreal’ search for TV’s next Latina star

Olivia Goncalves and Claudia Forestieri of “Gordita Chronicles.”

(Rodrigo Cid / For The Times)

In the last year, Olivia Goncalves has headlined her first TV series and befriended stars like Eva Longoria and Zoe Saldana. But right now, at this particular moment, she’s only interested in showing off the brightly colored beaded creations she’s made of her favorite Disney princess trio: Tiana, Ariel and Jasmine.

“I made them last night hoping someone would ask me about them,” she says, carefully positioning the bubbled designs in front of her iPad’s camera for a better view over Zoom. Think paint by numbers but with water-activated beads.

Goncalves is 12, so you can understand if she sometimes prioritizes toys over her Hollywood ambitions. But as the face of the new HBO Max comedy “Gordita Chronicles,” she is already proving to be a performer with the mark of something special.

Premiering last month, the comedy follows the Castelli family after they move from the Dominican Republic to Miami in the 1980s and try to adapt to their new American surroundings. Goncalves plays Cucu, a middle schooler with spunk who was the life of the party back home and is trying figure out her place in this new life.

Cucu is not only adjusting to a physical move, but a cultural one too. And although her identity and appearance come in for mockery and punishment, her spirit remains resilient. When a jock calls her “fatso” on her first day of school in Miami, Cucu chucks his football. When a teacher punishes her for speaking Spanish in class, then needs Cucu to help her communicate with a Spanish-speaking security guard after locking herself out of her car, Cucu has some fun with the translation.

Goncalves, like her character, is as vibrant as a Lisa Frank illustration. Her eyes grow big as she lists off the actors she hopes to emulate, including Raini Rodriguez, who plays Trish in Disney Channel’s “Austin & Ally” (She shares that she cried while meeting her favorite actors from Netflix’s “On My Block,” Jessica Marie Garcia and Julio Macias, at the “Gordita Chronicles” premiere.) She’s into Harry Styles’ music and Megan Thee Stallion too. And she really wants to work with Cardi B. But if you ask about her favorite subject in school, the eye roll comes as quick as her wry response: “Dismissal.”

For the record:

10:08 a.m. July 13, 2022An earlier version of this article said that “Gordita Chronicles” creator Claudia Forestieri’s family moved to Miami from the Dominican Republic. The family moved from Puerto Rico.

As Cucu, Goncalves is stepping into the dramatized shoes of the show’s creator, Claudia Forestieri. In the early 1980s, Forestieri was an overwhelmed fourth-grader at Springview Elementary in South Florida. Her Dominican family had recently moved to Miami and she was swirling in insecurities about her identity and her appearance. One day, she decided to participate in her school’s essay contest. The writing prompt was a deceptively simple one: “I wish …”

“At that point, I have been already getting bullied a little bit from being gordita,” she says, using the Spanish term for chubby girl that is sometimes used as a term of endearment despite its ability to sting one’s self-esteem. “So I wrote an essay about it that was titled, ‘I wish I was skinny.’ It was just talking about why I wished I was skinny and how I thought my life would change. And it was very revealing.”

She won the essay contest. Soon after, and without warning, the essay was read without her permission over the school’s PA system for everyone to hear.

An archival photograph of a young girl in a school uniform

“Gordita Chronicles” creator Claudia Forestieri as a child, wearing her school uniform.

(From Claudia Forestieri)

“I wanted to die,” says Forestieri, sharing the screen with Goncalves on the Zoom call. “I thought only the teacher was gonna be reading it. I turned all sorts of red. But then something kind of magical happened. After that, people — even the bullies — were a little bit nicer to me. I made a couple new friends and teachers were nicer to me. I also kind of liked hearing my words said out loud. It’s really like stayed with me. And that’s how my storytelling career began.”

Like a good ol’ TV flash-forward, a version of that girl, give or take a few years, became the inspiration for a character rarely seen leading a series. Forestieri was motivated to mine her life during Donald Trump’s presidential run in 2016, agitated by his rhetoric around Latinos and immigrants. At the time, she was working as a news producer at Telemundo. And it felt all too familiar: “They said there was a lot of crime in the ‘80s because of the cocaine trade and Time magazine famously did their cover story in 1981, ‘South Florida: Paradise Lost.’ Because of the Latins, South Florida was being ruined. I’m like, ‘OK, they tried to blame immigrants for ruining a whole piece of the United States back in the ‘80s and now they’re trying to blame immigrants, again, for all the ills facing the United States.’”

In trying to show what families like hers were like after moving to America, Forestieri also seized the opportunity to write a more positive outlook for her younger self, saying the character is part who she was and part wish fulfillment — at least she thinks so.

“I didn’t have as much confidence as my fictional alter ego,” she says. “We wanted a heroine that everybody could look up to and was inspirational. In real life, I probably spent a lot more time being sad than she did. Cucu has so much more confidence and optimism than I ever did. But then when my friends and family who knew me from growing up, as they’ve been seeing everything, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, that’s exactly who you were. How did you find your mini me?’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Was I really like that?’

“I wanted her to be fearless and brave,” she continues. “I felt a responsibility to show the challenges of being gordita but also empowering her. It’s a hard line to walk, right, because I want to show the reality of what it was — and it was harder, in a lot of respects — but also, nobody wants to watch a show about crying in your room for an afternoon. We wanted to show a little bit of that realness of what it’s like when you get picked on or where someone zeros in on your perceived flaw, but we also wanted to show how to overcome that and give kids inspiration and hope.”

Forestieri needed a girl for the part who could pull off the confidence and vulnerability that the role demands. But she also needed to be Latina and chubby — and that created obstacles.

“I started looking for Latina girls that were gorditas that were on other shows,” Forestieri says. “I even was looking in the background of Disney shows to see if I could spot a gordita. But the thing is, there’s never been a role like this. We have a chicken and egg problem. There’s a lot of young girls that are very talented, but there’s not that many that are Latina, let alone have that natural sass and chispa and confidence that we were looking for — a girl that was young, but also can anchor an entire show. We knew we were looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Women on a TV set look on, tearful, as the young star reads a speech.

“Gordita Chronicles” creator Claudia Forestieri, center, and showrunner Brigitte Muñoz Liebowitz, right, look on as star Olivia Goncalves reads a speech on the last day on set.

(Claudia Forestieri)

Knowing she couldn’t rely strictly on the pool of young actors with talent representation, she broadened her search by posting on her social media platforms and tapping her connections within the Latino community.

The comments trickled in from friends playfully suggesting their own daughters. And then came one from screenwriter Jorge A. Reyes — he knew a producer who used to work in casting, Ulysses Terrero, who might be able to help despite his skepticism of Hollywood. He sent over three videos, including one from Boston-based Goncalves, who is Dominican American. Terrero, who is now her manager, knew of Goncalves because he’s friend’s with her aunt’s boyfriend.

Forestieri describes her audition tape as a “surreal answer to so many prayers.”

“The first thing that hit me was, ‘Oh, my God, this girl has so much confidence and sass,’” she says. “You couldn’t pay me enough to disclose my weight and so the fact that she was like, ‘This is who I am, this is what I can do,’ it hit me in the head, it hit me everywhere. There’s no way you came from that not feeling like she’s gonna be a star. She just came at you unapologetically and declared she was our girl. And she turned out to be right.”

“Gordita Chronicles” is Goncalves’ first professional acting job. Growing up, she always envisioned herself being a nail tech or a makeup artist but, she says, she occasionally imagined life as an actor: “I always wondered what it would be like being in front of so many cameras,” she says. “When I was younger, I used to watch actors go on the red carpets and I’d be like, ‘I want to go on a red carpet too!’”

She’s gotten there. And she’s still learning the rhythms of the job’s demands — like that time she stayed up late playing Roblox instead of studying lines for the next day’s scenes.

“I woke up late because I went to bed late,” she says. “So I’m there getting ready. And we’re already late. In the van ride to the set, I’m there writing my lines on sticky notes, trying to remember, but I’m rushing, writing different words. When I got there, I brought the sticky notes on set, I laid them on the desk and I was like really reading and looking at the camera. So that was the day that I was like, ‘They’re gonna fire me.’”

A tween girl in a headband looks surprised and delighted

Olivia Goncalves in “Gordita Chronicles.”

(Laura T. Magruder)

Goncalves’ mother, Gismar, who was present during the interview, says the idea of her daughter headlining a TV series was initially overwhelming.

“As long as she’s having fun with it and enjoying it, she can do it,” she says. “The moment she’s not enjoying it, then that’s it. This wasn’t a dream of mine, so I don’t expect to live a dream through any of my children. It’s up to them. … I’m here to support her.”

Goncalves is very much enjoying the experience, and not just because of the cool perks.

“I’m very proud that I’m a part of this, because I’m showing kids who are chubby, kids who feel like they are different, it’s OK to be you and not care about what other people say,” she says. “And I’m also really proud of myself because I’m showing myself, who’s not very comfortable most times because I know that there are kids that look at people like me differently because we’re bigger than them or we have color on our skin.”

In the meantime, the image of Goncalves as young Cucu — a grin on her face, sitting poolside with her family — is plastered on billboards and HBO Max home screens. Forestieri hopes “Gordita Chronicles” is just a springboard for the actor.

“I keep imagining, like, a movie with her and Tiffany Haddish — I just think they would be incredible together,” she says. “I see so many wonderful things for her. But, also, sometimes when I see her and she says something, I remember she’s 12. And this is a really tough industry.”

A young girl standing on a New York City sidewalk

Olivia Goncalves of “Gordita Chronicles” photographed in New York City.

(Rodrigo Cid / For The Times)

For her part, Goncalves certainly thinks about long-term goals with the maturity of someone not totally naive to the unpredictability of Hollywood.

“I want this to be like a career that I can continue on doing,” she says. “But if anything, like, ever goes south, my backup plan is to continue going to school. I want to graduate college and since I’m doing the show, some people are already going to know me, so I want to take business [courses] and start my own business. Like ‘Gordita Cosmetics’ or something like that. So people who watch the show, they can help me promote my business. Hopefully we get another season … and I get on different projects and just do many more things to grow.”

And she’d really like it if one of those projects could involve a tiara.

“I want to work with people who make animated movies,” she says. “Like, if they make a new Disney princess movie with Hispanics in it. I’ve been wanting to do that ever since I watched my first Disney princess movie. Why can’t I be the princess?”

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