Twenty-seven year old Naya Rivera has been a successful actress since she was a young girl. Her credits include Family Matters, 8 Simple Rules and The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, starring Will Smith. But as with most actors on Glee, the popular show has really put her on the map. In the show, Naya plays Santana Lopez, a “sassy, vicious cheerleader who isn’t afraid to tell you how it is,” as E Online puts it, Santana is a “notorious mean girl” who has a crush on fellow cheerleader Brittany, played by Heather Morris. Fans of the show, known as “Gleeks” lobbied for the girls to become more than just friends and so “Britanna” [sic] was born. In spite of her busy schedule working on the fifth season of Glee, developing her solo music career and enjoying her engagement to Big Sean, a rapper on Kanye West’s label Good Music, and on Def Jam, Naya made time to pose for our Cover Story and give Prestige an exclusive interview.
Naya was born and raised in Valencia, a suburb of Los Angeles. The eldest of three siblings, she comes from a family with a genetic code for talent. Her younger brother Mychal Rivera, is an NFL tight end for the Oakland Raiders American football team, and her younger sister, Nickayla Rivera, is a runway model who has walked for Indian-born American designer Naeem Khan during New York Fashion Week. The daughter of George and Yolanda Rivera, Naya began to be represented by her mother’s talent agent before she was even a year old. Her career became massively successful in 2009, when she was casted in the role of Santana Lopez, the cold-hearted cheerleader on the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning television series Glee.
In this role she started out as a minor protagonist - Santana had no lines in the series pilot - but she had earned more high-profile storylines by the second season because of the demands of the fans. Show creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk listened to their viewers and developed the more-than-platonic relationship between Santana and her on-screen best friend, Brittany Pierce. Naya credits her fans for her success. She told AfterEllen.com: “I feel like the fans are actually fully responsible for the place that Santana’s character has been taken and her storyline. I feel like they weren’t really sure what they were going to do with it and if it would make an impact. And the response has been just overwhelming. They are the reason why I am where I am right now.”
Opportunities and accolades have abounded for Naya based on her multiple talents and exotic looks. As a result of her role in Glee, Naya has shared a group Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series. Individually, she has won awards as Supporting Actress in a Comedy from My TV Awards and Favourite TV Actress in a Comedy from American Latino Media Arts Awards. This Puerto Rican, German, and African-American mix beauty has been on the Maxim Hot 100 for three years in a row.
Before she could walk, Naya appeared on television as an adorable baby crawling around in commercials for the Kmart chain of discount department stores. Her first significant acting job came at the age of four when she landed a role as Hilary Winston on The Royal Family, an American sitcom written and produced by Eddie Murphy, for which she received a Young Artist Award nomination for her performance in the series. She went on to play small roles in a number of popular American sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, and CSI: Miami, working odd-end jobs in between auditions and roles as a telemarketer, a nanny and a greeter at Abercrombie & Fitch.
During a break in Glee’s busy production schedule, Naya told us how she won her part of the show, her “loner” days in high school and her Twitter romance with fiance and rapper big Sean.
What was it like to work on Glee, Naya? What’s the atmosphere like on set?
Stressful! (laughs) But it’s something we’ve been doing for a really long time now, so we’ve all got the hang of it. We actually just finished filming the 100th episode, so we had a celebration. All of the cast, the producers, the writers, everyone was here and they put together a really sweet collage of every episode that we ever recorded. It’s not just stressful, though. We goof around and have a lot of fun, too. We’re like a big family here on set. We’re all friends, and we hang out with each other outside of work. It’s a really good group of people to be working with.
What are the main challenges you face in playing Santana?
Trying to be consistent as an actor is really the hardest thing. It’s been amazing to play the same character for five to six years now because it really lets me flex my acting muscles. But playing a character for that long, you have to really push yourself to keep things new and fresh and interesting. In the episode that airs tomorrow, Santana sings “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, which was something new because Santana doesn’t really sing too many show tunes. But that’s the hardest part really, keeping things interesting.
Looking back on your own high school days, what was the experience like? Were you the same kind of popular, sassy girl as Santana?
Absolutely not. I went to Valencia High School (in the Santa Clarita area of California) and I was actually kind of a loner. I didn’t have too many friends. I kind of felt like I didn’t belong because I was working, and I had my eyes set on others’ aspirations - being in the entertainment industry. I wanted to do cheerleading back when I was a freshman, but I just didn’t have the time. With the back and forth of auditions and work, I couldn’t commit to the after-school practices.
For the viewer, it seems very glamorous to be in a show like Glee. But how hard do you and the rest of the team have to work?
We all work really hard. When we are in production, we put in long hours. But we have weekends off, and I try to make the most of them. With the New York shift in the show, the schedule has gotten a lot better. But in the beginning, for the first three years or so, it was pretty much a Monday through Friday back-to-back kind of schedule. But yes, It’s really challenging because we work long hours. For example today I got to set at 7:30 am and I probably won’t leave until 11pm.
When the show is in production, how do you manage your time so that you can still have a personal life?
It’s really a great balancing act of your time. When you really love something, you make time for it, and it all just works out.
Talking of your personal life, we read that you met your fiance, (rapper) Big Sean, on Twitter. Is this true, and, if so, how did it happen? And how did your relationship blossom? Have you guys set a date for your wedding?
Yes, it’s true (laughs). I actually started following him on Twitter and I mentioned that I was a big fan. Then some fans started to alert him that I was following him. His assistant happens to be a big fan of Glee, knows my character on the show and knows who I am, and so he became curious and started to ask who I was. So then a date was set. and it all just happened from there. The way our relationship blossomed is just like any other relationship. We went on a date and we enjoyed each other’s company. So we went on another and another, and it developed just like any normal relationship. As for the wedding date, I’m going to keep that to myself.
You began as a child actor and you are still successful as a young woman. How did you avoid the pitfalls many child actors fall into?
I guess I’m pretty lucky that I gained quote-unquote fame later in life. You know I’m 27 now, so I really do have my head on my shoulders. If I’d achieved success earlier, maybe things would have been harder, but I’m a grown-up. I have responsibilities and maturity that comes with that.
What advice would you give to other young people who want to go into the entertainment industry? For example, how did you deal with rejection when, unlike Glee, other auditions you went on were not successful?
I’ve been in the industry for a while, and I’ve been experiencing auditions for so long now, that it’s not a big deal when I don’t get a role. It just kind of rolls off my back. I believe in my abilities and my talent, and everything is really about the right timing. You just have to persevere. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and if I don’t get a role, it just wasn’t the right time for me. This mentality is something that has always been the same since the beginning. I have a unique situation where I’ve been doing this since my first memory. I remember times when I was really upset that I didn’t get a role because I had gotten so close, but there’s always another audition, another opportunity, and tomorrow is another day.
What happened at your audition for Glee, and then what was the process before you received the offer to be in the show?
I had to get sheet music for the pianist, who now works for Glee, because I had to sing. I actually read Mercedes’ lines because Santana didn’t have any lines in the pilot. That was pretty much how it worked, I auditioned, they liked me, and I was fortunate enough to get the part.
How did you feel when they said yes?
I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it. It was the first time I truly saw the fruits of my labour. It was tangible. I had proved myself. It was something that I actually earned.
What was the highlight for you in Glee so far? What was your favorite episode or solo song, and why?
Oh gosh, that’s a really hard question to answer. I get asked this question all the time, and I never have a good answer. Every experience has been good, so it’s hard to pick just one. And I’m saying that, I guess that’s my answer
How would you like your character to develop in future seasons?
I don’t know, I’m not really sure. The stuff we filmed for the 100th episode brings her full circle, and I’m really comfortable with where she’s at right now.
You do quite a lot of charity work. How important is giving back to you? How did you choose the various foundations you support?
It’s really, really important to give back, whether you’re in the entertainment industry or not. It’s something that everyone should do and should want to do. I have my own reasons for getting involved with the various charities that I’m a part of and I want to start something else on my own - a cause with my own vision of what I’d like to make a difference in and with my own direction. But I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to give back.
You say that your goals for the next five years are to keep doing the things you love. When it comes to acting, how would you like to branch out? And where would you like to be with your singing career?
With acting, there are so many avenues. Of course I love television, I started with television. But I’ll probably explore movie roles, then maybe do television again. The opportunities are endless. I love to sing. That’s definitely something I’ll do for the rest of my life. But where do I want to be with my singing career? I don’t know. I think timing is everything. Singing is such an artistic process that can’t be rushed.
And finally, Naya, how do you picture a happily married life for yourself?
That is something that is different for everyone. For me, I want to continue to fall in love with the person I’m married with.
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