As a native New Yorker who grew up with people from all walks of life, experiences and backgrounds, Melonie Diaz wishes people would stop seeing color — both in Hollywood and in real life.
“I have friends of all different colors and races, and there’s an openness that I feel in my heart towards everybody and everything, and that’s what I try to bring to the characters that I play,” the Puerto Rican actress told Fox News Latino.
Which is why the 29-year-old actress — who is best known for her scene-stealing roles in hit indie movies like “Be Kind Rewind,” “Hamlet 2,” and “Raising Victor Vargas” — isn’t fond of labels.
“Being Latina is a really big part of who I am, how I grew up and what I identify with,” Diaz says proudly. “[But] people like to kind of put you in a little box. And what I’m trying to do is say ‘no, you can’t put me in a box, because I can be everything.’ Why can’t I be everything?”
She said she doesn’t want to be defined by the color of her skin.
“It’s like, yeah, OK, so fine I’m a woman of color. But who cares? I’m a woman. I’m a woman,” she said. “It just happens to be that the color of my skin is brown.”
Diaz’s new movie “Fruitvale Station,” which is in theaters now, examines race relations and is based on real events. It is the story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, a young African American father who was killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Station in Oakland, Calif., during the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 2009.
“I think there was a lot of fear, I think there was a lot of anger, I think there was a lot of judgment,” Diaz says when asked why she thinks Grant was murdered in 2009.
Still, the actress isn’t going to tell anyone what to think of the story and says people should draw their own conclusions.
“I can’t really say why—I don’t have the answer to that. I would only say – look at the YouTube video,” she said.
Parallels can be drawn, Diaz says, between Oscar’s story – which received national attention in 2009 – and that of the recent Trayvon Martin case.
“Yes, you can draw comparisons – they’re both young black men who suffer from racial profiling. I think that is the common thread between them,” Diaz said, noting one major difference.
“I think with Oscar – why it was unique – was because it was caught on camera,” she said. “We were able to kind of show the world what’s happened.”
In the film, Diaz plays Grant’s real-life girlfriend Sophina, who in addition to being the mother of his child, was also his confidante and best friend.
“It’s a love story,” Diaz said of the film. “You follow these two people and what they’re going through, and how hard it is to be in a relationship at that age and raise a child as well.”
Diaz said she was able to draw from her own relationships and love life to inform her role as a woman with male troubles.
“I had recently been through something where I was hurt by my ex-boyfriend, and I know what it is to be a woman scorned,” she said. “I understand what it is to be a woman scorned.”
She also says her conversations with her cousins and girlfriends helped her get into Sophina’s mindset.
“We’re normal girls so we always just talk about our issues with our man, with our men,” Diaz said.
In preparation for her role in the film, Diaz had the opportunity to meet Sophina (who’s Mexican) and she was struck by her ability to love unconditionally.
“It takes a certain kind of person to kind of, love that way,” Diaz said. “She’s been through a lot, but she’s still managing to be a great mom and despite all of the s*** that’s happening – I really respect that she’s such a good mother.”
Diaz, who calls Sophina “tough, but also really loveable,” says she knew girls like her character growing up in New York.
“I’m lucky that in my family there are all of these like really awesome, strong women who are good mothers and work full-time jobs and are kind of holding the family together and who are good people,” Diaz says. “Playing a woman like that, that I’m familiar with – it makes me kind of feel good. Because I think we need more women like that on the screen.”
And aside from being a love story, Diaz says the film is a portrait of a man who wants nothing more than to change and to become a better man for those he loves.
“The movie is about a lot of things, but I think it’s about a young man of 22 [who’s] trying to make changes and do the right thing and unfortunately that’s cut short,” says Diaz.
Diaz says she was drawn to the film because it’s not just a great movie, but also a “socially active” one.
“I think it’s a good movie and it’s also entertainment, but I also feel like it’s a movement. It’s a movie that has social commentary and I wanted to be a part of that,” she says.
The critics seem to agree with Diaz. The film, which was released on July 26th, has earned rave reviews from critics and a number of prizes including the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
“We were excited to win the Audience Award first, but I didn’t realize that you could win both awards…I thought that once you got one you were done,” joked Diaz, who was named the “Queen of Sundance” back in 2008.
“The fact that people are responding to it the way they have been is definitely a surprise. I can’t say that I’m like ‘oh yeah, we knew it.’ We made this movie in 20 days.”
The film also screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the award for Best First Film and now it’s getting early Oscar buzz for its transcendent performances.
But the humble and down-to-earth actress says Oscar love for the little movie—either for her performance or for the movie itself—is something she’s not prepared to think about.
“I try not to [think about it],” she said, her voice going to a whisper. “I’m really humbled and this may sound like the politically correct thing to say, but it’s really nice and really flattering that everybody’s saying that and I’m just happy that I’m here and that I’m able to enjoy this with my cast.”
Lee Hernandez is the former Entertainment Editor for Latino Voices at The Huffington Post and the former Deputy Editor, Digital at Latina Magazine. He can be reached at Steinbecksletters@gmail.com or on Twitter.