411 Movies Interview: Maria Canals Barrera
Even though Maria Canals Barrera is a hard-working actress, she knows that her job as a parent is first and foremost in her life. She’s currently promoting her new show on the Disney Channel called Wizards of Waverly Place. As the sharp witted mother of three squabbling teenagers who are learning to handle their new found magical powers, she teaches the kids how to use their hearts and minds not just their magical powers. Already dubbed the next Hannah Montana, both adults and children could enjoy this primetime entertainment. Move over Harry Potter, there are new Wizards in town! I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Maria to talk about her new show, being a mom, and a whole lot more.
TONY: Tell us a little bit about your show Wizards of Waverly Place. What can we expect from the show, and what’s it about?
MARIA: Well, the show is a comedy, a sitcom type show, which is actually a dying breed, because there used to be tons of sitcoms. Now, there aren’t that many on network TV, so we really actually inherited some of the best sitcom writers. So, our show is really funny. It’s a family show, and it’s safe for everybody to watch. And it’s very good and very entertaining, which is very important, because a lot of parents want to be entertained when they’re watching TV with their kids. It’s about the Russo family, and I play Theresa, the momma of the family. And the kids have magical wizard powers that they inherited from their dad, so basically the powers kick in when they’re teenagers. It’s kind of like puberty. And we have to make sure that we raise them responsibly, having these powers. The momma, myself, I don’t have magical powers, because I’m a mortal. I’m the Darrin Stevens of the show. But she’s a lot of fun and she’s passionate and protective of her children. My husband is played by David DeLuise, who is just a big cuddly teddy bear of a guy. We own a sandwich shop called Waverly Place Sub Shop in New York City. So, it’s got teenage angst, it’s got wizard magical powers that can take us anywhere, which is a great premise for special effects and fantasy and basically anything that the writers want to conjure up, and it’s got the flavor of having a mom who is Mexican American. My character is of Mexican heritage, so there’s funny things like the kids trying to speak Spanish. The dad’s of Italian American heritage, so there’s that multicultural stuff, which is very timely and it adds some flavor to the show. So, it’s got everything, really. Like I said, it’s got the magic going on, the teenage stuff. There’s three kids in the show: Selena Gomez, David Henrie, and Jake T. Austin. On the show, they’re sixteen, fourteen, and twelve. But my four-year-old loves it, so you don’t have to have an older kid to enjoy it.
TONY: Since you are a parent, was it pretty easy to relate to the show?
MARIA: Oh, yeah. The love for a child is right there when you’re already a parent. You really get it. You can love children, but once you become a parent, you just really get it. Your patience increases. What’s cool is because the kids are older on this show, it kind of gives me a little peak into the future of what it’s going to be like, because my kids are four and two, so I get practice on raising teenagers before I actually have to do it.
TONY: What’s it like working with the kids on set? Did you guys hang out before the show started to feel comfortable with each other?
MARIA: Well, that happens during rehearsals. We have a whole week of rehearsing, and we actually clicked right away. In fact, that was one of the reasons that we were cast together, because the chemistry was instant. Actually, I remember I went in with Selena, who plays my daughter, and we went in together for one of the last call backs, and I had already played her mother on another show that didn’t go, another pilot. And the chemistry was there. Like I said, David DeLuise is just a big old cuddly teddy bear. I just adore that guy. I really do. When you play somebody’s spouse, sometimes you have to really work it, feeling that love. But I don’t. I just loved him instantly. He’s just adorable and very funny. And the kids are terrific. They’ve got good heads on their shoulders, they’re comedically very talented, and it’s really in the parenting. They all have great parents, and it shows. Let’s hope they stay that way when they become superstars, ya know?
TONY: It seems like we live in a very rough world today with a lot of negativity all around us and a lot of danger. What challenges do you face, as a parent, here in 2007?
MARIA: I think it’s keeping them children as long as they’re supposed to be. We live in such a sophisticated age where information is so easily attained. That innocent and joy and the simple things, I want them to really appreciate that, because kids grow up so fast now. They’ve become so sophisticated and over it and whatever so quick. We were just shooting a movie in Northern Canada, and the leaves were just incredible, and I just really showed my girls, who are four and two, you know, “Look at these leaves, and this is what happens in the fall and autumn. The leaves change so new leaves can come out.” We really took our time looking at leaves and collecting leaves and talking about the leaves, so that they can really take in the little things, because their attention span gets invaded with the next toy or the next gadget. Even with television, I try to not have them see so many commercials, which is great, because with Tivo you can fast forward. It’s just so much information so quickly. I think basically the challenge for me having to do with the times that we live in is keeping them innocent as long as I can, yet savvy. You don’t tell a stranger your personal information unless mommy says this is an OK person, and that this is a friend, and this is somebody that you can trust. That’s the balance, isn’t it? To keep them savvy yet innocent.
TONY: What’s the most rewarding part about being a parent?
MARIA: When you asked me that, I just pictured that love that comes right back at you, when they hug you and kiss you and when they speak and start saying, “I love you, momma.” Investing your love in something so worthwhile, which is your child, it is never wasted. And that’s the most satisfying thing. If I’m tired, I’ll drink one more espresso and keep going and do what I need to do and be what I need to be and focus where I need to focus, because this time will pass. And everybody tells me, “Oh, it goes by so quickly. Enjoy them now. It just goes by so fast.” And everybody tells me that, so it’s gotta be true. I believe them. So, I do what I have to do to enjoy them, because I don’t want to say, “Oh, I wish I’d been there when this happened.” So, it’s juggling everything. I bring them to the set with me. My kids came with me to Canada when I just did this Disney movie. I brought the nanny and the kids, because, again, this time will pass, and it can never be recovered.
TONY: I want to back track a little bit and talk about the early years. How did your passion and love for acting start in the first place?
MARIA: Wow. I remember having a passion for fantasy and pretend and play acting, like most kids do. They pretend a lot, and they do games and pretend. I remember having this passion since I was little, and I think it was fueled by my parents being very colorful people. And I remember just wanting to be in the show in elementary school, and I was in the show. And I couldn’t wait to get into Drama class in 8th grade. I remember in Jr. High that we had to wait until 8th grade, and we couldn’t go in 7th grade. I just couldn’t wait to do it, and I was in all the shows. And in High School, I just followed this passion, and I took Theater and I was in all the plays. And I got most talented. Then I auditioned through College, and I got a scholarship at The University of Miami in theater. And then I was like, “Can I really do this for a living? Can this be, like, a real job?” It was this passion I followed. Then you’re older and you have to decide what you’re gonna do for a living. And I remember kids talking in college and saying, “Well, I’m gonna study this, because they make this much money.” And that was so absurd to me, to choose something based on the money that you make. I never thought of it that way. I thought, “Well, I wanna do what I love to do, and hopefully I’ll make money.” It’s funny, because you have to have that crazy passion to do it in the first place, because it’s so hard and so competitive that you have to love it that much. So, thankfully, I did love it that much. It’s just so fun to recreate moments and be other people and affect other people and make them laugh. That laugh when you hit a joke is just so satisfying, or to move people with some wonderfully written words that you’re given. It’s a fun escape. It’s great, and to be privileged enough to do it and to get paid for it is fantastic. That’s why everybody wants to do it.
TONY: I want to talk to you about George Lopez, because you made an appearance on his show. I’m a huge fan of his show, and I watch it every night. What’s he like in person? I’ve read reports that he’s really generous and really a good person. He was recently in Chicago, and he left a 200 dollar tip at a restaurant. Is he as nice on the show as he is in person?
MARIA: Totally. Totally. He’s also a friend. I’ve been to his home, and I know his wife from Miami. He really is that generous of a guy and that deep of a soul, where he uses humor and he uses it so well, to deal with the struggles that he’s had in his life that he’s showcased on his show and in his stand up. He’s fantastic. He deserves all the success that he’s gotten. He cracks me up. My husband and I, we are rolling over in our seats laughing when we go see him perform. He’s terrific. He’s a terrific guy. He had a tremendous hit. I mean, they were on five years, right?
TONY: I think it was six, actually.
MARIA: Oh, my. That’s amazing. That’s terrific. He had a bona fide hit, and it was a terrific show.
TONY: We just talked George Lopez and his show, which had a long run on TV. Do you think it’s still hard to find really good roles for Latin Americans?
MARIA: I think things are getting better, because people are being exposed more. There’s such diversity in the Latin American culture. It’s just incredible. We come in every race. My background is Cuban, and my parents are Cuban. We’re American. I was born in the states, and I’ve never lived in a Latin American country, so I’m an American, yet I’m very proud of my culture. I speak Spanish. There’s so many different kinds of the Latin American experience, so I love that the American Latino was showcased on George Lopez in such a great way. It was such a great depiction of being both, so I think that is helping the doors to open up for, like for example, my character Theresa on the show. She has that flavor and that color. We talk about it sometimes, but it’s not all of who she is. She’s a mother, she’s got kids with wizard powers, and she runs a business. It’s not this weird thing where you need a special writer to write a Latin show. People are people. I think that’s becoming more and more of common knowledge, where as people used to think, “Ohh, how do I write for a Latin show?” It’s just basically writing for people that happen to have a certain background from another country. So, I think with George Lopez and Greetings from Tucson, which was a great show, and I was part of a show called American Family, which was terrific, I think things are changing. And Ugly Betty is another hysterical show featuring Latin American people. So, I think things are really opening up.
TONY: I also have to ask you about Larry David, because you made a great appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm. How similar is Larry David to the character that he plays on TV?
MARIA: Very similar. Very, very similar. He’s sitting there in the make-up trailer reading The Nation. Yeah, he’s very similar. He’s actually one of the coolest and warmest guys that I’ve worked with. He was very conversational and not like, “Hello, How are you?” Not like in a fake kind of way. He was like, “So, what do you got going on next?” He was like a real guy. He was friendly and open. He’s very involved with checking out the wardrobe. I really enjoyed working with him. Also, by the way, Jeff Garlin plays a wizard on our show. He plays David DeLuise’s brother who got the wizard powers when David DeLuise’s character married me, because if you marry a mortal, you have to give up your wizard powers. You have to have this showdown, this competition, and the best person wins. And Jeff Garlin, his character, wins. And he’s this irresponsible, let’s-just-have-fun, kind of freewheeling magic kind of Uncle, and it was great working with him again. He’s terrific. He’s a funny guy. We, of course, let him ad-lib his tushy off, because he’s so funny.
TONY: You also worked with Tony Danza on his show. What’s Tony Danza like?
MARIA: Tony is a blast. Again, he’s warm. He had everybody over at his house in Malibu. Again, he goes out of his way to make people feel comfortable on the set. He has this boyish spirit still, and he looks so young still, too. He was terrific. He was a lot of fun. I had a great time on that show.
TONY: Now that you’re a mother, do you find that you pick roles that are more suited for children, because you know they’ll be watching you?
MARIA: I take each one as it comes. I’m totally open to a wonderful role, even if it’s not a show I can watch with my kids. As long as it’s challenging and good and the story is captivating and has a message I agree with and a story that I think would be great to tell, then I’m all over it.
TONY: How do you balance everything in your life without going crazy?
MARIA: I have a terrific husband. My husband is also an actor. His name is David Barrera. He’s actually in Africa right now doing an HBO mini-series called Generation Kill, and he’s been gone a while. He’s been able to visit a few times. He actually visited us in Toronto, which was great. I can’t imagine doing it without him. He’s a very hands-on dad. We have the same belief system, that we agree with how to raise the girls and what’s more important. We love our work and we’re passionate and serious and professional, but it’s not our identity. We know what’s most important. So, it’s not easy, but we balance it. We have a lady that helps us. We have a nanny, because we have to. But, like I said, I brought them with me to work, and I bring them to the set. I try to plan around. Like today, I planned this interview, actually, around the time that I pick her up at pre-school, because I want to be the one to pick her up at pre-school. You just have to prioritize. That’s how you do it. And schedule as well as you can. It’s not easy, sometimes, but it’s a blessing that we have work. And as an actors, we go from project-to-project, and sometimes we do have a lot of time, which is great. Sometimes it’s a little bit more challenging. Like right now my husband, again, I said he was in Africa, and I was in Canada. And that was like, “Wow.” That was kind of hard, but he did get to visit us. And he brought the girls to the set every day. It was terrific.
TONY: As a mother, how much does it bother you to read so many stories about the bad girls in Hollywood and all of their troubles? I mean, they’re so talented, but they just can’t seem to stay out of trouble.
MARIA: It grieves me. It grieves me. And the whole Britney thing is shocking. I really thought she’d come around and find her way again. And it doesn’t seem, from what I hear, to be happening. And it makes me feel very sad. And it makes me remember to keep my hand and my eyes on my girls, because it happens to all kinds of young girls. They lose their way, and not just in Hollywood. But, yeah, it’s terribly, terribly sad.
TONY: As a actress, who do you look up to and try to model your career after?
MARIA: Well, I don’t have somebody I really watch and emulate and follow their career or anything like that. But I have noticed some classy behavior. I like Patricia Heaton. I think she’s very talented and funny. She’s a mom of four boys and has her own production company. I like her a lot. I’ve read interviews with her, and I think she’s a great gal. And I think she’s got good priorities. I admire people that stay married and work on their marriage. People like Andy Garcia. I admire him for not letting himself get pigeonholed as a Latin actor and for taking a stand. I read that he doesn’t do sexual scenes that he doesn’t feel comfortable with, which is really rare for a man to take a stand like that. So, there have been things that I’ve seen people do that I admire. I admire Salma Hayek’s vision and her ambition and her focus. She’s always wanted to produce for a long time, and look at the success she’s reaping from her hard work. I admire that. So, yeah, those are some examples.
TONY: Finally, what are your plans for the future?
MARIA: To do the best work I can do. To be the best mother I can be. To be a terrific wife to my fantastic husband. To learn how to cook better. I love to cook, and I really want to be the best cook I can be. I know that sounds crazy, but now days people are so busy that they’re not eating well enough. And I want my girls to be as healthy as they can be, so I’m really into cooking nutritious food for them. That’s a lot to handle there.