Alyssa Diaz describes her scene partners as playful, which is exactly the word I’d use to define her. The talented actress can be currently seen as Angela Lopez on ABC’s hit show The Rookie and as Mika Camarena on Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico (based on real life DEA agent Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena’s work building a case against the Guadalajara Cartel). No matter who she’s portraying, Diaz is always fascinating to watch and a real star in the making.
The following is a condensed and edited version of my phone interview with Alyssa Diaz. (Warning: There are spoilers for Narcos: Mexico within this conversation)
Brief Take: Congratulations on The Rookie being picked up for a full season, and I know everyone will soon be talking about Narcos: Mexico. In each of those projects you just disappear into each of your roles. Tell me how you craft your characters.
Alyssa Diaz: Thank you! I start with the script and then I get the belief systems of each character from the text. From there, I start building it and I do research. So for Narcos: Mexico, I play Mika Camarena and I actually got to meet her. I went to San Diego and we talked for three hours where I was asking her lots of questions about her life, about Kiki, and just about her day-to-day life, just to get the details right. I wanted to know who she was. I recorded our conversation so every time I would go in to work, I would use that to be able to really drop into that character.
Then for The Rookie, because I’m playing an officer, I did a few ride-alongs with the LAPD. I did a couple of those and I got to talk to some female sergeants and female officers and really got their take on being female in a male dominated work force. I asked them what it’s like to date, and what it’s like being a Mom, when you’re managing being an officer. What surprised me, in talking with the female officers, was learning how much is at stake at any given moment. Your life can change in a moment. Whether you’re training as a rookie or you’re a regular officer with a partner, the people that you work with become your family. Those people have a deep understanding of your life that an outsider just wouldn’t. We also did training, so all of that helped me get into character. Plus the uniform also helps because you feel the weight of the belt and the gun and the pepper spray and the baton. Every character is a little different in how I find my way in, but really getting to their base in terms of what makes them who they are, and then I just keep building from there.
Both roles were about women who are very selfless. Mika said that when you’re a DEA agent’s wife, you really have to be selfless because they can just go off at any moment – the job is a priority. You can’t make it about you. She would tell me that how she got through it, after Kiki passed away, was to look to her children. She had to be there for her kids. So yeah, both roles taught me how to be a better human.
BT: I imagine that you must be getting a lot of positive reactions from real-life police officers watching The Rookie.
AD: Yeah! The feedback has been really great. A lot of officers are excited. Actually a couple of the officers that trained us got to come on set, so that was fun. At the end of the day, we are filming a television show but we do want to keep it as real as possible. It’s really nice to have all of the officers’ support.
BT: I love your character’s interplay with Titus Makin Jr.’s Jackson West. What’s it been like working with him?
AD: I loooove Titus! Titus is like a brother to me. It’s great working with him because he’s so open and he’s willing to learn still. He’s not someone who’s closed off and thinks he knows everything. He’s very sweet and he really cares about his work. He’s just a pleasure to work with! He makes my job easier.
BT: I assume it’s the same working with Michael Peña too. He also seems like a very generous scene partner.
AD: Yeah Michael is great! What I love working with Michael is that he was so playful in his work. He was willing to follow whatever was happening in the moment.
BT: One of my favourite scenes in Narcos: Mexico was when your character is looking at a house in San Diego and the real estate agent asks if you should wait for the decision maker before deciding on the house. Then you calmly but confidently tell him that you are the decision maker. What was your favourite scene to shoot?
AD: Oh I love it! Hmm, some of the scenes with Michael, such as when we were walking through the market place and it’s right before he gets kidnapped. We have playful banter with one another and it’s this romantic little walk but it still feels like a very lived-in couple – they have inside jokes with one another – and finding that with Michael was really fun. I think the most intense scenes are at the end, when he gets kidnapped, in episodes nine and ten. It’s not that it was fun, but as an actor, to be in that space, it was so intense and to come through it on the other side was a relief. But it really taught me that feeling of loving someone so much and the heartbreak of them missing and not knowing when they’ll return, and just empathy for individuals who’ve been in that situation.
BT: As you were saying, Mika and Kiki’s marriage feels very lived-in and you and Michael pulled that off so beautifully. Had you two worked together previously?
AD: No. We did a chemistry read and then I got offered the job. It just felt really natural. We got along right away. Kiki and Mika were best friends. In real life they’d known each other since they were in middle school and they both grew up in a small town. So that was the way that we approached it – that this couple had been together forever and they’re a team and have each other’s backs. So it was cool to be in that space and play with Michael in that way and create those layers of what it is to be married for so long – the playfulness, the frustration, and the love.
BT: Both of these projects have very heavy subject matter. On The Rookie there’s a lot of shoot-outs and there’s the intense kidnapping on Narcos: Mexico. How do you keep things light on set and after filming?
AD: When we’re filming The Rookie, I do this cartoonish cop voice [in 1950’s-esque gritty older cop voice] ‘I’m a cop. I’m gonna getcha, you scumbag!’. That kind of got contagious on set and now everyone does it. [laughs] It is a big story to tell and we do feel responsible in honouring real-life officers, but at the same time we’re also playing. Being able to do shoot-outs is intense and bringing levity to it is definitely being playful. Nathan is great because there was this gambling game, something like that, and he got the whole cast playing it. We also play Heads Up as a group. You really see a person’s personality shine through when they’re playing a game. One night we did a karaoke night at Nathan’s house, which was super fun. I did ‘Come Together’ and then Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ after I’ve had a couple of cocktails and feel like I can sing like Adele. [laughs]
BT: You have a gorgeous voice though! I saw your recent Instagram video and you genuinely have a stunning voice.
AD: Oh thank you! On set we play around and have to find the surreality in the situation. The other day we were filming a car scene and suddenly a bus came down with a Rookie ad across it. We were like “hey! I know that show!”. It’s so surreal because usually I’ll be filming on location somewhere and the ads come out later. So to be filming in L.A. and see all the advertisements here, it makes it all feel so real. [laughs]
Narcos: Mexico is currently streaming on Netflix and The Rookie airs on Tuesdays at 10/8MT on CTV and ABC