Natasha Perez on playing Yolanda Saldivar in Selena: The Series — 'I'm not her!'
When Natasha Perez first learned that Netflix was casting the role of Yolanda Saldivar for the streamer's Selena: The Series, she wasn't sure what to think initially.
Perez, an actress and comedian, had experience playing villains in previous projects but this would be different. Portraying the woman who killed the beloved Queen of Tejano music, Selena Quintanilla Perez (played by Christian Serratos), could be a dangerous career move. But from an actor's point of view, she was fascinated.
In part one of the series' nine episodes, currently available to stream in its entirety, Saldivar is introduced for mere seconds in the finale. But it's an impactful scene for Selena fans who know what her presence means in her tragic story.
"I remember receiving this email from my agent and my manager [about the casting] with a photo of Yolanda Saldivar. I noticed in the photo she was wearing a vest similar to one I had just seen hanging in my mother's closet," Perez tells EW exclusively.
"I grabbed it, and I put it on and said, 'Oh, this actually looks like the photo. Interesting.' I had to play villains in theater before and a year prior to my being cast on the series, I played a villain in a film for the first time but it was a comedy. So I remember thinking I'd like to see what it's like playing an evil villain. It sounded fascinating from an actor's standpoint, to dissect what someone like that has going through their minds. I remember working with the director on the scene and she asked me how I was feeling. I told her I was feeling conflicted. The actress in me is fascinated by the journey of a complex character, but the human in me has all sorts of feelings. The actress in me is also worried for her safety. A lot of people take this very seriously and think that it's real, and in this case, the character is real but it's not me. I'm not her."
Perez was so convincing in costume that her colleagues on set failed to recognize her on multiple occasions. Once she removed her makeup and costume for the day, she caught many confused glances staring back.
"Who are you?" the Venezuelan actress was asked by fellow cast members and the crew. "It took them a few weeks to get used to the fact that I was the one they were seeing around set. I'm hoping that will happen in the real world too and that I'm not that recognizable out of my costume. Plus, Yolanda is 5'1" and I'm 5'7". While shooting scenes with Christian, she'd wear platforms and I had to kneel down to trick the cameras due to the height difference. There are a lot of differences between Yolanda and me, physical, definitely, and hopefully behaviorally too." [Laughs]
A lot of research went into becoming Saldivar since she wasn't a public figure. The real Saldivar is still alive and is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole in Texas for the first-degree murder of her friend and business colleague, Quintanilla Perez, in 1995. Perez thought it would be beneficial for her to meet Saldivar to learn what she couldn't from newspaper cutouts.
"I did as much research as I could," she explained. "I was interested in meeting her even though I knew that the person I would be meeting would be a shell of the person who has been in prison and in solitary confinement for so many years. My interest was in seeing her mannerisms, and how she spoke. I requested permission to meet her, but to honor the family we decided it would be best for me not to. Instead, I spent so long scouring the internet finding anything I could about her. I also went to the library to try to see if I could get more information from Laredo, Tex., via microfiche."
Perez wants viewers to know that while Saldivar does appear in the series, the show is a "celebration of Selena's life and not about her death." She describes the feeling on set as "celebratory," and while her death will obviously be addressed, everything was done with the utmost care and respect.
"The series isn't about her death. Yolanda is there to add tension to what's going on, but what's going on is so beautiful because it's an artist finding herself, an artist emerging and finding her place within her family, and society. Everyone was very careful with how it was all handled. Unfortunately, Yolanda is a part of Selena's tragic story. But the beauty of it all is how her legacy continues until today through her music, her art, and really, her whole life. Thanks to her, we can have this conversation today and celebrate a show about a Latina, starring and written by Latinos. It's a beautiful thing."