An interview with the star that voiced Luisa in Disney’s Encanto

INTERVIEW BY KRYSTA MCKENZIE, IMAGE BY PRIME VIDEO

You probably know Jess Darrow as the voice of Luisa in Disney’s Encanto. When the film came out last year, everyone (including us) speculated that Luisa was sapphic, and we were so excited when we found out the actor who voiced her was actually queer. Jess now plays a sports publicist, Mikki Easton, in the upcoming Prime Video drama series Fifteen-Love. The series follows tennis prodigy, Justine Pearce (Ella Lily Hyland) as she navigates her life and career after making a sexual assault allegation against her former coach, Glenn Lapthorn (Aidan Turner).

DIVA: How do you feel now that Fifteen-Love is about to come out?

Jess: I feel very excited! It’s my first TV show that I’ve ever done. The dream is to be on film, on TV. I come from the voiceover animation world, which I absolutely love, but this is definitely the goal. So to be able to do that while telling such an important story is absolutely the dream.

What’s it like being a queer actor playing a queer character on screen?

Playing Mikki is the first time I’ve actually played a part that feels very close to me, even to the extent I remember when I was like one of my first days on set with Eva Riley directing, and I asked her, “Am I doing enough?” Because it felt so close to me. And I very much come from a huge theater, musical theater background on top of that, where you’re often giving a lot of energy, a lot of effort so that you can translate to the person in the back row.

But film and TV is such a different medium, and it really requires you to be very authentically you so it was a very vulnerable experience because I just wanted to know that I was enough. And the whole process of playing someone that was queer and openly queer, that also didn’t need to be talking about it all the damn time was honestly a cathartic experience for me.

It felt so refreshing watching it as well, so I’m glad you had that experience.

You saw it?! So people are going to be like, talking me and they’ve seen it. Is it good? Am I good? Do I look good?

You’re great in it, honestly!

Okay good! Getting more into the queer stuff… I essentially had my lowkey/highkey coming out when Encanto came out and I played Luisa, who everyone speculated to be this queer character – which I cannot disagree with because also it helps that the person that they’ve got to play this character is also queer. But it’s not something that I’ve like… I never felt the need to talk about it. But I was able to in such a nice segue – it kind of was just handed to me. And then… of course, [my family] comes out of the woodwork like… “Yeah, we always knew”. And I’m like, “Okay, no, you didn’t. I assimilated very well to your hetero ways!”

But now… I get to be doing it myself on TV [as] Mikki, who is the ballbuster, go-getter, ambitious, incredible, will fight for love and justice at the end of the day, and also just happens to be queer!

Well about Mikki actually, I was going to ask because I feel like Mikki has such a cool fashion sense – were there any items that you really wanted to steal from the set?

In fact, I did. Well, I didn’t steal I was given permission. Specifically, this one outfit that I wore, I guess I can’t give too much away, but it’s in the last episode and it’s this long sort of it’s like a long sleeve shirt dress, but I wore it as almost like a really long cardigan. And I never would have worn that myself as Jess, but when I put this on… I was like, I feel like through Mikki’s style, through putting on all of her costumes – it kind of elevated my own personal style because I was like, I would have never picked this out myself. I loved everything that I wore, but it also inspired me to start doing more heels and slacks… It’s like I’m feminine and masculine at the same time, and I’m here to step on all of your necks.

Oh I love that!

Yeah, it’s just like, I’m not here to fuck around!

So, tell me about how you first made your start in theatre.

The first part that I played was Captain Hook in Peter Pan. I painted my nails rainbow colors because even then I created this backstory that I didn’t tell anyone about: that Captain Hook was secretly gay, and he was really jealous that Peter Pan got to live his life and be a boy forever, “and why can’t I love who I want to love?” Which also segues me to say… they said that I could sing a song and I was like, I want to sing Somebody To Love by Queen. And then you couldn’t get me off the stage after that. I’ve just been doing it ever since. I haven’t done live theater in a while, but it’s definitely home for me.

Were you ever afraid that being openly queer might limit your career opportunities?

I don’t really know know, I often did suppress my sexuality because I just felt like, “Well, why do people need to talk about it? Like, it can just be something that I do on my own.” And it always was. It was something that was casual, while my main thing was, like, trying to make men love me almost in a way that I would want audiences to love me.

But it’s funny because I did use to think that that would be something that would limit me and if I would go out for queer roles, I would just try to do the mainstream version of what they think like a lesbian is. And that didn’t feel real either. And it wasn’t until I finally just chopped off all my hair, started getting the tattoos that I’ve always wanted… I really was able to start being me and finding who I was… It’s like, the thing that’s now set me free, which is crazy. I’ve now fortunately been able to experience a lot of success through being authentically myself. And I have a team of representatives who just support me and tell me to keep being me… I’m very lucky that being who I am, truthfully, authentically, is something that is being embraced. I’ve also made it my life’s duty to continue to do that – no matter what.

It’s really hard to get to that point, but once you do, it’s just like, you feel like a new person.

Yeah! Everyone is entitled to their own privacy, and you don’t have to force anyone to talk about their sexual orientation. However, I do realise, especially through playing a Disney character, and now people are going to be able (through Fifteen-Love) to put a face to my name, it’s actually my job to be a representative for other people who feel like me, look like me, think like me… to live my life out loud and to be unapologetically me. At least for me, I feel that that’s like my duty as an actor.

Could you give some words of advice to queer latine people who are aspiring to be actors?

Embrace the moments when you feel you may be so different: no one understands you or that no one looks like you, sounds like you. And to actually try, I challenge and encourage you to embrace that. Take a moment to realize that though things may feel that way right now, who you are is who you were always meant to be, and it will be something that makes you feel whole eventually.

I would also advise them to go to therapy just like me. Because therapy really helps having someone to talk to and knowing that being authentically yourself is always going to set you free, no matter what. And at least for me, it’s either be me or die.

Fifteen-Love launches on Prime Video UK and Ireland on 21 July.

DIVA magazine celebrates 29 years in print in 2023. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQIA media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable. 

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