Q&A WITH PERLA FARIAS ’80
Writer and producer Perla Farías talks about her famous family, what it takes to create a hit television show, and why running a major television network is so challenging.
Perla Farías Lombardini was the epitome of telenovela royalty. Her mother was the Italian actress Gioia Lombardini and her father was the Cuban director Daniel Farías. "I grew up in television studios," she says. "They were my playground." After college, Farías was cast in her first telenovela, a well-known show called Cristal. Everything was going according to script — until the day Farías decided to write an ending no one expected. "I called up the head writer," Farías remembers, "and I asked her to kill me off."
What is a telenovela?
Perhaps the most common misconception about the telenovela is that it is equivalent to the American soap opera. In reality, while they do tend to be very romantic and dramatic, the telenovela in South America is more similar to a prime time drama series here in the US. It is a very Latin American way of telling stories. There is a lot of drama, but there can also be some comedy. And while soap operas are never-ending — they just seem to go on forever — a telenovela is a series; there is a beginning and an end. The structure is completely different from the American soap opera.
I understand you come from what some consider “telenovela royalty.” Can you tell me a bit about your family growing up?
My mother is an actress and my father was a director, so I grew up in television studios — they were my playground. The funny thing is, I actually hated it at the time. I didn’t like the attention. My mother was a big star in Venezuela, so people were very interested in her life. Every time we would go out, all eyes were on us. I found it very difficult growing up as an only child of famous parents in Venezuela. I think I kept my sanity only because I was not there much of the time. I studied in Switzerland, and then I had the privilege to attend Pomfret and go on to study at a university in the United States before eventually returning home. That distance allowed me to be saner — maybe not completely, nobody is completely sane!
Early on, you decided you didn’t want to follow in your parents’ footsteps. What changed your mind?
I wanted nothing to do with show business. But interestingly, one of my teachers at Pomfret knew exactly what I was going to do with my life. I was a very good student in subjects such as history and languages, but I was literally failing my courses in math and science. I remember a conversation I had with my science teacher, Mr. Raiford. I couldn’t pass his tests and I was upset and crying because I knew I wanted to be an oceanographer — that was my dream. And he told me, “Perla, you have this fantasy about what being an oceanographer means. You imagine swimming with the dolphins, but that’s not what it’s about. In reality, you’ll be in the water for a very short time and then you’ll spend the whole day in the lab. I think you’re better off writing all the wonderful stories you have in your head!”
It took some time for me to adjust my thinking, but in the end, writing and show business is what I did with my life. After graduating from Pomfret, I attended Northwestern to study political science. I became involved with the dance group and made many friends there who were involved in theater. They would often ask me to do scenes with them. As much as I’d tried to pull away from acting, I knew this world — it was part of my life. I ended up doing a double major in speech and theater before returning to Venezuela, where I ultimately began acting.
Tell me a little bit about your first television role.
The first television show I was cast in was a show called Cristal, which couldn’t have been more different from what I had studied at Northwestern. We had been doing Chekhof, really deep stuff, and then suddenly I was thrown into this soap opera. There was a part of me that was too intellectual, I didn’t want to just read the lines I was given. I did it, but I wasn’t excited about it. Finally, I called the head writer, a very well known soap opera writer in Latin America, Delia Fiallo — she’s like the queen of soap operas from Cuba. I called Delia and I asked her to kill me off. She said, “Listen, I think you’re doing a good job; I don’t want to kill you off. I’m going to send you off to travel, so if you change your mind, you tell me and I’ll bring you back in.” So, my character was sent off to travel, and I just left everything for a while.
How did you make the transition from acting to writing?
I always loved writing, but I never took it very seriously — it was just one of those things I did on the side. My father happened to come across some of my writing and, without telling me, showed it to one of his colleagues, José Ignacio Cabrujas, who was working on a new show, La Dama de Rosa. After reading it, José Ignacio said he wanted to meet with me. I was very excited because he was an amazing Venezuelan writer, not just for television but also theater. After we met, he invited me to join him the next day for a meeting with the team. They were going to throw some lines, maybe write a scene and start listening to the characters’ voices. I was honored to be invited. The scene took me much longer than anybody else, but I did it. The next day, the actors all had to go in for pictures right before the show. I arrived all made up and ready to have my picture taken, but there was another actress there for my role. It was then that they told me that José Ignacio had decided I wouldn’t be acting in this series, I would be writing it.
Were you excited about this new prospect?
Initially, no. In fact, I was very upset. I showed up at his office all made up, crying — it was my best and only great scene as an actress! “Who do you think you are? Who told you I’m a writer? How can you make decisions about my life without even consulting me?” I made this great scene, and he waited until I’d finished and then calmly looked at me and said, “Perla, after meeting with you and reading some of your writing and reading the scene you wrote, I think you will actually enjoy writing and be really good at it. Why don’t you give it a shot? If you end up not liking it, you can always go back to acting.” I had no choice really, because there was another actress for my part. So I gave it a try. After just two months, I knew there was nothing else in the world I wanted to do.
You are perhaps best known for developing the story for Juana la Virgen (Jane the Virgin). How did you feel when you learned it would be remade for English language television.
Very proud. Juana was the last series I wrote before leaving Venezuela. Years later, I learned that they were going to do the series in English. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the sign for Jane the Virgin. Each year, different studios hold events where they introduce what’s coming for the following year. It was at one of these events that I first saw the little sign for Jane the Virgin and it was so unbelievable. Certainly, Juana had been adapted to this market, but those are my characters; it's my story, my baby. I was so proud that it had been able to go across the ocean and make it in another land.
Can you tell me a little about your decision to move from Venezuela to the United States?
There were so many frightening moments in Venezuela that led to my husband’s and my decision to come to the United States. I already had two children when El Caracazo occurred. I remember as I was leaving work one day, gunfire suddenly rang out in the streets. I was caught in the middle and had to seek shelter in a nearby building. I was nearly kidnapped once, and another time I was in my car when people began shooting at my tires. I’m not sure if they were planning to rob me or kidnap me — fortunately I escaped and never found out. There was a lot of unrest and violence; it was an extremely difficult time in my homeland. I didn't want my children to live through that. Though I had no idea what it would mean to come back to the United States or what I was going to do, I didn't really care. I was willing to do anything. If I had to work at a McDonald's, I could always clean the floors. I just wanted my kids out.
As I understand it, the decision to leave was not only good for you and your family, but also for you professionally.
That’s correct. I was very lucky because when I arrived in the United States, Telemundo was taking off. They were co-producing with production companies in different Latin American countries, including Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina. When I arrived, there was an awards ceremony in which Juana la Virgen was receiving an award, and I happened to meet the CEO of Telemundo, Jim McNamara. We hit it off immediately. We talked about show business and he invited me to visit Telemundo. Then one day, he called and offered me a job as vice president of development. I told him, “Listen, I’m a writer. I’ve never been a manager.” And he explained, “That’s exactly why I want to work with you. I have a lot of managers. I want you because you’re a writer.” So I began working for Telemundo in 2003 and I’m still with them.
What was the biggest challenge of your career?
The first two years with Telemundo were very difficult for me. Not only had I moved to another country with my children — I had three by then — I also was never around. I was always traveling. People would ask, “How’s life in Miami?” and I truly didn’t know how to answer. I hadn’t been in Miami long enough. I’d spend a week in Mexico, a week in Columbia, a week in Los Angeles. After two years as vice president of development, it really took a toll on me. My little girl was six when we came to the United States; she really needed her mom, and I couldn’t be there. I asked to go back to just writing so that I could be stationed in one place. Luckily, Telemundo understood and allowed me to go back to strictly writing until 2012, when I returned to my role as vice president of development. By then, my children were grown and I could really devote myself to my career without any guilt. In 2018, I had the itch to reconnect with the voices inside me, and I returned to writing full time.
Is there an aspect of your work that you find particularly rewarding?
One of the most wonderful things about show business is that you don’t do anything as an individual. You are part of a team in everything you do. As a team, we brought Telemundo for the first time ahead of Univision, who had always been the leader. We became leaders during those years and it was amazing.
Is there one project you’re particularly proud of?
I have a special relationship with all of my shows. They are kind of like my children, so I always have such a hard time saying, “Oh, this is my favorite,” because they are all so important to me. And I think in my work, like in life, I have learned more from the shows that were not a success. When you have failures, when you have hardships, those are the times that you look into what went wrong. You ask yourself, “What did I not do well?” It is when we experience the hardest times that we have the greatest opportunity for growth.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m writing a show that I'm very happy with. It's not in production yet; it's still just in paper. We’ve had the first meeting with casting to discuss the characters and what I think is important that they look for in the actors. They are going to do the pilot and then hopefully go into production towards the end of the year.
What do you still hope to accomplish?
I’m in a very interesting position right now. I’ve been writing for over thirty years. Over time, I’ve seen how we as an audience are changing our habits and how we are transitioning from television to streaming. When I was a child, I still remember my grandmother listening to fiction through the radio. And then one day, the radio was no longer there for fiction, it was just for news, and talk shows, and live sports. We began going to the television for fiction. And now we're seeing that same transition into streaming. And while it can be a little scary, it's fun to be in the midst of this change. The television used to tell us what time we had to watch a show and on what day. People are their own programmers now. They decide when they watch and whether they want to watch one episode, four, or an entire series over the weekend. They are free to make their own choices, and that has a big effect on the industry. I find it so fascinating. Even though the show I’m currently working on is not going to be in seasons, I’m forcing myself to construct it in seasons, so that I at least start wrapping my head around the different structure. I would love to see if I am able to do that.
Are you enjoying the process?
I’m enjoying it tremendously because I’m learning. At the end of the day, I'm telling the same stories. Like Tolstoy would say, if you have an audience that can smile and can cry, you've done your job. Professionally, I’ve realized that we are sort of like the clowns. All we do is entertain. We're not doing anything too serious here — we're not finding a vaccine, we're not curing any illness. I’m very lucky. I feel like in my life, I did not have to grow up because all I do is play. I make up this world, I make up these characters. I follow them and laugh with them and cry with them. But I'm playing like when I was a child with my Barbies. It’s a blessing and I enjoy it. Hopefully I touch upon reflections that I think are important in life that we sometimes don't give ourselves the time to explore. If I'm able to do just that little bit, I'm happy.
If you could go back and give fifteen-year-old Perla advice, what would you tell her?
Learn new things. Open up to the world. The world is such an amazing, marvelous, complex place, and we tend to limit ourselves and just look at one little corner. Open yourself up and listen. You may start out in one direction but end up in another and it’s all part of the process of figuring out who you are, what you’re good at, and what you like doing. So tear down all the walls around you and look around. Life is short; be present and trust the process.