Meet Cuban American actor, writer, and producer Leo Oliva. The multi-talented and award-winning actor chatted to us about his road to Hollywood and surviving the pandemic as an actor.
How have you been getting through the pandemic? Any tips to share?
It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve found solace in going back to the three fundamentals that make me happy: Reading, Writing, and Creating! In order to further develop my craft as a creative, both as an actor and a producer, I decided to load up my schedule with Producing and Directing classes through UCLA completing six courses throughout the quarantine and using the motivation and inspiration to write, produce, and act in a road trip feature film. A labor of love and an awesome challenge, it’s currently in post-production.
When you first decided to become an actor, how did your family react?
There was an honest mixture of joy and fear. Supportive as they may be my family never saw acting as a sustainable career choice. Coming from a family of immigrants who rebuilt their lives brick by brick after Cuba fell to into communism, my family valued education and stability above all else. Acting was more of a hobby in their eyes. Still, they attended whenever I had a performance at my university, and helped me when I decided to move to LA. My father even did the cross-country drive with me as we stopped along the way to visit my brothers. And my mother made sure to keep my room prepped in the event I ever needed to come back. Now, with a home in LA and family in Miami, when I come back to visit, we get to celebrate together. But hopefully Florida will have better tax incentives in the near future, and I’ll be able to come home for projects and not just vacation.
Can you tell us how you got into acting and producing films?
After an amazing experience in my high school drama class where I personally witnessed the power of theater to change lives, I knew I wanted to make acting my sole purpose in life. I spent the next four years studying at the University of Miami while trying to figure out how I would make it in LA while I pursued my passion. After signing up for a talent search and meeting a manager who was very interested in my talent, I had a rude awakening. He explained that although I looked young for my age, at twenty-two years old, with no credits, no SAG card, and no connections in LA, there was nothing he could do with me. After asking for his honest opinion as to what he would do with me if I were his client, he said, “If you are really serious about acting, I’d tell you to move to LA as soon as you can and get to work.” The next day I did just that.
Driving home from my interview with him, I called my dad and asked if he would take the trip with me. Two days later we were loaded and hit the road for a seven-day cross country trip. Once in LA, I looked for the best acting school I could find and came across the Meisner Technique at the Meisner Center. At this point, it no longer exists, but at the Meisner Center and later the Meisner Studio, I learned the true meaning of acting and how to use my imagination in honing my actor’s faith to believe the imaginary circumstances handed out to us by classical writers. Through a rigorous training program over the course of eighteen months, involving improvisations and the repetition exercise, I cemented my love for the craft of acting and storytelling.
Just two weeks before graduation, I booked and flew out for my first paid acting role in a feature film. It was an amazing experience, and one where I met many amazing and talented people. After returning to LA and beginning the audition grind, I quickly learned the volatility of the industry as projects I’d be cast in would lose funding, die on the cutting room floor, and/or turn out less than desirable. I quickly found myself looking to take matters into my own hands. Having worked on countless classic scenes and improvised many exercises in class, I became very familiar with the necessary elements of a scene. I sat down to write and produce my first short and later multiple scenes in an attempt to build my acting reel.
One scene in particular, which found me dealing with the loss of my brother and took place in a hospital, continued to expand and grow in scope. At the suggestion of a former classmate, I decided to turn it into a feature and began reading a fantastically simple and honest book on screenwriting called Save the Cat, you may have heard of it.
Over the course of two nights, I wrote the first draft of my first feature The Shift. Two years and many drafts later we began production. I found an amazing producing partner in Melanie DiPietro who I still work with today, and she guided the project from crewing up all the way through its sale and distribution in 2015. And, as Melanie would say, “Look at us now.”
How do you choose the projects you end up working on?
My involvement in a project comes down to four key elements: craft challenge, emotional connection, artistic contribution, and team attached. I only work on projects that allow me to check off all of the four categories mentioned above.
Allow me to elaborate: Firstly, if I find a script speaking to me on an emotional level as I read through it the first time around, you have me buying in. Then, if the project can challenge my skills as an actor, and allow me to dig deeper, my interest is piqued. The next step is to see how I can contribute to the project from an artistic perspective, bringing more to the story than what is on the page. And lastly, knowing the team working on the project adds a layer of trust that allows me to take all of the first three elements to the next level.
We understand you run between Los Angeles and Miami. Can you tell us your favorite things to do in each?
Where do I begin?! LA for me is all about creativity, from a food perspective! With LA being such a mixture of cultures, you’ll frequently find me looking for the next most authentic new meal. Like my imagination, my tastebuds need to me kept on their toes and I’m always looking for the most flavorful dish on the menu.
Now, in Miami, it’s all about the beach! The white sands, the warm water, and yes, the humidity. Put them together with some amazing childhood friends and family, some Cuba-ton music like Gente de Zona, pan con lechon, and cafecito cubano and you’ve got what paradise is all about.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I’m happy to say that I am working on a lot at the moment. I literally just received three new scripts from talented writer friends who are interested in my input, and I am working through them as we speak. Not to mention my own projects which include a few series close to my heart inspired by my life going up in Miami.
They explore multiple aspects of life in the Magic City from a local’s perspective. They bring an authenticity to the immigrant family story as we find ourselves in a place half the family calls sanctuary, and the other half calls home. With all the excitement surrounding The Heights, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ability to show another side of the Hispanic experience,I have a feeling it won’t be long before my stories find a home too.
What would you tell your younger self?
Just continue to have fun and trust your gut. It’s all in there and you have everything you need. He would totally understand.