Eva Longoria's sonorous laugh bounces off the walls and echoes up the spiral staircase of her Hollywood Hills home. She's all of 5 feet 2 inches tall as she pads around the kitchen barefoot, cooking a feast for friends amid the jungle of floral arrangements she's amassed for her birthday. She's laughing because there are so many bouquets that it looks like it's her funeral. In the adjacent living room, framed photos of friends and family members cover every surface. The frames are packed in so tightly that you have to lift them from the table to get a clear look. Longoria, who already has everything she needs, asks only for those photos when Christmas comes along.
Longoria, who launched her career playing Gabrielle Solis for eight seasons on Desperate Housewives, has become a credentialed advocate for Latino voices in media and government in Southern California. The actress-producer-director-activist moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, leaving her family in Texas, and because her beloved aunt always told her "to grow where you're planted," she immersed herself completely in the culture of L.A., in both the industry and politics.
While some fans may have been surprised that Longoria pursued her master's in Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge while filming Desperate, she says, "If you knew me, you wouldn't be surprised at all" — she was the last in her immediately family to earn a graduate degree.
"I come from a family of volunteers. I knew the word 'volunteerism' very early, and that was in my DNA," she says. "When I arrived in California, I knew that was going to be a part of who I was here."
In Longoria's living room, I peruse an entire table of photos of the actor with Barack and Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Al Gore and other political figures, and she tells me how she read Rodolfo F. Acuña's book Occupied America: A History of Chicanos and really "felt" the wealth of information and "diversity within diversity" right here in Los Angeles. ("'Chicano' doesn't even exist in Texas. It's such a California Mexican thing.") She then met with Acuña, who convinced her to take some online classes.
"I took three classes, and [the university] told me, 'You know, you have to enroll now,'" she laughs. "I was nervous about committing to a two- or three-year plan, but I just pulled the trigger. Before, I was politically active in presidential campaigns and with farmworkers for a very long time, but I still had this curiosity to learn more deeply."
Since then, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Longoria has used this expanded knowledge and awareness to help transform the landscape of television; without Devious Maids, the Lifetime show she executive produced for Desperate creator Marc Cherry, there would likely be no Jane the Virgin, for instance — she proved it was possible to have a diverse cast and crew with great ratings, opening the door for others.
"There definitely isn't a pipeline of talent like there is for other ethnicities," she says of trying to find a Latina TV comedy director. "I'm not going to say it was impossible, but it was definitely a little harder to find those people. But I do think it's what comes first: the chicken or the egg? Are they not qualified because they don't have the opportunity, and they're not getting the opportunities?"
So Longoria has used her power in the industry to give women and people of color more opportunities, putting them front and center and behind the camera, as she did with the Versus series of ESPN 30 for 30 documentary shorts she produced, all of which shed light on social issues dear to her heart. She directed one of the episodes, and for the others hired Melissa Johnson, Retta, Ricardo Chavira and Joie Jacoby.
While other executives complain that it's too difficult to find qualified women and people of color, Longoria is actively creating her own pipeline. But in her new film, Lowriders, directed by Ricardo de Montreuil, she gets to take a backseat for a moment and just act.
"The great thing about Lowriders is that the heart of the movie is a family drama and it's set against this world of lowriders, and it's a world that we haven't seen on the big screen represented the way it is in the movie," Longoria says.
Lowriders tells the story of one young man (Gabriel Chavarria) struggling with his identity as a born-and-raised Boyle Heights Latino in a quickly gentrifying world. The centerpiece of the film is lowrider culture, which unites the diverse Latinx community of Los Angeles, while also teaching a history lesson — flashy lowriders became the next generation's zoot suits, a way to rebel against a racist police force.
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In the film, Longoria plays a working-class mother who keeps her family together, a far cry from her other glamorous characters. But the actor says it's the closest she's gotten to portraying the women she knows and loves back home: "I knew this woman. She was my neighbor, my family friend.
"Gabriel's from East L.A. Ricardo is Latino. Demián Bichir is Mexican. I'm Mexican-American. [Tattoo artist Mark Machado aka Mister Cartoon] is one of the producers, and he's Mexican-American and intimately knows this world. This film is a beautiful representation of our culture and everything we stand for."
Longoria will likely always have one foot in the film industry — did you know she produced John Wick? — but television will forever be her home. Both Devious and her show Telenovela wrapped up in 2016, which allowed her time to direct episodes of Black-ish and Jane the Virgin, while filming a new series, Decline and Fall, for BBC One. ("I loved Downton Abbey, and I'm still like, 'What's Mary doing? Where's Matthew?!' Oh right, he's dead.")
As we wrap up, Longoria motions to a pair of photos, one of her with the Dalai Lama and the other of her with the pope. On her bookshelf, there's a volume about Scottish castles right next to her Almodóvar photography hardcovers. The unquenchable curiosity that led her to acquire her master's and launch her production company seven years ago pervades every facet of her life. Like the joyful noise of her laugh, Longoria's energy echoes everywhere she travels — but it's loudest here in Los Angeles.