“If I could say anything to anyone at UF, it’s just to keep fighting for whatever it is that you want and make the life that you want because you are the only one that can create it.”
Julissa Calderon’s journey from the University of Florida to being cast in a Netflix series was not one without its hurdles. A Dominican born in New York and raised in Miami, Julissa gravitated toward the arts throughout her school years, but when she got to high school and college she decided to shift away from them.
After failing Chemistry at UF, she realized her path to being a nurse was not going to come to fruition. Her heart laid elsewhere, back where she could be true to herself.
“I randomly one day decided to go off of impulse because I’m such an impulsive person, and I made the decision to switch over to theatre, which is like what I used to do as a kid,” Calderon said. “I was always in the show choir and doing school plays.”
So Calderon became a dual degree student majoring in both theatre in the College of the Arts and telecommunications in the College of Journalism and Communications.
Throughout her time at UF, she began to feel that having a double major hindered her chances of being taken seriously in the art world, as people might think that she was not all in on becoming an actress. Determined to find validation in her off-the-beaten-path method of fulfilling her dreams of moving to LA and becoming an actress, Calderon secured the lead role in the UF School of Theatre and Dance’s production References To Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot during her senior year. The success she found brought those childhood dreams back to the forefront.
“I’m gonna do this,” she said. “I’m going to move after graduation to LA, and I’m gonna make myself the star that I know I am.”
Calderon made the move and worked as a waitress until she was hired by BuzzFeed, where she produced and created content for Pero Like, a channel that celebrates Latinx culture. Her time at BuzzFeed combined the technical skills from her telecommunication degree and her acting chops from her theatre degree, allowing her to make and act in content that represented her culture.
While working at BuzzFeed, Calderon frequented auditions. One day, her agent scheduled Calderon an audition for the new Netflix show Gentefied. After auditioning for the role of Yessika, the producers said she just didn’t fit.
Leaving the hopes of that role behind, Calderon got ready for a month-long trip to Sweden, in part to figure out what to do next with her life. But the day of her flight, the producers called her back for a chemistry read. Calderon didn’t have a lot of high hopes, but then she had her best audition ever. Newly determined that the role really was for her, she explained to the producers—including prominent producer and director America Ferrera—that she was the perfect person for the role and that no one else was going to play the character of Yessika better.
That night, she got a call saying she booked the role and that they would re-write the character for her, changing Yessika from an LA raised Mexican girl to an East Coast Dominican girl who moved to LA. Calderon still set off on her trip to Sweden but had to return home after six days to make it back for filming.
“I didn’t get my month of Eat, Pray, Love, but I got something completely better,” she said.
Calderon’s experience on Gentefied has been one of pride for her culture. She said the show’s cast and crew were mostly people of color and most of the executives were women. The show itself heightens Latinx culture and brings important cultural issues to the forefront. As a proud Dominican woman and an advocate for her culture, the show fits into the overall narrative of inclusion that Calderon has centered herself around.
As an actress and an advocate, Calderon makes sure to take the time to remind herself that her superpower is to be herself.
“What’s been at the forefront of my mind is to never sell out, and to never, ever, think I’m anyone but who I am, and to always remember where I came from,” Calderon said.
From her days as a double-major Gator to her red carpet moments, Calderon’s journey of self-discovery has taken her from being unsure of her path ahead to having a clear view of what she wants from her future.
“I just think that for me I want my legacy to just be for people to understand that you can literally achieve whatever you want,” she said. “I think I want to be, maybe not a blueprint, but for someone to put my picture on their vision board so that they can understand that the little girl that came from nothing in Miami with three brothers and a single mom—she made it, and she’s allowing others.
Besides the anticipation of beginning production on season 2 of Gentefied, Calderon is currently looking forward to sharing more about her upcoming movie Bridges as well as spending time writing and being an advocate for Latinx culture.
“My whole thing is to just continuously stand in my truth and be exactly who I am,” she said. “Because of that you get to allow other people to live their truths, because they’re inspired by it. That’s what humans are—we’re inspired by truth and authenticity.”