'Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia's Jencarlos Canela on Breaking Stereotypes, Representation & Robots

Allegra Kuney
Jencarlos Canela Paulina Chavez Expanding Universe Ashley Garcia
Q&A Netflix

Jencarlos Canela has played many roles: a hit Latin pop artist, a star of telenovelas and American TV series like Grand Hotel, and even Jesus Christ himself in Tyler Perry’s The Passion: New Orleans.

Now, he’s taken on a new one: Victor, the lovable playboy uncle of a teen genius on the Netflix sitcom The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia. The titular 15-year-old rocket scientist (Paulina Chávez) moves in with him as she goes to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab.

Both have a lot to learn from each other. “Ashley teaches him responsibility and stability, and he teaches her how to be a kid and not just a genius,” Canela says.

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Here, the star chats about the new series, which just dropped its first eight episodes.

What's been the response to the show so far?

Jencarlos Canela: It's been incredible. We put so much love into this story. From the get-go, this was a labor of love. And every single person got it. We were surrounded by comedic geniuses. Seth Kurland wrote on Friends among so many other projects that have made comedy history. Our writers are incredible beams of light and so funny in their own way. And they're all so different. We had so much diversity regarding personalities and cultures in the family, in the team, [with] Mario Lopez being a great leader.

Jencarlos Canela and Mario Lopez

(Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Netflix)

Did you and Mario know each other before?

We’d crossed paths, but never in this way. We've now become incredible friends: he sent me a message the other day saying, "Dude, I've been getting some great feedback about you, congrats." I was saying, "Man, congrats to you." This project has been in the making for ten years. … Mario tried to get this done, and [now] here we are.

The narrative in America and the world has changed regarding Latinx stories and families. We're slowly but surely realizing that everyone is part of the Latinx story. I was born and raised in the states, and I have Cuban heritage, and I lived in Mexico and have family from there as well, and Spain, and all over. I have American, Middle Eastern, [and] Asian friends; we're all part of each other's stories.

This show takes that into consideration. They didn't want to be the stereotype. They wanted to break the stereotypes, go against the typical norm, "you have to look this way if we're going to do a Latin show." No! We all look so different, and this show just captures it so incredibly. The writing's so clever, so refreshing. Everyone — it doesn't matter where you're from — can watch this show. I dare you not to laugh.

 

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Netflix has been a really big supporter of Latinx representation, especially for teens. 

I'm just so passionate about it. I've always been in that middle ground; when I'm with my American friends, I realize how Latino I am, and when I'm with my Latino friends, I realize how American I am. There they call me gringo, and then here they call me Latino, so I'm like, "What the hell am I?" Then I realize, wait! I'm exactly where I need to be. I'm the glue between these two cultures. I'm the one that understands both [and] brings both together.  We need that more than ever. The show bridges the gap between cultures and makes that Latinx experience relatable to everyone.

Did you learn anything from the show’s science and technology?

We had live motion sensor robots on set and an actual partnership with JPN. … Those are actual people, incredible brains, operating those robots behind the scenes.

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Even the premise: a 15-year-old girl [with] two PhDs doesn't want to start a makeup line, doesn't want to be a singer, doesn't want to be an actor. All those things are incredible, but she wants to be a scientist and build robots for NASA. It widens the spectrum. It sets the bar so high on so many different levels. I'm just so proud to be a part of [it].

I also learned a lot about [multi-camera sitcoms]. The experience of bringing TV and theatre together, I had never gone through anything like that. Having a live audience there is just phenomenal and an experience within itself. When you've been rehearsing these lines for an entire week, and then here you are, on Thursday, it's showtime. The energy's like nothing I've ever felt before [in TV]. Only in my concerts, when I'm on the road and when I'm touring, that's when you feel that euphoria.

The writers feed off the audience. They huddle on set, and we literally change lines right there, memorize them and then do it live. I love the pressure, the excitement, the adrenaline. It really has an impact on the performance.

Jencarlos Canela Ashley Garcia Expanding Universe

(Ali Goldstein/Netflix)

There are more episodes coming out, right?

Yeah, we did Olympic- [and] Christmas-themed episodes. The cliffhanger in the first part of Season 1, oh my God.

Victor is left in a situation that really sets him up to grow and change. What can we expect next?

We're talking about a guy that, from the get-go, you're like, "Ugh, this dude." Typical ladies’ man, he doesn't have a drop of responsibility on his plate, but he does have an incredible amount of love for his niece and wants to be the best role model he can be. His love for [her] is what gives people something to hold onto.

Life has hit him hard. You will soon find out that he has so many defense mechanisms, so many walls up, because he missed that legendary field goal that could have made his career. And with that field goal went his love and dreams for music, but deeper than that, his love for himself. When you give up on yourself, it reflects in so many other areas of your life, until it just runs you. … Before, you didn't have anyone holding him accountable for his actions or calling him out. His niece is the catalyst for that change.

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How did you balance this character's a bit of a ladies' man, a little vain, perhaps, but he also has a human side, a role model side, and a very empathetic side?

I just didn't judge him. And I didn't want to villainize him, either, because at the end of the day, we are prisoners of our patterns, [which] we pick up from who we grew up around, what we grew up watching. 

There's a thing about men in our social standards. This has evolved and changed incredibly. But there's something about it – a man is expected to mess up in that regard, a man is expected to sleep around. I have too many women in my life that I care about. I just don't identify or relate to that type of man. I think being a man is something different, and I wanted to embody that old-school version of being a man, but not judge him for it. That arc is so important. We wanted to use him as an example and then little by little have him realize that he holds himself accountable for his actions, and say, "You know what? No more. I'm a changed man."

Are we going to hear you sing a lot more in the second half?

Yeah. It was such a moment in that final episode, to watch [him pick up music again]. Every time I see our showrunner Seth pick up a guitar and sing us a song, I can tell that he just has so much love for it. His career just went toward being a writer, which we're all grateful for, because he's an incredible one, but he just comes to life when he grabs that guitar and sings. It was so inspiring to watch him take the stage in front of the producers and writers and the cast, and sing this song with such bravery and own it. 

There are so many people out there that have given up on their dreams. They wanted to be something [but] took a different route. This is the show saying: it's never too late. Just pick it up and go with it! Don't attach your dream to an expectation. Just do it because you have a love for it. That's what makes that moment for Uncle Vic so powerful: how relatable it can be for so many people.

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Ashley has a bucket list of things she wants to do as a "normal" teen. What's on your list?

I want to continue with my career as a storyteller, whether through music or acting. I want to not just entertain but bring purpose and substance. I want to use this platform to the best of my abilities to create a positive impact in the world and not just for my own benefit. I want my platform to one day serve as a platform for others. That's why I opened up my label. That's why I have my production company with my brother.

For me, it's about the journey. It's about bringing as many people as I can, good people, along for the ride. When you have a mic or a camera in front of you, the opportunity will come. Just make sure you know what to do with it when it does, and use it for good. So on my bucket list is just: stay present, stay learning, stay humble, and continue to grow as much as I can. 

The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia, Streaming Now, Netflix