Rising star Coral Peña is upending the status quo—and learning a thing or two in the process.
Coral Peña has the rare ability to stop time. Whether on screen in their role as Aleida Rosales, a NASA engineer and undocumented immigrant in the Apple TV+ sci-fi drama For All Mankind; as intelligence agent Mariana Stiles in the spin-off series 24: Legacy; or alongside the Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg’s The Post—the Dominican-born, Harlem-raised actor captivates. That magnetism is no different in person, I learn, when I find myself sitting across from them in a bustling plaza just one week after they’d officially moved from New York City to Los Angeles. Despite being cast rather consistently in gritty, life-weary roles, Peña is anything but. Even with their belongings still in transit, the 29-year-old glows in cuffed blue jeans and black loafers, their face framed between an exaggerated collar. Munching on a matcha donut amid LA’s swelter, Peña opens up to me about childhood in the Harlem projects, their affirmative journey toward gender neutrality, and the sheer joy of having a bathroom of one’s own.
You were born in the Dominican Republic but grew up in the Harlem projects. Tell me about your childhood.
I grew up with a single mom, and I have three sisters. I think most kids, when they have difficult childhoods or grow up really poor, they don't remember it that way because that's all they knew. When I was a kid, I was just having fun, watching my Mulan VHS. (My mom worked at a VHS factory.) I don't know if most people know, especially in New York, how strange the projects are. They're heavily guarded, but not for the people inside; it's like they’re keeping the people inside away from the outside. When I look back, I get sad, but it wasn't sad at the time.
What was school like?
I was able to go to boarding school because my older sister went to boarding school. She was so smart and studious. My grades were atrocious, but hers were so good that they let me in. I think some people are like, I came out of the womb tap dancing. It wasn't really that clear for me, but going to a private school was what allowed me to have the resources to figure out what my specific thing was—acting. I got into NYU and went to RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]. I'm lucky because I think people go to college for these things and walk away with a certain cynicism. I walked away with optimism because I didn't necessarily have the easiest life when I was young. Because we were so poor, a sense of optimism is what allowed me to keep going. And actually, it wasn’t until 2014 that I even became a citizen. As an immigrant, there was always this fear that someone was going to misinterpret something I was doing, and I’d get deported for it. It's a constant fear I've had my whole life.
How did you make the jump from school to becoming a working actor?
I went to this school called Stonestreet within NYU, which was all about film and TV. They would have these audition showcases, and a commercial agent really liked me. I graduated in May, and from May to August, I booked a ton of commercials and was doing two Shakespeare plays. I was living with my grandmother in a one-bedroom—we were sharing a bed. When August hit, I decided I could no longer do anything for free. In less than a year, I went from living with my grandmother in a one-bedroom to booking 24: Legacy as a series regular.
I read that Mulan got you thinking about the concept of gender. What has your journey been like since then?
I think the pandemic made people, myself included, reflect on themselves. I was doing a lot of work with trans people and reading a lot of trans literature. I’d always felt like it was hard for me to describe how I wanted to dress, for example, or the roles I wanted. Once I slowed down, I realized it was because of my gender identity. I’d never known how to describe it, but I think people see non-binary as a very strict third gender, versus what it actually is: either a presence of all genders or an absence of gender. My whole life, I've felt the absence of gender, to the point where any type of gendered clothing, like a dress or skirt, I think of as a costume. It’s me saying, “I'm having a fun time in this dress,” rather than being an indication of who I am all the time.
Your first movie was The Post, which featured icons Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. What was that like? [Laughs] That’s an example of me not knowing what’s normal and what isn't. It wasn't until years later that I was like, Oh shit. I did a movie with Steven Spielberg, and I had a scene with Meryl Streep, and she was hugging me and saying, “You're doing great, kid.” There was a lot of kindness on that set. The reason why these people work—the reason why Meryl works isn’t just because she’s a great actor. It’s because she’s a joy to be around. [Steven Spielberg] said the words, “You made my movie,” to me, which he didn't have to say. I was just happy to be there.
As the only person of color on that set, how did you balance the feeling of being happy to work with such talented, kind people while also acknowledging Hollywood's diversity problem?
On The Post, it was difficult because it was a story based on real people who were all white. I think it hit me less because my character was the only character who was made up [by the writers], and I saw the mere presence of my character as evidence that they were trying to [create diversity]. But I've been assimilating my whole life. I'm used to being in predominantly white rooms, to the point where I've maybe gotten so comfortable that I forget—and that shouldn't be the case.
Has becoming an actor met your expectations or is it completely different than you thought it would be?
The idea of going to college and being an actor never made sense to me because when you grow up with very little money, very little access, and very little support—any step forward? You can't imagine it. I never gave myself the opportunity to picture what acting would be like because my brain wasn't functioning on anything but survival. Everything has been a surprise, and sometimes I’ve played it too cool, to the point where I haven't allowed myself joy because I don't know what I'm supposed to be joyful about. To this day, I still don't know when I'm allowed to step back and go, Wow, that's a big deal, because I don't know what's normal. I just moved to LA last week, and at my new place—it's the first time I've ever had my own bathroom. I was showering in my own shower and I was like, This is amazing.
It was just announced that For All Mankind was renewed for a fourth season. What initially was exciting to you about the role of Aleida Rosales? She’s such a complicated character—a NASA engineer, an undocumented immigrant, a person who’s experienced homelessness… I was really attracted to the writing. I think when your character’s a person of color and an immigrant, there's this fear of making them imperfect. Suddenly, they become representative of all people within that category because there's so little representation. The writers fight hard to discuss the support someone with Aleida’s background needs.
It's also scary sometimes to play a woman because the space race is male-heavy. I think the presence of imperfect women lends itself to a lot of misogynistic vitriol that I've seen for the first time ever with this show. There are male characters who cheat on their wives and come into work drunk, but when a woman does the same thing, people say, “They're a waste of space.” But also, with this new season, we've had this influx of diverse, progressive, forward-thinking audience members who understand why [diverse casts are] important.
Cosmo named you one of the best new actors of 2022. Does the prospect of becoming a household name excite you? Terrify you?
I oftentimes feel like I hide in roles. If you see what I looked like on 24: Legacy, or if you see what I looked like in The Post, I don't think you would then see me on the street and go, “That's the same person.” It's always nice when people come up and recognize you from something specific; I would love that forever, but I don't want people coming up to me just because they know me generally as a famous actor. Hopefully, I never get to that point.
What’s your current acting dream?
I'm watching a lot of Michael Mann stuff. I want to be a robber in a cops and robbers type of film, but I don't want to be the tough Latin woman from New York. I want so badly to do something that has that underlying action element. I've been watching [the 1995 film] Heat too much!
What else have you been working on recently?
I did this indie film called Story Ave. The lead actor is Asante Blackk; Luis Guzman is in it, too. The director is Aristotle Torres—he's an amazing up-and-coming director. It's a story about New York and being a poor kid who loves art but doesn't know what to do with it. That [situation] can either lead you down the path of never knowing and walking away from your love of art, or, hopefully, getting access to people who support and understand you and can point you in the right direction—it’s sort of my life story.