Actress Nathalie Kelley stars as one of the leads of The CW’s Dynasty, taking on the role of “Cristal Flores” in the reboot of the series. Kelley examines the shift between the original series to the modernized series, exploring the relevant issues in today’s social and political climate that the series touches upon. The show’s increase in representation parallels with Hollywood’s overall move toward greater diversity, and Kelley hopes to see this not only on-screen, but also behind the camera and in the writer’s room.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Lima Peru, but moved to Australia with my mother when I was 2 years old. I lived in Australia until I was 20 (I also spent some of my teenage years living in Brazil) before moving to LA to pursue acting.
When did you start acting? How did you find your passion for acting?
I didn’t know I wanted to become an actress until I watched Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet when I was 12. That’s when I knew I had found what I wanted to do with my life. But it didn’t happen straight away for me. I started off doing commercials here and there but my parents insisted that I make academics my top priority. In hindsight I’m really grateful for that because it expanded my horizons and helped me see my full potential. So when I did finally move to LA to pursue acting I knew I always had something to go back to. I knew acting was not the only thing I was capable of doing. That was important for me – sometimes the desperation of thinking you can only do one thing can zap the fun out of what you are doing. And it’s easy to forget that you love your job when you are constantly missing out on roles during the audition process. Having a backup plan was very healthy for me mentally.
You currently star in The CW’s Dynasty as “Cristal Flores.” How would you describe the show?
Well she is actually Cristal Carrington now! It’s a fun, campy yet insightful show about a very wealthy, dysfunctional family. And even though not many of us can relate to their extravagant lifestyle, I think so many people can relate to all the different family dynamics. I think the strong characters are what keep people coming back to the show. Throughout the season you really fall in love with different people as they reveal more and more of who they are. My character was definitely easy to hate when the show started, but as we began to see her true essence, people began to realize they had judged her too quickly. And I like what that teaches us about ourselves and our rush to judge others on first impressions. My hope is that the show is a mirror – reflecting back to us important lessons about family, loyalty, respect for oneself. And at the same time, we are able to touch on a lot of important social and environmental issues. Gay marriage, green energy vs oil and fracking, US immigration policies – and all while rocking the most fabulous outfits on TV right now.
The show is based on the 1980s series with the same name. As it’s a remake, did you feel any pressure with the success of the original series?
Of course we all felt the enormous pressure that comes with remaking such an iconic show. We all wanted to be very respectful to the original material. But at the same time we were excited to modernize the show and bring it into modern times. Some of the worldviews in the original needed updating. For example, the time is up on Blake’s homophobia and misogyny, and time is definitely up on the lack of diversity in the original show.
It was so fun to gender swap Sammy Jo’s character and make the Colby’s Nigerian-American and Cristal a Latina. I heard only positive things about those changes which means that the new version is resonating with today’s audience and that’s what we had always hoped for.
How did the role come about?
The CW network had cast me as Sybil, The Vampire Diaries’ last villain on their final season. And something about playing an evil mind-controlling siren made them think I would be a good Cristal Carrington and they pretty much offered me the role after meeting with Dynasty’s creators. Which is funny because it was a little hard to find Cristal Carrington after having played such a big villain. At first you think that Cristal is the villain of the show, but she is actually its moral compass and deep down has a heart of gold.
Some of the worldviews in the original [Dynasty series] needed updating. For example, the time is up on Blake’s homophobia and misogyny, and time is definitely up on the lack of diversity in the original show.
What was your mindset like going into filming?
I obviously wanted to do the best job possible, but I also had to have patience because you are learning about your character more and more as the show continues. I would love to have known what I know now about Cristal in the beginning. But that’s the beauty of TV, you get to stay with a character for whole seasons. And your connection to them only deepens and your ability to portray them more authentically just grows and grows.
Tell us about your character Cristal. What’s your favorite part about playing her?
I have a lot of admiration for Cristal’s big heart. I think she cops the most flack out of anyone on the whole show – she is constantly being misunderstood, coming up against conflict and adversity – yet she stays true to her heart and her morals. She cares about people even when they are awful to her. She sees through their masks to their humanity underneath. For so many episodes she had to put up with Fallon’s offensive comments and rejection – yet remained mature, and saw that underneath her tough persona she was just a scared, love starved young woman, and persisted in loving her – even putting her life on the line to rescue her from a kidnapping! She really goes all out for her family, and I am always learning from her on how to be true to my heart.
Cristal is a Latina woman navigating her way through spaces of white privilege. Do you see any parallels between her story and the current political climate? In what ways do you think the show is addressing this issue?
I think the topic of systemic white privilege is something a lot more people are thinking about nowadays. I don’t think Cristal expects special treatment or needs to play the victim card to get ahead. And that’s a very sensitive topic for a lot of people. Those who have never been discriminated against don’t like the idea of affirmative action or “diversity hiring” because they see it as people ‘jumping the line’ or taking a shortcut to the top. But the truth is, systems of discrimination against minorities are so ingrained into our culture – often times minorities have to work harder to get ahead in life. Cristal is an example of someone who worked her butt off to get to the top of her field. She earned her stripes at Carrington Atlantic, overcoming her lack of legal papers to be in the US, discrimination against her in a mostly white male profession. Then she went and married her boss, and caught a lot of flack for it. But that was another opportunity to highlight the double standards out there. A man like Donald Trump can remain President of the USA after multiple confirmed accounts of him behaving inappropriately with women. Yet Cristal Carrington takes a beating and is accused of sleeping her way to the top because she falls in love with and marries her boss? I love how the show tackles these kind of issues and makes the audience think about how our society functions. And it does it in a really entertaining way, without being preachy. It’s very clever writing.
How does Cristal develop throughout this season?
Well she appeared to a villain at the start of the season. She had a lot of secrets and at first glance might have seemed like a gold digger (although I have to say I was a little shocked at how many people didn’t give her the benefit of the doubt). But as the season develops you see that her lies were not malicious. That she was trying to protect her family, and while she made some questionable choices in the past and was not helping herself by lying to Blake – Cristal actually emerges as the morally superior one. Especially once Blake’s dark side starts to come out. She stands up her beliefs and for others despite opposition from the man she loves the most. She is fiercely loyal to her family and those she loves, and proves herself to be a valuable and even beloved member of the Carrington family.
As a strong Latina lead, how do you think Hollywood is making efforts to increase diversity? What do you hope to see in the future?
I am witnessing an exciting new time in Hollywood. When I first moved to LA 13 years ago things were very different for a little brown girl like me. And growing up I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me on TV. It means so much to me when Latinos thank me for portraying such a strong, intelligent Latina on TV. Once we were so stereotyped as sexy man-eaters, tough cops, lovable maids. I love how complex and layered the writers have made Cristal. She is flawed like all of us but she leads with her heart and uses her brains over her sexuality. I also know that people feel the same way about the Colby’s being black and Sam and Steven being gay. It’s wonderful to watch a show where so many people are being represented. It’s what society is actually like nowadays so I’m glad TV has finally caught up! I hope in the future for absolute equality in pay and for women and minorities to be more represented behind the scenes too. We need diverse writers and directors too – so we are telling the most authentic human stories possible.
Do you have any memorable behind the scenes moments from set?
Well we all have really prepare ourselves for the big dining table scenes. There are so many characters and so many different directions to cover, they take hours so we have to get into a good mindset. And the best way to make the time go by is to make each other laugh, and as a cast, I have to say that’s what we do the best. Liz Gillies is such a riot to be around, her and Rafael and Grant always have me crying laughing. One time she wrote little scenes for us to do in between takes. They were so dark and funny and brilliant. We definitely know how to entertain ourselves.
What’s your favorite episode from this season?
The episode in which Cristal changes her prenup was a big one for Cristal’s character development. You see just how much she really loves Blake and the rest of the family. She helps Fallon extricate herself from her sticky marriage to Jeff, she cries tears of happiness as she watches Stevens proposal to Sammy-Jo. It’s a sweet episode for her even though she is going through a tough time with Blake. It really shows her loving, nurturing side.
I hope in the future for absolute equality in pay and for women and minorities to be more represented behind the scenes too. We need diverse writers and directors too – so we are telling the most authentic human stories possible.
Give a shoutout to an actress that inspires you! What makes them special?
Liz Gilles is an absolute joy and inspiration to work with and I learn so much from her. I’m very honored to call her my friend. She is so self-assured and wickedly funny and very, very smart.
Any advice for those pursuing their passions?
Don’t limit your passion to one thing. Diversify! Bow to the challenges that life send you. They are lessons from the universe and if you navigate them well you hopefully will graduate from that lesson and never have to deal with it again! But if you are stubborn and resist what life is trying to teach you, then you will probably be faced with similar challenges down the line. If your dream is to become an actor, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to pursue it. Make sure you have a rich life outside of acting. It will help support and sustain you when you face the unavoidable rejection that comes with the job. I spend a lot of time in nature, resting and restoring my soul. Your spiritual and mental health is very important in life. If that’s not in order your work will suffer, so be mindful of your spirit. Check in with it daily.
What are your passions outside of acting?
I love hiking and camping and communing with nature. There’s so much to learn from plants and animals and I take the time to listen to them. I am always learning more about different medicinal plants and herbs and want to take an herbalism course while I’m on hiatus. I’d love to be able to go on walks and gather herbs and medicinal plants. My tea practice is one consistent way I commune with the plant world, it’s my day meditation. I am also really into interior design and could see myself branching off and doing that in the upcoming years. Like I said, it’s important to have different passions!
Any upcoming projects you can share?
I’m being very protective of my 3-month break this year before we start season 2 of Dynasty. I only want to do another project if it really speaks to me. Otherwise it’s important for me to rest and nourish myself to prepare myself to play Cristal Carrington for another season. Its very draining work. But at the beginning of the year I did a music video with my best friends Rhye and Genevieve Medow-Jenkins. The song is called ‘Song for You’ and it’s on YouTube for anyone who want to watch it. It’s the acting work I am most proud of to date. It’s a raw, authentic look at love and we are really proud of the magic we captured. It feels more like a short film than a music video. I definitely poured all my soul into it. And the response so far has been so beautiful…. People really resonate with the story we told, about the complexity and bitter sweet nature of love.
STORY ANNA ZHANG
PHOTOS VICTORIA STEVENS