After the immense success of ABC’s Emmy-winning TV show Black-ish, the series now has its own spin-off called, Grown-ish. Airing on Disney’s Freeform channel, it’s a binge-able 13 episode series, centering around the college exploits of the eldest Johnson child, Zoey [played by Yara Shahidi] and her ragtag friends. Francia Raisa stars in the series as Ana Torres, a conservative and outspoken freshman who befriends Zoey and winds up her roommate. She deals with the usual college pressures like friendship, quarrels, self-discipline, being outside your comfort zone, political stances and various hot-button topics-- all while confronting the unique challenges endured by Millennials growing up in Trump’s America. Like its forebear, Grown-ish is a vehicle to create cultural conversations that advocate for diversity and awareness--the cast is extremely varied, not only in ethnicity, but in schools of thought as well.
Riding on the tails of Black-ish with a large built-in fanbase, audiences were looking forward to the ongoing storyline of Zoey in Grown-ish, and that was evident in the impressive ratings of the show’s recent debut. The show was the network’s biggest comedy debut in over half a decade and it also achieved the biggest digital debut in the network’s history, garnering 4.5 million viewers in the first few days.
Already being familiar with Black-ish, Raisa was enthusiastic about joining the cast from the very beginning. “I got some sides to audition with and the names of the people that were involved, and from that alone, I was excited,” explains Raisa. “I was a huge fan of Black-ish and I was really excited, but before I went in for the audition, I did binge-watch it again just to get a refresher because it was on hiatus from TV at that time. I was still laughing just the same. It’s hilarious. I also connected with the character immediately.”
The sitcom illustrates how politics play an important role in black college students’ lives, while also tackling how the college experience has changed for Generation Z. “As an actor, our responsibility is to do research on each character that we are given the opportunity to play. Black-ish has explored a lot of political topics, especially around the time of the Presidential election. In Grown-ish, Southern California University becomes the setting for a look at some of the current issues facing students and college administrators,” Raisa says. “Thanks to Black-ish I learned a lot about what was going on, so I knew that they would bring a lot of college politics to life in this show.”
Raisa could relate to her new character of Ana as some of her own experiences mirror that of her character. But there was room for growth too. “For Ana, it was told to me very early on that she was a Cuban-American Republican that grew up in a very, very, very conservative Catholic home,” she says. “I already had the Catholic background on my end. I grew up Catholic – did the whole Sacrament of Reconciliation, First Communion and all that stuff, so I understood from that standpoint, her life. But I did grow up in a Democratic home. My mom and dad raised me Democrat, so I looked up the history of the Republican party and learned that Martin Luther King was a Republican, so that was news to me.” She felt obliged to properly research the Republican party, so that she could bring those beliefs to her character and to the show, since Ana is the only Republican that lives among her group of friends. “It was a lot for me to do and I actually really enjoyed all the research, I’m still currently doing it. There is so much to learn. It actually opened my eyes to a lot of things.”
The politically centric role is an ambitious one for Raisa and she fully committed to the meaty research that she knew would aid her in portraying the character of Ana. Raisa even took the time to speak with a woman who worked in The White House about the history and politics of Cuba. “I learned about Che Guevara and I remember books of his being in my house growing up, but I didn’t really understand the story until she explained it to me. I basically got a history lesson on Skype a couple times a week,” says Raisa.
Raisa previously spent six years on the hit show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a series centered around Shailene Woodley’s character, Amy Juergens, as she grappled with an unplanned teenage pregnancy. Raisa played character Adrian Lee, so topics of youth aren’t new to her. In evolving as an actress, she welcomes the challenge of her new role on Grown-ish. “I think it’s still a transition,” says the 29 year-old actress. “When you’re on a show for so long, it’s always hard to go into a different role. I played Adrian for a really, really long time, to the point where I was confused on whether I was Adrian or Francia.” To put that in perspective she adds, “To the audience--for as many roles as Jennifer Aniston has done, she will always be Rachel.”
With looks that belie her age, the doe-eyed Mexican/Honduran actress recognizes that she has a certain level of staying power in show biz that not all actresses have. “I’m 29 years-old but I’m playing an 18 year-old on this show,” explains Raisa. “I still look so young.That was a struggle for me because I obviously wanted to graduate into playing older roles, but I look so young on-screen. I think I just had to learn to accept that I still look young and that means longevity for my career. I learned to embrace it and appreciate that I am able to participate in shows like Grown-ish because I do look so young.”
Regardless of her camera-ready capacity to look half her age, the pressures of working in the entertainment industry are intense, no matter what age an actress is. “It’s hard,” she admits. “It’s a really difficult business and no one ever prepares you for the limelight. No one ever prepares you for that kind of attention and everyone kind of deals with it differently. I fortunately have very, very good people in my life that help ground me. I have church. I have God. I have been very fortunate in trying to transition and make my way back to television.”
Raisa has also embraced the cast of Grown-ish as an extension of her own family. “We literally are a family! Those are my close friends. We get excited when we know we have scenes together, especially the girls,” Raisa gushes. “We have a group chat going on and any time that we know the girls are getting together we send each other texts like, ‘Yeah, we get to see each other all day tomorrow!’ It’s really fun and crazy how much we started getting along from the beginning. Within the first five minutes, we were exchanging phone numbers.”
The actress, perhaps now more than ever, appreciates those around her that help her navigate and thrive in what can be a relentlessly cruel & competitive industry. The LA-native is especially grateful to her family that has provided her ongoing support and encouragement throughout her career. “I kind of grew up in the industry because my dad [Renán Almendariz Coello] is in the entertainment industry, but he does radio. So I got a little taste of it just watching him and his success. When I told my family I was going to pursue this career, it wasn’t a surprise to them and they were very supportive. But I don’t think they were expecting how hard it would be. In radio, it was hard for my dad, but once he got success, that was ongoing,” she reflects.
“Here, you book a job, then you are unemployed again, then you hope for a series and then it gets cancelled. Then you’re back out on the grind, which obviously happened when The Secret Life of the American Teenager was over. I was back on the grind and hoping for a new series and here comes Grown-ish. I don’t think my family was prepared for the hard times, but they just kept pushing me,” she adds. “They didn’t let me give up. They just kept encouraging my talent and supporting whatever decision that I wanted to make. If I didn’t have my family or my friends I don’t know if I would have kept going. It’s hard.”
It wasn’t just her family that provided her with vital support. “My pastor has been a huge help in my life, just in helping ground me as far as dealing with the difference between my personal life and the industry life,” she says. “And honestly, Selena [Gomez] has been a huge help in my career. I’ve seen her grow and she’s seen me grow and we have a lot of conversations about the industry. In seeing how much she has to go through… I’ve learned a lot myself, and so I’m really grateful to her and what she’s confided in me and taught me.”
Gomez has been instrumental in Raisa’s life, in more ways than offering support in her career. During the summer of 2017, Selena Gomez announced that, due to lupus complications, she’d received a kidney transplant from her best friend Francia Raisa. There was instant, worldwide attention surrounding Raisa after the organ donation. Being the person responsible for saving the life of an international pop sensation parlays a lot of eyes onto you. The journey of Raisa’s selfless act has left a lifelong impression. “I am very honored that I was able to do this,” says Raisa of her experience donating her kidney. “It is very rare to find a match, especially amongst friends, and I had amazing support. I am a better person in general from the year that I’ve had in that it was just such a jewel that was given to me. It was just a very humbling experience.” Sacrificing an organ for her friend also meant temporarily circumventing her career during her personal recovery, but that was all part of an overall learning experience. “At the time I was 28 years-old and I couldn’t do things for myself--and I’m a very independent woman, so it was brutal. I couldn’t get out of bed without needing help. I couldn’t shower, couldn’t walk and I couldn’t even open a door. It was a very humbling experience and I’ve learned a lot.”
Now she’s in the spotlight again, but for a happier reason, due to the popularity of the show. Its success proves Grown-ish has the ability to entertain while examining relevant social issues, as it pokes fun at the privileged ‘woke’ while allowing its characters to honestly examine their moral choices and mistakes. While Raisa may still be learning as she graduates into a role which is all about growing and learning, she will surely gleam some life lessons from Grown-ish, being a show this generation needs now and what the rest of us need to see.
Photography by Robby Mueller
Styling by Wilford Lenov
Hair by Ashey Ruiz
Makeup by Bri alencia
Written by Heather Seidler
Interview by Lynette Carrington