Jane the Virgin star Azie Tesfai: “I’ve always been team Rafael…sorry Brett”

When The CW announced the premiere of their new show, Jane the Virgin, some were skeptical on how well a telenovela based show would do on a network that produces primarily supernatural shows with such huge fan followings. I immediately fell in love with the show and it seems that others have jumped on the bandwagon as well.

With two Golden Globe nominations and lead actress Gina Rodriguez winning the award for Best Actress in a TV Series, Musical or Comedy, Jane the Virgin is the show everyone is talking about. With the show’s never-ending plot twists, the identity of the villain was just revealed. But thanks to that telenovela-styled plot, fans are sure to be guessing again soon.

I recently had the most wonderful chat with one of the stars of Jane the Virgin, Azie Tesfai. Azie plays Nadine, Michael’s (Brett Dier) detective partner who may or may not be socializing with Michael after work hours. Azie told me about her work with charity and how truly grateful she is to be working with such a loving cast on the show.

Channel Guide Magazine:  How does it feel to be a part of a show that expresses such diversity — in cultures that you don’t really see thta often in American television shows?Azie

Azie Tesfai: I feel honored that I get to be a part of it and I’m first generation, my parents came here not that long ago. I am Eritrean, my mom was raised in Ethiopia. So for me, within the Latin culture, our culture has very similar parallels with family and being at the forefront of everything. For me it all feels very normal because that’s what I grew up with, being a first-generation American. But I do love it.

Most of our cast is from another country — most everybody I think is from Puerto Rico, but then Yael is from Israel and I’m Eritrean and Justin’s family is Italian. It’s interesting because we all come from different cultures and protecting this story, I think, is really personal to us. Preserving culture and the morals that come with that, of being educated and following your dreams, when it might be in the past that your parents fought for you when they came to this country. For us as actors I think we all want to make our cultures proud and produce quality work that’s respectful.

CGM: The Jane cast seems like one big loving family. What is the environment like on set ?

AT: It’s amazing! I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I’ve been acting for almost ten years now and we’re like a family. And it’s not just the cast; the writers are our friends and the producers are like parents. It’s really incredible. My first day — I came in on the second episode — it was my first table read and I’ll always remember this. Justin Baldoni, who plays Rafael, came up to me — he was the first person to say hi and he was like, ‘You’re joining a group of people that are incredible, humbled and grateful to have this job and know how lucky we are to have a job period.’ This was the second episode — before anyone has ever really said anything, before anyone has seen the pilot show and I thought, what an incredible mindset to have with a group of people. Past the premiere and past the Golden Globe nominations, it still is that feeling where everyone feels so fortunate to be on this show.

Also, they really wanted to make sure that every person who came into the show felt very welcomed because it’s such a tough industry. A lot of the actors on the show are older, and they’ve really made a point to greet every guest star, make sure they ask every single person their name, make every single person feel like they’re a part of our family. So now it has become just how our set works. Even the crew. If someone has one line, the crew introduces themselves and gives people hugs. It’s really a strange, warm, loving environment.

People visit and I think they’re like, how is this even real? It’s pretty special — but I think it was Gina and Andrea that decided during the pilot episode to create this environment. It trickled down and it stayed and everyone is so grateful every day. It blows my mind, I don’t think anyone is used to it yet, nor do I think they ever will be.

CGM: Nadine, your character, seems to always try to push Michael’s feelings towards Jane away. She also seems like she’s interested in a “no strings attached” type of relationship with Michael. Nadine denied ratting out Michael out of jealousy — but was she really just jealous?

AT: Okay, I have very different feelings than I think the writers do about it because I’m very much a girl — which is why Nadine has been tricky and fun for me to play for the last six months. She’s so strong and tough and capable and work comes first. I’m so emotional and I’m an artist, so, for me, the minute that Michael and Nadine hooked up I was like, ‘I love him, right?’  The writers were like, ‘No, please don’t! You’re a bad-ass girl! You’re fun!’ So then as it went on, I kept saying ‘How long have we been hooking up? Because I feel like at any moment I’d be attached right now.’

So I did feel very vindicated when we had that moment where she does make the call and turn him in. I think with the character is based on the fact that she takes her job very seriously. She’s the only woman in this detective agency and she wants to prove that she’s right. She keeps putting herself on the line for this person that she cares about. They definitely care about each other now and have a relationship, but she won’t sacrifice her career for that. I think she keeps wanting to believe that he doesn’t have feelings for Jane, but he keeps showing her otherwise.

At the end of the day, Jane is dating Rafael who is in the center of our investigation. Whether it’s his father or stepmother, he’s in the middle, it’s his hotel. I think she just more feels like she doesn’t want to get screwed over career wise, as a friend, by this person. I personally as Azie, do feel more like them sleeping together- of course there’s extra emotion attached to it. It’s very complicated.

CGM: Do you personally root for team Rafael or team Michael?

AT: It’s funny because I’ve always been team Rafael, even before I knew Michael and Nadine were going to have anything. The first five or six episodes, I love Rafael. I think most women think it’s practical to go with the father of your child- he’s really well-off. As an older woman I’m like, this is a logical decision. But Brett is such a brilliant actor that I have moments that I’m team Michael because he’s so talented. If it wasn’t Brett playing Michael, I think I would totally be team Rafael but, he has these beautiful moments of honesty and perseverance with Jane’s character that make me want them to get back together. But then I also feel for Nadine. I’m like, let the girl not get screwed over. But yeah, I’ve been team Rafael. Sorry, Brett.

CGM: I read that you applied to law school. Did any of your previous schooling help you with playing the role of a detective?

AT: I went to Berkley and I went to business school and was getting ready to apply to law school. I had the opportunity to audition for something when I was finishing school and I ended up getting it. My poor parents, who are not from this country, the one thing that they asked me is to finish college, to not drop out three months before finishing. So I finished school and then I thought, ‘I’m going to give myself three to five months to audition to see if I like it. If nothing happens, I’ll go to law school.’ I got something and I totally committed and fell in love and I haven’t looked back.

But I have never played a detective before, so no. I never shot a gun. After I started shooting the show, we had a detective on set give us all our training and I went to gun training and I learned. I had no idea what I was doing when we started. For me it was just that Nadine is so tough and so smart, and in the first handful of episodes she’s almost militant. So for me, it was really difficult because I’m such a girl and I’m so bubbly. It’s hard for me not to smile for a long amount of time. So even just not smiling was difficult for me. You’ll see in the next couple of episodes we start interrogating and investigating people one-on-one.

CGM: There has already been an amazing group of special guests on the show. Who is someone you’d like to work with either on Jane the Virgin or on a different project?

AT: They shoot Avatar on our lot, which is so exciting. I have such a girl crush on Zoe Saldana — I think she is such a bad-ass and she’s Dominican, so she would be incredible. I think she is so elegant and has done such a beautiful job of taking such strong female characters and giving them justice. I would love to work with her. She can help arrest Sin Rostro!

CGM: What’s has been your favorite part about playing the role of Nadine — something that you’ll take away with you?

AT: Her strength! She’s so grounded. She doesn’t second guess herself. Even if she’s been wrong about a decision, she keeps moving forward. She really pushed for Emilio to be the killer and didn’t listen to any other options. As it unfolds who it is, she doesn’t “woe is me” — she’s like ‘OK, I was off. Let’s keep going.’ She keeps going in the direction to catch Rose. I like that, because it’s usually the opposite. Usually a woman in the workplace makes a bad decision and kind of falls apart. So I think it’s inspiring to me that she so diligent and so capable and smart and confident in her abilities.

Azie2As an actor, I’m not always like that, so it just reminds me to plant my feet. I have a certain stance that I do for Nadine that grounds me into her right away. I’ve started using that in my life whenever I want to make a point about something and someone is fighting me back on it. I’ll do my Nadine stance and make my point. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of strength from her, which came at a good time for me personally in my life. It’s pretty incredible to play a woman that’s so strong and so confident in herself as a woman. That’s changed a lot of how I feel with my own life and my career as an actor.

CGM: I also read about your strong involvement in charity work that started in Ethiopia. What’s the story behind how that got started?

AT: I have a jewelry company called Fortuned Culture. I had designed it originally because I was working with a school in Ethiopia and their meal program got closed and I wanted to raise money. Given the fact that I grew up in L.A. and went back and forth between there and here I thought I had enough influence with friends that could help raise money. I had a really hard time raising the money, so through a series of events, I designed a bracelet for those meals. They sold out and I was able to get all 300 kids meals for a year and I thought it was way easier than begging for money. People were so happy with their piece of jewelry. I tied in the idea of growing up here but having people know I was from a different country. Especially East Africa, they had a very different perspective of it. I liked the idea connecting people from two different parts of the world. We’re all the same, we all want health and love and to feel heard.

The first bracelet was a health bracelet and it gave 65 meals for one child. It was 30 dollars, which was another thing — I wanted to show people that so little can go so far in a different country. I was getting letters from people saying ‘My mom has breast cancer and was going through chemotherapy and I gave her the health bracelet and she got very connected to the child she was helping.’ It was two people with health situations that needed aid and support but they were at two different parts of the world. So I try and incorporate that in every piece. I’ve still been working with that school and I have an orphanage that I’m working with in Baja, Mexico and a sex trafficking home for young girls in Cambodia. So it’s just growing.

I took a year off from acting because I was really burnt out — and I started that because I always wanted to do charity work. I kept saying what I think a lot of people say: “When I make this much money or when I get this fame I’m going to start helping people.” But then we never get there or it keeps getting pushed. I was working enough to support myself, so I thought, it’s just my time and I can raise funds through these jewelry pieces that other people are paying for. Of course, all of the good stuff came after that. Right when I came back, I did this show called Franklin and Bash for a little while and then a week after that, I started Jane. You put some good out into the world and you help other people and a blessing like this show comes back to you!

CGM: Where will we see Nadine headed in the future?

AT: We don’t know anything outside of the episode we’re shooting. We’ve started to shoot the table reads — they’ve had people come and shoot them behind-the-scenes because they’re so animated because we’re finding stuff out right before the episode. Rose being Sin Rostro was a big deal at our table read — everyone’s mind was blown because we had no idea. I had some suspicion that it was her but I think for the most part we didn’t know. Nadine is going to be really focused on the case because things are going to get a little more complicated with the Sin Rostro situation. We haven’t done the best job so far, but I think Michael and Nadine are going to step up their detective game very soon!

All new Jane the Virgin airs again Monday March 9 at 9/8CT on The CW.

Photos: Fortuned Culture
Videos: Fortuned Culture and The CW