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Rising Star Goya Robles: “Surround yourself with people who are better than you at what you do; Learn from them”

Surround yourself with people who are better than you at what you do. Learn from them. Make them part of your community. If there isn’t a community already in existence in the part of the industry you want to excel in, create it. There is something about innovation that excites people and makes them want […]


Surround yourself with people who are better than you at what you do. Learn from them. Make them part of your community. If there isn’t a community already in existence in the part of the industry you want to excel in, create it. There is something about innovation that excites people and makes them want to help. Find your own voice. What do you want? What is important to you? What are you doing to speak that into existence? The money and the influence are just a self-expression of your actions — they’re not the point. And most importantly, create. Creators have access to an enormous source of energy. We listen with imagination and depth. And if we don’t create, that energy will turn on us and destroy us. Energy needs to flow, so create the means in you to let it flow.


I had the pleasure to interview Goya Robles. Goya is an American actor of Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian descent. His portrayal of heartbreaking, volatile and vulnerable characters are a stamp in all of his work. He is currently playing the role of “Yago” as a series regular alongside Ray Romano and Chris O’Dowd in the hit TV series Get Shorty, which is entering its third season on EPIX (and can also be seen on Netflix). Goya has starred in numerous independent films, including a lead role in the feature film 11:55, starring John Leguizamo, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Victor Almanzar, David Zayas and Julia Stiles. Goya played the role of Jackie in the Actors Studio production of The Motherf*cker with the Hat in Los Angeles. He starred in the LAByinth Theater Barn Series staged reading of Mark Borkowski’s play Valentino’s Wing, starring Michael Shannon and Annabella Sciorra, directed by Ellen Burstyn. He played Raul in Extremities and Richard in Crystal Clear, both off-Broadway productions at the Dance New Amsterdam Theater in New York City. Goya is a poet and teaches slam poetry at the Lee Strasberg Institute in West Hollywood, CA. His first compilation of poems was releases at the Nuyorican Poets Café under the title “Spit My Soul.” He’s a lifetime member of The Actors Studio and holds an MFA from the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Goya! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

My childhood was filled with anger, sadness, abuse and abandonment. My father left when I was three years old, abandoning myself, my sister, and my pregnant mother. Mom would scrub rotting meat from the local deli with soap so we could have something to eat.

Eventually my mother remarried, but I just became an angrier kid. My mother didn’t know what to do with me. I was physically and sexually abused by several people, including an uncle who was around all the time. Denial of what happened became an ordinary thing — a normal reaction, since several people in my family were also sexually abused. Eventually, I was placed in a foster home; it was the first safe place I ever experienced.

I was always in some special school program for kids who were considered “at risk” youth. When I was 15, my older sister died of a heart attack. She was 17, and it was the first time I had experienced such an intense tragedy. I let myself feel it the day of her funeral, then pushed it down until I was numb. After that, I became more reckless — skipping school, not caring. Eventually, I met a very close friend named Lefty. He was a Latin Kings, and he showed me what it was to be a part of something bigger. He brought me into the tribe, and I learned many things from him. Lefty stood out because he was kind and fought only when he had to. Just by the way he carried himself, he taught me that our ancestral lineage is rooted in royalty, and that there is value in protecting what exists within us. That this royalty is rooted in self-respect. These philosophies gave me hope; I was in search of meaning, and I desperately needed to belong.

By the time I turned 16, I was facing two felonies and a long list of other charges. My mother went bankrupt paying for a lawyer to help me. I was sentenced to a minimum of one year at a rehabilitation center for teens. The place looked nice from the outside. But I could tell the kids were all people who had been traumatized somehow. Everyone felt familiar on one level or another. One day, one of my friends was going through something that made him sad and angry. The staff’s first response was anger; it took three big men to restrain him. They slammed his face on the jagged edges of the brick wall before he went down, his face bloodied. That motivated me. I began to make my moves and started writing to instrumentals of some of my favorite Hip Hop artists. From Biggie to Big Pun, everything was about writing and music.

While I was there, I was accepted to the University of Bridgeport to study music. During my first semester there, I got jumped at gunpoint. They broke my nose and bruised my eyes. I had to repeat that semester, but I still managed to show up. I ended up pledging a Latino fraternity, Lambda Sigma Upsilon. It changed my life and encouraged my internal conversation about my self-worth. I realized there were friends in my life who operate at a high level of integrity — conscientious people who are loyal to the cause of improving one’s self. Funny enough, I met other Latin Kings as well as brothers from other street organizations who were interested in incorporating the idea of self-actualization into their life. Being able to embrace people from all walks of life and call them brothers became a lesson I learned to love and accept.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

It began when I was trying to get with a girl I met at a Columbia University college party. She was in a show called “Platanos and Collard Greens.” I thought she was great — saw her show three times and had a different experience each time. I told myself “I could see myself doing that.” Looking up graduate programs in acting, I came across the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York. I applied, and got in. It wasn’t until I started doing the heartfelt work needed to tell a story that I realized why I needed to act. I needed to use all my pain for something useful — for something that could change people and in turn, change myself. After that, acting became a way I could save my own life.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

During my final year at Pace University, I was in an off-Broadway play called Extremities — an intense play about a man who tries to rape a woman in her home, but the woman turns the tables on him. Because of the way I was trained, I approach every character I’ve encountered with compassion and understanding, no matter how heinous their actions may be. We received standing ovations every performance. By the time I was done with the play, I was exhausted. One night, I was walking out and someone introduces me to Bradley Cooper, who tells me, “You were great, man. I hope we get to work with each other one day.” It didn’t really hit me who he was at that moment. I thanked him, smiled and left. The next day, I go to class and the program director pulls me into his office and says, “You have an appointment with Bradley Cooper’s agent at CAA tomorrow.” The next day, I meet the agent, Joe. He seemed cool, but I was nervous. I didn’t trust him. After 15 minutes, I start to loosen up. We start making jokes, and he says, “I am setting you up on an audition for tomorrow.” He sends me on an audition for a big Broadway show, and I bomb it. I go back to Joe and he tells me, “I like you, but you’re still too green. You have to learn to relax.” So, even though I had a terrible audition and a tense meeting with the agent, it gave me what I needed to learn most — to relax and trust myself. It’s been part of my journey ever since.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I got an audition for a co-star role in the George Lopez show about 4 years ago. And at the time, I was looking to incorporate an exercise I learned in grad school called Animal Work in my audition technique. Lee Strasberg created an exercise where you research an animal that makes you feel like the character, and then physically embody it, giving you depth in character behavior. Because the role required someone with high energy, I chose to work on a Labrador retriever. I got called into the office, and the casting director asked me if I was ready. After the first take, I ask her, “Is it cool if I try something different?” “Sure, go ahead” she says. So I get quiet for a second. Then I stick my tongue out and start panting. I put my paws up and start wagging my tail. I feel my energy build up. And just as I’m about to start the scene that I know I’m gonna knock out of the park, the casting director stops me — “Ummm, excuse me…what are you doing?” “I’m doing something called animal work.” “And what is that?” I stood there and tried to explain it to her. Not ten minutes after leaving her office, I get a phone call from my manager, saying “What the hell happened in there?!” The casting director told her that she didn’t feel safe and that she wouldn’t feel safe hiring me and putting other people in danger on set. Of course, she was never in danger. After that, I decided to save the animal work for when I’m at home. My chances of booking went up a little after that.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

In addition to working on the third season of Get Shorty, I’m also working on two personal projects. The first is a short film I executive produced earlier this year called Wonder — the story of an 11-year old kid growing up in the hood who secretly dreams of trick-or-treating as Wonder Woman on Halloween. This film, directed by my dear friend Javier Molina, is a beautifully crafted story that takes a hard look at traditional genders, and the challenges a parent faces when dealing with a kid who is exploring their own identity. The second project is a benefit called Paint the Mic. Every year, we team up with a local organization that serves a community in need and raises money to help them fulfill their mission. We do this by pairing up performing artists who create original work based on a theme. This year’s theme is connection. Once the work is created and curated, we have a night of performances and a beautiful display of that work. It’s a project I am very proud of. It gives me a deep sense of purpose and an opportunity to give back in a meaningful way.

I’m very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Denzel Washington had an interview I saw recently where he spoke on the difference between color and culture, and the need to have a black director on Fences. Denzel says, “When a hot comb hits your hair on a Sunday morning — what it smells like — that’s a cultural difference, not just a color difference.” I have never heard the need for the right people to help tell stories put so eloquently. There are cultural details the characters in your story are born into. There are certain stories that need the nuanced perspective of a person who has lived it. Even a gifted director of a different cultural background might miss those details. The second thing is that, with people of color predicted to become the majority by 2045, the average American is continuing to change. Hollywood must shift its focus on making sure that our communities of color are properly represented not only in front of the camera, but behind it. Lastly, I recently watched “When They See Us” by Ava Duvernay. I always knew that telling our stories could be dramatized in a way that would hold people and institutions accountable. But to see it done with such heart, compassion, and directness was amazing. To see Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Federer have their fall from grace, all because people watched the Netflix series, was a powerful reminder that both film and theater have the capacity to create change in a world that so many times seems immovable.

From your personal experience, can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address some of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?

Listen to the stories that are in our community… stories that make you uncomfortable to hear. Give those voices attention. The only reason we care about the Central Park 5 is because someone had enough sense to trust Ava to reveal the truth about something that really happened. Our stories enrich culture by revealing the truth and making it accountable. Give those voices attention.

Now, for some of the smaller film festivals out there. Don’t be so quick to deny a film just because it challenges an aspect of what you think a community should or shouldn’t be. You may one day become a festival that represents all the different facets of your community, if and when you choose to diversify the voices you showcase. Trust me, some of the increasingly relevant festivals take note of that and use it to their advantage.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I wish someone told me that just because you’re cool with a successful person doesn’t mean you can trust them. The most devious snakes move through the best of us with a smile and a good story about how they are more qualified to help you. I paid for that lesson, literally.

I wish someone told me once you make more money, those student loans come back with a vengeance, and it won’t feel like you are making what you thought. Not even close. The more I make, the more I pay, and the higher the monthly payments get.

I wish someone told me how much strength I would need to endure all the times I would hear all the versions of “no” in this industry I wish someone told me about all the jobs I would need in order to survive the demands of life — how mindless running food at a restaurant would be, for example. And how little teachers are paid to give their knowledge. And how much weed oil you gotta sell in order to pay the bills. And how much I missed my family back on the east coast. And how much my mind tried to convince me that I’m not enough to make it. And how important my acting craft would be in helping me save my own life.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Surround yourself with people who are better than you at what you do. Learn from them. Make them part of your community. If there isn’t a community already in existence in the part of the industry you want to excel in, create it. There is something about innovation that excites people and makes them want to help. Find your own voice. What do you want? What is important to you? What are you doing to speak that into existence? The money and the influence are just a self-expression of your actions — they’re not the point. And most importantly, create. Creators have access to an enormous source of energy. We listen with imagination and depth. And if we don’t create, that energy will turn on us and destroy us. Energy needs to flow, so create the means in you to let it flow.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I wish we would treat our kids with more reverence. That being pro-life also means fighting for the well-being of the kids who are already here with us. The kids on either side of any border have the same value. That even if you believed in the strictest immigration laws, it still meant you would be treated like you mattered. I wish kids weren’t a partisan issue. I wish they were a human issue. It’s part of the reason why this year’s Paint The Mic benefit has consumed me the way it has. We are working with an organization called Creating Creators, whose mission is to help kids find their unique voice through filmmaking. They learn how to write a screenplay and how to direct and produce a project and edit. They get to speak their stories through their newfound craft. They feel seen and important. I had a very difficult childhood, and I just want to make sure that while I’m on this earth, that I am an ally for that community.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Mom. She made plenty of mistakes as I grew up. But one thing I always knew is that she loved me more than anything. When everyone else thought I was either gonna end up dead or in jail, she was the only person who I knew truly loved me enough to keep fighting for me. I think that helped me heal. She has healed, too. It helped me understand important qualities of love, like loyalty, compassion and forgiveness. And my nieces get away with murder… that’s another good thing!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“To believe in something and not to live it is dishonest.”

Ghandi

Even though Ghandi was a complicated man who fought for the liberation of Indians while being racist against Native Africans, this quote always stuck with me. It made me face all the places in my life I said one thing but lived another.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I recently did a DNA test and found out that the biggest part of my background is indigenous. My father is from Puerto Rico and my mother is from Ecuador, so I have big indigenous roots on both sides. I would love to connect with elders from both First Nations territories. I would love to break bread with them and learn the customs and cultural practices of that part of my lineage. And it’s a dream of mine to be gifted a headdress. It’s a potential honor that I think about a lot.

That, and Mike Tyson. I think that guy is a gem, who has overcome adversity with a grace that continually moves me. And he’s funny as hell.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can look me up on Instagram and Twitter under the handle @GoyaRobles

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