Bonilla and Megan Cavanagh in Getting to Know You
This sense of realness and truthfulness rings throughout Michelle Bonilla's life, from her comfort with being out to her charity work. "I want to give back," she said. "I know where I came from. I was poor; we didn't have anything.
"I get fan mail from lesbians from other parts of the world who can't admit to anyone they're lesbian because they'll be shunned. I relate to being the odd ball out. I can relate to being shunned. I grew up next to a very prejudiced woman. If I can shine the light to help raise awareness, I'll do it."
She's participated in breast cancer runs, AIDS walks, and wowed the lesbian fans at an L Word fashion show at Dinah Shore to benefit breast cancer research.
Speaking of The L Word, she's happy that her friend Rose Rollins has been cast as Tasha Williams on the show. "I respect Rose; we were in the same acting class not long ago, and she's a kick-ass actress," Bonilla said.
When asked about the show's casting of non-Latina actresses to play Latina characters, Bonilla responded: "I know a handful of actresses who are all Latina, and they're all pretty hot. And they're not on that show."
She soon brings it back to business. "Producers are always worried about the bottom line. Once again it's about money, especially with shows like The L Word which are trying to make a statement. They always have to be a step above and try to make something awesome."
How they do that, she explained, is often with "names" as guest stars and with women who possess Hollywood-beautiful looks. "I don't think the producers have a concept of reality," she said. "Women don't look like that — women don't look like these women. [In real life] women are not all drop-dead gorgeous. They just try to get stars so their show can do better."
Bonilla said she admires shows like Journeyman where the directors and producers stand behind their talent and make casting decision based on that. "I'm blessed enough to have a recurring role on this show because someone gave me a shot," she said. "And when I say that, I say that loosely, because I've been doing this since I was 19 years old."
The fact that The L Word doesn't take more chances with its casting choices also bothers Bonilla because as a premium cable show, it has more freedom than a network program. "Networks are a bit stricter," she said. "They have to appeal to Proctor and Gamble. On cable, you can do whatever the hell you want. Those are the ones that have an opportunity to make a difference."
Bonilla cited HBO's The Sopranos as an example, with its casting of plain-looking folks, sometimes overweight, sometimes heavily wrinkled. "They weren't typical Hollywood standard. They were just good actors and representative of the community."
She's keenly aware of the body image problems that can result, in part, from Hollywood's standard of beauty. "That's why I believe Ugly Betty is so powerful," Bonilla said. "Here's America [Ferrera] — she doesn't have a size 6 figure; she hasn't had her nose done; she hasn't had her boobs done. They took a chance on her."
Bonilla also has a lot of respect for director Patricia Cardoso and the producers who cast Ferrera in 2002's Real Women Have Curves, her first role. "An independent film, and they say, 'We're going to have a lead, and no one's ever heard of her, but look how fabulous she is,'" Bonilla said. "It takes those kinds of people to fight and make a difference."
Another woman in the industry whom Bonilla respects is Helen Shaver — Bonilla described her as "damn badass" — best known to lesbians for her role as Vivian Bell in Desert Hearts. More recently, Shaver has directed a lot of episodic television, including the first episode of Journeyman in which Bonilla appears. "I admire women who've broken glass ceilings and pushed their way forward," she said.
Though Bonilla is certainly keeping busy with Synergy and her short film, she's not about to leave television acting behind. A fan of the one-hour TV dramas she grew up with, like Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele and Moonlighting, she hopes to one day land a part in such a vehicle as a cop, lawyer or detective.
She mentioned the new show Women's Murder Club as an example: "That show not only delves into what the characters are doing at work but how it affects their lives."
In the meantime, she's hopeful that The N will pick up a pilot she filmed called Katrina. "It's about a 17-year-old girl who moves to San Francisco," Bonilla explained. "She gets adopted by a lesbian couple who already have two kids. I play Bonnie the lawyer, one of the moms."
Bonilla, who has been in a relationship with a woman in the business side of the entertainment industry for four and a half years, does not have children, but she is mom to a Miniature Schnauzer named Prince.
It's clear that Bonilla definitely loves life, her career and the creative process. "What I do for a living is create real moments with help from writers and whatnot," she said. "It feels better to play something real."
For more about Michelle C. Bonilla, visit her official website.