Hollywood native Michelle C. Bonilla is a rare find: an out Latina who has been acting professionally (her television roles include recurring roles on ER and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) for nearly 17 years. She came out more than four years ago, and she says that being out hasn’t hindered her career, nor has she experienced the typecasting that other out actors sometimes endure.
“I’m a very big believer in who I am, whether it’s my work, being real with my friends, talking to media — I have nothing to hide,” she said. “My work is based on my work; I get hired because of my talent, not because of my sexual orientation.”
Her family has been supportive of her since she was an energetic child. “They saw my antics as being loca, but they were like, ‘Let’s encourage her to see where she goes with it.'”
Bonilla has gone quite far. She’s played paramedic Kristin Harms on ER since 1999, appearing in more than 55 episodes. This year she’s also been on The Closer and Shark, and starting with the Nov. 12 episode, Bonilla will begin a recurring role on the new NBC series Journeyman. Other television credits include 24, NYPD Blue, Star Trek: Enterprise and Judging Amy.
Noah Wylie, Laura Innes, Bonilla and Maura Tierney on ER
In the mid-1990s, she played Teresa Morales, the first Mexican-American teacher in Colorado Springs on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, a role she loved for its historical significance and its examination of prejudice and stereotypes. She was also pleased that the show dealt with actual historical events, depicting the racism Mexican Americans dealt with in post-Civil War Colorado.
Bonilla has also played gay. In the 2005 lesbian-themed short film Getting to Know You, she played twins Jenny and Claire. She enjoyed being “a little evil, a little angel” in her roles, which enabled her to experience her first same-sex on-screen kiss. “Who wouldn’t want to kiss Elizabeth Keener,” she said with a laugh. “She’s a cutie.”
Bonilla has high praise for Liz Lachman, the short’s writer and director. “She needs to have more light shined on her,” she said. Bonilla pays a lot of attention to directors these days, since she sees that as a logical next step for herself.
“I’ve written a short, which I plan to direct,” she said. “I’ve done three or four passes of the screenplay, and now I’m mulling over casting choices.” The 22-minute film will deal with relationship issues, and the lead characters are lesbians. “I was going to be in it, but I decided to sit back and take these actors on this ride.”
Bonilla believes that actors can be especially good as directors due to shared lingo, experience and passion. “I love being able to talk to an actor in a certain way which helps convey what you see as a director — it’s just awesome,” she said.
She has great passion and affection for actors, which is evident when she talks about her latest off-screen venture, Synergy Actors Studio, which she runs with Nick Mize. “Nick was the last teacher I took a class from,” she explained. “In his class, I got reinspired and remembered why I’m doing this work.” He also was the one who suggested she would make a good teacher.
The name “Synergy” refers to the combination of the business and artistic sides of acting. Together Bonilla and Mize teach actors everything from how to market themselves and prepare for auditions to a school of method acting known as the Meisner technique. “Meisner is a feeling kind of method, and I’m feeling kind of gal,” Bonilla said.
Mize and Bonilla keep the costs of classes down, recognizing that many actors struggle financially, and they also offer scholarships. They serve as mentors, trying to instill actors with both confidence and the concrete tools that will allow them to find work.
“It’s not only for new actors,” Bonilla said, “but also for actors who are still plugging away in this business. It’s an opportunity for them to ‘go to the gym,’ to work it out. We went to help them bring a sense of realness and truthfulness into the room with them when they audition.”