When I chatted with Anthony Mendez, the voice of the narrator on Jane the Virgin, he's just been nominated for an Emmy… but for his work on the PBS documentary, Wonders of Mexico, rather than for the show to which he's dedicated his life for the past five years. "I was really more upset for Jennie [Snyder Urman, Jane the Virgin creator]," he says of missing out on one last Jane nomination (Mendez was nominated for Jane in 2015 and '16). "I kind of wanted to get one last one for her." But, he also wasn't too surprised.
As Mendez tells it, the show and his character "kind of changed the category." In case you're not familiar with the intricacies of awards show rules, let me illuminate you: Originally, Outstanding Voice-Over Performance was the only category in which voice-over actors could enter for the Primetime Emmys, and so competition is fierce, even after the category was split into Character Voice-Over Performance, "which is mostly animation," and Outstanding Narrator, in order to offer more chances to be nominated for voice actors. But Mendes is an even more unique case, since, even though he's submitted his work on Jane into the narrator category, and been nominated, his role isn't merely that of a voice from above.
"As you know, the Latin Lover narrator has become more of a character as the series goes on," Mendez says. "And there were some people, rumor has it, who were upset about the fact that he wasn't a traditional narrator per se, it's more of a character." So, this year, he says he was sort of forced to enter into the Character Voice-Over category, "and now I was going up against all of these animation actors, and when that's the case, it's harder for us. People are used to things the way they are, so when they see clips to vote, and they don't see an actual character being voiced, that's kind of damaging." But it also says a lot about Mendez's work and the show itself that a voice merely interwoven into scenes has become such a dynamic character. And, as a result, has changed the way we think of traditional narration.
Of course, those who watch Jane the Virgin, know just how important the anonymous Latin Lover is to the DNA of the show. He's the voice of reason, yet also sometimes the instigator. He's a suave storyteller, but also a guide, providing us with recaps and explanations and context by way of throwbacks (with lines like: "When we last left our Jane…" and "It should be noted…") when the telenovela becomes too telenovela-esque. He's become our most consistent "friend," the kind you go to for advice but also some shadily thrown gossip. It's not easy to become one of the best characters on a show without ever showing your face, but Mendez has done it.
Ahead, we chat with Mendez about finding his voice, the evolution of the Latin Lover, and what's next after Jane.
Was there a point in your life or growing up when you realized you had something special with your voice?
I think it was in high school. I moved to New Jersey to a new school, I didn't know anybody, but, in my Spanish class, every time it was my turn to read, there were a couple of girls and fellow classmates that would ask: "Oh, can you read it again? It sounds so good." I was a little weirded out because nobody ever reacted to my voice, but that was, I think, the beginning of me becoming aware of it.
Did there then become a point when you realized you could leverage that infatuation?
I remember, after I left college, I was working for this phone company in customer service, and I started getting the same reactions. There was one guy that called, and I remember him saying, "You have a great voice, you should really do voice-overs, call this production company." I called all green and naive like, "Somebody told me I had a good voice for this…" The transition from that point didn't really happen naturally. I started producing radio commercials for clubs and concerts, and the guy who used to come in and do the voice for the commercials went on vacation for a couple of weeks, and they asked me to do it. So I was doing club commercials, you know [changes tone of voice], "The biggest party this Saturday," and it was for a club called The Sand Bar in Atlantic City, and then I started doing different club spots.
But then I started looking for an agent, I submitted my work, and they don't want to hear that. That's a different bubble altogether. They want to hear actors, they want to hear somebody who can do a commercial and interpret copy. In order for me to get an agent, I realized, I had to get better at it so I started taking acting classes, improv classes, in order to just become a better actor. And I got signed in 2006.
I wouldn't think that you'd have to take acting classes to do voice-over but I guess that does make sense.
Yeah, because it really is acting. You can tell the difference between a regular movie trailer guy and someone who's doing it as a joke. Because the person that's doing it as a joke and using the whole "In a world..." line, they're usually doing a send-up of a voice. Or the guys doing car commercials who are like "The Memorial Day weekend sales" and they're basically yelling at you. Those guys are announcers and what we try to do, in order to elevate and separate ourselves, is become actors. That's how you not only broaden what you can do, but you can connect more with people. People don't want to be yelled at or announced to, they want to be spoken to.
Before auditioning for Jane, was there narration on other shows that you looked to for guidance of sorts?
When I got the audition, I ended up viewing Amélie for its narration. Although there are subtitles, you can still kind of get the intention and the way that the narration is applied to the different situations. I also started bingeing Pushing Daisies because the way that that was narrated was incredible. Arrested Development was a big one too because of Ron Howard's approach to it. I also binged Emily Owens, M.D., which was Jennie's first series, just to see how she handles dialogue and voice-over. Those were the ones that I spent a lot of time researching and looking at and seeing what I could do and how that could help me free myself from what I traditionally had in my head of what a narrator should've been.
When you first started on the show, the idea of the narrator being dubbed the Latin Lover turned you off. Has that changed?
I think that changed pretty early on, after I saw what they were doing with my voice. Because I lived in Jersey at the time, I never saw any of the clips, I didn't even see the pilot before I narrated it. So, what I loved about the script itself, aside from it being so layered, was that the joke wasn't the narrator's accent. The accent enhances the piece, but it doesn't make it like a Speedy Gonzalez thing. And what also changed is that I can see the way that they subvert stereotypes in the show, not just with the narrator but with all of the characters. And then, of course, once we find out at the end of the season who the narrator is, we'll see why I have zero issues now, especially with the fact that the character has an accent.
Have you gotten more calls for roles for a Latin Lover type role since?
Yeah, it's tough, I have to be selective about it because not everyone can write it like that. I remember there was one job that I was called to do, and they wanted me to do that whole caliente thing, and it was very stereotypical. To them, the accent was the joke, so I had to turn it down.
There are others like Craig Gerber—he did the Disney animated series Elena of Avalor—he hired me to play a king with an accent, which is the next-door neighbor named Juan Ramón. It was basically the same accent [as Jane], just a little more regal. That writing was just beautiful, and I said yes to that. I was very happy to do it. But you have to be careful, I won't throw a Spanish accent on everything just because you want me to.
I went back and watched the first episode, and in it, the narrator is more passive and is barely present. Whereas now he sometimes has more lines than the on-screen actors. How do you think his role has changed throughout the seasons?
As the seasons go on, the episodes go on, he's become more free. I look at it, from an actors point of view, as when you first meet somebody. You don't let them know your full 100 percent personality initially, you kind of have to give it to them in pieces. And you don't want to be too much early on. So, as he was establishing this relationship with viewers, as an actor, I kind of just thought, Well, we're getting to know each other. And by the time Season 5 came around, forget it, I have no problems about being myself as a narrator.
And a lot of that, if not most of it, is the writing itself. I think Jennie had an idea of who the narrator was very early on. There's nothing that's by mistake, and if you look through it, you'll see clues are given from the very first season about who the narrator is or who the narrator isn't. And I think the playing around and also becoming more lively is Jennie's ears and Jennie's understanding of the actors. And she got to know each of us and what we can do and our personalities. She started injecting more of that and pushing us to go wider, knowing what we could actually do with the role.
Do you ad-lib a lot or are you mostly reading off a script?
It's written so damn well that it sounds like I ad-lib, but I really don't at all. I only remember two instances in the five years where I added anything at all. And I think the first one was, there was an episode where the scene had something to do with fireflies. At the end of the episode, Jane squashes a firefly kind of symbolizing that this isn't going to go as planned. And at the end of the table read, I made a comment like, "No fireflies were hurt in the making of this episode." And the whole place just loved it, and Jennie loved it so much that she added it to the script.
The second time was an emoji scene, and it was early on also where Jane and Rafael were infatuated with each other and had that early love bird crush. And there was a line where he texted her, and the line was something like, "It's him!" And because it was an emoji or texting situation, I just added, "OMG, it's him! it's him!" So that "OMG" was written in because it kind of made sense for that particular episode. And then it became a thing. So those are the only two times in 99 scripts that I ever even felt the desire to ad-lib.
Do you like the anonymity that voice-over acting provides?
The only reason I would want more visibility is really because I would love a platform to do more things. I always thought that, if I had a bigger platform, I could create more things for other Latino voice actors, other Latino actors. I would love that. When you have more visibility, it's a more powerful platform.
What I do enjoy though is that I can just walk around freely, nobody really knows who I am. There is a freedom that being anonymous gives you. There's a hierarchy system for sure which I totally get, they have to get a return on their money, and if you're not careful with that, it can allow your ego to get in the way. You can get kind of caught up in the, oh, I should be on stage, I should do that.
What do you have coming up after Jane?
Right now, I'm just continuing to do what I've always been doing which is movie trailers and promos. And we're working on continuing to do comic books and hopefully turning those into pilots and see who's interested in these projects. I want to create for more Latinos, people of color, and specifically more voice-over actors. There are thousands of us, and I'd love to just have a studio that creates a lot of work for more people.
I know, like you said, that there have been hints throughout the series as to who the narrator is, but do you think the audience will be surprised?
I think it'll be half and half. I think a lot of people will be surprised and a lot of people will confirm their suspicions, if they've been paying close attention and going back. Which is the beauty of being able to stream and go back and picking up clues. Some people are going to just say, "Okay, I knew that," and then some are just going to be thrown into a loop with how that ties in.
I feel like I have an idea as to who it is, but I also can't be too sure because… It is a telenovela, right?
[Laughs] Right. I loved Gossip Girl and how they did it. And I can't say if it's the same or different, but I love the idea that we expected it to be one person, but it was someone else altogether.
I know that, when we read it and when I read that final line at the table read, I just started crying, and several people started crying too because of the impact of the relation of who the narrator is to the story. If you've been with us from the beginning, it can be a very moving reveal, but they don't make a huge deal about it. It's just this natural connection. I think they recorded [the table reading] and, hopefully, they release it at some point because that was a big thing. For me, it was not only the meaning of who the narrator is or isn't, but, more importantly, it was the culmination of the five years of me doing this show.