Puerto Rican playwright added to cast for tenth season
Rolling into the tenth season of The Walking Dead (TWD), the creators of this zombie dystopia have kept the ball rolling by bringing intriguing and often odd characters into the mix. Enter Juanita “Princess” Sanchez, a boisterous and quirky survivor with purple
hair who has been living in solitude for years when Ezekiel (Khary Payton), Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt) and Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura) stumble across her on the way to a time-sensitive rendezvous. The eccentric Sanchez is played by Paola Lázaro, a 26-year-old Puerto Rican playwright best known for her work with New York City’s Atlantic Theatre Company, where she was a playwright-in-residence for the 2016-17 season. And while Lázaro’s work in recent years has focused less on pop culture and more on writing, she was instantly entranced by the chance to play Princess Sanchez after a deep-dive preparation for her Walking Dead audition.
“I truly fell in love with the character,” she said. “She reminds me a lot about when I was seven years old—her energy level, comedy, jokes and passion.”
And after binge watching TWD, Lázaro was hooked.
“Before the pandemic, I didn’t watch a lot of TV,” she added. “I spent two weeks watching the whole 10 seasons and I fell in love with the show.”
With the Sanchez character defined by mood swings triggered by extended isolation and personal issues that promise to be revealed as the season unfolds, Lázaro found playing her an exhilarating challenge. So much so, that she admits that she prepared for this role by drawing from her own personal issues.
“I borrowed a lot from my life as well as studying the comic books and really digging deep into this character,” she said. “A lot of this was digging into my own life and bringing this into the character of Princess and her past trauma. I don’t deal with [my trauma] nowadays the same way Princess deals with it, using her larger-than-life personality as a defense mechanism because I’ve had the opportunity to have certain tools to help me deal with it. I put a lot of my deep pain, sadness and loneliness into the role and then I brought my seven-year-old class clown self into it.”
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in San Juan, Lázaro’s love of writing and performing dates back to when she was seven and penning her own poems, which her mother had her recite whenever family came to visit. Despite appearing in a couple of commercials when she was younger, the budding playwright gravitated towards writing, a career path her family fully got behind.
“I think they knew there was no other way and that ever since I was a kid, this is what I was going to do and what I loved doing,” she said. “They were very supportive and I’m very thankful for that. My dad would have loved for me to be a lawyer. He said I would have been a great lawyer and I agreed.”
Lázaro eventually left the island to attend SUNY Purchase, where she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dramatic writing in 2009. Lázaro then earned her Master of Fine Arts at Columbia University, getting mentored by playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis over the course of the production of her senior year thesis play. The two forged a a deep kinship, and for Lázaro, Guirgis’ support then proved pivotal.
“He was the person that found me,” she recalled. “We met each other and [Stephen] immediately believed in me. He pushed me to continue with writing because I was [at a point where I was] ready to be done with that. He really pushed me and I’m forever thankful for his support.”
This renewed sense of confidence led to Lázaro participating in the Emerging Young Writer’s Group at the Public Theatre, working on a summer program with the Labyrinth Theatre Company and eventually receiving an Arts Entertainment Scholarship Award from the National Hispanic Foundation of the Arts. Influenced by the likes of storied Puerto Rican playwright René Marqués (La Carreta), Lázaro is a firm believer that Latinos must “write our own stories and create work for ourselves.”
“I don’t think anybody else needs to start telling [Latinos’ stories],” she said. “We are natural-born storytellers—magic realism. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. We have stories that have been passed down through centuries. I think we should tell our stories and give each other work through that. We should be authentic about our voices and not hide any aspect. Let’s talk about the dark and light stuff in our culture.”
In addition to her role in TWD, Lázaro is working on a one-woman show tentatively called Little Lazarus, as well as a music album of the same name, and also bringing her production of There’s Always the Hudson to the big screen with a different title. And while the pandemic halted TWD’s production for a few months, Lázaro is grateful for what she’s been able to draw from her character and work on the series.
“My favorite part [of all this is] to be playing all sides of this character—her darkness and her light,” she said. “It’s also been great getting to know my fellow castmates, crew and writers who have all been super welcoming. It’s also been wonderful to be able to connect with fans and people who really love this show and being able to meet them. It’s been especially meaningful during this hard time when we felt so lonely because of the pandemic. Being able to connect with them through social media has been an absolute gift for me.”