'Selena: The Series' Boss on Trying to Capture The Icon's 'Spark'

Trying to recreate Selena Quintanilla for Netflix’s upcoming Selena: The Series wasn’t easy. In fact, writer and executive producer Moisés Zamora says it was an “impossible feat.”  

“Selena was one of a kind,” he tells ET of the Tejano icon, who died in 1995 at just 23 years old. “You know she is going to be impossible to replicate. If we were able to replicate to get her exactly to like what everyone wants, we’d have Selena again — so it’s such an impossible feat.” 

So, instead of trying to get lightning to strike twice, the team behind Selena: The Series focused on trying to replicate the most important part of Selena: her essence and energy. They found that in actress Christian Serratos. 

“She’s so talented,” Zamora gushes of the 30-year-old actress, perhaps best known for her role as Rosita on The Walking Dead. “One of the things that Christian does bring to the table is that charm, that spark, that sincerity, that layer of emotion… it’s about her energy, her spark, and I think she’s got it.” 

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In an interview with ET, Zamora discusses the most challenging aspects of bringing Selena’s story to screen, working with the late legend’s family, and comparisons between the series and the 1997 film starring Jennifer Lopez.

ET: There’s so much anticipation surrounding this series — do you feel the pressure mounting for this release?

Moises Zamora: It has been such an interesting feeling when it came to creating a series about an iconic, well loved legend. When you’re given such huge responsibility, they’re always anxiety. But I think that what made all the difference for this project is that it has an incredible team that also was passionate about the story and who she represented and what she meant — what she means for Mexican American Latinos.

I actually do feel more nervous now because it feels so real, because I’m not in the room anymore. I’m not creating this story line. We’re not in the thick of it. It feels like kind of an out-of-body experience. But I’m very proud of the work we did. It was very challenging. We put our best into it, very much of our hearts. I’m happy to finally share it with everyone.

You mentioned the supportive team that you have and obviously you have the support of Selena’s family. Her sister Suzette is also producing on the series with you. How important was it throughout this process to have her family’s input and support? 

Originally when I met with the producer about this particular project, they had already established a relationship with the family and the estate, so I was coming in with a vision that ultimately worked out. It was something that aligned very much with what they wanted — to focus on the positivity of the inspiration behind her story and their struggle as they achieve the American dream.

From the first time that I pitched that vision, it basically hit their mark. It’s a family drama with some lightness to it that hopefully a lot of people would relate to. The family was in love with that vision. Netflix believed in the project, and I interviewed the family and we did a lot of research as well. Everyone worked together to make sure that those details and those moments — especially the intimate emotional moments that they had and shared with a lot of people — are portrayed and in the way that they envisioned it as well. 

The show is called Selena: The Series, but it focuses a lot on her family. Did Suzette or other family members have any influence on the direction to explore some other storylines within the family, so it’s not just focused on Selena? 

Yeah, I think that also when I went through my own research, I found out a lot of things about how Selena came to be, and and I think without her family, Selena would have not had the success that she had. Her family believed in her talent and set everything aside, including financial stability, to believe in this dream. Of course [her father] Abraham believed in sort of a second chance at a music dream. Her brother was a producer, her sister was her best friend and the drummer [in her band]. It was all part of that journey, and I think it was really interesting for me to discover that and share that. 

I think that was very essential in the making of Selena, really to recapture the fact that like she had her family with her and they gave her the power to be who she was. And then hopefully in the future episodes after this batch, you’ll see that it all comes into play as she became the independent superstar that she is. She had her own fashion line, her boutique. She saw her brand and herself as an artist in a 360, holistic way. She learned that from her family and that was vital. 

Did any of her family members have input on their portrayal in the series? It’s not all butterflies and rainbows all the time on her rise to stardom, with some tense moments in there — especially with Abraham. 

They had input. I think it’s a catch-22 is when you empower your child to become the best version of themselves. [It’s difficult] as they come of age, and then suddenly they start making choices that you don’t love.

I did see in an interview Abraham said that it’s really difficult for him to remember her as anything other than his little girl.  What parent doesn’t relate to that? They grow up and to make decisions and they become their own people and I think that part of her growing up and how she manages those challenges is shown — and luckily we get to live in those moments a little longer, because we have a TV series. 

The movie is so iconic, and feels much more emotional — probably because it came out so soon after Selena’s death. This series feels a bit lighter, it focuses on the family… was it intentional to bring a different tone to this project? 

I think it had a lot to do with the research that and also and talking to the family sharing a lot of the moments that they shared with us. Selena was really a sweet, sincere, genuine person. She was really well liked. She was really respected, she was very generous with her time and with her kindness and with her compassion. She was always laughing and joking, and a lot of those moments that you see her being silly are actual things that happened. We wanted to really capture that, especially in the context of a family and traveling together. They didn’t get to have a lot of time on their own to live a normal teenage life, so we wanted to spend a little bit of time living in those moments.

For that reason, it feels like a lighter tone. And also as she grows up and we come to the point where this tragedy happened, I think it’s going to be a lot more heartbreaking. To spend so much time in this wonderful place and be a part of this family and then have it all be ripped away from them with this tragedy [will provide a different tone].

The fans are so protective over Selena. Jennifer Lopez’s casting in the movie at first faced criticism, but then audiences grew to love her portrayal. There was a little bit of chatter from fans about Christian’s casting, with some saying she’s too skinny, or doesn’t fit with their idea of what Selena should be. What made Christian the right fit, in your mind?

I do remember that time when the choice of Jennifer was not as welcomed, but she did just such an incredible job and she captured her. I love her performance. I really do think Christian is going to win audiences over as well, independently of what people may think of Selena. I think we forget that Selena was one of a kind. You know she is going to be impossible to replicate. If we were able to replicate to get her exactly to like what everyone wants, we’d have Selena again — so it’s such an impossible feat. 

One of the things that Christian does bring to the table is that charm, that spark, that sincerity, that layer of emotion. She’s so talented. And I think that we needed someone to be able to capture Selena’s trajectory and growth, from being a teenager with silly dreams to actually being a superstar. And I think Christian captures that so well. She may not be the perfect physical representation of Selena, but I think that it’s about her energy, her spark and I think she’s got it.

The energy makes Selena, but so does the fashion and her stage presence and movement. How did you approach the performances in the show? 

We actually just basically looked for every piece of video that was out there. We did a lot of research, and looked at stuff that’s not even available on the internet. The family shared some videos with us, and we found ourselves really excited about bringing that evolution of Selena to the screen.

She started with some questionable hairdos [laughs]. I mean, it was the late ’80s. And they were making their own outfits. She was enamored with fashion, and that was really her second dream, and so we wanted to capture that. The Selena that most of us are familiar with in the mainstream, it took a long time to get there and we wanted to make sure that we captured that evolution by being faithful to some of the performances and replicating the outfits as much as possible — and those moves, of course. They did a phenomenal job staging that and replicating those performances.

And Christian said she worked with a singing coach for this. How much singing in the show is her versus Selena?

Yes. She worked with a coach, but we are excited that we get to use Selena’s voice and music when in those performances. The a cappella part, it’s all Christian. Especially when she’s recording or practicing her songs in those little moments, it’s all Christian. We were very excited that we were able to use Selena’s voice [because] it’s hard to replicate that. Cristian is a phenomenal singer, but if you don’t sound like her, you don’t sound like her. And I think fans will appreciate that we used Selena’s voice.

Selena: The Series debuts Dec. 4 on Netflix. 

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