Keyla Monterroso Mejia Has One Thing On Her Mind

Keyla Monterroso Mejia’s on-screen characters may display loads of physical comedy, but the 25-year-old actress has been thrown through quite the ringer herself. Mejia’s breakout role as Maria Sofia Estrada on Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s eleventh season saw her improvising with Larry David and wrestling Cheryl Hines to the ground. She probably messed up some kids’ education as a teacher’s assistant on Abbott Elementary. Most recently, she opened the new Netflix teen comedy series, Freeridge, by winning a no-holds-barred schoolyard brawl. Sure, Mejia isn’t even close to that aggressive in real life, but she’s navigating Hollywood with a little bit of that fearless energy.

“I’ll fight you if I have to!” Mejia joked in a call with Esquire. “I’m kidding. Honestly, if my friends are fighting, I’m an instigator. I’d be like, ‘Don’t let her talk to you like that!’ But I’m not at all a fighter, so it’s really fun to pretend I am to liberate this inner bad bitch in me that is like, ‘Yeah, anybody could catch these hands.’”

Still I don’t think I’d make it out alive if we went toe to toe in the ring. But Mejia, who can act just as well in real life as she pretends that she can’t on Curb, is an absolute delight. In between apologizing for cursing (which I told her was okay!) and fangirling over Angelina Jolie’s sexy fish in Shark Tale, Mejia opened up about her crazy last two years on TV.

ESQUIRE: Before we get to Freeridge, we have to talk about Maria Sofia. I feel like everyone on the planet loved you on Curb. Was it just a blur having that as your breakout role?

KEYLA MONTERROSO MEJIA: Yeah, I have never ever been so surprised by anything. I did not think that it was going to turn into what it turned into. Also, because I’m not in a lot of it, if that makes any sense? I think my scenes are a little insane, so people tend to remember. But it was funny,—I was supposed to do a watch party with my friend, and it’s a 45-minute episode. She’s like, “Oh, I thought you were going to be in more of it.” I was like, “I know, girl. I’m so grateful.” But it was very out of the blue and it’s been insane.

What was it like having to improvise scenes right out of the gate?

Honestly, it’s the worst I’ve ever felt about myself just because… I felt like a badass after I did it. I was like, “I’m that bitch. You can’t tell me nothing.” But while I was doing it, it was a humbling experience. I was like, “You got to figure this out.” But I was so nervous. It was super intimidating for me. Not only just being on set period, but being in this format was crazy, because I’m very quiet. They’re like, “Okay, that didn’t work. Well, let’s try this.” And to watch it happen in front of me, I was like, “God… this feels like I should not be here.” But it was literally breathtaking.

I know this is something Larry would never consider, but if Maria Sofia got her own spinoff show, what would you like to do?

You know what actually was really fun? When I throw the matzah ball. I would love to see a cooking show. Maybe with Gordon Ramsay, where Larry’s yelling at me and he’s like, “You’re doing it wrong! What’s that, an idiot sandwich?” And I’m like, “I’m trying my best, leave me alone!” That would be fun.

Is there something liberating about being able to do all this outlandish stuff with your characters?

It seems to follow me. I didn’t even realize there was a pattern. On Abbott, they introduced me dancing and singing. That was the same way that they introduced me on Curb. I was just like, “Oh my God, is this just who I am now?” But it was okay. I’m going to be honest. I’m all bark, no bite in real life… I shouldn’t be putting this out there. [Laughs.]

You can’t let ’em know.

I’m not letting a bitch beat me up… but honestly, I’m not a fighter.

Is there something you have to do to get into that headspace and flip the switch?

There are times where me and my brother have gotten in a fight, and I just want to sock the shit out of him. I remember what that feels like. I’m like, “Oh, easy.” This is who I wish I was. I wish I was a confrontational person who’s going to bring the fight to you. I don’t know, it’s easier to get into this bad bitch head space.

For a really long time, I was really embarrassed of myself. For some reason it felt like the world was focusing on me.

If we threw Gloria from Freeridge, Maria Sofia from Curb, and Ashley from Abbott into the ring together, who do you think would win?

My god… Ashley’s from Philly. I feel like she grew up tough. Gloria, she’s from Freeridge, which is a south-central type of place. Maria Sofia, I’m not going to lie. I know for sure it’s not Maria. I think she only fights battles that she knows she can win. Like with Ted Danson. I think in her head she was like, “Oh, I got this in the bag. I can take both of them.” So, I don’t think she’s winning… It’s so funny, ’cause it’s all against me! I think for some reason I feel like Ashley would win. I feel like Gloria comes full force, and then Ashley finds the inner warrior in her and wins at the last second.

Who was your favorite to play?

To be honest, it was such a different experience for all of them. I was so nervous. I don’t remember anything. Maria Sofia did the most for me. Because of Maria Sofia, I got to play Ashley on Abbott. Even though it wasn’t the most fun because I was a ball of nerves. I was sweating, throwing up—the whole thing. So, not her. I’ll say Gloria, because I felt for the first time that I was like, Oh, maybe I can do this. With Abbott, again, so nervous. But Freeridge was just my favorite because I felt more relaxed, more at ease. I’m like, Okay, girl. Breathe.

What was the audition process like for Freeridge?

I remember I had to send in four tapes and I was like, Oh, okay. This is kind of long. But I didn’t think anything of it. And in the first take, in the first scene, they’re at lunch and they’re just hanging out and talking. So, I made the creative decision to eat sour gummy worms. It actually ended up being a callback, a producer session and a chemistry read all in one, so it was early and I had to do the scene again. But because when you’re doing chemistry, you’re doing the same scene multiple times with different people… I literally was going to throw up because it was so early and I was just eating gummy worms. It was maybe three and a half hours.


Oh! And I was drinking a protein shake. You’re bringing back memories… So, the combination was just not good.

Gloria does a lot in Freeridge. She gets to have crushes, take care of her family, and navigate all these complicated relationships. Does it feel like the most fully realized character that you’ve played yet?

Yeah, it does. And I feel like every day is something new, so you never get bored with anything. And I never get too sad either because I think if you’re playing something that’s really intense and you got to really live with it for a long period of time, I can imagine how that must be just really draining. And maybe you’re not the best person to be around. But for me, it’s very campy and just a good time. And I’m very grateful that I have moments where I get to slow down a bit and indulge. I get the guy, sort of. I just felt like it was such a variation of things that I got to do. It was so fulfilling.

Did you ever imagine that you would be playing these kinds of comedic characters when you were in school?

Hell no. For a really long time, I was really embarrassed of myself. For some reason it felt like the world was focusing on me. And then you’re like, Really? Nobody’s looking at you. Nobody cares. But for a long time, it felt like that. And I started to go to therapy, and I remember my therapist was like, “These parts of you that you think are really ugly and unappealing are some of the things that make you the most unique.” And I’m like, “Oh. Well, when you put it like that…” But going through that made me have confidence. And I think it translated to the characters. I was able to take more risks and be more fearless with my choices. It turned out to be so much fun because my younger self was just so shy and so quiet. I see what I’m doing now—to go balls to the wall. I never thought I would be doing it. So, it feels good now. I love it.

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Freeridge | Official Trailer | Netflix

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Did you have a favorite movie growing up?

A movie I actually was floored by, and that was the first movie that gave me this feeling in my stomach that was like, “Oh my God.” The magic movie moment… It was Shark Tale.

Shark Tale?

Yes! Do you remember Shark Tale?

Of course I do.

First of all, that movie is amazing. But I remember, for some reason, we just didn’t go to the movies when I was younger. I remember hearing about it in school. One of my friends went to the movies and I told my dad. I was like, “Dad, I heard about this place. And they show movies. I want to go.” And I’m not going to lie, the movie theater that I went to was super sketchy. But I remember watching Shark Tale. This sounds so dumb. It was the first movie that made me fall in love with cinema. It was Shark Tale. When I was thinking about being an actress, I didn’t really necessarily have roles or people in mind. I just had this feeling. I was like, I love this feeling that I felt when I went to see Shark Tale. And that would be really cool to be a part of a film that gave that feeling to other people. I thought that was really cool because I just remember as a kid, it made me so giddy—and I never experienced anything like that.

I bet it was because of the sexy fish.

That’s the sexiest fish I’ve ever seen in my life. Angelina Jolie! Even as a fish, she’s gorgeous.

Do you think you’d want to get into voice acting?

I actually used to think my voice was too deep. I was like, Oh, nobody wants to hear this. But now, I’m like, you know what, let me throw my hat in there. Robert De Niro… that cast as a whole for that animation movie. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Shark Tale: underrated.

Underrated. Such a good one.

I feel like you’ve worked with people who were already big fans of you. Like the way that Quinta Brunson reached out about Abbott Elementary. Is that crazy just to get that recognition from people?

That was insane. Insane! Because I remember she had commented on Instagram posts that I had done about Curb. I didn’t think anything of it. I was just like, Oh, this is super badass. But I didn’t think it was going to turn into an opportunity. I was just fangirling. And Abbott was already really big. So, she was well within her right to say, “Hey, we really like you for this role, but we want to put you on tape just to see how it works.” This is pretty personal, but she said, “I just think more of the world deserves to see you.” I thought it was just the kindest thing. I just really want to be able to share how grateful I feel because there were so many people who believed in me. With Curb, I had nothing on my resume. They really took a chance on me, and that opportunity changed my life. Now, being a part of Freeridge, it’s overwhelming. I can’t express that enough.

Headshot of Josh Rosenberg

Josh Rosenberg is an entertainment writer living in Brooklyn, keeping a steady diet of one movie a day; his past work can be found at CBR, Spin, Insider, and on his personal blog at Roseandblog.com

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