For Netflix’s new series Tiny Pretty Things, Mexican-American actor Bayardo De Murguia had to trade in his fight gloves for some dance shoes. While much of the former college football player’s work prior to the show had been in stunts and fight scenes, in Tiny Pretty Things, De Murguia plays Ramon Costa, a “bad boy” dancer turned genius choreographer.
Netflix’s new series Tiny Pretty Things, which premiered this week, is about young women at an elite ballet academy. Based on the novel of the same name by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, what’s unique about this series is that it centers a Black character, Neveah Stroyer, played by Kylie Jefferson. De Murguia’s Ramon adds to the unique diversity of the cast as a Cuban dance instructor with checkered past.
I had the opportunity to chat with De Murguia about the training that went into preparing for the role, how being a high level athlete helps him in his film career, and the importance of representing the LatinX community in projects they’ve traditionally been excluded from.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Be sure to catch De Murguia on Tiny Pretty Things streaming now on Netflix!
POC Culture: How have you and your fiancée been been hanging in there during the pandemic over there?
Bayardo De Murguia: It’s been definitely an interesting time. When I was filming Tiny Pretty Things, I was in Toronto, and the last few months in the beginning of 2020, she came and hung out with me for a while. And it was funny because we laughed that we did a pre-quarantine quarantine because it was so cold in Toronto, that we just stayed indoors. And being basically from Southern California, for the most part, I had never really lived in snow. My family was like the family that would drive up to Big Bear and we were the Mexican family that would play in the snow right where the snow started, and then get cold because we didn’t know how to dress and then come back.
So that whole experience in Toronto was so much fun, but it was really cold. So then we got back, she ended up getting a job and had to relocate to Miami, once the pandemic hit, our relationship was fine because we were so used to the quarantine. But it was just a trip. And it was a lot of checking in with family and you know, trying to stay sane and watching a lot of TV. We laugh because there are stages of quarantine, like the Tiger King stage and all the other stages, so yeah, we’ve been okay. There were a couple projects that I’ve been auditioning for in voiceover work here and there, but thankfully, the anticipation of the show kept dragging because we got delayed a little bit, and now we have a release date. And that’s very exciting stuff. Thankfully, everybody’s been safe and family’s been safe too.
POCCulture: That’s great to hear. We were totally that family too that barely played in the snow. Let’s talk about Tiny Pretty Things. You play this bad boy dancer turned choreographer. How good of a dancer were you before taking the role and what kind of additional dance training did you do to prepare for the show?
Bayardo De Murguia: The TV and film work that I’ve done prior to this show was mostly stunts and fighting. So I usually would play the villain where I try to kill the hero, for the most part, have a fight or something, and then I die. And so when I auditioned for Tiny Pretty Things, I didn’t even know that it was a Netflix show. You knew that it took place in the world of dance, but it didn’t really go in-depth into that. So once I got cast and met the creative team, Michael MacLennan, the showrunner, was like, “Hey, we just want to let you know, we know that you don’t have a huge dance background, but we’re going to work with you, and especially as a choreographer, make it as authentic as we can.” So besides stunts, and fighting, and martial arts, stuff like that, I was in tune with movement. I could dance Salsa, I can, you know, bust a move or two in hip hop, but besides that, I’m not a trained dancer.
But the cool thing about it was that we basically trained for about a month prior to shooting. We had a head choreographer, Jennifer Nichols, who was part of the National Ballet of Canada, and we had dance class every day. My cast mates, my students on the show, they’re all trained dancers and they’re just so skilled and so amazing, coming from all different types of cities and backgrounds and have performed on Broadway, and it was really cool to see them get back into their skills of ballet, and then me learn. I did a lot of Barre technique, was most sore I’ve ever been, but flexible. And then in addition to that, anytime that I could shadow a choreographer, I would study all of them. On my own, I would do my own research because Ramon is Cuban-American, so I definitely dove into the Cuban style of ballet, any type of Cuban dancers, belly dancers and ballerinas that have come out of Cuba, and so forth. So I really did put in my work because I wanted to give my cast mates justice, give the show justice. I was in the boxing gym all the time, trying to look the part of a dancer. So I definitely put in a lot of hard work to just be authentic for the show. But yeah, I showed up with a Ballet for Dummies book and Tiny Pretty Things and was like, “Alright, let’s go!” But what you see now when you watch the show, you’re just gonna see the ballet be so beautiful and great. And we didn’t use any dance doubles either, so all the dancing you see on the show is completely, completely authentic.
POCCulture: That’s awesome. So given all that work and research you did for your character, what was your favorite part of playing Ramon and what was the most difficult part?
Bayardo De Murguia: My favorite part of Ramon is, I play a character who’s very passionate, is very honest, he’s more the guy that would throw you to the wolves and see how you…or throw you in the deep end and see if you can float and swim. And that’s one of the things that I really, really enjoyed. As I researched the Cuban style and Latin American style of ballet, I was reading experiences from journalists that got a chance to take class in the national Cuban ballet school and so forth. And they would always talk about how there was a level of humor, but the discipline and the strictness of the way they taught class was basically like a “Shut up and dance. And then we’ll talk later.” And that really translated to Ramon because Ramon is the same way. He’s like, “Don’t talk to me. You’re not allowed to talk. Shut up and dance.” As you see different pieces throughout the season, we had different choreographers that were internationally known come in and choreograph pieces. One of them was Giuliana Flores, who is a Brazilian ballet choreographer and dancer, but he’s now based out of Berlin. And I remember the first time I talked to him, I was like, “Hey, this is the research that I came up with and learned,” and he’s like, “You’re completely right. Latin American style is like, we dance first, and then we can talk later,” but it’s very, very strict. European style is, we talk a lot about our emotions and how the choreography makes you feel. And so we talk first, and then dance, and then kind of incorporate stuff. So that was really cool to watch all that kind of match up, and then the level of Ramon is up here, representing Cuban style. The most difficult part, I would say was learning a lot of the terminology, because there were a lot of French terms, and I really wanted to make everything as authentic as I could. But I did have to battle sometimes with forgetting how to say certain words in French. But it was awesome.
POCCulture: You talked about the extensive dance background of the cast. Is there anyone in particular who really impressed you in terms of their dance abilities?
Bayardo De Murguia: Everyone from the Kylie Jefferson, who plays Neveah, Daniela Norman, who plays June and Bette, Casimere Jollette is her name, and all the guys, everybody was just so good. The one interesting thing that I could say, because I observed a lot of class when we got to know each other and first got to Toronto, as you would see everyone’s body and style and the way that they dance, it sort of started fitting their character profiles. So as we started learning and reading scripts, one through four, and then also going to dance rehearsal and class with each other, you would see their personalities come out, and then they would match their characters. And so when you see someone like, Barton [Cowperthwaite], who plays Oren on the show, he is described in the show as like a prince, who’s just very majestic when he dances, and then you see that when you see it in real life and him dance. And so I thought that was really interesting. But they’re just all completely skilled and so good. There were times I would forget lines because I’d be like, “…Oh yeah, I gotta say something.” It was really an awesome experience.
POCCulture: Tiny Pretty Things is unique because it’s a story that takes place in the world of ballet, but it centers a Black character, and you’re involved as well as a major character. What does it mean to you to be on a type of show where people of color aren’t traditionally represented?
Bayardo De Murguia: Yeah, I think it’s really awesome. The show was adapted from a book, and then what Michael MacLennan our showrunner did, was take a lot of the themes that were present in that book, and in iconic movies like Center Stage and Black Swan, and kind of upped the ante. When you deal with things like representation, sexuality, gender, he opened it up so much to show you that it affects all of us, whether you’re male or female, or what you are, or whatever race you are as well. The cool thing for me, I was just so proud that, he didn’t care. He’s like, we’re going to tell these stories, and they revolve around everyone, and we need to show everyone that, especially in a world of ballet that’s so classic and there is this sense of elitism. And then having a character like Neveah or a character like Ramon, to come in and just break barriers and be different. I was also very proud of the fact that I was able to play a character where, yes, I’m Cuban-American, yes, I am representing as a LatinX actor, but that wasn’t the integral part of what makes Ramon. It does affect his background and how he is, but I can play a person, like I am an actor playing person, and my background is there. And it’s important, but it’s not all about that. It’s not like I’m playing stereotype. It’s not like I have to have an accent. It’s like, I could be me. A lot of times, there’s that struggle with authenticity, especially with Black, Indigenous, people of color. Because sometimes, for example, I have to try hard to be Mexican. And I’m like, wait a second, but I am Mexican! I was born in Mexico. But it’s like, no, I gotta try harder, because that’s what they want. Or I might be too Mexican! And I’m like, really? Okay, sure. But in this instance, we could be ourselves and just play people and tell these stories, and I thought that was just so amazing. And like I said, the themes that we go over are just so timely, and definitely have to do with everything that we’re going through in 2020. So I think that’s awesome about our show.
POCCulture: Fantastic. If we can switch gears to your background a little bit, you immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. when you were eight-years-old. What was it like coming to America and growing up in San Diego?
Bayardo De Murguia: So, my experience, I am very happy that I had the advantage of having Tijuana so close to my family. And being able to go every weekend, once we moved to the U.S. The crazy thing is, my two older sisters moved to the U.S. and they were already around high school age. So they had a culture conflict or you know, culture clash, because they were trying to learn English and learn about going to high school, going to prom, going to all this stuff that we experienced as Americans. And for me, I was raised more American, but I was still learning Spanish and are learning English and doing everything that they did, but just at a younger level. So I’m definitely super proud of the opportunity that we had to come to the U.S. and proud of my background. But it was also like just a mesh of things, you know, it’s like to my family and Mexico, I had to prove that I was Mexican. But then here, I have to also be American, I could speak English. It’s cool, you know, it’s just a juggle, and that also affects your identity growing up, because you don’t know where you land. And then it wasn’t until I really got into theater that it was like, what I am, who I am, I’m a mix of both things and I can touch whatever side I want, if needed, but I’m I’m proud to do both.
POCCulture: I completely get that. You’re also quite the athlete. You played football at University of San Diego. Is there anything about being an elite level athlete that has helped you in acting and that you’ve taken to the acting world?
Bayardo De Murguia: Yeah. The whole performance aspect of it was something that made me fall in love with getting into theater and live theater, especially, performing in front of people and evoking emotions. It also helps with the rejection, to be honest. You hear a lot of rejection when you move to LA, and a lot of things don’t go don’t go your way, but they’re out of your control. And I think sports helped me a lot with that because I’m used to watching tape. I know how to watch myself on tape and be critical of myself, but not take it too hard. And also I’m a sponge, so for me, if someone gives me constructive criticism or any type of criticism, I’m the type of person who would be like, okay, what did I do wrong? How can I fix this? Let’s stay positive. And I think my experience in sports definitely helped me with that. Because a lot of times it will get to you and it does give you…it’s an emotional toll. The journeys that we take, there are so many little wins in there, and then there are some losses, and especially as you keep going in your career, you have to stay positive and stay focused. And that’s one thing that sports definitely helped me. And with contact sports, you’re getting hit, punched in the face, you’re doing all that while trying to stay calm under pressure, and that’s definitely affected me a lot. [Laughing.]
POCCulture: That’s so great. I’m sure you watch a lot of tape of yourself now. I’ve heard you mention that your parents worked a lot, as immigrant parents often do, but they also took the time to express their artistic side, and that impacted you. How did they inspire you to express yourself and. how did they react when you decided to pursue acting?
Bayardo De Murguia: The beauty about my parents is that they came to this country because they wanted their kids to learn English and have a better life. But there was no guideline. So for me as a kid going, “Hey, I’m gonna go play American football at college,” my parents were like, “What? Okay.” Everything was so new to them, and such a new world, and then when I jumped into acting, even my mom was like, “Wait mijo, like telenovelas?” I’m like, “Yeah, I wanna act in Shakespeare!” The beauty of it is that they didn’t have a guide to tell me what to do. But they did have the morals that they could teach me to be a good person, have a sense of humor, stay focused, stay positive, and work hard. It might sound like cliches, but they’re so resonant. They were right! And that was one thing that I’m super appreciative of my parents, because, as immigrants, you just keep working. You just got to work hard and keep going and put your head down. And that’s kind of what my parents were saying. Put your head down, keep working, keep going, be a good person, and good things will come. And so I’m just super grateful for them because even though they didn’t know how to tell me to maneuver my way in Hollywood and in the television industry, they did teach me good morals and stuff to always rely on to help me with my journey, and I’m so proud of that. Now they’re super happy…I mean, I still have to explain to my mom that I’m on a TV show. She watched the trailer for Tiny Pretty Things, and she’s like, “Oh, I really hope they make it into a series.” I’m like, “Mom, it is a series and it comes out December 14th.” She says, “Oh really? That’s great! Congratulations!” I’m like, “Mom. I’ve been telling you this for like two years!” [Laughing.] So it’s super sweet. She’s super awesome.
POCCulture: Wait till she actually sees you on Netflix! It’s gonna blow her mind! Alright, two more questions and I’ll let you go. First, where is the best Mexican food in San Diego and in LA?
Bayardo De Murguia: Oh that’s a tough one man. A favorite in San Diego is always Tacos El Gordo. That is usually number one rated anyways, but I love them. I think they also have one in TJ when you cross the border and it is so good. In LA, at the moment, I would say there’s Tacos 1986 that was a downtown storefront and food truck that now has places in Burbank, Pasadena, and Hollywood. Tacos 1986 have done the homemade tortilla thing. That is one of my favorite spots to go to at the moment. There are a couple other food trucks like Mariscos Jalisco that I love. But I’m gonna go with 1986. I’m also gonna say that because the main guy, the owner, is from Tijuana, and so because of that I tried his tacos and then I fell in love with them. But at the moment that’s my favorite. I’m always on the search.
POCCulture: If any of those places hear this, they owe you money. [Laughing.}
Bayardo De Murguia: Or at least a taco! Then we’re good.
POCCulture: Last question. I’ve heard you say that in Hollywood, being a person of color, the challenge is sometimes you’re too Mexican and sometimes you’re not Mexican enough. Don’t name names, but have you been in an audition or something where you were asked to do something absurd?
Bayardo De Murguia: No. The opposite, actually, but it’s a good story. I was auditioning for something that was an…army thing. And when you go into the waiting room, there is a chance that you run into a lot of other actors that you’ve seen…you grow with each other. And the cool thing about a lot of LatinX actors that I come across, we’re all friends and we all root for each other. So if I don’t get it, and my buddy gets it, that’s amazing. So we were in the audition room and a friend of mine went ahead of me. And we’re in rooms where we can listen to each other so I’m listening to his audition. We’re going for the same guy, and the casting director stops him after his first audition and she’s just like, “Hey, I just want to let you know, the writers of this are a couple white guys from Oregon, so can you give me more of an accent that’s a little bit more urban? Like, Mexican-American?” And then my buddy goes, “The character is written as being from this city in Texas, and I’m from there. My town is 30 miles away from it. So I just think I can be this character, because it is me.” She’s like, “Yeah, but I’m like an old white lady, so
you got to think about what our ideas are of a Mexican-American character, so if you can do that….” When I come in, I’m like, “Oh, bro! Yeah! You want me to do what? Oh, for sure!” [Using an exaggerated stereotypical Mexican accent.] And the best part about it is, I got a call back!
I tell my friend that story and he starts laughing. I had something planned differently in the audition, but you want me to sound like I’m from East LA? Sure. And the best part is, the guy who got cast sounds like Antonio Banderas. So you never know what anyone wants or what their idea is, but the steps that we are making in getting more people of color behind the camera, writers and directors, so then we’re auditioning for those two white guys in Oregon, but we’re also auditioning for people who reflect us. So our stories are slowly getting more authentic. I think we are taking the proper steps. That’s why Ramon is so amazing for me to play. But I just hope we keep going because there are little steps that we have to take.
POCCulture: Amen to that! Thank you for the conversation. You have a great, positive attitude and outlook, and we’re looking forward to seeing Ramon in Tiny Pretty Things.
Bayardo De Murguia: Thank you. You’re gonna love and hate me, so it’s gonna be great.
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.