Emeraude Toubia has always been comfortable in front of the camera. Raised in Brownsville, Texas, the 34-year-old actress was the favorite subject of her mother, an aspiring photographer who sewed her costumes and encouraged her as she trained in dance, and began competing in pageants. At 18, after being cast on a Univision reality pageant series in Miami, the show’s acting challenges opened her up to a whole new world. “Up until then, my big dream was to move to Houston or Austin,” she tells ELLE.com. “That was as far as my dreams could go. When you grow up in such a small town, sometimes you don’t think above and beyond that. All of a sudden, I was in Miami and I was exposed to so many different things, and I fell in love with acting. I realized I could live so many different lives, and be and feel so many things I wouldn’t in my day-to-day life.”
Following her breakout role in Freeform’s fantasy series, Shadowhunters, in 2016, Toubia has since taken on a role that hit a bit closer to home. With Love, the Prime Video series created by One Day at a Time’s Gloria Calderón Kellett follows Lily Diaz (Toubia) and her extended family as they navigate newfound love, heartbreak, and their relationships with each other over the holidays. A bit chaotic, but hopelessly romantic, Lily finds herself at a crossroads in season 1 after learning that her longtime beau doesn’t believe in marriage. Season 2, which premieres today, picks up with Lily’s professional life in flux and the path ahead even more unclear.
Toubia spoke with ELLE.com to talk about the new season, the parallels between herself and Lily, and the importance of seeing more Latino stories on screen that aren’t rooted in trauma.
What first stood out to you about With Love and your character Lily?
I remember I was super late sending in my audition tape because it was during pilot season. But I was thinking to myself, “Oh my God, I love her.” She was all of my favorite rom-com idols in one. She’s Jennifer Lopez in Monster-in-Law, she’s Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, she’s Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, and her name is Lily Diaz. People forget JLo was playing Italian in a lot of her first rom-com roles, so it was like, finally, I get to be the lead of this huge streaming show and she’s Latina.
It was really nice to be playing a role that wasn’t what you traditionally see on TV, right? She’s a girl that has dreams, aspirations, falls in love, makes mistakes—all in this very light-hearted, beautiful, sexy rom-com that doesn’t have any trauma. To me, that was just very, very inspiring, like a dream come true.
Lily spent the first season torn between two potential love interests, watching these new relationships blossom around her, and struggling to process the cracks in her parents’ relationship. How is all of that affecting her outlook on romance?
I feel like a lot of girls grew up wanting this fairytale life, the happily ever after. You go to school, get married, you have kids, and life is perfect. That’s what Lily saw with her parents, and I think that’s a lot of what you see as a Latina. I also think sometimes Latinas give up a little bit of who they are for their significant other, and that can be a beautiful thing, but I think sometimes we lose ourselves in that process. I feel like Lily had this mold of something that doesn’t really exist, so I feel like she’s caught up in that fantasy that she’s created, and that society and her family have created for her.
How would you describe Lily’s journey in season 2?
I think she starts off at rock bottom. She’s moving back in with her parents, and I mean, Latinos constantly want to make our parents proud of us. We want to make sure we get their approval for everything, so moving back in with her parents, it’s really tough. But I think this second season is about Lily finding what she wants, what makes her happy. Of course, like a lot of us, when a boy comes along, we want to put our life on pause. We want to recall that feeling of being loved and wanted and touched, and all of that is great, but how do you balance that? How do you balance making sure you’re still progressing with what you want in life with societal expectations and romantic expectations?
What do you feel are Lily’s biggest challenges throughout this season?
I feel like Lily now is left wondering if you can love two people at the same time. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve been in that situation, but I think we’re really going to find out how mature Lily is when both of the things that she loves are 100 percent available to her. Because if they’re both ready for you, right in front of you, that’s when you really have to dig deep and decide, what is it that you want from life?
Are there things that you’ve learned about yourself in the process of playing Lily? Or things that you’ve taken from Lily that you’ve brought to your own love life?
I went through a huge breakup with someone that I was with for twelve years. You spend time wondering what life is without them, like, who am I as a woman without that person? I feel like Lily’s journey and my journey have been so parallel, even though Lily’s a little bit more messy than I am [laughs]. I think it’s also that sometimes we forget how to be present and let life surprise us a little bit.
There’s a huge disparity between the Latino population and Latino representation on screen. How does it feel to be one of a handful of Latina leads on TV right now?
You know, I got a sheet from our PR team with talking points, and one of them was how the show was breaking barriers because we were finally showing Latino families that own businesses. That made me really sad. Like we’re breaking barriers by showing that? It feels like we’re so behind. I also found out recently that I’m currently the only Latina starring in a rom-com on TV. There are so many more doors to open, so many more stories to pave the way, and to be a part of it feels great. But it also feels like we’re just starting, and it feels like we’ve been just starting for a really long time.
Did that inform how you wanted to approach her character?
I wanted to treat her as authentically as possible, as real as possible. It was very important to keep her super grounded and real, especially when she’s going through a heartbreak. Because in rom-coms, sometimes we could lose the reality of what it really feels like, right? Like yes, the show is fun, and lovely, and magical, but when do we ground the characters? When do we feel the juxtaposition? For me, it’s when they’re feeling hurt or disappointed. To me, that was a big challenge, just making sure I’m doing this as naturally as possible, really digging deep into my personal experiences, and making sure that when the audience sees this, they connect with her feelings.
With Love is created and produced by Gloria Calderón Kellett of One Day at a Time. What has it been like getting to work with someone like her who’s gone out of her way to pave the way, and create more of these opportunities for Latinos in entertainment?
She’s become a mentor, and a best friend. I feel really lucky and blessed to be working with great people like her. She’s the type of woman that’s the first one to show up on set, she doesn’t leave your side, she’s constantly working with you to make sure that the lines feel natural, that you are comfortable, that it’s a safe space to express your feelings to express any doubts in the material. She’s really an incredible captain that’s leading the ship. She’s opening doors to girls like me, she’s creating these characters that didn’t exist for girls like me, and I hope to also be doing that one day. For people that are wanting to be in front of the camera or behind it, I also want to leave the door wide open and be a mentor for others.
What do you think is the importance of portraying Latino stories that are, like you’ve said, “light-hearted” and fun?
I feel like with our show, yes, it’s a rom-com, but it’s putting traditionally marginalized people in a place where they finally get a happy ending. For me, it’s really important that Latinos see ourselves in that light. We need to see ourselves in the media with happy endings, being successful, being fun, because it shows another side of who we are. It’s vital to have this show. Also, to have someone like Isis King [who plays Sol Perez] as a transgender actress in a leading role in a story that’s not about trauma, it’s breaking barriers. Just to be a part of that is different. It’s paving the way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Cat Cardenas is an Austin-based writer and photographer covering entertainment and Latinx culture. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, GQ, Variety, the New York Times, and more. Follow Cat on Twitter and Instagram @catrcardenas.