Inter­view by Paul Stathakis | April 5, 2019

Paulz­eye: Before turn­ing to act­ing, you had a big pres­ence on social media, earn­ing quite a few fol­low­ers on Insta­gram. Did that inspire you to become a mod­el and an actress?


Sulem Calderon: I wouldn’t say that social media inspired me to act, but it is a great tool to spread aware­ness and share part of your life with the world. Grow­ing up see­ing great films and actors is what has inspired me the most.


Paulz­eye: You were born in Downey, Cal­i­for­nia and you’re of Sal­vado­ri­an her­itage. What influ­ence do your fam­i­ly roots have on you as a person?


Sulem Calderon: For me, fam­i­ly is every­thing. Mak­ing them proud and hav­ing them as a part of my jour­ney is what has made it pos­si­ble. I am very proud to be a Lati­na, and El Sal­vado­ri­an. My fam­i­ly has been through a lot, com­ing to Amer­i­ca, and they sac­ri­ficed a lot so I could pur­sue my dreams.


Paulz­eye: Your per­for­mance in Nona is absolute­ly astound­ing, charm­ing, and nat­ur­al. I was amazed to learn that this was in fact your first fea­ture film.


Sulem Calderon: Aww, Paul! Thank you so much! That means a lot to me. I put my whole heart out for Nona and it will always have a spe­cial place in my heart too.


Paulz­eye: In an ear­li­er inter­view, actress/producer Kate Bosworth spoke about the process that her hus­band and direc­tor, Michael Pol­ish, went through to find the right actress to play Nona. He final­ly select­ed you for the role. How sur­re­al was that moment?


Sulem Calderon: It’s hard to put into words! I have been a fan of Kate’s work for years. I mean, come on. Blue Crush made every girl want to be a surfer! She has been an actor so many look up to and want to be like. It was sur­re­al to work with her on this project, and she couldn’t have been more kind and gen­er­ous with her time. I had nev­er act­ed in a film before, so when Michael cast me I couldn’t believe it — but after the excite­ment set­tles, you have the respon­si­bil­i­ty to do the work to bring the char­ac­ter to life. I’m for­ev­er grate­ful for that opportunity.


Paulz­eye: What was it like to work with a sea­soned actress like Kate Bosworth?


Sulem Calderon: Intim­i­dat­ing! My scene with her was on our final day of shoot­ing, and she blew me away. To share the screen with such a sea­soned actor as her is some­thing you nev­er for­get. She has such a pres­ence on cam­era. It’s like the whole room stops, and I got a front row seat to watch her work.


Paulz­eye: The film was shot on loca­tion in coun­tries like Hon­duras, Guatemala and Mex­i­co. What was that expe­ri­ence like?


Sulem Calderon: It was amaz­ing. Michael is a direc­tor that has such a spe­cif­ic vision for his films and from the begin­ning he want­ed to go and shoot this sto­ry where it hap­pens. To cap­ture the truth and grit and beau­ty of these cities. As an actor, it felt more real being there. None of it was make-believe or forced. Michael was com­mit­ted to por­tray­ing the real­i­ty of these places, with cin­e­matog­ra­phy that looks like it could be a painting.


Paulz­eye: You share the screen with Jesy McK­in­ney who plays Hecho, the dream­er who con­vinces Nona to set out for Amer­i­ca. The chem­istry between your char­ac­ters is very organ­ic. The scenes in which the two con­verse sound very real and, at times, unscript­ed. Were any of those con­ver­sa­tions improvised?


Sulem Calderon: Almost every­thing in the film was in the script, but once or twice Michael would see a moment he want­ed to sit in and would feed Jesy and I a line he wrote on the day. There wasn’t any moments that we impro­vised, it was just the great writ­ing of our direc­tor that made it feel ground­ed and real. Jesy and I had a great chem­istry on-screen, part­ly because we worked non-stop run­ning lines every sin­gle day before we left to shoot, also to spend­ing time cre­at­ing a friend­ship and trust as actors. We knew it was going to be a hard film because of the trav­el and sub­ject mat­ter, so we want­ed to build a trust with each oth­er that would even­tu­al­ly trans­late on screen with our char­ac­ters, Nona trust­ing him to take her on this journey.


Paulz­eye: The film explores dark themes such as death and human traf­fick­ing. There are many scenes that are dif­fi­cult to watch, espe­cial­ly near the end of the film when Non­a’s jour­ney takes an unex­pect­ed turn. How dif­fi­cult, on an emo­tion­al lev­el, was it to pre­pare for this film?


Sulem Calderon: It was hard to go there emo­tion­al­ly, to feel that help­less­ness and fear, even for a moment as an actor. But the hard real­i­ty is that this hap­pens to mil­lions of peo­ple around the world. I felt a respon­si­bil­i­ty to that. I had no choice but to dig deep. I obvi­ous­ly have no idea what its actu­al­ly like, but I did the best I could to put myself in that world so audi­ences could, hope­ful­ly, do the same.


Paulz­eye: What were some of the chal­lenges that you faced while film­ing Nona?


Sulem Calderon: The hard­est part of film­ing was being ready for any­thing and every­thing. Michael is a direc­tor that leads with his instincts, so we went down to shoot with zero loca­tions planned and noth­ing scout­ed. We shot the film chrono­log­i­cal­ly so you kind of knew what was going to come next, but Michael would see some­thing he liked and we would just pull the van over and start film­ing a scene right then and there. It made me ner­vous at times because I want­ed to be pre­pared an do a good job, but look­ing back, I can’t imag­ine that movie being made any oth­er way.


Paulz­eye: Is there a lit­tle bit of Sulem Calderon in Nona and vice versa?


Sulem Calderon: Yes! I am Nona. We all are in a way. Dream­ers and real peo­ple. I put a lot of myself into the role and I car­ry her with me even now that it’s finished.


Paulz­eye: Deserved­ly, Nona seems to have opened sev­er­al doors for you. You are now work­ing on anoth­er project with Jesy McK­in­ney and in 2020 you’re sched­uled to appear in the film Jun­gle Cruise along side Dwayne John­son and Emi­ly Blunt. That must be excit­ing. Talk to us about these projects.


Sulem Calderon: After Nona, I was asked by Jesy to act in his film One of the Good Ones that he wrote, direct­ed and stars in. He’s a very deter­mined artist and went and made it, sim­i­lar to how we shot Nona, using what he learned from Michael Pol­ish. It’s a beau­ti­ful film and will be pre­mier­ing at the Rich­mond Inter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val, April 25th! I’m so proud of him. I also got the unbe­liev­able oppor­tu­ni­ty to act in Disney’s Jun­gle Cruise, play­ing Princess Quila, act­ing oppo­site Dwayne John­son. He was so kind and pro­fes­sion­al. It was spe­cial for me, in a way, feel­ing like I got to take Nona from her bad cir­cum­stances and free her, and she got to become a princess.


Paulz­eye: Every actor always has that one role they would love to do at some point in their career. What is yours and why?


Sulem Calderon: Hon­est­ly, I already feel like I got a dream role twice now. Get­ting to do an inde­pen­dent film with such a tal­ent­ed direc­tor like Michael Pol­ish, about a sub­ject that’s tru­ly impor­tant. Then I got to be a Dis­ney princess and act with one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Dwayne John­son. I’m just thankful.



Paulz­eye: Is there one genre you pre­fer over another?


Sulem Calderon: I love them all, but dra­ma and thrillers will always be my favorite. The way they excite you and inspire you, keep you on the edge of your seat. That’s my favorite feel­ing when I see a movie.


Paulz­eye: At the end of the day, we are all movie­go­ers. And so, I have to ask. What is your favorite film?


Sulem Calderon: Casi­no, hands down!


Paulz­eye: Who are some of the actors and actress­es that have impact­ed you the most and why?


Sulem Calderon: My favorite actors and per­for­mances are ones with strong women that over­come intense cir­cum­stances, like Julia Roberts in Erin Brock­ovich, Uma Thur­man in Kill Bill or Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball. It’s empow­er­ing to see woman por­trayed like that in movies. I’d love a chance to do the same one day.


Paulz­eye: One word to define acting?


Sulem Calderon: Trust.


Paulz­eye: In clos­ing, what advice would you offer to the many ambi­tious per­form­ers around the world?


Sulem Calderon: Don’t quit! We live in a world where things seem to come easy or quick­er for some peo­ple, but stay com­mit­ted to it because it’s bet­ter to have a career with longevi­ty than chase short term suc­cess. Trust that process and stick with it!


Paulz­eye: Sulem, I’d like to thank you for tak­ing the time to answer these ques­tions today. It’s been tru­ly delight­ful. I wish you con­tin­ued success.


Sulem Calderon: Thank you so much Paul for tak­ing the time to inter­view me and talk about Nona. I am for­ev­er grateful.