the many voices of herizen guardiola, star of 'the get down'
The 20-year-old actress and musician, who plays the Bronx Pentecostal Church’s very own disco star Mylene Cruz, is working on her first solo album.
Herizen Guardiola does a flawless impression of Lumpy Space Princess from Adventure Time, a cartoon which she loves. "Oh my globbb, what the stuff are you guys doooing?" she intones in the globular alien's Valley Girl drawl. "I'm actually pretty good at voices," she confirms, "I can do Baz."
We're driving (very slowly) through New York traffic in pouring rain, on the day after the release party for the second installment of The Get Down, the Netflix show in which Herizen stars. She was up late (not too late: she doesn't have a fake ID), and her goofy side is showing. The Baz she's referring to is Baz Luhrmann, the show's director, who she can indeed impersonate perfectly, with all the love and humor of a person who has spent two years of long days on set with another person.
The voice Herizen is best known for, though, is the soul-filling gospel force of Mylene Cruz, the daughter of a Pentecostal minister with limitless reserves of ambition and lurex dresses but a fiercely protective family. Set in the graffiti-covered 70s South Bronx, The Get Down is a glittering spectacle of a show, but Mylene's voice cuts through the dazzle like the smooth opening coo of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" on a dance floor.
Herizen grew up performing. Her first stage memory is of singing with her father, the Cuban reggae musician Juan Carlos, at five years old. "Another big memory is being in Canada at the Reggae Festival," she continues. "I was nine and singing in front of four thousand people with my dad. That was one of the most nerve-racking but exhilarating experiences of my life. I realized I really love to be on stage."
Starting young helped prepare her for her first acting gig, on The Get Down, which she landed thanks to a full-throttle rendition of Alicia Keys's "Fallin'." "I think I got rid of my stage fright at a really early age," she says, "Now, I mostly get excited-nervous, not scared-nervous. Filming The Get Down was definitely a challenge, but it was worth it. I learned a lot. I learned how hard acting can get."
To prepare his cast for the show, Luhrmann set up what he called "The Dojo," an apartment in Glendale, Queens that served as a portal to late-70s New York. "It was decorated with 70s furniture, turntables, and mirrors," Herizen explains. "There was a dance section, surrounded by mirrors, a dialect room, a DJ section. It was a place where you'd go and get into the 70s and practice." Luhrmann excels at creating irresistibly immersive cinematic worlds and The Get Down is one of them.
But Herizen says she wasn't influenced by the hits of the show's time period. She has always made her own music and later this year, likely this summer, she will release an album she's been working on since long before filming began. "I'll have to wait for other people to give it a genre," she says, when I ask her to describe her sound. "Right now, I guess it's alternative, electronic, and… sultry," she says, landing finally on the right word.
If the sounds of The Get Down were inspired by Donna Summer and Earth, Wind & Fire, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, Herizen's music borrows from what she calls her "classics." "Led Zeppelin, The Who, doo-wop, and reggae," she reels off, "That's the music that's familiar to me. Until recently, I had been listening to a lot of new music, but I needed a refresh. It's like when you smell too many perfumes and you have to smell coffee beans. Old music is my coffee beans."
The Beatles are a touchstone, too. She identifies most strongly with George but has a soft spot for Ringo. "Ringo is super low-key. How cool is it that the drummer would just come out with a single too? It was like, 'Oh, Ringo's on it too? Ringo can sing?' They're real musicians. There's also a "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" vibe to my music," she continues, "I like creating a magical realm." Herizen grew up (first in Miami and later in L.A.) listening to Indian chants and, like the White Album Beatles, many of her melodies stem from those compositions.
Herizen's mother, Venice Pink, is a yoga instructor and nutritionist (Herizen is a lifelong vegetarian) and recently moved her family to Oregon. Two days after we meet, Herizen will fly back west and is excited to hike. "We're in the suburbs of Eugene. My backyard is a forest. There are deer! I can just get up and go on nature walks or drive to the coast," she says, "It's beautiful. I feel free there."
While Mylene Cruz enjoys bedazzled metallic disco shoes, lamé, and blowouts, Herizen is most comfortable in a band t-shirt and jeans, ideally lost somewhere in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest (she is also a Twilight fan). Being stuck in New York traffic is not her natural environment.
But she does have an appreciation for glamor — for the side-slit magenta skirt Mylene wears in the show's final episode, for example, and the stylings of another of her musical heroes, salsa legend Celia Cruz. As our car finally start moving again, she exclaims with delight about a glittery tchotchke dangling from the mirror of a neighboring cab: "Look, a penguin made of sparkle bubbles!"
'The Get Down' Part Two is available to stream now, through Netflix.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography June Canedo