Gina Torres has carved out a career portraying tough, strong-willed women. No matter the role…as the gunslinging Zoe Washburne on “Firefly”, the human-devouring goddess Jasmine on “Angel”, the cold-hearted assassin Anna Espinosa on “Alias” or the boardroom-brawling Jessica Pearson on “Suits”–the 51-year-old actress comes across formidable in any set of circumstances.
The rub is Torres doesn’t actively pursue these fierce characters. Instead, directors, producers and casting agents cherry pick her for such parts.
“Once I started making my way into the business in earnest, I realized it didn’t matter what I thought,” Torres tells ET Canada. “The industry did not think of me in terms of somebody’s wife, somebody’s girlfriend. I didn’t fit into those particular molds. But for some strange reason, the assassin, the freedom fighter… those tend to stick.”
“I am so grateful that those women found their way to me because they are far more interesting,” she adds. “I learned quite a bit from them. And they also enabled me to see much further into my future as an actor, what I was capable of doing and the worlds I was capable of creating.”
Torres once again proudly wears that bada** badge as Paramedic Captain Tommy Vega on “9-1-1: Lone Star”. Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear, the “9-1-1” spinoff focuses on Captain Owen Strand [Rob Lowe] and his team of firefighters. Torres and Minear had previously collaborated on “Firefly”, where they developed a “lovely friendship.” Minear naturally proved essential in recruiting Torres for “Lone Star”.
“Tim was everything,” Torres says. “Loved him. Loved his style of writing. Loved the way his brain worked. Tim went on to do amazing things. I went off to keep doing what I was doing. It just so happened the planets aligned in such a way that there was an opening. Tim knew exactly how he wanted to fill it. I was free, single, dating and available.”
Torres’ relationship with Minear definitely came in handy. It allowed the New York City native to offer input into the development of Tommy, as well as instill a bit of herself into the performance.
“When Tim proposed this character to me, Tommy already encompassed so many of the things that are in my wheelhouse,” Torres said. “She’s strong. She’s authoritative. She gets the job done. But, personally, she was infused with this warmth and this interior life. It wasn’t just something that was unsaid, but something you get to see play out.”
“At this stage, as times have changed, as we are changing the landscape and experiencing people of colour in a wide of variety of situations… and not just people of colour, but of LGBTQ and women and all of that… now I get to be this beautifully, fully fleshed-out human being on this show,” she continues. “I do get to be a wife, I do get to be a mother and a bada**, all at the same time.”
Striking a balance between personal and professional duties becomes the challenge. After taking eight years off to raise her child, she now finds herself returning to the workforce. Tommy is courageous and an expert in her field, but also nervous at the same time.
“Family complicates,” Torres offers. “Tommy actually spoke of it the last episode, where she’s torn. She’s torn all the time. I can certainly speak to that as somebody who became a mother a little later in her life. You spent so much of your time where your only real responsibility was to yourself, and to this dream that you are pursuing. That is very much the case with Tommy Vega.”
“She was at the top of her game,” she explains. “Tommy was probably one of the youngest captains. She had an incredible reputation and she left it and had this family, which was another dream that was incredibly important to her. So how do you serve two masters? You don’t want to drop the ball on either of those fronts. That’s a lot of pressure. And it’s complicated. But you do it. You figure it out.”
Tommy’s main motivation behind resuming her career is financial. Her husband closed his restaurant down due to the global pandemic. Torres called it “extremely important” to incorporate COVID-19 and real-life drama into the series’ narrative.
“There is no way to portray the lives of first responders without addressing what first responders are going through,” Torres says. “It would be completely disrespectful and absurd. We are all in this together. The ‘9-1-1’ franchise, ‘Lone Star’ in particular, is so invested in these people that do this job. That’s what we want to spotlight. We want to put a spotlight on these beautiful heroes, these people that are there on the worst day of our lives and make them so human to everyone watching. We want everybody watching to say, ‘Oh, they are one of us and they are doing this…’”
Monday’s “Lone Star” episode features the first crossover with sister series, “9-1-1”. The two-hour event involves a harrowing wildfire. Several 9-1-1 members drive to Texas to pitch in and battle the blaze. As for where Tommy fits in, Torres teases, “Oh, she’s around. Without giving too much away, the big star of this crossover is the fire. Tommy doesn’t have much to do with that. Look forward to a deepening and a better understanding of her relationship with her husband.”
Torres grew up in the John Hughes era, where girls plastered posters of their favourite crushes on the bedroom walls. One of those heartthrobs was none other than her “Lone Star” co-star, Lowe. The hunky actor rose to fame in such movies as “The Outsiders”, “St. Elmo’s Fire”, “Youngblood” and “About Last Night”. So, what’s it been like starring opposite the 80’s idol?
“It’s surreal,” Torres says with a chuckle. “First of all, he’s great. He doesn’t disappoint in any way. That’s good. Sometimes you meet people that you loved from afar, and they are not who you hoped them to be. It’s a little disappointing, but that has certainly not been the case with Rob. He is absolutely part of the visual and soundtrack of my adolescence.
“What’s insane about it, too, is we are not that far apart in age,” she adds. “What Rob was doing, and at the level that he was doing it at when I was still trying to find my a** with both hands, is astonishing. That’s a lot of pressure on a young mind, and he survived. For that, he has my utmost respect. He not only survived, but he thrived.”
Torres hasn’t done too badly herself. In fact, next year marks the 20th anniversary of “Firefly”. The space Western frequently lands on critics’ and fans’ lists of favourite sci-fi series or one-season shows. To this day, viewers still clamour for a reboot or revival. A humble Torres remains pleasantly surprised by all the accolades and attention “Firefly” continues to receive.
“At the time, there was just no way to see this coming,” Torres concludes. “We knew what we had was special. We certainly enjoyed working with each other. But it’s lightning in a bottle. You never know if the timing is going to be right, if people are going to find it to watch it. It’s just a giggle to me, in the best possible way.”