‘Wizards’ Star Maria Canals-Barrera: “I’m Honored To Be A Positive Role Model For Latinas” (EXCLUSIVE)

It’s hard to believe Wizards of Waverly place ended its oh-so-magical four-season run on the Disney Channel more than a year ago. But if you’ve missed the Emmy-winning series as much as we have, you’re in luck. Maria Canals-Barrera and her onscreen familia are returning to the network for a one-hour television special entitled The Wizards Return: Alex vs. Alex, that premieres this Friday, March 15.

In the days leading up to the special, Canals-Barrera took time out her busy schedule to answer a few questions from Latina.com. The 46-year-old Cuban-American actress opened up about her telenovela history, the pride she has for her “girls” Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato and what it felt like to return to her beloved role as Theresa Russo on Wizards.

When did you know you first know that you wanted to pursue a career in acting?
I can't remember a time when I didn’t want to be in show business! Hahaha!! Since elementary school, I was in all the productions – all the way through junior high and high school. I even received "most talented" my senior year!

I auditioned for a scholarship to the University of Miami and got my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Senior year of college, I landed an Equity play at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, The House of Blue Leaves. It was a professional production with Mel Shapiro, who’d just directed the Broadway revival. It was a marvelous experience. And there was no looking back after that!

Tell us about appearing in the Spanish telenovela Marielena, which aired on Telemundo in 1992.

Well, Marielena was a wonderful experience that so many people still remember today. It challenged me to practice my Spanish. Having been born and raised in Miami, English was very much my dominant language! I had already done episodes of 21 Jump Street, which was my network television debut, America's Most Wanted, Super Force, Grapevine, another Spanish language show called Corte Tropical, a recurring role on the series Key West.

What I consider to be my big break was the film, Cop and a Half starring Burt Reynolds and directed by Henry Winkler, who was the one who requested my demo-tape and sent it along to a big L.A. agency that signed me right away. That movie led Burt Reynolds' to cast me as a series regular in my first television pilot, a spin-off of Evening Shade called Harlan and Merleen, starring Charles Durning

Did you think you’d end up becoming one of the hardest working Latinas in Hollywood, appearing in more than 40 projects?

I’m proud to be a hard working actress; it's what I've always loved to do and I'm so happy and proud to still be doing it. 

Wizards of Waverly Place was the longest-running Disney Channel Original Series and the franchise earned three Emmys during its four-season run… When did you realize you were part of television magic (pun intended!)?

I knew early on that Wizards was going to be magical. The writing was very funny and inventive and the cast felt so good together. It was so easy to bond with them and its always been so much fun! Five years and three Emmys later it's still unbelievable!

Wizards was one of the first Disney Channel shows to feature Latinos in starring roles. How did it feel to represent the Latino community in such a positive way?

I loved representing a Latina character who was so fun and not a stereotype. We were an American family and the mom just happened to be of Mexican heritage, just like the dad was of Italian descent. It was part of who they are, not the defining characteristic. Our Latin or Hispanic heritage made us more interesting with another layer to discover about us rather than something used to marginalize us. I give great credit to Disney, Peter Murrieta, Todd Greenwald, Ben Montanio and Vince Chueng, our writers/executive producers, for that. 

It’s been more than a year since Wizards’ final bow on the Disney Channel. How does it feel to be returning to the role of Theresa Russo in the new special The Wizards Return: Alex vs. Alex?

Returning to the role of Theresa after a year felt great! I love playing her. She's so fun to be! She's passionate, crazy, glamorous and loving. The kids had definitely grown even more and it was great to be reunited with the cast and play Theresa one more time. 

Tell us what we can expect to see on The Wizards Return: Alex vs. Alex.

Lots of killer special effects, suspense, danger, humor, silliness, romance and hilarious scenes in beautiful Tuscany Italy, where we go visit Jerry's family!

You’ve played mother to Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato (Camp Rock). Do you feel like they’re your own familia in a way? And how does it feel to see them finding great success in Hollywood? 

I love Demi and Selena very much. It has been an honor to play the mother of two such talented girls. I am thrilled for their success. Demi is like a light to me. So beautiful, unique and talented. Her voice is one of my favorites. I love her style of singing.

Selena, wow, what a talent she is! Since she was 12 years old and we did our first pilot together, I could see what a natural comedienne she was. And look at her now, with hit albums as well!

Absolutely loved you in Larry Crowne. Tell us about that role… And tell us what it was like sharing scenes with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

Thank you! Larry Crowne was a fun experience because I got to work with two Hollywood icons at once. Pretty spectacular. Tom is one of my favorite actors and he couldn't have been nicer. What a likable guy, wow! And a great director. And it was the second time I worked with Julia. I had a small role in America's Sweethearts. She was very gracious and congratulated me on the success of Wizards

You were the voice of Shayera Hol/Hawkgirl in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Did you ever think you’d be so popular among comic book fans?

I LOVED voicing Shayera Hol/Hawkgirl in Justice League. What a dream project and cast. Our voice director was multi-Emmy winner Andrea Romano. I’m so proud to be such an integral part of an animated series that has garnered so many comic book fans from all over the world! Something interesting also happened to me associated with Justice League... David Barrera (my husband) and I wanted to start our family. We had been married four years. I prayed to get a wonderful voice job, so that it wouldn't matter how pregnant I was and I could still work. Well, my prayers were answered with a resounding yes! I booked Justice League. It lasted for four years and I had both my children during that time. 

You’ve won two ALMA Awards and an Imagen Award for your work on Wizards and The Brothers Garcia. How does it feel to be such a positive role model for Latinas?

I’m honored to be considered a positive role model for Latinas. Having received those awards and our Emmys has been a tremendously satisfying experience. They are all a result of playing wonderful Latina roles and I am so grateful for having had those opportunities. 

What advice do you have for young Latinas interested in pursuing a career in acting?

My advice for young Latinas interested in pursuing a career in Hollywood is to make sure you LOVE to perform and make sure you get the training you need. Also, never stop believing in yourself and never give up on yourself if you KNOW you have something to give.