Jencarlos Canela's telenovela acting and singing talents find a new audience on NBC's 'Telenovela'

To some tuning in to NBC's "Telenovela," Jencarlos Canela might be a new face.

But the 27-year-old Cuban American actor has already made many swoon with his roles in telenovelas, including as the lead on some for Telemundo -- such as 2009's "Más Sabe el Diablo." The Miami native is also a well-known singer-songwriter and musician within the Latin community.

The Eva Longoria-led comedy, which peers behind the scenes of a popular Spanish-language soap opera, marks Canela's crossover into the general market. In the series, which airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT, Canela stars as telenovela heartthrob Xavier. He's the philandering ex-husband to Ana Sofia (Longoria) who is hired to play her co-star in the telenovela-within-the-show, "Las Leyes de Pasión."

Show Tracker spoke to Canela about giving a wink, with this NBC series, to the format that made him a star.

Talk about how this all came to be--you were working as a judge on Univision's music competition reality series "Va por ti" when you got the call, right?

Yeah, we were doing the show in Mexico and I was planning a tour. When I was first told about the project, Eva wasn’t in the picture. I didn’t have a lot of information. And my first response was, like, look, I’m so focused on this tour we have coming up. I don’t see me being able to dedicate the time I know I would want to dedicate to this. Even putting myself on tape--I didn’t want to send in something where they were like, what the hell is this? And then one night I get a call from Eva. She explained to me in depth about what the show was about and she said Xavier is a singer and he also acts and he’s from the soap opera world and he’s based in Miami and he’s going to be my love interest. I was like, excuse me? What was that last part you said? You could have started there. Let’s do this. But, no, honestly, I have so much respect for Eva. I’ve always been a fan of what she’s done — not just on-screen, but offscreen too. The advocacy she does for our community.

The most difficult thing was while I was doing the show, we got signed to Republic Records. So I’m with Universal Latin in Spanish, but they did a joint venture with Republic Records to sign me in English. And we were doing the English album while I was shooting, and we still had some tour dates that I couldn’t change. I’d finish shooting on a Friday, leave on a red-eye, perform on Saturday, come back Sunday, shoot Monday. And then when I would be done shooting for the day, we’d go to the studio and lay down vocals. It was very hectic.

Will we see any of your music be featured on the show?

Oh, yeah, there’s going to be songs featured on the show. The final episode — one of my favorite moments is when Eva and Xavi have this moment where he sings her a song. It’s a song written by me. But it's such a great moment between them. And what an honor that they chose a song I wrote to be a part of that moment.

What were your initial thoughts when you were told what this show would be about? Did you have any reservations attaching your name to something that gives a wink to the sorts of Spanish soaps that you’ve been a part of?

I thought it was a huge opportunity from the get-go. It was the first time I’ve ever done comedy. I knew I was going to be surrounded by actors who do it well, and knew that I could learn a lot from them. Look, I was born and raised in the States. I’m proud to be Latino, but as much as I feel Latino, I’m American. I’m 100% both. And to be acting and singing in my language — which is English, having been born here — it’s a huge satisfaction and a dream come true. To be doing it with a network like NBC, alongside people you respect and love, and in this kind of way — the soap opera part is just the backdrop of it. We could have easily been doctors working at hospitals; we could have easily been working at an airline. But soap operas, there’s so much drama, so much passion, so much intensity, that when you see it, it’s funny. Even if you don’t understand the culture of it, it’s pretty hilarious. I thought it was a great idea from the start. And it’s such an important moment for the Latin community right now. I thought it was the right moment to do this. It was a no-brainer for me when I was told about it.

How did you get your start in telenovelas?

I was doing festivals. I was singing. I think I was 14 at the time -- I had got offstage and some producers were there and they were like, "Hey, do you act?” and I was like, “No.”  I’ll never forget, he said to me, oh, there’s this pilot we’re doing for Telemundo and the kid is a singer and all you have to do is grab your guitar, sing a few songs and they showed me a picture of these three girls that you'll be working with. I was 14. Of course I said yes. I gave it a shot. They liked the pilot. I was hard-core into music. I had never seen a soap opera in my life. But it’s funny how things worked out. They gave me a shot to do a character — the son of the lead role in "Pecados ajenos" (The Sins of Others). They basically let me sing the lead song and made incidental music on the show. And then there was a relationship in that show, and it took off. Then Televisa offered us a deal and when Telemundo found out they said no. They said if I stayed, they’d make me the lead on three or four soap operas. I was like, what is going on? And that’s kind of how it happened. I did a soap opera called "Más Sabe el Diablo." And the theme song I did for that was our first No. 1 on Billboard. I just remember being more excited about the song hitting No. 1 on Billboard than anything else. And then we would just tour for a year and then come back and do a soap opera for six months. And so on and so on.

Telenovelas are a huge format in the Spanish-language market and the tropes of the genre and the passion surrounding them have been something the English-language market has borrowed from or had its fun with as of late. What do you think it is about telenovelas that generates such devotion?

It's the Latin version of film. Film in Spanish — there’s some great independent films, but it’s not really popular. You don’t really go to the movie theater to see a Latin film on the weekends. We don’t have that culture, at least not in the States. For the Latin culture, telenovelas are a part of us. Families sit down and they watch these stories that are about a person who is told they can’t make it or you’re just a poor boy or girl and you can’t have his love or her love or that house or that life. To see how that person overcomes all of that, and at the end, gets all the things they work hard for. To see these characters overcome horrific obstacles — I mean, they really overdo it on soap operas. They are the kings of putting obstacles in the way of happiness. Just when you thought you were in love — no, she’s your mother! It’s crazy the things that happen. And the plots, yes, if you read them, they’re funny, but what they’re trying to do is tell the audience, hey, if this person was able to overcome all of this, the fact that you lost your job or lost this or that is not an excuse for you to not be able to achieve what you deserve. I think that’s why we’re so hooked. No matter how bad things are going for us, they see these shows and say, it can always be worse. If they can do it, I can too.

Have you gotten any reaction from any of your former telenovela co-stars? Or what do you think the response might be?

I’ve gotten so many messages. Jaime Camil [a popular Mexican actor known for his sitcom-like telenovelas who now stars in the CW's "Jane the Virgin"] wrote to me one of the most beautiful messages I ever got. It was a great moment for me because I have a lot of respect for Jaime and it was nice to see what he thought of our performance and of the show. I’ve gotten a lot of messages from telenovela actors saying "thank you." If the show does well, it’s an opportunity for them too in a greater sense. They can have a fair shot of landing some of these roles on English-language TV or get their work known or themselves known. I wouldn't have been part of a show that was making fun of something that means a lot to me and made me who I am. It’s a love letter to soap operas. I truly feel that the purpose is for Latinos to feel represented.

Have you given suggestions to the writers on "Telenovela" on some behind-the-scenes drama from your days on telenovelas?

Oh, yeah, we’re always talking about real-life situations. Man, there is some crazy stuff I've seen in my short life that you’ll definitely see on the show as it progresses. They’re moments that are shocking and dramatic, but they’re so shocking and dramatic that they’re hilarious. And you’ll wonder if that’s really real and if stuff like that actually happens and let me tell you: It does.

I’m just glad we got to experience that scream of yours.

Oh my God, that scream. The moment I let that scream out, I said to myself, "Why did I do that? Why did I do that?” The writers sat me down and were like Jen, do you mind screaming like that every time? That’s my character’s scream and I’m not proud of it at all. It’s embarrassing.   

I tweet about TV (and other things) here: @villarrealy

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