From Dancing Queen to Leading Lady
Eleven years ago, Jeanine Mason won Fox’s televised dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance. The 2009 win rapidly propelled her acting career, landing her roles on CSI, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, NCIS: Los Angeles, Bunheads, and Of Kings and Prophets. And this was just the tip of the iceberg for the Miami native.
Jeanine was born to perform and has been doing it for as long as she can remember. She has always had a gift and everyone knew it. “It was always there; the desire to be putting on a show --which was particularly obnoxious when I was little,” she laughs. “It always felt like an extension of my life too, which is why it didn’t seem like an insane thing to pursue acting. It was something I couldn’t do without. My parents always treated it like that too. That was me.” With the support of her parents (from classes to coaching), she followed her passion and made her dreams a reality. Today, Jeanine’s mom is her business manager. “They are my teammates,” says the 29-year-old actress.
After seventeen years of dancing professionally and winning competitions, Jeanine decided to audition for So You Think You Can Dance —a last minute decision, since she was already enrolled at UCLA. Jeanine had been dancing since she was 3 years old, and she was ready to start a new chapter. Though she was done with dancing, dancing was not done with her.
“Truly, the night before the audition, I said, ‘Alright, I’ll go in the morning.’ And I went in. I had a girlfriend who had been in line since like, 6 am—the line was obscene— and she let me cut with her,” Jeanine explains. “I was being stubborn. I was resistant to it, but my mom was a big part, she was like, ‘I think you should just give it a go; it might set you up in L.A.’ Once I got it, it was the most fun. And my main memory is I wasn’t even aware that it was a competition, I was just so happy to be there.” The entire experience flew by. “I feel like I woke up in the Top Four,” she recalls. And her mom was right, this experience set her up in the industry when she moved to Los Angeles.
The transition from dancer to actor was a seamless one for Jeanine. Even today, she doesn’t favor one over the other. “They are the same thing to me,” she says. “I feel like I’m an artist, and I have an instrument and that instrument is my body, and depending on the role I’m conquering, I utilize different parts of my instrument to best approach that character and do justice to that character.” Jeanine gets satisfaction from both. “I love finding that moment when you are so in the moment in acting that you respond in a way that feels so honest, that it surprises you. And in dancing, I love that moment when you are so stretched and you are on balance.”
In 2017, Jeanine landed the role of Dr. Sam Bello, who actually has a dancing background, too, on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. Jeanine and her character have more than that in common, both are Latinas (Jeanine’s family is from Cuba) and both are the new kid in a very intimidating environment. “She was the new intern right out of school, ready to start working in her field, and hoping to make a contribution. And I, Jeanine, was very much in the same boat,” she says. “I was coming onto a show that’s so loved and established, and 14 years in at the time, and I just wanted to do right by the show. I just wanted to contribute in some way that felt positive.” Jeanine is a confident person. “I know what I offer to a production, but I was definitely nervous. I didn’t have to do much work to act nervous.”
Being a part of Grey’s Anatomy prepared Jeanine for what was to come, all of her hard work --her dedication to her auditions and preparedness-- and patience was about to pay off. “At this point, I have a sense of what works for me,” she says. “I love to prepare; I’m Type A. I’m like Amy Santiago in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I love a binder. I love Post-its, I love color-coordinated Post-its. I take so many notes, my cast members are in awe of it.”
Jeanine had been auditioning while she was filming Grey’s Anatomy; like every actor, she was trying to line up her next job. It’s very rare to receive multiple offers, but that is exactly what happened. One day, while on the set of Grey’s Anatomy, Jeanine got a phone call from her agent and found out that she had three test offers --something that had never happened to her before. “I was like, Oh my God!” she recalls. “I was like, now, I need to do a scene with Ellen Pompeo and my brain was a million miles away. It was a surreal moment.” By the time she left the set, Jeanine had secured the lead role on The CW’s Roswell, New Mexico, Liz Ortecho. “It was incredible. It was awesome, like, the actual definition of the word awesome,” Jeanine chuckles.
“For me, it was clearly Roswell, the opportunity to be number one hadn’t even crossed my mind,” she says. “For it to be a Latina, for it to be a show that acknowledges our times and what’s happening right now in my community --there were so many elements that it was a dream to get to honor and play in.” Roswell, New Mexico premiered January 15, 2019. Since the original Roswell aired before her time, Jeanine binged it on Hulu. “It’s very different,” she says. However, they do try to do things Liz Parker did on the original show. Sometimes Jeanine wears her rings the same way the original Liz Parker would. And the show also tries to recreate shots from the original series. In addition to being the narrator, Liz is a biomedical researcher and the daughter of undocumented immigrants.
As Roswell, New Mexico’s second season comes to an end, Jeanine can truly say that she knows Liz and is confident about making decisions that are best for her character. “TV is fast as hell. There is a lot of stuff that has to happen on the fly,” says Jeanine, who works very closely with an acting coach who helps her rework scenes. Jeanine is proud to see Liz be a hero —with her human hands and her intelligence. “We stick to that idea of Liz as a hero. She is her own hero and I love that messaging. What I want our viewers to know is that it’s a huge accomplishment to take care of yourself. She holds true to that until the end of the season. People are going to be shocked to see how it comes to a close.”
A third season is on its way. “We were supposed to be back in production at the end of June, but everything right now is up in the air. We want to make sure our crew is safe,” explains Jeanine. Like everyone in the world, Jeanine has been quarantined for the last two months with her family in Miami. “I was in New York when it happened. I’m right there with everyone. I’m seeing the way it’s been disrupting my work, the work of my family members, the work of my friends. I’m nervous and stressed about how everyone’s livelihood is going to be affected. I’m trying to do what I can to take care of my people and not feel like I’m overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness for the world. I’m trying to say, what can I do for my people? If we can all take care of our group, we’re doing some important work, in the grand scheme, that’s going to help us get through it.”