Actor Ivonne Coll on playing the matriarch on ‘Jane the Virgin’ at 70

Ivonne Coll (Photo\Starla Fortunato)

Ivonne Coll is not a mother, or a grandmother, in real life, but she plays the role of both on television.

Coll, otherwise known as Alba, plays the matriarch of her alternate reality home on The CW’s “Jane the Virgin.”  There, the Puerto Rican actor plays the Venezuelan grandmother of Jane (Gina Rodriguez), and the mother of Xiomara Villanueva (Andrea Navedo). Her main goal as head of that household is to try and steer Jane in the right direction. 

“What I like about the show is how they portray Alba is that she is still sensual,” says Coll, adding that her character is also courageous and intelligent. “A lot of times abuelas are shown as always having an apron on and asking if you ate, but Alba is a dynamic woman who has a boyfriend and makes mistakes in life. The creators allow me to sing and dance – those are the opportunities that this show has allowed me to express.”

In a way, the now 70-year-old actor is going back to her roots. At 20, while studying psychology at the University of Puerto Rico, Coll won the Miss Puerto Rico title, and in the same year, 1967, she represented Puerto Rico in the Miss Universe pageant – both of which required her to display her talents of acting, singing and dancing. Upon seeing her performing skills, a producer in Puerto Rico gave Coll her own variety show. But at 26, Coll decided it was time to move to Hollywood.

Ivonne Coll in 1967 (Courtesy Ivonne Coll)

“My mother couldn’t understand why I was leaving Puerto Rico, because I was so successful there, but I knew my calling was somewhere else,” says Coll. “I knew I had to study the craft of acting. I didn’t care about fame, or making it, or becoming a star, I wanted to become a working actor – that was my goal.”

Little did she know, she says, that according to the standards of Hollywood, she was already considered “too old.”

“But I didn’t know that, and when I was told about it, I didn’t care,” says the determined Coll. “I just thought, ‘Let me keep on growing and doing my craft.’”

It was around this time in her life that she often didn’t have money for food or to buy bottled water, but nothing, not even not having money, would be an obstacle to accomplishing her dream. When she needed diction classes to make her spoken English clearer, she instantly thought of a creative solution.

“I would clean the room for free lessons,” says Coll, laughing at this memory. “It was joyful. I never thought that I was struggling. I never thought I was paying my dues. It was a joy to do that work to get that session.”

Shortly after, by a chance situation, she was hired to play the “redheaded singer, Yolanda” in Francis Ford Coppola’s, “The Godfather II,” which hit theaters in 1974.

“It was around 2 or 3 in the morning, and Al Pacino came on the set to do the kissing scene, and that’s what it did it for me,” recounts Coll about the exact moment she confirmed she wanted to dedicate the rest of her life to acting. “As he walked to Fredo, watching the way he transformed. I thought, ‘How did he do that?!’”

It was then that she started to train even harder.

“I studied acting techniques for seven years, with Lee Strasberg, David Alexander, and Lucille Ball – who gave an eight-week workshop in Hollywood,” says Coll, adding that Ball was very strict and committed as a teacher.

Throughout her career, Coll has starred on Broadway in “Goodbye Fidel,” and played Lady Macbeth in “Lady Macbeth,” and acted in the films, “Lean on Me,” and “Walking the Dead,” and has countless television credits, including “Switched at Birth,” and “Glee.” Yet no matter how many years and projects pass, she still calls her mother her biggest inspiration, role model and hero.

“It’s all for Puerto Rico and my mother,” says Coll about Rosita Mendoza who was a celebrated hairstylist in Puerto Rico. “I think I inherited all my talent from my mother…Later in her life, she would be training – her talent for teaching is my talent for coaching others. That’s my mother – I’m so lucky. The last thing she saw me in was in Puerto Rican Parade in New York City when I won the Lifetime Achievement Award [in 2015]. She saw it on TV, and a week later she died.”

Coll admits that as her recurring role as a mom in the television series,“Switched at Birth” was dwindling down, she started thinking about gracefully bowing out of show business and returning to her island home.

“I didn’t think there would be more roles for me,” says Coll. “As I’m doing the paperwork needed to wrap up, I get the audition for this role at Jane the Virgin.”

Not taking it seriously, she first told her agency she’s busy doing jury duty.

“I was so confused, because the role was in Spanish in English, and the audition was the next day!,” says Coll.

Once there, she asked the producers what kind of Spanish dialect they wanted. They said Venezuelan, which was a very easy transition from her native Caribbean Spanish.  

“God decided that role was for me no matter how much I didn’t take it seriously,” says Coll. “When they called me to go to network, I turned off my phone, and I didn’t hear they cancelled the audition. So I went. And at the moment the casting director came in, and she said, ‘Abuela, we’ll see your tape.’ They didn’t answer until the next day. We were in parking lot when I got it. I was screaming in the car. It’s been a great ride.”

She says working on “Jane the Virgin” has been one of her most special experiences, because her co-stars have become like true family.

“It’s also the first time three Latinas are in a mainstream show, and now we have it in ‘One Day at a Time,’” says Coll about the Netflix series she will soon guest star onreuniting her with Rita Moreno, 85, who played the “Glam-ma” on “Jane the Virgin.”

Looking back now to when she once heard she was “too old” at 27, Coll laughs.

“I just produced and co-wrote a short and I’m acting in it,” she says. “It’s about two women – one is a principal, and one is a yoga teacher and married to a Harvard professor…I want to put [Latinas] in charge like we are in real life…Producers feel it won’t sell, but it will sell, because it represents the face of North America.”

What advice would she tell her 20-year-old self at her age now?

“I wouldn’t change anything of what I did really…Go with your gut feeling. God lives in you. I was not aware that I was doing that. Be more aware of what moves you, because that will inform how your life will be.”

“Alba, to me, has been a gift of love from God that came at a time I was about to retire. Isn’t it incredible?,” says Coll. “You can plan, but God has other plans, and His plans are better than yours.”