Karla Souza is the Defender of the People

Mexican actress Karla Souza wields her clout beyond the screen. 

Karla Souza is the Defender of the People

Photography by Justino Águila

Karla Souza enters a cozy restaurant in West Hollywood and, before pulling up a chair, she ogles a salad. Souza has spent her morning at Sunset Gower Studios, shooting the fourth season of “How To Get Away With Murder.” She plays idealist law student Laurel Castillo, whose  introverted, coy demeanor belies her incredibly good instincts and more talent than most give her credit for.

This drama series is produced by ABC Studios and Shonda Rhimes, whose production company, Shondaland, has come up with a programming schedule that cuts down on the regular male-protagonist-centric TV series by introducing strong feminine characters, as in "Gray's Anatomy" and "Scandal".

“At Shondaland I feel protected as a woman," says Souza, 31, about her work with Rhimes. "You feel you have a voice and that you can play a part in social causes. Never had I ever felt that kind of support."

Souza knows that in many ways she is treading the right path in Hollywood, because of those who preceded her. She singles out Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez, and Sofia Vergara: "They are very good actresses; attractive, talented, and generous," Souza stresses. She is well aware that although these women have become famous names among fans around the world, Hispanic actresses and actors continue to struggle in the film and TV industries in the United States. Although Hispanics are the largest minority in the country, representing 17% of the U.S. population according to Census numbers, they still account for less than 6% of film and TV roles, according to a study by the University of Southern California. 

In many directions

Fully bilingual and bicultural, Souza works both in her native Mexico and in the U.S., reflecting an upbringing that had her literally all over the map.

Souza’s family moved up from Mexico to Colorado when Karla was two years old, and there she stayed until she was nine. Living in the United States helped her master the English language, and also gave her the advantage of melding two cultures. So far, this blue-eyed actress has avoided stereotyped roles — female outlaws and immigrants — that have long been the norm for actors of Latino descent.

“I'd never heard the term ‘Latina’ because I'm Mexican,” Souza says. “It didn't come to me until I got here [to the U.S.]. I was told I was brown and that I was Latina and it didn't matter if my [country of origin] was Mexico or Venezuela because for people in the U.S. it's the same thing. I realized that I had to stand up for a lot of people who had also been paving the way for me to be able to have a fair shot in the U.S.”

For a short time, Souza was a TV soap opera actress in Mexico, but her leading toles in romantic comedy movies (romcoms) in Spanish got her noticed outside Latin America. Those films included the enormously popular "Instructions Not Included" (2013) with  Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez who also directed. However, her big break was as the idealist Laurel Castillo in "How to Get Away with Murder."

"I cried when I found out I got the part," admits Souza. "This role opened up many doors for me. It was my first job in the U.S. A lot more people in this side of the world have now seen my work and it’s allowed me to merge my two careers.”

At the same time, Souza has continued to act in Spanish. In 2016, “¿Qué Culpa Tiene el Niño?” premiered as the most-viewed film in Mexico. She is now taking on more responsibilities as a producer, as she did in the bilingual film "Everybody Loves Somebody," where she plays a romantic role.

There are also other productions, such as the upcoming new version of Adrian Lyne's "Jacob's Ladder" (1990), starring Tim Robbins. In this new script Souza plays a nurse and, although she won’t say much about her part yet, she says it felt "almost as if I played two characters."

Her many profiles

Born in Mexico City, Souza lived in Colorado with her family when she was a child until they moved to France when she was nine. Later on the family returned to Querétaro, Mexico, where they settled for eight years. Souza studied acting in London and Russia, but actually her childhood was the key. Her late father, Carlos Olivares, who owned a footwear business, instilled in his children — Karla, her twin brother Jeronimo, and her sister Monica — the belief that they could do anything when they grew older. ""I say he brought me up like a boy because I never felt any limitations," says Souza, recalling her early years.”

Her mother, Monika Souza de Olivares, a former Montessori teacher, also encouraged her children to be active, creative, and free to choose careers that interested them most. "She was the most present mother I could have asked for," says Souza.

As a child, Souza dreamed of being an Olympic athlete and, during eight years, she practiced up to four hours a day, seven days a week, through a grueling routine that gave her the discipline she needed to dedicate herself to acting and spending long hours on the set. "That tough training taught me that a muscle has to break down in order to grow stronger," Souza said in a TED talk titled "Sweet is the Fruit of Adversity."

That mentality helped her get through her time at the  "Central School of Speech and Drama" in London.

 "It was not easy," she admits today. "They break you and mess with your psyche. It’s intense. The first few years you only wear black, you can't wear any makeup; you almost become a number and can't show you personality except in your character."

It was during this period in London that Souza inexplicably lost her voice for three months, an experience that, she admits, left her on the verge of suicide, but also from which she recovered with the help of her family and friends.

Today, she has been married for three years to Marshall Trenkmann, a banker who showers his wife with demonstrations of affection. Souza says he often leaves notes in her purse which she finds in the course of the day.

Her husband’s gestures somehow reflect what Souza does in her social networks. Although she uses them to regularly promote "How To Get Away With Murder", the rest of the content tends to be inspiring. In recent weeks, for example, she published constant information on how to help the victims of the earthquake in Mexico, and inspirational messages about health and inner peace can always be found in her accounts.

"I feel that social media often has to do with me, me, me. I sat down and thought, what is this weapon --because it's a weapon-- what is this weapon for? To inspire, to share, to communicate and empower and really rally people, women in particular — not to go unnoticed and be appreciated for what they have inside and not for their appearance," she says. "My social media is about inner beauty; I don't like focusing on the other,” adds Souza, a devout Christian involved in multiple charities. One of them is Ángeles en Mexico, which she created in September along with actresses Kate del Castillo, Ana de la Reguera, and Olga Segura in the wake of the Mexican earthquakes.

"We do not want Mexico to go unnoticed," says Souza.

This socially conscious way of life has also influenced her work, which led her to win a 2017 award from the National Hispanic Media Coalition for Outstanding Performance in a television series. The award was dedicated to immigrants, and Souza promised to continue telling their stories. "Giving Latinos an opportunity on the screen has the power to make an entire community feel as though it exists, as though it is worth being loved and acknowledged," Souza said in her acceptance speech.

"I realized I had to defend my people," Souza says today. "My people paved the way for me to have a fair shot in the United States. Now it’s my turn.”