Jamaican actress Miranda Melhado turns heads as she steps into the AC Hotel, Kingston not because she's that well-known (at least not yet) but her positive energy, wide smile and glorious mass of black curls guarantee a second look or perhaps a call-back. She is like many, wrapping up Christmas vacay and in fact leaves the island shortly for Atlanta to commence filming the new TV pilot From Yard. Her excitement is palpable and she's eager to be sharing the spotlight with a cast that's 90 per cent Jamaican.
The series is based on the autobiographical novel Yardie by David G Heron and is an immigrant story that follows the life of the author from his childhood days growing up in Jamaica through his often turbulent young adulthood in New York City as he struggles to find his own path amidst personal and professional challenges and tragedy. Melhado, in this series produced by Leland and Phaedra Benford through Cupcake Rapture Studios with Heron serving as executive producer, will play the role of Lisa, a streetwise Latina teenager from the Bronx who encounters Heron during his time as a New York City parole officer, with dramatic results.
The role is the latest breakthrough for Melhado, who recently earned rave reviews in New York for her performance in the Apollo Theatre's staged reading presentation of the award-winning Jamaican courtroom drama Against His Will written by David Heron (no relation to the aforementioned David G Heron) and produced by actor Malik Yoba.
Melhado, who by her own account was interested in acting since she was very young, shares memories with SO of her very first play Whose Guy Is It Anyway?
"I was girl number four," she recalls flashing her trademark wide smile. "I had such a good time! I knew everybody else's lines; I was on the ball. And my mom always tells the story that when it was my turn to go onstage, I just let go of her hand and stepped forward... It was at that moment that she knew that this was something that I could pursue."
It's no idle boast! Melhado was in every drama club and every school production. A summer programme at Carnegie Mellon University would change her life.
"I was acting from nine to five every day and I was like, okay, if this is a career, I'm interested; this sounds like a bit of me. But I really just fell in love with getting to be other people and exploring other perspectives, you know. And when I went to college at USC (University of Southern California), I studied and did a Bachelor of Arts in theatrical arts and I went straight into doing production and reading scripts. I was, like, let me just do it! Let me just go for it. And ever since, I've been auditioning, acting and doing creating projects with friends. It's just been really great and difficult, but great.
Asked to expand on "great and difficult" Melhado, who sees her dreams of playing a wide variety of complex roles as gradually coming to fruition, becomes pensive as she explains. "It's been an interesting journey, because, generally people don't look at me and see a Jamaican, so when casting directors heard me speak, they'd be floored... and kind of like, oh, that's what this girl is about. It was difficult for me to realise that they just wanted to see an American automate... someone who could do an American accent and who was versatile. So I think it was a real learning curve...
"I think for a while I was really quite down! Wishing to be seen as who I am, and where I'm from." Melhado's parents are of Portuguese and Syrian descent, and as such her ethnically ambigious features are often a source of surprise for many producers and casting directors. Sometimes it's not 'til I let loose with the Jamaican patois that they finally believe that I'm the real deal... I feel like now I'm finally getting to do that, and showing people that Jamaicans are so multi-talented and so incredibly diverse."
"Against His Will is literally the first major role I've had where I played an actual Jamaican," she reveals.
"In the space of a few weeks I've been grateful to have the chance to explore two very different characters," she says. "A provocative, very mature Jamaican femme fatale accused of sexually assaulting her male employee in Against His Will, and now, a tough yet vulnerable Latina teenager who is doing whatever she has to do to survive. As an actor, that's really the goal. To dig in and find the emotional truth behind all kinds of complicated and fascinating people. It's what we crave when we sign up for this job, so I'm eager to take on challenging roles. And Lisa in From Yard definitely promises to be that."
Interestingly, Melhado was auditioned for the smaller role of Lisa's more mature cousin but, according to producer/director Benford, who had been impressed by tapes of her work, "Meeting her online and watching her work, her inventiveness, her spontaneity, and her full transformation into this fiery young Latina — as non-Jamaican as you can get, really — I felt that the pilot would benefit from her having a larger presence. So we adjusted the age of Lisa, originaly written as 15 years old to a slightly older age and offered her that role instead. I think she's a great talent and with her look and work ethic, I think she can go very far."
Melhado is understandably chuffed. "Immersing myself into the world of this young survivor from the streets of the Bronx is a great opportunity, especially with that thick Bronx accent. I've already had several online readings with other cast members, led by our amazing director Leland and I think the project is an authentic and compelling immigrant story to which many of us can relate. I can't wait for audiences to experience it."
According to production notes, the pilot of From Yard will be shopped to cable networks and streaming platforms upon completion, to secure a production deal for the remaining episodes of the show's first season.