News Column

North Jersey Actress on Tyler Perry Sitcom

May 29, 2013



Describing her childhood, Colombian-born actress Zulay Henao said she remembers her mother being happy all the time despite a heavy workload, not realizing that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. The former North Bergen resident worked at a tax firm and chiropractor's office on Bergenline Avenue, then served in the U.S. Army and studied at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts all before landing her current gig on "Love Thy Neighbor," a new comedy series by Tyler Perry that premieres tonight on Oprah Winfrey's OWN Network.

Of all her experiences, Henao said her time in the military was the best preparation for an acting career.

"The army was a tremendous value to me," said Henao, who was also able to attend Methodist College while stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C. "It's like being ripped out of your most comfortable zone and being placed on another planet. It breaks you down to build you up and that's what life's about."

The tough skin she developed came in handy once Henao began to pursue acting full-time - when the countless invitations she sent out for her off-Broadway performances went ignored by the agencies, when someone questioned her acting ability and when she went on auditions that led nowhere.

Henao eventually found representation and played bit roles before getting a part in the Jennifer Lopez-produced film "Feel the Noise" in 2007 and later "Fighting" opposite Channing Tatum. She met Perry on the set of "Single Moms Club," due out in 2014; Perry wrote the "Love Thy Neighbor" character of Marianna specifically for Henao, who is set to appear on the sitcom mid-season.

The half-hour comedy follows the family and neighbors of Hattie Mae Love, owner of The Love Train diner. Henao's Marianna runs an Internet design firm, where Love's grandson Danny also works.

"She's a strong, educated and independent Latin woman," Henao said of her character, whom she considers to be the voice of reason for the other over-the-top players on the sitcom. "It's important to me that she's a powerful woman. A lot of times Latin women are looked at a certain way as just sexy ones - and that's OK, I love that - but I personally want to be in this new wave of actresses that people take seriously."

Henao name-checked actresses she admires, like Zoe Saldana and Sofia Vergara. Henao often gets compared to the latter, who stars on the ABC hit "Modern Family" and has gotten several Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for her role.

"She's been pretty famous in the Latin-American community for so long, and I feel so proud," Henao said.

"She's beautiful and talented, and she's done it all the right way."

Being on the set of "Love Thy Neighbor" is helping Henao get more comfortable with her own time on the small screen. And under the guidance of writer, producer and director Perry, Henao said the show is one she's proud to be a part of.

"I'm really aligned with Tyler and Oprah [Winfrey's] brand," Henao said. "It's positive, inspiring, and that's the kind of work I want to do." She added that prior to each episode's taping, Perry gathers the cast and crew to hold hands and take part in a short prayer.

"It makes the day go by in a peaceful way, and you don't feel like you're being judged," said Henao. "It's still hard, but it feels like I'm working in a safe environment with people who love me and want to see me do well."

Despite her newfound family from the "Love Thy Neighbor" set, Henao still misses North Bergen and her family back home - in fact, she invited her mother to join her on the West Coast.

"When I come back home I get super excited," Henao said. Her Hudson County staples like Pollos Mario, Noches de Colombia and Banana King are nowhere to be found in Los Angeles, she added. But most of all, Henao said she misses the diverse Latin-American community of North Bergen and neighboring West New York and Union City.

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