Mishel Prada honors her past.
"There's always something in our lives that we try to not deal with," Mishel Prada says. "But it's always gonna follow you."
That's one reason she's sure people will relate to Emma, the ambitious young woman she plays on Vida, Starz's new dramedy about a Mexican-American family in fast-gentrifying East Los Angeles.
When the show opens, Emma is a self-sufficient success in Chicago, but she returns home after the sudden death of her estranged mom. Back in the old neighborhood, she grudgingly helps run the family bar with her partying sister, Lyn (Melissa Barrera), and their mom's paramour, Eddy (Ser Anzoategui). "Emma is an island, but you find out she bottles a lot of hurt," Prada says. "She wants love and acceptance."
Born of Dominican descent in Miami, Prada and her three younger siblings grew up conservative Christian in a "wild" neighborhood. "But I was a good kid," she says. "Church plays, youth group, all that stuff."
She wasn't a complete angel. When she got bad grades, she recalls, "I would hide my report card." Acting came easy, though — and early: she played the lead in a second-grade production of The Little Red Hen. Even so, after graduating from a private Christian school — and performing in Christmas musicals in malls — she decided to study political science and communications at The Master's University, a Christian college in Santa Clarita, north of L.A. "I didn't want to be that struggling actress cliché," she says.
But she "didn't quite finish," and took odd jobs back in Miami before deciding to return to L.A. to give acting a shot. She landed an agent, a McDonald's commercial and then Benjamin Troubles, a 2015 indie flick in which her boyfriend's jeans magically dispense hundred-dollar bills.
Then came a bigger break: a lead in Fear the Walking Dead: Passage, a web spinoff of the popular AMC series. "And now Vida!" she says. She's proud that the project, which features trans and non-binary performers, is run "primarily by women" — which was a goal for creator–executive producer Tanya Saracho (Looking, How to Get Away with Murder).
Prada's personal life is rich, too. Away from Hollywood, she and her rocker boyfriend relax in their new New Orleans home, where she makes gumbo and sings to her cat, Louis Armstrong.
And unlike her Vida character, Prada honors her past. "My grandmother was this single mom who came here from the Dominican Republic to toil in a bra factory. She worked really hard. If I'm going on set or to the Creative Arts Emmys, so much of it is because of her. I'm here because of that."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2018