It took a decade to become an overnight success, says ’13 Reasons Why’ star Christian Lee Navarro

Actor Christian Lee Navarro, who plays the role of Tony Padilla on Netflix’s popular series 13 Reasons Why, has become the kind of overnight success that Hollywood actors dream about — except, of course, took a full decade for the 25-year-old to really make it.

The show focuses on the character of Hannah Baker after she has committed suicide. In the show, her friend Clay Jensen is trying to understand Baker’s decision after he receives 13 tapes that she recorded prior to killing herself.  Navarro plays Jensen’s friend Tony, the kind of strong supporter we all want to be able to lean on during times of crisis. 

Navarro was strategic about his career; he chose the role to move out of the typecast “Latino” roles that had limited scope. He wanted to stretch, and 13 Reasons Why was his chance to break free of labels. Navarro shares success tips and tells Ladders about his unorthodox path to acting and why simply being nice can be a huge career boost.

Ladders: What’s the one word you would use to describe your reaction to the success of this show?

Navarro: Humbling. I was part of another project called “Vinyl”, which I was incredibly proud of, but it doesn’t have the weight or the relevance that something like this has. I think when you get a letter from a fan who says, “A week ago, I was being bullied and the students in my class saw the show and decided not to bully me anymore,” that’s so gratifying. When you are working on it, you aren’t too sure of the outcome, you just hope it’s good. Receiving letters and emails similar to that is for sure a humbling experience.

What inspired you to get into acting?

Both my parents are cops: my dad has been retired for 20 years and my mother still has six more years on the job.  They would tell me not to do something, and the quickest way for a kid to do something is to tell them not to do something.  I was always pushing the envelope, and spent a lot of time punished, so I was in my room only with books. I only had those to read incessantly, and then act them out, so I started entertaining myself and found that it was easier to be these other people and tell their stories, and I wanted to explore that.  I wanted to see if I could figure out who I was by taking a little bit of a character that I played or read or came across from a movie.

Then, I spent my later years in Catholic High Schools and dealt with the restriction of that, and when I was a sophomore I did a play and made the decision to pull myself out of the one that I was going to in the Bronx.  I didn’t tell my dad, and when September came around he was like “You have to go buy some new shirts and ties,” and I was like “I don’t think so.”  I then auditioned for a big-time show, got into it, and it was the best decision I ever had.  For the first time, I was around people who were like-minded in their creativeness and just as rambunctious and rebellious as I was, and we felt each other’s souls and I knew that I wanted to be part of that family.  There is always a part of us that feels like we aren’t enough and trying to seek that out, that’s where it started.  I fell in love with the art of it, and the realization that I could help a wide range of people just for doing what I love is such a gift.  I believe it was Confucius who said, “If you do something you love, you’ll never have to work another day in your life.”  [would cut, not sure Confucius said this??!-M]

Tell me about the biggest hurdle in your career and how did you overcome that?

I think the hurdle for me was having the industry start to realize that with this role, that I am not the Latino Gangster/Drug Dealer that they want me to be. There is only so many roles for an eloquent, intelligent Latino. You really have to grab that. At first, I thought I wasn’t right for this role because I’m a little bit older, but it was an opportunity to put a Latino character who wasn’t defined by his sexuality, his race, his class…this guy is multifaceted.  And there are not a lot of roles written like that, so I feel like having played this role and doing my best at it…has given me the chance to break that stereotype. I started my career at 15 and I’m 25 now, so it has taken over ten years in order to get over this hurdle, and I’m happy to have gotten to this point.

What would you say is the biggest piece of advice who are trying to become successful in their own career?

There are a million people who are going to tell you, “You can’t do it.” I love my family, and it comes from a place of love, but they would always say, “You should get a job, this is a pipe dream.” And then, of course, when you do something miraculous like this…[the doubt] turns into “congratulations!” So keep your head down, believe in yourself to a point where it seems like you’re crazy —you know, that blind determination.  And work harder than everybody else, and if you do those two things, good things happen. Above all: be kind, because there are no successful a—holes.  There are people that might not be nice, but you have to be a good person and look out for other people.