Keyla Monterroso Mejia Talks Netflix’s Freeridge and Pivoting to Comedy

“Girl, I got a regular-ass face. I never thought I could be like these people.”

Keyla Monterroso Mejia is taking it all in. She's sitting in the Teen Vogue offices, looking over the magazine covers that line the wall — Harry Styles, Yalitza Aparicio, Beyoncé, among others. Her eyes turn glassy. I remind her that it will be her on the cover soon; she shakes out of her reverie. 

“You know what it feels like?” the Teen Vogue New Hollywood honoree asks with a grin. “Oh, my gosh, this is wrong, but — ‘You b*tches could never,’ that's how I feel. I feel real glamorous right now.” An abundance of fittings for cover shoots, industry parties, and interviews currently fills her schedule, but she still cannot fathom that “all of this” is real. 

Keyla Mejia wears a Richard Quinn coat, Lynn Paik hat, Charles and Keith heels, Mounser earrings, Mara Scalise ring, Ramona Albert ring, and a Keane ring.Jingyu Lin

Mejia’s leading role in Netflix's On My Block spinoff, Freeridge, came only a few months ago, but she’s been in the wings preparing for this moment for over 10 years. Before she was stealing scenes as Maria Sofia Estrada on Curb Your Enthusiasm, before she caught the attention of Abbott Elementary’s Quinta Brunson, she was just a young girl from the Inland Empire of California, busy forcing her little brother to play pretend with her as a way of coping with chaos.

“I had some personal problems growing up and there were a lot of changes and uncertainty in my life,” says Mejia, now in her mid 20s. “That uncertainty brought up serious emotions for me, emotions I didn’t really know were there, which included that passion for playing pretend. I remember thinking back as I got older, like, ‘Oh, wow, I was kind of acting when I was little.’ I loved it and I remember how it made me feel.” Excited, free, hopeful for the future.

Mejia decided to focus on acting and was determined to attend the School of Arts and Enterprise in Pomona, California. Her parents, however, weren’t too fond of the idea. Transferring schools as a rising high school sophomore to play pretend on a larger scale didn’t seem viable to them. 

“My mom is an immigrant from Mexico, and she really had no idea what I was talking about,” Mejia says. Despite being skeptical, her parents let her apply anyway. That faith in their daughter's dreams — no matter how scary the unknown was for them — helped Mejia land in performing arts high school. 

That continued faith from those around Mejia keeps pushing her onward now. "Years later my mom told me, ‘I was terrified. I had no idea what you were doing or what was going on. I didn't even know if this was a real school,’” Mejia recalls. “But my mom said she remembers me being so happy — and that I hadn’t been happy in a long time — so she didn't want to take that away from me.”

Mejia’s dedication to her craft has been unwavering, even when the road ahead wasn’t guaranteed. For the first few months into her performing arts journey, she took the city bus to a larger bus to Union Station, then another bus that would get her to class. The trip meant she was up every day at 4 a.m. She didn't know if acting would pan out, but she knew she wanted to give it her all. After only a short time at the performing arts school, though, she realized they would focus heavily on musical theater. “Girl, I cannot sing,” she says now, laughing.

Keyla Mejia wears a Cecile Bahnsen dress, Dinosaur Designs rings, and Mounser earrings and ring.Jingyu Lin

So Mejia had to reassess the next steps, and homeschool became her new pivot. Again, her parents were confused, believing Mejia had essentially chosen to “drop out” of school. They didn’t fully understand where Mejia was headed — truthfully, neither did she — but she switched to an online school to focus on acting and graduated virtually. 

Especially in an immigrant household, attending college after primary school is a top priority. Mejia's father is one of more than 10 siblings, and because of financial strain, he never got the chance to attend university. He wanted Mejia to have the experience he never did. “I think it's one of the first times I felt that [my father] was truly disappointed in me,” she says. “Before then, I had been taking all these risks that sort of just involved myself. This was the first time I felt like I was being selfish. Basically thinking, ‘I'm taking this on, even though I know it isn't what my dad wants.’ My decisions are now going to impact him and his feelings in a negative way.”

Many people know what it means to carry the weight of a parent's dreams on their back. On those days when the focus is on building a path outside of the one created for you, the guilt can run deep, and the reward often feels more and more out of reach. Acting is the one constant in Mejia’s life, but it wasn’t always enough to stop her from comparing her timeline with others.  It’s easy to keep looking left and right when the chance of failure is chasing you.

“I have this thing where, for some reason, on big occasions, whether it's when I graduated, when I turned 18, or turned 20, these days remind me of where I'm not in life,” Mejia says. “I remember when I graduated from homeschooling, my friends were posting all these graduation pictures and I thought, ‘Dammit, did I make the wrong decision?’"

That “wrong” decision pushed Mejia deeper into a spiral after her first agency “shelved” her — a word for when you’re not being submitted for castings — and then dealing with back-to-back rejections at her second agency. She remembers a birthday when her agency sent a well-intentioned list of casting calls they had submitted her for as proof of their work. “[There were] three pages of tiny row listings of all the offices they had sent me to — that had rejected me,” she explains. “Girl, I was in my bed, crying.” 

Now she giggles at the absurdity of it: tallying the places that rejected her. “The Good Doctor said no to me. You see that shit? Y'all need actors all the time! Give me a shot,” she says with a laugh. “That experience was so humbling.”

Every rejection served as a reminder that what was driving Mejia forward was passion and love. As a plus-size Latina, she knew her opportunities in Hollywood were limited, and that sometimes trickled into how she viewed herself. She couldn’t always see very far ahead, but she had people in her corner ready to help with every quick change and forgotten line she might need reminding of.

Keyla Mejia wears a Richard Quinn coat, Lynn Paik hat, Charles and Keith heels, Mounser earrings, Mara Scalise ring, Ramona Albert ring, and a Keane ring.Jingyu Lin

Initially, she set out on a drama-focused acting career, but found that things clicked when she got to be funny. The 90 Day Plan, a short film about a high school senior organizing a bank heist to fight off the gentrification of her neighborhood, was Mejia’s first leading role — and the first time she’d tried comedy. “At the end of the casting call it said, ‘Must have great comedic timing.’ I doubted myself a lot at that time,” she remembers. “I think if I had seen that [earlier], I wouldn't have auditioned for it. I think it was just a gift from the universe that I didn't see it.”

The years of training, the love from her family and friends, the support from The 90 Day Plan director Gabriela Garcia Medina, it all was starting to come together for the good of Mejia's career. “I think I've been really lucky to be surrounded by people who have believed in me more than I believed in myself,” she says. “I love acting and I have a passion for it, but sometimes I lack confidence in myself. I think the universe constantly sends people to remind me.”

A few days after our chat, Mejia premieres her next leading role, as Gloria in Freeridge. The original On My Block served as a shining corner of representation for Mejia, for whom it was vital to see a curvy Latina onscreen, plus established stars like America Ferrera, who was also crucial to her development as an actor. Mejia witnessed in real time the success Jessica Marie Garcia had as On My Block's Jasmine, motivation for Mejia, then in her early 20s, to keep going.

“Jessica became this source of inspiration for me like none other,” Mejia recalls. “Not only her, but the show itself. Growing up where I’m from, it wasn't the best neighborhood. There were things about the show I could really relate to. And the issues they were dealing with were issues that I had also seen as a kid.”

As Mejia and I gush about Jessica, I point out that she’ll soon become a similar example for many other young Latinx women. She softens visibly at the thought, and for a moment, behind the jokes she’s been dishing out all interview, she earnestly reflects on becoming a part of the representation she grew up watching.

In Freeridge, Mejia's character Gloria is a grieving daughter who carefully holds the role of responsible mother figure to her squad. Alongside her sister Ines and best friends Cameron and Demi, Gloria battles sister troubles, loss, and magical antique boxes. As with its predecessor, Freeridge is another chance to showcase diversity onscreen, something Mejia feels proud of. Gloria’s existence is not limited by self-doubt or other insecurities; she’s a powerful leader who is allowed to explore vulnerability in love and friendship. 

“I never thought that I would be able to be that for someone,” she says. “It feels like a gift the universe is giving me. All these parts of you that you think are ugly are the things that make you unique. The things that you think people can't see, they do. They'll be able to see past what you think you are into who you truly can be.”

Between trickling tears she’s back to her lighthearted self, laughing: “Girl, I got a regular-ass face. I never thought I could be like these people. I'm, like, just a girl. I'm 5'1" on a good day. I'm voluptuous and I eat when I'm hungry.”

Keyla Mejia wears a Cecile Bahnsen dress, Kalda heels, Dinosaur Designs rings, and Mounser earrings and ring.Jingyu Lin

Maybe comedic timing can be learned, but Mejia’s timing feels innate. A sixth sense. She brings you into the bit, her inflection working in tandem with her words. Mid-sentence she stops me and interjects: “I’m sorry, can I have a cookie? They’re looking at me.” We laugh as she hops up from the couch and takes two cookies from the Tate's Cookies package on the desk in the Teen Vogue office. “I've been staring at them the whole time,” she says. “Do you want one?” 

Mejia is the kind of person you can click with instantly. An hour flies by as we’re “girl” and “sis”-ing each other as if our friendship goes back years. She carries a sense of a best friend's familiarity, which comes across clearly onscreen and off. She could be a conglomeration of all her roles, almost convincing me that we’re in a scripted scene of our own right now.  

“I'm really grateful that in my roles I've never been the butt of a joke,” she says. “I'm always in these funny situations and they work because I'm funny in them, not because they’re making fun of me.” She pauses before adding, “I've never said something that cocky.”

Mejia’s been on this journey unabashedly for more than 10 years, even when the work outweighed the reward. But she's finally tasting the fruits of her labor, and reminding us that newfound stardom can feel warm and welcoming. 

We laugh as she scrolls deep into her phone looking for a photo from her early acting career that she just has to show me. She stops at other random photos, letting me in on some details of her life, leading the conversation the way she steals scenes, by taking me from one joke to the next with ease. She only pauses every few sentences to gauge if what she’s saying sounds smart enough, and if she’s actually answering my questions or just rambling. She, like most 25-year-olds I know, just wants to be seen as her best self.

“Girl, you can call me later tonight if you need more answers,” Keyla Mejia whispers as her PR person pulls her to the next meeting on her jam-packed schedule.