With her starring role in Netflix’s Freeridge, Ciara Riley Wilson is giving that queer Filipino representation media needs.
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As the years go by, more and more Filipinos are making their mark in Hollywood. The past year alone saw Dolly De Leon and Chai Fonacier go global with acclaimed performances in international movies. Liza Soberano is set to make her Hollywood debut this year. And there are also a handful of young Filipino American actors with the talent to bring them to the A-list. One such actress that should be on your radar is Ciara Riley Wilson. Having been active in the industry since she was eight, Ciara has a resume that puts her in prime multi-hyphenate territory fit for the spotlight. And now, she’s the lead female star of a Netflix series.
Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Ciara’s first gigs in the industry were voiceover advertisements and local television commercials. But it was when she was twelve that her career really took off after being scouted by an agency while she was in Los Angeles. Her first TV role? Oh, just in a little show called Bizaardvark on the Disney channel, which also starred fellow Fil-Am Olivia Rodrigo.
Her work with Disney extended to being cast on Coop & Cami Ask the World and a starring role in the live-action movie adaptation of Kim Possible, no big deal. Since her Disney days, Ciara has appeared on L.A.’s Finest with Jessica Alba and Gabrielle Union, as well as guest roles on Grey’s Anatomy and Quantum Leap.
In between all of this, Ciara, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, manages to squeeze in a successful career as a dancer trained in jazz, ballet, lyrical, tap, and hip hop. She danced alongside A-listers such as Usher, Chris Brown, and Fifth Harmony. And as if she wasn’t talented enough, Ciara also is a budding designer who takes inspiration from the 70s and sustainability and likes to write poetry in her free time as a form of therapy.
Ciara Riley Wilson is no stranger to the spotlight, but she arguably got her biggest yet when she got to play Demi in Netflix’s Freeridge, the Oh My Block spin-off now streaming on the platform. It’s a big moment not just for Ciara, but for the Filipino and queer community in general. NYLON Manila had the chance to chat with the rising Filipina actress as she opened up about this breakthrough moment of her career, embracing her Filipino roots, surviving Hollywood, and more.
Your love for performing and the arts is apparent, but you’re also the first in your family to pursue a career in entertainment. Where do you think this love of the arts comes from?
Since childhood, I’ve always been really creative and outgoing—it was kind of a given that I would pursue a career in the arts. While I am the first in my family to go into entertainment, I think I get a lot of my passion and drive from them. My grandparents on both sides are also very creative in terms of art and painting. My parents definitely instilled morals at a young age surrounding going full force at your passions and that was a huge help in fostering this kind of career.
Growing up, were you close to your Filipino roots?
Yes! My grandma made it a big priority for me to learn about my Filipino heritage through the meals she cooked and the stories she would tell about her upbringing in Pangasinan. However, I think throughout my childhood I was tainted by society to push my Filipino roots to the side to fit in, especially in the acting industry.
There was a period of time I just wanted to appear “ambiguous” and fit into whatever mold casting directors wanted me to be. As times change and I get older, I am making it a huge priority to connect back to my heritage and find pride in it. There is so much beauty in where you come from and so much life within Filipino culture, I couldn’t be prouder to be of Filipino descent.
What’s the best thing about being part of a Disney Channel show or movie?
Disney is so special because any project you’re a part of, show or movie, they really make it feel like a family. I was in my teenage years when I did the bulk of my work with Disney and I got to meet so many talented kids my age who completely related to my on-set experience. I’m so grateful for the projects I did with Disney!
What was your reaction to getting the lead role of Freeridge? How did that opportunity come about?
Freeridge was an interesting project because I had the audition in May of 2021 and it was listed as a “potential On My Block spin-off.” I booked the role and was so excited, but still didn’t know if it was going to be a series. I would say about four months later, I got the news that it was officially picked up. I was actually in Paris at the time and I had the absolute BEST night celebrating. I was so in love with this character and knew this project was going to be a wild ride.
Was the way you approached the role of Demi different as compared to your other roles in the past?
It’s really rare that there is about a year between booking the role and the beginning of filming, so it was cool to have so much time to sit with the character and let it all really sink in. Demi is very into spirituality, so I spent some time learning to read Tarot Cards, researching astrology, and incorporating crystals into my life. In the past, I’ve never played a role so similar to myself. I definitely think preparing for Demi shaped a lot of my genuine current interests and taught me a lot about my own emotions.
What does it mean for you to be the lead star of a Netflix series in terms of Filipino and queer representation?
It means more than I can even describe. When people always asked me as a child what actors I looked up to, I had a few answers, but I didn’t SEE myself in anything in the media. I didn’t see the specific color of my skin or representation of my sexuality, which I was aware of at a young age. I always thought I just had to be the first, but it’s hard to hold onto determination for a dream with that mentality.
If someone like me is able to watch Freeridge and think for the first time, “Wow, she’s just like me. I guess I really can achieve my dream too,” that would mean the world. Any and all representation, no matter how small, has the power to have a domino effect and really change the future of the entertainment industry.
You’ve shared on social media that being a part of Elle Mills’ Reply was a special moment for you. What was it like getting to work on the short film?
Reply was a really special project for me because it was the first time I’d played a queer character and the beginning of me publicly embracing my sexuality. The filming process was so joyful and I still call a lot of the cast and crew amazing friends of mine. Elle Mills, the director of Reply and a wonderful person, let me officially come out to my friends and family on the stage at the premiere. That moment and this project will always have a special place in my heart.
Given that you’ve been in the industry since you were a kid, how do you make sure you don’t fall into the craziness of Hollywood?
You definitely have to be mindful of your mental health because this industry is full of very extreme ups and downs. I try to implement a lot of practices to stay balanced such as taking long breaks after busy filming seasons and meditation. It’s all about checking in with your body and making sure you don’t take on more than you can handle.
Aside from being an actress, you’re also a very talented dancer. What is it about dance that you love so much about it?
Thank you! Yes, dance was definitely my first love. I’ve always seen it as a form of therapy. The body and mind are so interconnected and it’s really beautiful to let go of your conscious thoughts and let your body take over for a while. I hope I continue dancing for the rest of my life.
You also have a love for fashion. How would you describe your design aesthetic?
I would describe my design aesthetic as heavily influenced by the 1970s rock era. I also love working with earth tones and unconventional materials.
What kind of impact are you hoping to leave in Hollywood as part of the next generation of actors?
What a great question. I think this next generation of actors is bringing something really special and different to the entertainment industry. Authenticity and transparency are the words that come to mind. We’re sharing stories that haven’t been shared before and are also fearlessly unafraid to be ourselves. I hope I can leave that impact in Hollywood; honesty and authenticity.
What advice would you give to other young Asians out there who are looking to pursue their dreams?
If I can do it, so can you! If you know deep down there’s something that you’re meant to do, go for it. Complete trust in yourself and your abilities is not an easy thing to learn, but it’s possible. There is room for you in any space, no matter your ethnicity, age, or any other factors. Not only is there room…but there is a chair with your name on it. Go get it!
What is that dream role that you hope to someday get?
I would love to be a part of a project set in the 1970s rock music and fashion scene. I’ve never seen female Filipino representation in that world and it would be so cool to be the first!
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