Keyla Monterroso Mejia is a delight: punctual, funny, nice, humble, and overwhelmingly grateful—everything her iconic comic characters aren’t. She has a knack for playing headstrong and boisterous characters whose comfort in their own skin often discomforts others. On the last season of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm she played Maria Sofia Estrada, a confident-but-horrific actress who ends up brawling with Ted Danson. And she’s stealing scenes during an arc on the ABC comedy Abbott Elementary as Ashley, a teacher’s assistant who gets along better with the kids than with her mentor. She appeared in the recent Toni Collette/Anna Faris dark comedy The Estate as a Dungeons & Dragons obsessive, and some reviewers griped that she wasn’t in it enough.
GQ talked to Monterroso Mejia about breaking out on Curb, playing difficult characters, and why she’d like to be a little more like Maria Sofia.
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten such quick and unanimous approval on a pitch as I did when I said we should talk to you.
Oh, my God. It’s insane to think how fast things just changed and I had no idea at the time when I was shooting Curb what it was going to turn into and how much it was just going to be a blessing on my life.
It feels really fast for you too?
I’ve been trying to act for almost 10 years now. Thankfully in the last three years, and specifically with Curb, it was the first time anybody actually let me in. And it had just been such an uphill battle.
After Curb the phone just started ringing?
Yeah, yeahhhhh. I remember when Curb premiered, [Abbott Elementary creator] Quinta Brunson had commented on my Instagram something like, “Oh, you’re so funny.” Then, maybe a year later, my agents are like, “Hey, you know, Quinta Brunson and Abbott called and they are asking about you. I was like, “Oh, what? Wait what?”
Did she write the Ashley role for you? It seems that way.
No, no. She actually did tell me, “Don’t think that you have to be Maria Sofia.” Because I was a little nervous, like, “Oh, dang, do they want me to be like this?” And she said this role actually happened organically as they were writing it. But as we were brainstorming for actresses, she said, like your name popped up. And it was like…oh, my God, I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding like: It was me!
In Curb, Maria Sofia starts her first scene doing a techno/robot move, and in Abbott Ashley shows up gyrating to her own version of a Jennifer Lopez song. So both shows introduce your characters with elaborate dances.
Oh my God, what the heck! I never put that together.
So, that’s not your signature thing.
No, it’s so funny because he doesn’t get the credit he deserves but the guy who plays my dad, Marcos [Marques Ray], is phenomenal. And I can’t tell you how important he was to crafting Maria Sofia. That whole moment was all his idea. He is the genius behind really helping me shape how crazy she was gonna be. Because that was all improv. He’s in that scene and he’s like, “You know, my daughter can dance.” The hard part, at least for me, is coming up with an idea. The easy part is to just follow what someone says.
That’s unbelievable, that you just did that dance spontaneously.
I mean, it’s not that good.
But it’s really funny.
It was the best that I could come up with. The way he saw me and our relationship really helped me shape who I wanted Maria Sofia to be. Because I had an idea of her. But then when Larry [David] comes in and sees her in a certain way, and my dad comes in and sees me in a certain way, it all starts taking shape.
I can’t imagine showing up for set, being early in your career, and suddenly you’re doing improv across from Larry David.
There was not one day where I wasn’t nauseous. And I say nauseous to not disgust people. I was sweating profusely every single day. You know when you have traumatic experiences, your brain will lock them in the back of your mind so you don’t remember these things and you’re able to function in society? That’s what happened to me. People will ask me like, “How was it?” I don’t remember. But it’s because I was so nervous every single day. There was something in the pit of my stomach where I just felt like puking every single day that I was on set.
But now, looking back at it, it’s also one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done. Because after I finished it, it made me feel superhuman. I was like, “Oh, shoot, I can do anything. Bring it on.” And then, of course, life brings you back to reality and I’m there on Abbott and I feel small again and I’m like, “Oh, my God, I’m nervous all over again. I thought I was done with this feeling and here I am nauseous one more time.
Larry’s character in the show is known for being irritating and rubbing people the wrong way. Did he give you notes on how to get a reaction out of people?
Are you asking me if he told me how to be irritating? What do you mean, do you think she’s irritating? I’m kidding. I guess to some degree. Larry and his co-writer and producer [and director of all the episodes that I did], Jeff Schaffer, have a very clear vision for how they see the show. And Jeff would be like, “Maria Sofia it. Give me some of that.” Any time they asked me to do Maria Sofia I knew it would just, like, go big. And Maria Sofia, I tried to make her as big as I could.
Once the show came out, what was the reception?
I was really scared. And I remember I had acting class the Sunday that the episode was coming out and I just turned my phone off because I was really afraid. I mean, Larry David is a genius, he knows what he’s doing. But I was afraid that people weren’t going to understand my character and understand that she was supposed to be annoying and off-putting.
I was like, “Dang, I hope they can see what everyone was trying to do.” I was really scared that, truthfully, people were just gonna obliterate me and say all these horrible, nasty things. And so I just thought about how it was such a wonderful experience and I learned a lot, and I was like, “Whatever people say about it, I did it.”
So then I remember getting out of class and I turn on my phone. Everyone started blowing me up, like “Oh, my God, you’re so funny.” And then obviously, I went on Twitter and people were so kind and it just really took me by surprise, how receptive their fan base was to my character.
What do you like about playing these big personalities, whether it’s Ashley, Maria Sofia?
I think sometimes in my own life, I’m very shy. I’m not as extroverted and I keep to myself more. The thing that all these characters have in common is that they are super confident. They are like, “Take me as I am, and if you don’t then that’s your problem and it has nothing to do with me.” And I am not that way. I’m trying and I’m on my way, but I’m not where they are in their lives. So it’s really cool to live through them. I really love that part of it.
Did you always want to do comedy?
No. I did mostly theater because theater was the only thing that would really cast me at the time. Usually the parts I played never had any comedy to them. I remember always being on this casting website, but there was very little that I could audition for. And I remember one time reading this part and it sounded more like me than I had ever seen before. Usually when I was auditioning, I was doing parts that were open to all ethnicities and just hoping that they would be able to think outside the box and cast someone like me, but usually that just wasn’t the way that it went.
So I remember [reading the description] of this film called the 90 Day Plan. And I was like, “Oh, shit, they’re looking for a girl… a young adult, and she’s plus-size.” I remember being blown away that they were looking for someone like me. But I didn’t read that in caps, at the end of the description, it said, “must have strong comedic ability.” Had I read that I wouldn’t have auditioned. So when I approached it, I didn’t really approach it in a comedic way. I thought, “Oh, I can kind of see where this girl goes off the rails a little bit here and there.” But that was my intro into comedy. And since then, I’ve found a real love for it and appreciation in a way that I didn’t before. Now, having gone through this for a little bit now, I have so much more respect for comedy and how hard it is and that love that has grown over time.