Meet the Riverdale Actress Out to Save the World
Marisol Nichols on acting, motherhood and fighting human trafficking.
It’s a warm afternoon in LA, and Marisol has just wrapped another meeting before sitting down for our interview. Despite being in the thick of summer, time is no more elastic for Marisol than any other season. When you’re a full-time actress, mother, wife and internationally recognized human rights activist, time never really slows down.
Marisol’s passions have her winding between worlds that could not be further apart. Dazzling lights and a string of accolades surround her success as an actress on screen. But Marisol finds purpose in a very different setting: working as an activist in the harrowing realm of human trafficking.
In our interview, Marisol opened up about everything from acting on the hit TV series Riverdale, to being a mother, and how she plays by her own rules to fight for human rights around the world.
Getting started in acting
Marisol’s story to the screen is an inspiring one. Growing up in Chicago under the care of her single-mother, Marisol experienced a tumultuous youth rife with drugs and hanging around a rebellious crowd. Acting was never on the radar, at least not until college.
“On a whim, I decided to audition for a play at my college. I ended up getting the lead role, which surprised me at the time! Then I joined the theatre team. Within three months of competing I was a national champion. After this I realized, maybe this was something I was good at and could turn into a career.”
With a newly defined focus and career aspiration, Marisol set out to make it a reality. This involved working other gigs on the side to get things rolling. “I did every job under the sun. Waitressing, odd jobs, anything to make it work while I was getting started in acting. I broke up with a boyfriend during that time and went through a bit of a transformation to get myself on the right track,” she says.
Marisol did no formal training while auditioning and booking initial roles, prefering to let her instincts guide her. “I really learned to act through trial by fire. I didn’t find much value in classes because I felt teachers would assert their own opinions on how I should respond in a scene, which seemed counterproductive to developing my intuition as an actress. For me, it worked better when I trusted myself and listened to my gut.”
At age 24, Marisol earned what would be her big break into the industry when she was cast as Audrey Griswold in the film Vegas Vacation with Chevy Chase. The movie kick-started her career.
Since then, Marisol has been cast in a number of television shows for ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, including Criminal Minds, Blind Justice and 24, where she commanded a counter terrorist unit opposite Kiefer Sutherland. “I loved doing the series 24. Working with Kiefer Sutherland was amazing, and I learned a lot while working on the show,” she says. Marisol has gained three ALMA Award nominations and won the distinguished Eagle Award for Most Promising Actress for her work.
Riverdale and playing Hermione Lodge
These days, Marisol is busy filming the critically acclaimed hit TV show Riverdale, where she stars as Hermione Lodge. The cast is gearing up to film season three. Marisol loves playing her character alongside the rest of the cast and describes the experience as one of a kind.
“I’m excited about the twists and turns my character arc has taken. Hermione has gone from someone we understand as good, to revealing some surprising truths that change that assumption. She is an extremely loving mother who loves her daughter to death. At the same time, she is fierce, strong, and rebellious, having to navigate the dynamics of being married to a husband convicted of embezzlement. It’s been really fun to play all sides of Hermione’s character.”
Being part of the show from the beginning is an experience Marisol is grateful for. “Seeing the show hit it right out of the park from the get-go has been exciting. I’ve loved seeing how the characters and storyline have grown. And the viewer response has been tremendous. Being a part of shaping things since day one has been really special.”
Playing a character with enigmatic qualities had Marisol looking to performances portraying similar characters for inspiration. “During filming for season two of Riverdale, I watched the Godfather. Cate Blanchett has been amazing to watch also as she’s played wealthy, cultured women throughout her career. Robin Wright’s character in House of Cards is another one I pull strength from,” she says. When asked who’s her favorite actor these days, Marisol was quick to answer, “Emily Blunt, hands down. Her acting is so incredible and I just love her, on screen and off!”
Offscreen passions: activism and motherhood
When not acting, Marisol is immersed in humanitarian work that takes her around the globe. She founded the non-profit, Foundation for a Slavery Free World, with the mission of eradicating global human trafficking. Marisol describes her entry in the work as a calling she had no choice but to follow.
“When I found out about the prevalence of human trafficking around the world, I knew I had to do something about it. Coming to terms with the gravity of the situation left me no option to just sit back and say, that’s terrible. I am constantly inspired by the real life heroes who work to change these conditions and put a stop to such heinous crimes.”
The non-profit operates out of the US and works in countries that are hotbeds for human trafficking, like Haiti. Marisol’s work with the organization has included going undercover to conduct sting operations. While recognizing the risks involved, she describes the work as extremely rewarding and leveraging both sides of her varied skill set. “It’s helpful that my acting and activism feed into each other. The more success I have on screen, the more platform I have to share my humanitarian work.”
Marisol seems to have struck a balance between acting and activism. Last year while in the middle of filming, she flew to the UK to speak at a human rights event at the United Nations. In 2017, she was honored by Barack Obama after receiving the President’s Distinguished Volunteer Service Award in recognition for her work in human rights.
When she’s not acting or fighting crime, Marisol is a mom to her nine year old daughter, Rain. “I wear the mom hat 24/7, so that’s also a full-time job,” she laughs. Her daughter has also shown an interest in acting, spending time on the Riverdale set and even jumping in front of the camera. “Rain did a cameo on Riverdale’s final episode of season one. She’s enjoying trying out acting, it’s been great to have her on set with me.”
It’s hard to imagine when Marisol gets any downtime between travelling and speaking around the world, filming a ton, and being a dedicated mom and wife. But Marisol also revealed a favourite pastime she likes to sneak in whenever her schedule allows: bingeing on sci-fi. “I am a sci-fi freak and love reading fantasy. Kevin J. Anderson has this series called The Saga of the Seven Suns. It’s like game of thrones in space and is totally amazing.”
Advice to aspiring actors
When asked what advice she would give to an up-and-coming actor, Marisol shared some seasoned advice. “Act in everything and anything you can. Get involved with your college theatre or do a student film. I used to be in a group that would just get together and read lines for fun. Do whatever you can and use it as a learning opportunity.”
While Marisol never pursued formal acting training or coaching, she did offer up a few tips learned from days spent in college theatre. “A lot of actors don’t like to watch themselves, but this is so important, especially when you’re starting out. I had one class in college when the teacher turned the camera on me and I had to watch the tape afterwards. This was really valuable. I learned how important it is to listen while in a scene. Great acting stems from good listening, and then reacting. It may sound simple, but that is really the key. It’s not about your lines. It’s about the reaction you convey.”
Apart from this, Marisol suggests throwing yourself head first into opportunities that will force you to grow as an actor, like improv. “Take an improv class to hone your instincts. Acting is all about reacting. You need to get out of your head and just go with the flow. Improv is so much fun and can really help with that.”
Marisol also shared her thoughts on the essential qualities needed to make it as an actor. “People like to see other people they can relate to. To do that, you have to be able to relate to the character yourself. Showing your personality will make a difference to your character’s authenticity, so you need to be able to tap into real emotions that are appropriate to the scene.”
Playing characters from all walks of life across a range of genres requires versatility. Marisol also shared her approach to preparing for new characters, a process she tweaks with every role. “I always read the script and run the lines first. As that happens, reactions and instincts will come. I start to get an idea of why I’m saying the next line and my reactions usually unfold very naturally. If I’m going to an audition, I make sure that I don’t have any junk from my life hanging around me. And that I’m well fed! If I’m on set, I make sure that I can hit the emotion I’m going for at least once. I will even stay in my chair between breaks to ensure I stay in the moment until I need to fully pull the emotion forward.”
Overcoming challenges on the way to success
On the way to landing leading roles, Marisol has had to overcome her own set of challenges. Like many actors with her demographic, these barriers have been racially charged. “The biggest challenge I faced was not being able to read for roles I wanted because I wasn’t the white, all American type. Many times I was told I couldn’t read for a part because the casting directors were not going for an ‘ethnic’ look. Does having dark skin mean I can’t be a cop or have a love story worth telling? No. This has been my biggest challenge by far.” Despite this, Marisol acknowledges progress has been made in the industry over the past few years. “I’m happy to say that a lot has changed over time. Now it’s almost the reverse. Some of my white friends are the ones having trouble booking gigs these days.”
Besides navigating racial stereotypes, Marisol has also come head to head with Hollywood’s obsession with age. “I remember auditioning for a role where the character ran a hospital, had done two tours in the military, went to medical school, and was working as a surgeon. They wouldn’t read me for the part because they wanted the character to be in their 20’s… this is literally impossible for a human that age. They wouldn’t read me for the part because I was too ‘old’.” Setbacks aside, Marisol has continued full steam ahead towards her goals, with undeniable success.
These days, Marisol is in the middle of filming the next season of Riverdale. Fans can also look out for her in the new horror film, Lost and Found, which will be released near Halloween in 2018. For updates on Marisol’s humanitarian work, visit slaveryfreeworld.org.
Catch Marisol Nichols on season three of CW’s Riverdale, in 2018.