Yeniffer Behrens talks about the Grey’s Anatomy episode “Flowers Grow Out of My Grave.” This episode references the Day of the Dead, which is a popular day of remembrance celebrated in the Mexican Community. Additionally, she talks about her career as an actress, producer and filmmaker.
ATM: How did you envision your role after reading the script?
YB: I was so happy they incorporated el Día de Muertos in the show. I thought it would revolve around just my character and her family, which is the Latino family. Then I kept reading and realized it was integrated throughout the episode and that every character was aware of it. They acknowledged this beautiful event that we do. It exalted the honor of our culture throughout the episode. I loved that Meredith’s daughter and separately Bailey’s son explained what it was. How amazing would it be if all of us in the world honored each other’s cultures in this way?
ATM: How is death celebrated in the Latino community?
YB: It is a day to honor those that have passed away in your life, to keep them alive in your heart and mind… to celebrate who they were, and to remember them. It is more of a tribute than a memory. It is a celebration of life. My mother always said this “To die, you have to be born. There is nothing truer than knowing you are going to die. It is the law of life.” You live and pass on. Many other cultures believe in coming back, which get seen as reincarnation. We are born, and we have a day when we pass, then we hope our family will remember us. Día de Los Muertos is specifically a Mexican holiday, but it has variations in which it is celebrated in different countries.
ATM: How do the characters on this show view death since they are around it all day?
YB: My sister is a nurse and when she first started the job she was not used to this environment. She came home talking about almost losing patients and was very shocked at first because she was not used to emergencies and people being on the brink of death. Now, three years into it, she and the people in her field are constantly working to save a life. Death is a part of their life and becomes a new normal in the medical field. I have so much respect for them because they can save lives and make a huge difference in the world but are also so close to death. The process becomes very clinical by not just saving one person, but by saving society. I would think this is how the characters on Grey’s Anatomy see it. My sister was the first person I called when booking Grey’s Anatomy. I always told her: “One day I will be on this show.” This show has been in our living rooms for years, and now I would be in it.
ATM: Octavio Paz is quoted on the show: “The Mexican…is familiar with death. [He] jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.” How does citation continue to resonate with this event in the Mexican community?
YB: Everyone has a different perspective. We are all alike, but it is not what “is”, but how we respond to what is. This goes across the board, not only death but with life. This is my interpretation. We see throughout the episode that everyone had a different way of dealing with death. Ellen (Meredith), in the last scene of the episode, as she walked down the corridor sees her mom, her sister, her friends, dog and husband. Everyone that she loved gets shown. This gave me chills because I believe our loved ones are always around us. They show up when we remember them. She (Meredith) was remembering them. This is the importance of the Day of the Dead. When you remember them, it keeps their life going on and this is very spiritual.
Put value in life with faith and determination and you will get to create whatever you believe is your reality and what you want your life to be. I firmly believe this does not need to be about religion. Spirituality and being connected to our own spirit is what connects us to this whole world. It stems from a higher power. Everything we want to accomplish and all the answers to the questions we have about our life are all inside ourselves. We just need to listen to our heart.
ATM: We need to continue to search within ourselves to find our destiny.
YB: Exactly, to find your destiny and to find your truth. You have to speak to it. I cannot tell you how to live your life, but I can give you advice for it. It is ultimately what you want that is in your heart, mind, and soul connecting your thoughts, words, and actions. This alignment causes magic to happen.
ATM: How has your production company True Form Films inspired other American Latinos to tell their story?
YB: We are unstoppable and determined to create a film with a low micro-budget, which has surprised many people as to what we have done. This is because of the good quality of our work. It has inspired them to both do it for themselves and to hire us. Our first film was After School in 2012. We did it with less than $45,000. A lot of it was achieved through donations and favors. We had a script and passionate people attached, and we did crowd funding as well.
ATM: You mentioned you were attracted to film as a kid. What is it about film for you? What is it in storytelling that creates your attraction for a film? Is it the dramatizations of the stories getting told to you?
YB: I found it fascinating more than amusing. Grease was my favorite movie as a child. It showed a world that made me want to be a part of it. I realized I could create this and do this for a living, so I became even more fascinated and excited about it. The ability to create art is a gift. We can create art to make others happy, sane, and even have audiences go on a journey for even just an hour while making them forget about the horrors of life.
ATM: So, you feel a film could be used as an emotional escape to help people tune into a different life that is different than their own.
YB: Exactly. This is what it did for me. As a child, my parents, unfortunately, did not get along all the time, but when I was taken to the movies or I watched T.V, I escaped into that world and was excited, happy while I immersed myself in the story.
ATM: In these stories that you saw yourself in while watching as a kid, what characters did you identify yourself with the most?
YB: Grease, The Brady Bunch, and Wonder Woman. I was Wonder Woman for like three years in a row for Halloween in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade. I could not get enough of Wonder Woman. I wanted to be a superhero to help my mother out of that situation. I wanted my life to be like the Brady Bunch and for us to get along. As a kid, back when I lived in Washington, D.C. I was bullied in school because I did not speak English very well. The moment I would watch these movies as a little kid, I would wonder why people did not get along and even now as an adult I don’t get it. I developed a personality of being a leader, a community driven person, and created a team around me. I was a cheerleader in high school, the head of every club you could think of, and was the one to organize pep rallies and brought the community together. I was about celebrating life and having fun. I got this from my mother. She is very much like this. She loves to gather people together to have parties and break bread. I feel that I got this from her.
ATM: You went to high school in D.C.?
YB: No, I went to high school in Miami. I went to elementary school in D.C. from 1st to 3rd grade and part of 4th. We went to Miami for a couple of years. I went back to this area in Alexandria, Virginia. This is a part of their Tristate. I was there for 7th grade. I went back to Miami for 8th grade and high school. I graduated from high school in Miami and some college. My grandfather got stationed in D.C.; he was ambassador or consulate for Venezuela for an embassy. We moved where he was.
ATM: I was asking about this particular place because I am a native of D.C.
YB: This is awesome. I love D.C. I love Georgetown. I was raised in this environment. I have relatives in Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia and my brother was born in Arlington. It is a special place for me as well.
YB: I think so. Entertainment is a form of therapy. It is a way of inspiring others to do what they want to do in their life. There are circumstances that make people feel scared. If you see it on T.V. and there’s a character you relate to, then you want to be like them. You have this to hold on to when everything else fails in your life. You have this one character that inspires you. The arts and what we do is so important to society. For me, I loved more family-based films and stories that made a difference.
ATM: So, you watched shows like the Brady Bunch that presented a well-put-together televised family. I am saying that self-consciously as a child you wished because you wanted this type of life at the time.
YB: Absolutely. I am proud of myself for creating a family that resembles more of the Brady Bunch. I have an amazing husband who is a great dad to my children. I have a daughter with my husband and a son from my first marriage. In my first marriage, I noticed the same pattern I grew up with, so I got divorced and was okay with this for my son’s future. I then married a more compatible partner. It is my version of the Brady Bunch. He is the stepfather to my son and my son calls him “my bonus dad” instead of stepdad. They are great together. We spend holidays together, and it’s all for the kids. I am proud of the family unit I have created and this all stemmed from watching the Brady Bunch. The show was my escape, so I wanted to be in this family.
ATM: Describe the feeling while winning an award for your directorial debut Mi Amor. And what was that feeling when you saw your hard work win an award?
YB: The excitement and sense of accomplishment are immeasurable. The short film tells the story of a family. It is about love, lost love, and true love, forever love and love between a mother and son. I was a part of one conversation in this film. I was able to use this experience and put it in the story. It has completely healed this young girl in me, which is my 18-year-old self that got heartbroken. I am not the only woman who has been rejected by a mother in law.
ATM: Do you believe this film has allowed you to lay your 18-year-old self to rest? Has this chapter really closed in your life?
YB: I am giving her some validation. There is a piece inside me that looks back, and I now see I have become stronger and reliant. The past prepared me for this career, which is full of rejection. I learned about not giving up on myself, my dream, or my career. My 18-year-old self has held it together for me. Now she feels like it was not all a waste. She says: “You have pain, so put it in a film. There is more where it came from.” This brings me to my next feature film called Choices. This is the story of the same 18-year-old who stayed alone with her brother and sister. Her brother was 12 years old, and sister was 10 months old. She had to raise them. I am developing this story and might end up directing it.
ATM: You have talked about her so much, especially now in two films. How would you describe your 18-year-old you? Who was she?
YB: She was fearless and full of piss and vinegar. I had developed such a hard-wired persona determined to not let anything bring me down. While in school I would hide what went on at home. School was my escape and where I was seen as the happiest. I developed leadership. I was alone at 18 and felt I could do this with a fake it ‘till to you make it way of being. I could be a mother to my brother and sister, find help and be a cheerleader and leader, and co-captain of my team. It was this kind of attitude and my faith in God that made me strong.
I look back at being 18 when I had I won Miss Teen in Miami. A month later I was alone. As a beauty queen, I went to these events and had to represent and to pretend I was not alone or getting financial help from the church and welfare. I had to play the part and it made me strong.
ATM: If films were not a part of your imagination, then how different would this have influenced your growth?
YB: There was no other option. I was forged and fierce. I tried fashion merchandising and was going to train to be a flight attendant. People think you must have plan B and do something on the side. I wanted to try this too, but my heart was not happy.
I will tell you this. God is so amazing. The week that I was going to apply to become a flight attendant and go to Dallas to take the course I booked my first starring role in a film. I was flown out to California. This was confirmation telling me “You are not going to have a plan B. You are going to be an actress.” You are going to be in this industry. This is what happened. I did not do the plan B. I continued onto my career as an actress and filmmaker. This is what I am meant to do. God likes to put all these obstacles in front of you when you say, “I want to do this.” The universe says: “Okay how badly do you want it? Let’s see.” Follow your heart and do not give up. Do not give in. It is okay to fall. It is okay to cry and feel scared. Just keep going and do what you love.