Liza Colón-Zayas Swears by Brené Brown, ‘Hacks’ and Hugs

“I’m sorry!” Liza Colón-Zayas said from the bedroom of her Bronx home on a Friday afternoon as car horns blared over the phone. “This is the only time of the day it’s loud!”

She walked over to the window. “Shut up!” she yelled, closing it. “I’ve never seen parents as crazy as when they’re picking up their children from the nursery across the street.”

The actress, who won hearts last summer as the hardscrabble cook Tina in the FX series “The Bear,” has some crazy of her own on tap this fall, when she stars in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning dark comedy “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which focuses on a retired policeman threatened with eviction and his extended family and friends. When the play opens at Second Stage’s Hayes Theater on Dec. 19, it will be Colón-Zayas’s Broadway debut but the third time she’s played the role of the Church Lady, after productions at Atlantic Theater Company in 2014 and Second Stage’s Off Broadway theater in 2015.

This time, she said, “I’m a different person, it’s a different world. I have to excavate this character again.”

If you saw “Church Lady” and pictured a saintly little woman, think again — in his review of the Atlantic production, The New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that a memorable scene between Colón-Zayas and Stephen McKinley Henderson in the play’s second act — no spoilers, just look for the communion wafer — “may be the sexiest scene on a New York stage this summer.”

“These characters are deeply flawed — no one is a saint,” Colón-Zayas said. “It’s so dark and so hilarious and authentic.”

It’s that same realism that she finds appealing about Tina on “The Bear.”

“I have a lot of similar characteristics in surviving this industry,” Colón-Zayas said. “I didn’t come out of a conservatory. I don’t look like a leading lady. And yet here I am.” (Another similarity, she noted, is that both she and Tina have a “foul mouth.”)

Colón-Zayas is married to a fellow actor, David Zayas, who this month wrapped up his role as Eddie in the Broadway production of “Cost of Living.” She talked about the shows they are watching together, how her 84-year-old mother makes her day, where to find the best cheesesteak in New York and other necessities. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

1. Hugs Covid messed with me. That elbow bump greeting was well intentioned, but mostly it felt like an embarrassing jerky display of flailing arms. I’m so happy we can hug now.

2. Stephen Adly GuirgisHe’s my favorite living playwright. We go way back, and he’s written many roles for me. As a born and raised New Yorker, his ear for the streets is unlike anyone else’s. His rhythm and the layer of comedy in his plays makes the pain palatable.

3. My Mom’s Greeting Cards Mami always remembers to celebrate all of her loved ones’ birthdays and anniversaries. She’ll write these sweet personal messages in every one and use up all the space, then there’ll be an arrow pointing to more writing on the back. She’s always been my cheerleader. She’s 84 and has gone through a lot of struggles in this life, has all kinds of chronic illnesses, but she just emanates positivity.

4. Home Being an actor means going deep and giving it all to the audience, so home is a place to recharge. Give me my couch, the remote control, my delivery app, and I’m in my happy place. There’s a little Italian place near us called Bella Notte, and they make the greatest cheesesteak sandwich ever. Yes, I said that! Sorry, Philadelphia.

5. Binging Shows With My Husband I love watching shows with David because he does the hilarious commentary. Some of our recent binges are “Succession,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Abbott Elementary,” “Hacks,” and of course “The Bear.” “Hacks” is so brilliantly funny and offbeat, and “Abbott Elementary” has that mockumentary feel but representing people who work in schools who look like me. And of course I love “The Bear” — I was not shocked, but a little super-impressed with how well the pilot turned out.

6. “Atlas of the Heart” by Brené BrownMy friend, the actress Elizabeth Rodriguez, is always up on the latest self-help books, articles and podcasts. When she raved about this one, I decided to check it out. Mind-blowing. Brown breaks down a long list of human emotions and triggers and helps the reader understand the subtle differences in order to accurately name, face and address them. Just a couple of days ago, I was feeling anxious, and this immediately got me grounded and able to recognize my anxiety or my impostor syndrome. I feel like I need to be playing this one on a loop every three months.

7. Labyrinth Theater Company This ensemble theater, which was formerly Latino Actors Base, has been my artistic support system since 1992. Our ragtag company celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall. I’ve made lifelong friends, met my husband and received the best training there. They helped embrace who I am, rather than erase what makes me me. Finally having in-person meetings with them makes me giddy.

8. Board Games I love when I can get together with my grown kids and grandbabies and play board games. Trash talk is welcomed, and showboating is encouraged. My granddaughter just turned 9, and she loves Uno. We also play Parcheesi, and my 13-year-old grandson loves Monopoly and chess. He’s brilliant — he beats my husband, and my husband doesn’t let him win.

9. The Ocean My friends laugh when I say I’m not a fan of nature — I hate mud, sweating and critters; life’s too short to be uncomfortable — but I love the ocean. Floating in the sea is the only way I can be fully in the moment. Just hearing my breathing and allowing my body to levitate while staring at the sky — I’m feeling more relaxed already.

10. Movie Scores My father would blast movie scores like “The Ten Commandments” on his giant reel-to-reel and pretend he was conducting an orchestra. So, I fell in love with that grandiose music and still listen to it. Sometimes I find even when I’m just walking down a loud, disgusting dirty street, if I’m listening to a big, melodramatic film score, I can take in the world with a little more attention and less judgment.

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