Last year, actress Claudia Zevallos had a major revelation while prepping for her role in Tyson’s Run, a movie about a boy with autism who wants to become a marathoner. She realized that the woman who raised her, her Aunt Lulu, was on the autism spectrum.
“As I was studying about autism, I literally saw the truth about my aunt unveiling in front of my eyes,” Zevallos says. (BTW, her first name is pronounced Clow-dee-ah.) “I understood why my grandparents were so strict but they always broke the rules with my aunt. It was like, Don’t worry, we’ll pick it up. I was little, so I just thought my grandparents bent their rules because they saw her as the baby. They never limited her to her face, but they never really dealt with it, because it’s a taboo topic—a mental health issue.”
Raised in Peru, in a culture where, as Zevallos puts it, people “don’t go to the psychologist,” it’s ironic—or perhaps destiny?—that the actress has made a career in movies about mental health. In 2017, she starred opposite Tom Skerritt in Day of Days, delving into regret, grief, and loss. Her latest role, in this year’s A Snowy Day in Oakland, focuses on what happens to a mental-health-averse Black community when a psychologist opens a practice in the middle of town.
Here, Zevallos opens up about her childhood, her inner child—and who (and what) helps when she’s stressed.
Q: What was it like growing up for you?
“My parents got divorced when I was 5, so we went to live with my mom’s parents. My mom has been working nonstop since she was 17. I was raised by my grandparents and my Aunt Lulu, who never got married or had kids. She was my second mom. My mom is really more like an older sister than a mom to me.
“I was surrounded by all these adults. My grandfather was running a trucking business, and my grandmother was running a farming business. Everyone was really busy.”
Q: So mental health wasn’t a topic people discussed in the open?
“I was really attached to my grandfather, and my grandmother was super duper strict because when my grandparents got married, my grandfather suffered a terrible accident to the point he became an amputee.
“So my grandmother, when they had business parties at their house, when she would be tipsy, she would kind of start crying at the end of our parties and say, They used to make fun of us when we got married.”
“You know, [things like], Jesus is probably going to have to polish shoes or help out some carpenter for the rest of his life. But they were so driven, we didn’t let all of that chaos in. My grandfather got the idea of opening a trucking business. He used to drive a route that was 17 hours one way on a leg and a half.”
Q: So your grandmother kind of bottled it up until she’d had a few drinks, and then her worries came out?
“You’re right. I’ve never really shared about this on an interview. She would talk about these things when she was tipsy with her close friends. I never really had a great relationship with my grandmother, because literally everything ran on clockwork. I would actually have loved to have asked her a question: How come we don’t talk about this?”
Q: So what was it like being in A Snowy Day in Oakland, about a community that doesn’t talk about mental health?
“As a Latina in an African-American movie… Latin people don’t go to the psychologist, either; we talk about our problems with our cousins, our best friends, or we go to church, because it’s so taboo for us. Our grandparents, our mothers, just carry on.
“That’s one of the reasons why Tony [Plana, who plays her father in the film] and I, every day, we felt so heard and understood. Because the movie let us also understand that it’s ok if something’s going on, that we can talk about this. Especially in our block, because we are an extended family.
“I think the time is so right for this movie. No matter who you are, we all just need to be heard, and I feel like we’re in such a moment where we all just need a big hug.”
Q: How did you feel when you realized your aunt was on the autism spectrum?
“How I received it—besides just understanding everything about my childhood—was also, I was so grateful to be raised by a woman who had this but carried on.”
Q: Would you go to therapy?
“I would be okay going to therapy, because I believe that after so many things that I’ve learned about my family, that we go through nowadays as women, we feel so responsible, we deal with all this stuff and put on this strong armor and we ignore so many of our feelings. I would completely be open to going, because I think we all need to be heard and guided, even if it’s just a little bit.
“After COVID, so many people are hurting, people have lost loved ones, lost businesses, a lot of people have lost belief. There is nothing wrong with saying, This is happening to me, this is how I feel.”
Q: We did a story with a social media poet who went through generational trauma, and she talks about healing her inner child. Does the idea of “inner child” resonate with you?
“What’s so funny is, I’m not married and don’t have any children yet, because in a way I feel that I am, I don’t know, I’m probably 30 years older mentally because I took care of my grandparents until they passed away. [Growing up], I felt like a little adult, even when I was 5 years old.
“It’s important to go back and think about one’s inner child, because I do it when I’m going through hard times, when I don’t understand why things get so hard. And I think, Wait, isn’t it when things get harder, this is the moment that I have to push a lot because there’s something great coming on for me?
“When I don’t understand why things have to get so hard, I go back and I listen and I hear and see myself when I was in my blue overalls with my red-white-and-blue-striped T-shirt, trying to go up and down the stairs and sometimes stopping in the middle of the stairs and having an orange, and thinking about how lonely I was in those moments as a child. I get back to those moments and say, I got you, we’re gonna get through this. And I promise that I’m not gonna let you down.”
Q: Does it feel healing for you?
“I don’t know if it heals me. But I feel like I have a little buddy, so therefore I don’t feel so alone.”
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Q: What do you do to help calm yourself when you’re stressed?
“I go get a matcha! And I’ll start to hear all these voices of my grandparents. I would ask inside my head, What would you do? What am I supposed to do? To me, I hear my grandparents every day. I hear my Aunt Lulu every day. That is kind of a secret that I’m sharing with you.
“I believe that we women are superheroes, and that we all have our superpowers, and however we get to that coping feeling, even if we use different formulas, we all get there and want to get there.”
Q: Got a favorite “comfort” movie or TV series that you turn to that calms you?
“I’ll throw in Inside Out and Gladiator! In my mind, there can’t be a gladiator without one digging into one’s inside-out, mentally speaking.
“I really like Emily in Paris because I appreciate how she always sees everything from a positive point of view and finds a solution for everything, She dresses so chic—giving it her own unique touches—and is grateful for her chaos and position. She doesn’t give up!”
Q: How do you view gratitude?
“I view gratitude as accepting who I am. Who I am is Claudia, and even though I don’t know the feeling of having a father or of having a mother 100 percent, I am so unbelievably grateful. I believe my grandparents and my aunt raised me in such a way to be the person who I am, even though it never really made sense while I was growing up.”
Q: What else are you working on?
“There is a charity foundation that I really hope grows. It’s called Lululuv, and it’s in honor of my Aunt Lulu. When [eventually] she was in a center and I was taking care of her, I saw all those older people who didn’t have loved ones going to visit them. Their eyes and face would light up every time the nurse or anyone went in to bring them their lunch or dinner, and I would just be amazed at how their face would light up when someone would smile. It was the world to them.
“So my foundation is for those people who don’t have loved ones anymore, who have never gotten married, who have never had children, and who just want a friend. I want to be their friend.
“I already have this big connection [with the center] where my aunt used to be, so the way I’ve gone about it is to get my friends who are hairstylists, who give manicures or pedicures—who cannot volunteer at least one haircut a month? It’s not about looking good; it’s about making people feel good.”
Q: Do you ever use beauty products as a way to boost your mood?
“I love it all, but I also love just embracing one’s natural beauty. Right now I’m so obsessed with this moisturizer, Biologique Recherche Creme Biofixine Anti-aging Face Cream—this stuff is magic. I love it because it loves me when I don’t get my eight and a half hours of sleep.
“Also spraying on this heritage rose water that is like $8 or $9, that’s a game-changer. The scent [is great], and it also helps the moisturizer glide on and absorb that much faster. My other mood-boosting must-haves are Dior Addict Lip Maximizer, Merit Flush Balm cheek color in Mood, and Hourglass Brow Volumizing Fiber Gel.
“What’s funny is, as time goes on, I look at my face and I see different parts of my family in my face. My family is with me all the time.”
A Snowy Day in Oakland is now streaming on Prime Video and Apple TV.