I arrive on set at a photo shoot in Brooklyn minutes too late to catch an epic rendition of the ’90s R&B hit “No Diggity.” A moment earlier, 20-year-old actress and musician Herizen Guardiola gave an impromptu performance, with rapt crew members staring at her in disbelief. Dressed in a look from this season’s Havana-inspired Chanel resort collection, Guardiola smiled and continued singing, the stylist made adjustments, the camera shutter clicked.
That powerhouse voice is familiar to fans of Baz Luhrmann’s ’70s drama The Get Down on Netflix, in which Guardiola plays aspiring disco singer Mylene Cruz. Guardiola actually never intended to become an actress; it was the specific nature of the role that brought her to audition, with its rare opportunity for singing as well as performing. While the rising star does share similarities with her ambitious onscreen persona, Guardiola considers herself a tomboy and swears she’s more laid-back. “Mylene’s a lot more girly, a lot more bothered about life,” she says. “Growing up in Miami taught me not to care what other people think.”
Born and raised in Florida and homeschooled by her Jamaican mother until the age of 18, Guardiola relocated with her family to Santa Monica, California. But Miami has stayed in her veins. It was her father, a Cuban-born reggae musician, who taught her to play the guitar, a mahogany Epiphone she still has today. She sums up the support she felt by reciting the family ethos: “Whoever can handle that light will put on sunglasses and hang out with you, and whoever can’t won’t.” Guardiola spent her childhood in close proximity to that kind of wattage, spending a lot of time with the late Bob Marley’s extended family, whom she knew through her father’s ties to the reggae music scene. “We are Caribbean, we have that spice. This is me—take it or leave it,” she says proudly.
For now, Guardiola is finishing up filming the final episodes of the first season of The Get Down and building a fan base for her own music. In early 2017, she plans to release her first EP along with a music video. “Indie alternative” is how she categorizes her music, but even that’s ever changing. “It’s becoming a little electronic now.”