[EXCLUSIVE] Zulay Henao Won’t Be Defined By Her Sexuality

You’ve probably seen Zulay Henao in Tyler Perry’s The Single Moms Club and now in Dion Taylor’s Meet the Blacks.

Born in Medellin, Colombia, Zulay came to the U.S. with her family at the age of four. After spending three years in the United States Army, she decided to take on acting — a career she’d always wanted to pursue. Today, Zulay has starred in various movies including Fighting, Takers, and has held TV guest spots on shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Army Wives. 

We caught up with Zulay to get the scoop on her role in the up-and-coming film True Memoirs of an International Assassin, the struggles of remaining balanced in the entertainment industry, and her view on female sexuality. Here’s what she had to say:

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Galore: I read that you were a former member of the army! I’m curious, how does that part of your past affect your present in regards to how you work?

It’s funny, I was just having a conversation about this with my brother last night. The army really shaped me in a weird way forever. At just 19 years old, I had an opportunity to see another side of the world through an experience that was… I guess… not as blessed as mine was. I very quickly understood how blessed and how much opportunity I had and do have. It really opened my mind and helped me to look at the world in an empathetic way. I also think my experience in the army has affected how I approach my work as an actor. It gave me the opportunity to approach my dreams in a realistic way.

What made you join?

I went for college money!

That’s so interesting! That’s definitely something most 19-year-old girls don’t experience.  

I just feel like it gave me a rich life experience at a really young age that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. It’s definitely shaped a lot of who I am. I try not to take things for granted and if I start to, something in my subconscious really pulls me back. I was also an immigrant to this country, so I’ve overcome a lot and I’ve seen a lot of people overcome a lot. It was a very rich experience and I’m happy that it was a part of my life.

Did you know you wanted to act when you joined the army?

I did, but prior to the army I didn’t know how to achieve it or how to go about it. My parents immigrated to this country when I was four years old, so their whole thing was like, “You have to go to school and be a doctor and do better than us.” That’s just what they preached. It was a part of their everyday dialogue with me. So when I mentioned I wanted to act, it’s not that they weren’t supportive, it’s that they weren’t sure how to guide me in the right direction. They were hardworking people who just wanted to bring their kids here to be successful, to go to school, and to do better than they had. It wasn’t something that they necessarily knew how to support me through.

What about now?

Both of my parents took on different roles. My father was very skeptical and scared and tried to talk me out of it, all while still being a loving parent. Meanwhile, my mother was like, “Let’s do it. I’ll help you out. I’ll drive you to auditions.” Both took on different roles, but both were helpful. If it hadn’t been for my father’s cautions, I would have just become a dreamer. I wouldn’t have taken things seriously. I wouldn’t have developed the discipline that it’s taken for me to get to a place where I feel good in my craft. And my mother was the person who encouraged me every step of the way. I needed both of them.

It’s just so scary being a parent! That’s good you had both of their parenting techniques.

It’s a very scary thing for a parent! We only see the end result of fame, but the general public doesn’t get to see all that happens before that. I definitely am appreciative of the individual roles they each took to help me.

Is there a character you’ve played that you can relate to the most?

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve ever done because I always find a piece of myself in each character. In Meet The Blacks, I love that my character loves the idea of family. I really could find solid ground with her because she really just wants to keep her family together. Even in a comedy or parody of Meet The Blacks’ nature, there’s still a moral and ethical ground to her. And that’s important to me as a person. But every character is different. For example, the character I just played in True Memoirs of an International Assassin really wanted to prove herself to herself. I have pieces of that in me too. If I can’t directly relate to a character, I just have fun using my imagination and try to enjoy the ride. I can’t say one character I’ve played has been more rewarding than another.

Aside from acting, what are some of your goals? Either in or out of the entertainment industry.

I want to produce! Actually, my brother and I are working on a script together. I just want to tell a story, and not necessarily my story. I’d like to know what that feels like.

What’s the hardest part of working in the entertainment industry?

There are times I worry that I may be too involved in my career and perhaps am not paying enough attention to the other parts of me that, as a woman, are very important. There’s a fine balance for family, for work, and for everything. Each part is necessary because it’s what makes you whole. The bright side is that I’m aware of it. When I start to feel as though the self absorption that comes with the job becomes a bit too much, I know to back off and give myself the time to feed every other aspect of me that needs nurturing. Yes, I do need to make my auditions and prepare for a job, but I’m a whole human being, not just an actress.

What are your 3 favorite verbs?

To feel! I think that’s a beautiful one. To wander, because in life you do a lot of that. Also, to emote.

In your opinion, who is the sexiest woman in the world?

Meryl Streep! She is so damn sexy to me!

I agree, but why?

Because she’s unapologetic, she doesn’t need the attention, and she’s a good human being. She’s in her 60s and she’s still so classy and so sexy. She’s also the best at what she does. She’s confident because she’s put in the work. I love love love love love her.

What are your tips for embracing sexuality while staying classy?

It’s a wonderful thing to feel sexy and to feel like a beautiful woman. I guess embracing your sexuality is about embracing every part of you. There’s beauty and there’s insecurities. It’s not just about one part of yourself. I aspire to be a full package deal. I want to be sexy and I want to be confident. I don’t want to use my sexuality as something that defines me, but something that is a part of me.

Do you ever leave the house without makeup?

Yes! I did today. And I find that I actually get a lot more compliments when I’m natural than when I’m not. I don’t know if it’s because men like natural women or if it’s that women are more approachable when they’re not fully made up. I don’t know which one it is!

Do you ever feel insecure without makeup?

Of course I do! But you have to show yourself as you are. It’s hard, but it’s important not to set expectations that aren’t real. The truth is that we all have flaws, because we’re human! We’re not supposed to be walking examples of perfection.

There’s a ton of beauty trends right now, like contouring, big lips, etc. and some people are taking issue with them. What is your opinion on some of the current beauty trends?

I love a good makeup session just like the next girl. I’m not going to say, “No, don’t contour me!” I think it looks beautiful. Do I want to look like that everyday? No! I think there’s a time and a place for everything. I have a red carpet coming up and I want my makeup done for it so that I can celebrate a beautiful night and a wonderful cast while looking glam. But going back to the idea of balance, when people see me look a certain way, it doesn’t mean I’m going to always look like that. For my own sanity, and my own wholeness, a full face of makeup can’t be an everyday thing for me.

What’s next for Zulay?

Now that Meet the Blacks is out, I’ll be in True Memoirs of an International Assassin with Kevin James. I play a badass DEA agent, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever done before. It’s full action – stunts and everything. I’m excited to see it and to show a side of me that I honestly didn’t even know existed!

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Photos by Rowan Daly

Styled by Simona Sacchitella

Makeup by Suzie K

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