Emily Rios for “Quinceanera”

She may be only 17 years old, but make no mistake: this beautiful adolescent is on the road to stardom. Already critically acclaimed for her stunning performance in the Sundance award winning Quinceañera, Rios displays a maturity and respectful earnestness far beyond her years, conceding, laughingly, “there’s nobody quite like me at my school.”

Exhausted, having been up since 7 a.m talking to the press about the film that stole the awards at Sundance, Rios recalls how she landed the role of the teenager in Quinceañera. “I had an agent at the time so he calls me and says: Hey, you know they’re auditioning people for this independent film called Quinceañera. So I go in and audition without knowing the synopsis of the film, my role or anything, I just went in and auditioned and that’s how I got my part.”

Rios plays Magdalena approaching her 15th birthday. At this juncture, her simple, blissful life is complicated by the discovery that she’s pregnant. Kicked out of her house, she finds a new family with her great-granduncle and gay cousin. To some degree, says Rios, she identified with aspects of Magdalena. “I felt like I related to the character on a lot of different levels, because I come from a very strong religious background and so does the character in the film, so I related to her on that level. I also thought she was very mature for her age, she’s very kind of independent, has a lot of pride, she wouldn’t swallow it for anything or anybody and she wouldn’t show that anybody has any control or power over her on the exterior. However, when it came down to it she was in her own little corner; I felt she was a little more reserved, she liked her privacy and when it came down to it, that’s when your emotions will let loose.” Rios says that in that regard, she is very similar to the character, because “I won’t let it show that anybody has any type of control over me, but emotions eventually have to come out and that’s when I’m in my own little corner and have my space.”

One aspect of the character – and the film- that are miles away from the actress’s own experiences, are the Quinceañera itself. The Quinceañera or Quince Años (meaning fifteen years) is, in some Spanish-speaking regions of the Americas, is a young woman’s celebration of her fifteenth birthday, which is celebrated in a unique and different way from her other birthdays. Predominant amongst Catholics, Rios says she “grew up in a very religious background that doesn’t celebrate anything. I grew up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses so we don’t celebrate birthdays or holidays.”

No longer practising, Rios concedes that she rebelled against the conformity of her religion. “I must have rebelled at a certain phase of my life, growing up as a teenager. Once we stopped practicing that’s when I let loose, because I just saw that it wasn’t a lifestyle for me.” But Rios wouldn’t be drawn as to how that rebellion manifested itself. “We could go off on tangents for days about the things that I’ve done and experienced at such a young age, but they’re life experiences that I learned when young. I’m glad I did them and was able to overcome them now and just move on.”

Rios admits that had she still been practising, it’s unlikely she could have done this movie. “My parents had to read the script and approve of it and obviously it’s just written in the bible where there are just certain things unspoken of and unheard of and especially in your family when you’re growing up in this very religious background. Just the title alone, Quinceañera, would have been an issue.” Asked if she regretted not having a Quinceañera of her own, Rios is pragmatically philosophical. “Growing up I didn’t think I was deprived in any way.”

Rios feels that while this movie’s directors are far from Hispanic [one’s a New York Jew the other from Leeds in the UK], they still managed to explore Hispanic culture realistically. “I think they approached it with respect and were constantly looking to their cast and crew for suggestions on what wasn’t right and what was and everybody played their part in the film. I think the audience will just see the life that they’re living every day.”

Rios has certainly caught the acting bug and says at this point, has no immediate plans to further academic study beyond her high school, and says that, through this film, “doors are just opening all over, for future Latino actors.” But she can confirm she has a new project already booked. “I’ll be shooting my next Indie in late August with Paul Rodriguez, Jr, called Vicious Circle, playing the lead singer of this rock band who is epileptic and a hard-core drug user.”