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'Matador' Actress Christina Ochoa on Her El Rey Role, Ocean Science and Carrying on Her Family's Nobel Prize-Winning Legacy

First Posted: Aug 26, 2014 05:07 PM EDT
Christina Ochoa

Photo : Isaac Sterling

When actress Christina Ochoa isn't playing Karen Morales on El Rey Network's "Matador" or guest-starring on "Modern Family," the Spanish beauty -- who specialized in oceanography, marine biology, and physics -- enjoys tuning into "Shark Week," "Sea Turtle Sunday" or analyzing director James Cameron's National Geographic film, "Deepsea Challenge 3D."

In series like BiteSize TV's "Chaotic Awesome" and "Scirens," Ochoa meshes her love of the sea, science and the arts by making them pop culture-friendly and relatable to the average person.

"We are four actresses [Ochoa, Taryn O'Neill, Tamara Krinsky and Gia Mora] from different backgrounds who are science-enthusiastic. We want to help with outreach and develop science-literate content that you can fuse with real science," Ochoa told Latin Post.

Ochoa has an impressive resume that consists of various science undergraduate and graduate degrees, in oceanography, marine biology and physics. She's also an active member of MENSA and the Los Angeles Committee of Science for Society, and hosted this year's Intel Science and Engineering Fair.

"I grew up as kind of this weird shark girl," she admitted. "I loved anything and everything that had to do with the ocean. I got my diving license when I was 13 because I was tall enough to wear the equipment. It was like an all-encompassing thing. If I take it all the way back, maybe 'The Little Mermaid' had something to do with it."

While Ochoa's love for marine life, science and the arts was encouraged, unfortunately, not all Latinas have this kind of support and exposure to the field of science, but this is slowly changing, she points out. While science-related careers could definitely use more diversity, Ochoa has noticed a surge in interest among women overall, including Latinas.

"Absolutely, I think that's slowly changing with the public, and I think that they are getting excited about science. And we feel like [women] represent a large portion of the scientific community," she said.

A Family Legacy

Born in Barcelona, Spain, Ochoa is the great-niece of a prominent Spanish scientist, Severo Ochoa, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with Arthur Kornberg for his work on RNA synthesis. 

"He's a big source of pride for us. He was a lovely man, a family-oriented man, he was very focused. I think all of us after him have grown with this expectation to be very hard-working and hopefully be as accomplished as he was, one day. They're pretty big shoes to fill ... he's a source of inspiration," Ochoa said.

Ochoa, whose mother is from Cuba and whose father is from Bilbao, Spain, has an impressive lineage within her immediate family as well. Her father, Victor Ochoa, is an award-winning sculptor whose work can be seen across Spain at monuments and universities, as well as in Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Holland, Italy and France.

"He's incredibly talented ... We're all so very proud of him. The lineage ... I am very proud to carry my last name. They are such a wonderful family and they are so supportive -- and it doesn't matter if it's science, art or acting, like in my case."

Like Ochoa, her father, who studied anatomy and lived in the Amazon and the Galápagos Islands as well as Spain, also fuses together art and science with a modern spin. As a tribute to her Noble Prize-winning great uncle, her father created an impressive sculpture of him at the Center of Molecular Bioolgy (Centro de Biología Molecular) in Madrid. "It was a very emotional time for us to be able to recognize both accomplishments at the same time," she added.

The talented Spanish sculptor's other celebrated works and one of Ochoa's favorites include, an aquarium-type sculpture based on the Bible's "Jonah and the Great Fish." Instead of having Jonah being swallowed by the sea, he put his spin on it and made Jonah swallow the sea instead.

Onscreen Success

It's an exciting time for Ochoa, who landed a part on "Matador," the second scripted TV series on director Robert Rodriguez's English-language network, El Rey. The exciting action-drama tells the story of Tony "Matador" Bravo (Gabriel Luna), who lives a double life as a soccer player by day and undercover CIA operative by night.

Ochoa compared Latin Post's readership, which serves the Latino community in English while celebrating Latin backgrounds and cultures, to El Rey Network. "I think that's exactly what El Rey and 'Matador' are representing. We are a show that's in English, but we represent the Latino community," she explained.

"Matador" is produced by Roberto Orci ("Mission: Impossible 3," "Transformers," and "Star Trek"). Ochoa plays Karen Morales, Tony's childhood friend and possible love interest who gets caught up in Tony's double life.

"Karen represents the normalcy and stability in Tony's life. They have been best friends since childhood. It's a 'will they won't they' kind of a thing ... tension builds. ['Matador'] is so action-packed .. .it's a nice little nook in his life that brings him back to reality a little and touches on those basic emotions of love, trust and family," she said.

While there's a healthy dose of testosterone in "Matador," which features Tony Award-nominated actor Alfred Molina, Oscar Julio Mechoso (who also starred in Rodriguez's "Machete Kills"), Neil Hopkins, Tanc Sade and Louis Ozawa Changchien, there is also a strong female presence including Ochoa, Elizabeth Peña ("Modern Family," "La Bamba"), Nicky Whelan and Yvette Monreal. According to Ochoa, the set of "Matador" is very familial, welcoming and musical. Rodriguez, Luna and Menchoso often serenade the cast in between takes on set. Given a beautiful guitar as a gift from Rodriguez, Luna often walks around set showing off his musical chops and making sure everyone is entertained. "They are all very musically inclined. It started as an impromptu jam session on set," Ochoa said. "It's so nice. Can you imagine those beautifully talented men walking around with guitars serenading you on set?"

"Working on a show with people like Roberto Orci or Robert Rodriguez, it's hard to feel like anything can go wrong," she explained. "For me, it's just been an eye-opening experience and it's been a wonderful opportunity. I am very happy about the way that we're all gelling and connecting. We all hang out on the weekends on our own free time. It's a very fun environment that they create and I think they do that intentionally. There are a lot of get-togethers, table-reads every week, lunches for the cast and crew. A lot of us are newcomers ... and I think we're all just so grateful to be a part of something like this."

Ochoa appeared in ABC's "Modern Family," Season 3, where she played a nurse in a California-border town hospital where most of the staff spoke Spanish. In the episode, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) hope to adopt a child who comes from a Spanish-speaking family. With the help of Colombian beauty, Gloria (Sofia Vergara) by their side to translate, they witness a dramatic scandal unfold between the passionate and attractive staff and the baby's family who end up yelling and slapping each other. "It's very exaggerated and becomes very "telenovela-esque," Ochoa laughed. "It was a lot of fun ... It's insane how these actors knock it out of the park in like two takes."

Ochoa is getting a different dose of drama in "Matador" and is looking forward to seeing how her character will develop and how the plot will unfold. Landing the "Matador" role has indeed been a score for Ochoa, who says she would love to also work on a spy thriller that incorporates science in the future, one "that infiltrates a bio-tech company." Who knows maybe El Rey will entertain the idea in their next installment. "It could be called 'Matadora,'" she joked.

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