A Modern Woman in Film: Zetna Fuentes
“What I’m doing right now is the farthest thing I could have imagined doing. It’s like I’m an astronaut.”
Growing up between the South Bronx and Puerto Rico, Zetna Fuentes didn’t think she'd someday become a director. While Fuentes might not be recognizable to a casual viewer by name, if you’ve seen any of the most popular tv shows in the last five years, you’ve seen her work. With credits on How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, Shameless, Queen of the South, Ray Donovan, This is Us, Jane the Virgin, Pretty Little Liars, Jessica Jones, Madam Secretary, The Fosters and Grey’s Anatomy, Zetna Fuentes has already accumulated a profile comparable to many showrunners even as her star continues to rise.
As a child, watching gangster movies with her dad, and telenovelas with her grandmother, Zetna had fostered a love of storytelling, but instead went off to college at Vermont's Middlebury College thinking it might be a good idea to go to law school.
After she graduated from college, Zetna returned to New York and wound up working as a production assistant on Nueba Yol, a 1996 Spanish-language romantic comedy filmed in New York with a very low budget. Zetna forgot how she even got that job. It was this experience that crystallized her certainty about working in the entertainment business. Her enthusiasm working at her first gig got her a promotion to location manager on another project, and Fuentes bounced around working on sets and as a waitress, while she tried to figure out precisely what aspect of entertainment she wanted to pursue.
It was during this time that Fuentes caught a stroke of luck. Having gotten to know fellow Bronx native Nick Sandow (Caputo on Orange is the New Black) as a regular patron of the restaurant where she was waitressing, she was brought on as his unpaid Assistant Director when his friend Michael Imperioli (then starring on The Sopranos) was starting up a new off-Broadway theatre, Studio Dante. “There’s no better place to be [than] in the theater world if you want to direct because you are there for everything.” From there she was able to branch out and also make a name for herself as a skilled soap opera director while continuing to work in theatre. Fuentes would go on to be nominated for three Emmys while directing for Guiding Light and One Life to Live.
After the string of iconic soap opera cancellations beginning in 2010, Fuentes knew that she had to reinvent herself. She applied for the two-year Disney/ABC Directing program to help her make the leap. She was accepted and soon found herself commuting between New York and Los Angeles, shadowing directors on primetime series like Desperate Housewives and Brothers and Sisters and learning the ropes of how to direct a single-cam drama, all while pregnant. In the midst of all of this, she was invited to direct an episode of Pretty Little Liars herself. Jumping at the chance to direct her first full hour episode, she knew that her experience in the lightning-paced dramatic world of soaps would transfer well to working on a twist and turn-packed teen show. After completing the program, Fuentes moved down to Los Angeles with her husband and son to continue pursuing primetime and found success, racking up credits on some of television’s most popular shows.
Zetna Fuentes is a rarity not only for her astounding level of success but also for being a Latina in an industry where women and people of color are not always given opportunities to showcase their talent. Occasionally, the powerhouse has recounted times when she was mistaken for background actors or questioned as to whether she was in the right place. These incidents don’t seem to detract from her love of storytelling, and it encourages her to reach out and open doors for people who are unconsciously left out of conventional ideas of what a director or camera operator should look like. She also says it helps to work close to other big Latino names like actress Gina Rodriguez and tv director David Rodriguez while working on episodes of Jane the Virgin and Shameless. “When you see people like you doing great work, it feels like a community.”
Today, the prolific tv and stage director is signed on to direct a pilot for CBS. A crime thriller, Chiefs will follow the lives of three female police chiefs from different Los Angeles precincts as they work to bring a serial killer to justice. While crime dramas like The Fall and Big Little Lies have picked up big audiences in streaming and cable, this will be entirely fresh material for network viewers if it gets picked up for series.
Overall, Zetna Fuentes has hope for the future that things are improving. “There’s qualified women and directors of color who are ready and capable of doing the work. And I think the doors are opening more now.”