Actress Victoria Cartagena brings her Philly street smarts to the Fox hit series Gotham.
One to watch: Victoria Cartagena’s humble beginnings helped to breed a tenacious work ethic that has her star on the rise in show business.
South Philly native Victoria Cartagena is one of Hollywood’s most promising new stars. She can attribute her success to her part in the hit Fox series Gotham and appearing alongside Julianne Moore in the 2015 awards-season darling Still Alice (for which Moore won the Oscar for best actress), but she credits her early passion for performing to another thespian. “Angelina Jolie is probably one of the reasons I became an actor,” she says. “I was a huge fan of hers in the ’90s.”
Though she is now booking big-ticket roles, she needed a little help out the door in the first place, in pursuit of her dream. While Cartagena was earning her degree in education from Penn State, a group of her friends surprised her by contacting the renowned American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City on her behalf. “I didn’t think I would get in. I [had] never acted in my life. I was scared to apply but they called me for an audition, and that was the day that Angelina Jolie won her Oscar [for Girl, Interrupted], so I felt like it was a sign,” she says. Fast forward 10 years from that first phone call to her first major film role, in Salt, starring none other than Jolie herself. “I had five lines, but it was probably the happiest moment of my life.”
In Gotham, which is based on DC Comics’ Batman franchise and has been renewed for a second season, Cartagena plays Major Crimes Unit Detective Renee Montoya, an openly gay recovering alcoholic whose immigrant parents own a neighborhood grocery store. “She has come from humble beginnings and has worked really hard for everything she has. I certainly do relate to her on that level.”
During Cartagena’s childhood, her mother worked two jobs as both a teacher’s assistant and a receptionist on Sundays, while her father, who was born in Puerto Rico, held a position as a janitor in Philadelphia for 30 years, despite having a sixth-grade education level. Adopting a similar work ethic has led her to many career milestones, one of which was shooting a scene with Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Although her scene got cut, Cartagena took it in stride and says working with Moore was an accomplishment in itself. “She treated us all with the same amount of respect. You can tell she’s a person who definitely loves her kids—she spoke about them a lot. I appreciated the fact that she was so approachable.”
Cartagena lives in Queens now but returns to South Philly often. “I remember going to the [Veterans] stadium with my dad with the green cooler he used to have, drinking iced tea and watching Von Hayes and Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton,” she says of her childhood. “I remember walking to South Street with my cousin. We would walk around those houses on Delancey Street or on Tree Street and say, ‘I want to live here someday. It’s so beautiful.’ It was such a rich experience.”