FOR 50 YEARS, children have learned the letters of the alphabet with the help of Kermit the Frog and stacked blocks from 1 to 10 by following instructions from Count von Count. Suki Lopez is no exception, having spent her Miami, Fla., childhood entranced by Sesame Street, especially the antics of Cookie Monster. Today, the Cuban American actress performs alongside her favorite Muppets as Nina, a young woman paying her way through college working at the neighborhood bike shop and laundromat and babysitting Elmo.

Lopez, a Thespian from Troupe 6273 at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy — which also boasts Gloria Estefan and On Your Feet’s Ana Villafañe among its famous alums — has been dancing almost as long as she’s been walking, spending summers at intensives with the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Prior to her television series debut on Sesame Street in 2015, she performed as Belle onboard the Disney Cruise Line and on tour across the U.S. in West Side Story.

As Nina on Sesame Street, Suki Lopez’s job includes babysitting Elmo.

As Nina on Sesame Street, Suki Lopez’s jobs include babysitting Elmo. Photo courtesy of Suki Lopez.

When she’s not acting, Lopez fills her time with other creative pursuits, working as a freelance graphic designer, choreographer, and acting coach.

You’ve been acting and dancing since you were a child. What sparked your interest in performing?
I started performing at 3 years old with Maria Verdeja School of the Arts as a dancer, and I loved it from the beginning. My dance training led me to summer intensives in New York City, and it was during one of those summers that I saw my first Broadway show, Hairspray. That was the initial spark that made me think, “I want to do that.”

In high school, I joined Thespians and quickly realized that musical theatre gave me a platform to expand my opportunities for expression tenfold. I remember getting cast as Millie in Lourdes Academy’s Thoroughly Modern Millie my senior year. It felt so right. I knew I was about to be that small-town girl moving to the big city.

Your first professional theatre job was performing onboard the Disney Cruise Line. Can you describe that experience and what it taught you as a performer?
Disney Cruise Line was a fantastic first job. The repertoire is world renowned and a total blast to perform. We learned six shows in two-and-a-half months. I was a lead in one show and supporting or ensemble player for the others, plus I had understudy roles. You really had to do it all: dance, sing, play a princess and a pirate. It was nine tracks, totally memorized at all times.

Getting thrown on as an understudy is probably the most nerve-racking thing you will ever do as a performer, but it’s a huge part of the job. This contract set the foundation for my memorization and understudy skills.

You joined the cast of Sesame Street in 2015. As an actor, what are the rewards and challenges of performing with Muppet co-stars?
My first day on set was pure joy. I walked in, and there were the iconic 123 steps and Hooper’s store, then in came the puppeteers with my childhood friends on their arm. Meeting a Muppet is the closest thing you get to magic. These characters feel so real because they are, and they have an unparalleled power to transport you straight back to childhood in an instant.

As an actor the rewards are many. Sesame Street is like a big family. Many members of the cast and crew have been there longer than I’ve been alive. Yet they welcomed me with open arms, like I’d always been there. The show has a lot of heart, and I’ve learned it’s because all the people who make it pour their whole hearts in. This makes the work extremely fulfilling. We’re all working toward the same mission — to teach as many kids as possible to grow smarter, stronger, and kinder while they have fun and get exposed to creativity — on a platform that reaches around the world. It’s amazing when you stop to think about it.

Suki Lopez with her childhood friends, now Muppet co-stars, on Sesame Street.
Suki Lopez with her childhood friends, now Muppet co-stars, on Sesame Street. Photo courtesy of Suki Lopez.

The challenges aren’t what I expected. When filming, you have a lot less space than you think. There are usually two puppeteers to a puppet, and each puppeteer has a monitor connected to a thousand wires littered across the floor. So, you basically can’t move, even though we often dance and sing. You only get to rehearse a scene once — if you’re lucky — then you shoot it.

Things can change on a dime. On my first day, I was fully memorized and ready to film when I got handed a stack of hot papers. The script had changed. You just roll with it. I see it as part of the job to be flexible and adjust to the circumstances. You can’t be a diva. There’s not enough time to deal with that. We would never wrap on time.

As Maria, Sonia Manzano was a role model for Sesame Street viewers for 44 years. What does it mean to you to know that, as Nina, you are now serving as a role model for a new generation of young people?
It’s a huge honor and privilege. Maria was one of the first positive portrayals of a Latinx character on TV. Sonia paved the way for us, and I can only hope to continue representing my community of women and Latinas in a positive light, pushing past stereotypes and preconceived ideas with the help of the writers and producers. I don’t take this opportunity lightly. As actors, we can make a real difference with our choices about how to play a character.

What advice would you give Thespians who are interested in pursuing a career like yours?
Nurture all your skills and interests. Success finds you at the intersections. Become the perfect package of things you can do better than anyone else. It’s not about that ONE thing anymore. Get really good at everything you can: acting, singing, dancing, marketing, PR, business, design, photography. You can use them ALL. In this line of work, you need to wear all the hats, and you never know what combination of hats is going to lead to your big break or be the thing that sustains you while you work toward the big break.

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