At the tender age of 17, Yainis Ynoa starred in her first feature, Babygirl, which celebrated its world premiere at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Directed by Macdara Vallely, Babygirl follows Lena, a precocious teenager from the Bronx, who is tired of seeing her single mother, Lucy, bounce from man to man. When Victor, a smooth talking younger man, begins to date Lucy, Lena suspects that his true sights are set on her. Seemingly trapped in an awkward and unwanted love triangle, Lena must navigate the difficult path to adulthood as she tries to protect herself and her family.

If you live in NYC, you can catch Babygirl starting this Friday, October 4, at the Quad Cinema. In the meantime, check out this vintage interview with Yainis Ynoa during which we talked to the budding starlet about her audition, getting to know her character, and the perils of filming a kissing scene on the Bronx streets. 

Tribeca: Tell us a little about Babygirl? What attracted you to the project?

Yainis Ynoa: Babygirl is about Lena, a teenager from the Bronx who is going through the transition from childhood to young adulthood. Lena lives at home with her single mom, and she has always watched her mother struggle with men. Lena knows that her mother’s latest boyfriend, Victor, is no good, so she sets up a trap to expose Victor for the scumbag that he is. Her plan backfires, and despite Lena’s best intentions, the situation blows up in her face.

I was attracted to the project because I could relate to Lena and her story. I am also a teenaged girl from the Bronx, and I have a single mother. I too have worried about someone that I did not like coming into my family’s life. Thankfully, my mother and I do have a great relationship, and we haven’t encountered the problem Lena faces in the film [laughs], but I did have some idea about how she felt.

Tribeca: This is your first movie, let alone your first lead role! Can you talk about the audition process for Babygirl and describe your reaction to getting the part of Lena?

YY: I actually found out about the audition through my cousin, Gleendilys [Inoa], who plays Daishan in the movie. I was really excited and read the script a few times, so I had a really good idea of the story and the character of Lena. When I went to the audition, I already knew I really wanted the part, so I was freaking out!

When I went into the audition room, Macdara Vallely [the director] asked me to read the scene when Lena’s mother, Lucy, kicks her out of the apartment. It’s a very emotional, and once I got into the scene, I was crying. Before I knew it, the whole thing was over, and I looked up and everyone was in tears: Macdara, his wife, and the producer Paul Miller. After a few callbacks, Paul contacted me early on a Saturday morning to tell me that I had the role. I was half asleep, and when I hung up, I went back to bed rather than tell anyone the news. [laughs]

So when my mom came in later that morning, she asked me what Paul had said. When I told her I got the part, she started jumping up and down and got so excited for me. She ran to my brother’s room, and they both came back and started jumping on my bed. Only then did I completely wake up and realize that I got the part.

Tribeca: How did director Macdara Vallely help to you understand and create the complex role of Lena? Did you have input into shaping the character?

YY: Macdara did have some rehearsals before we started filming, so that was really helpful. He also gave me the assignment of writing a biography of Lena. He asked me to take what I knew about Lena already and give my own take on her life. He allowed me to add on to the story, and I was able to give her a favorite color and discuss her long-term dreams and goals. Before I knew it, Lena and I became almost like best friends. [laughs] That definitely helped put myself in Lena’s shoes.

Since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to make people laugh and keep them entertained.

Tribeca: I really enjoyed your scenes with the other actors who are your age: Joshua Rivera (who played Xavier) and Gleendilys Inoa (who played Diashan). Were you able to draw upon your own life experiences for the scenes with them? Was the scene involving Diashan’s betrayal near the end of the film difficult to film?

YY: I first met Josh at a callback. He’s such a lovely person and a big sweetheart. Lena was interested in Xavier, Josh’s character in the movie, from the beginning. She was so shy and quiet around him. I’m exactly the same way if I am interested in a guy. So it was very easy to relate to the Lena and Xavier scenes.

Since Gleendilys and I are so close, it was actually really easy to establish the friendship between Lena and Diashan. As their relationship changes towards the end of the film, you would think that it might be difficult to act those scenes, but it was actually a lot of fun for us. When I had to yell at her during the scene, we would be laughing in between takes. I definitely have had friends who didn’t turn out to be who I thought they were, so it was easy to draw on those thoughts for the movie. Plus, that scene is huge for the character. With everything going on at home and elsewhere, Lena finally explodes.

Tribeca: You and Rose Arredondo seemed to have such a natural bond that you were very believable as mother and daughter. Can you discussion your relationship during the rehearsal period and after?

YY: We only had a few rehearsal periods together. Maybe two. Rosa is so naturally awesome. I think we actually bonded more when we got to set and were able to spend a whole day together. We sat in the dressing room and during make-up while the crew was setting up, so that’s when we really had a chance to talk and bond as ourselves. She immediately became a mother figure for me when I was on set. She was always protective of my mother and me and made sure that we were comfortable. I admire her because she has so much experience. I was able to watch how she prepared for scenes and interacted with everyone.

Tribeca: One of the most striking sequences in the film is when Victor takes Lena out on their date. She orders off the children’s menu and the fruity drink, which really shows their drastic age difference even more. She’s clearly putting on an act but can’t hide the fact that she is still a child. Can you talk about how you and Flaco Navaja approached the scene?

YY: Luckily, that scene was one of the first ones we shot together. We had met in rehearsals, but we hadn’t been in front of the camera together. That scene was actually easier for me to shoot since I didn’t really know him. Lena had to be angry with him, so it was easier for me to be mad at someone I didn’t know.

Tribeca: Do you think that Macdara planned it that way?

YY: Now that you say it, I think so. The scene where Victor kisses Lena was actually the last scene we shot. We were able to get to know each other, and Flaco met my mother. We bonded, which allowed me to become more comfortable around him. Obviously, the kissing scene was still pretty awkward for both of us [laughs]. Flaco is a really good man and he really put my mother and me at ease.

Tribeca: Was there any scene that you felt was particularly challenging in Babygirl?

YY: It would definitely be the kissing scene. I was wearing this mini-dress with heels and had make-up on and there were people around—you know, men sitting in front of stores, hanging out and playing dominos. I had to keep walking back and forth in front of everyone in my mini-dress. We did the scene a couple of times, so Flaco would have to keep running after me to plant this huge kiss on me. I got uncomfortable because they would playfully tease me and go, “Lena, Lena.” It wouldn’t have been that bad except I’m such a shy person.

Macdara allowed me to add on to the story, and I was able to give the character of Lena long-term dreams and goals. Before I knew it, Lena and I became almost like best friends.

Tribeca: Were you still in school at this point while you were filming Babygirl? Or did you film in the summer?

YY: We actually started shooting in September. It was the day after my junior year started. So I was out of school for about a month and a half. I was the only person in the cast who was still in school, and I had to have teachers on set to make up all the work. I would have to get to the set early, prepare for the scenes of that day, and then, in between takes, I’d have to do schoolwork. Then I would rush back to set when they were ready for me to shoot.

Tribeca: Have you always been interested in acting?

YY: I had taken acting at the Stella Alder studios. They have this free outreach program for inner city kids who are still in high school, and I was part of that. I had to audition to make it into the class, and I was so happy when I made it in the program. I finished the program in January, and I would love to go back, but I’m focusing my time and my attention on Babygirl.

Tribeca: So will you pursue acting in the future?

YY: Yes. I want to act for the rest of my life! I never really knew what people meant before when they said, “I have a calling,” but now I get it. Since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to make people laugh and keep them entertained. I just want to continue to get better and keep acting.

Tribeca: I’m glad to hear it! What are you looking forward to the most at Tribeca?

YY: So much! I’ve never been to a film festival before. I’m just really excited and honored to be able to have this experience. It’s been over a year and I still haven’t seen the movie. People who have seen the movie tell me it’s great, but I still want to see it for myself. I want to be there with an audience watching Babygirl and see how they react. It’s my first movie and my first lead role, and being able to participate in a Q & A afterwards is going to be so exciting. I can’t wait to see what people think!

Tribeca: Do you have any favorite actors?

YY: I love Lucille Ball. She was just so funny. I love watching episodes of I Love Lucy. Of course, I love Meryl Streep. She’s a queen. You can’t not love her! She has this amazing career and has achieved so much. I would love to be like her one day.

Tribeca: What makes Babygirl a Tribeca must-see?

YY: Babygirl is a New York movie, and there’s no better place to premiere the film than at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s such a heartfelt story that you don’t normally see in your “typical” New York movie. You feel for Lena. At least, I do. I think audiences will as well.

Babygirl opens at the Quad Cinema in NYC this Friday, October 4.