IT WASN'T UNTIL HER SENIOR YEAR AT New York City's fabled High School of Performing Arts that Elizabeth Peña got a hard lesson in discrimination—and typecasting. "I was never, ever taught that there was a difference between a black person, a Jewish person, an Hispanic or Oriental person," says the Cuban-American Peña. "My parents were not typical Cuban traditionalist parents. They were people in the theater, people who had traveled. All of a sudden, I couldn't play Madge in Picnic. I'm going, 'Why?' " Fellow students gave her the news. "You're not from that area," they said. Smalltown Kansas she isn't, but Peña's huge brown eyes grow even huger as she reenacts her reply: " 'But that's why we're actors!' "
Lesson 1: Acting's no picnic, especially when you're of Peña's heritage, height (5'3") and not a conventional knockout. Lesson 2: Ignore lesson 1. "The hardest part is being seen," says Peña, 31. "If I can get in and read for directors, I am usually able to persuade them."
So she has, in memorable supporting film and TV roles, including Lucy Acosta, the smart, aggressive secretary to lawyer Jack Shannon on NBC's acclaimed series Shannon's Deal. Declared TV critic Tom Shales in the Washington Post: "She's so assertive and gutsy....Maybe the show should be about her."
Stretched out in the sunny living room in her two-bedroom Mediterranean-style house in Los Angeles's ethnically diverse Silver Lake district, Peña is graceful and animated. Drawing on the first of many cigarettes, she says firmly, "I like who I am. I don't have a problem with it; I think everybody else does. That's part of their growing up."
Peña's parents, writer-director Mario and then high school teacher Margarita, named her after Elizabeth, N.J., where they had been living since 1959 while Mario studied drama at Columbia. They took 4-month-old Elizabeth back to Cuba in 1960 to rejoin their family when the revolution was still in its hopeful infancy . But after returning home, her lather was imprisoned for writing an "antisystem" poem. He talked his way out and fled to the U.S. In 1968, when she was 9, Elizabeth, her mother and sister, Tania, now 28, tried to join him but hit a roadblock. "At the last minute, the military officials wouldn't let us on the plane because our documents were in English," she says. With the help of an official who either read English or was willing to pretend he did, the Peña's made their flight—barely. "The motors were running," Elizabeth remembers.
Hers have been running ever since. Drawn to acting since childhood, Peña pursued the craft ardently, inspired and taught by her father, who founded New York City's Latin American Theater Ensemble, which he still runs with the help of Peña's mother. But when Margarita learned that her daughter had been accepted by Performing Arts, she dropped to her knees and wailed, "If you become an actress, you'll kill me." To which Peña replied, "Well, you better start arranging your funeral."
Things are fine between Peña and her parents now (she calls them "my basis of truth"), and her youthful determination has paid off handsomely since her first high-profile film role as Carmen, the Salvadoran maid in 1986's Down and Out in Beverly Hills. She has worked steadily since, playing the abused wife of Richie Valens's elder brother in 1987's La Bamba, doing supporting gigs on Cagney & Lacey and Hill Street Blues and tackling a juicy movie part last year as Tim Robbins's mysterious girlfriend in Jacob's Ladder.
Peña was far from mysterious when she met her husband, Steve Kibler, back in 1987 at a birthday party in L.A. "For me it was love at first sight," she says. "I thought, 'Ohhhh, noooo! I'm doomed!' " Kibler, 48, a movie agent turned junior high school teacher, felt the same way: He proposed on their second date. "He's intelligent," she says, "and to me that's the sexiest thing anybody can be."
For now, Peña is applying herself to finding new parts (she just completed The Waterdance, a drama with Eric Stoltz and Wesley Snipes). One role she hopes to try: motherhood. "I'd like to have two of my own and three adopted," she says. "I think it's a way of giving something back."
Like Peña, they'll be proud of where they come from. "I've never thought of [being Hispanic] as an obstacle," she says. "I think it's good. There are certainly enough five-foot-seven blonds."
NANCY MATSUMOTO in Los Angeles
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