Leilany Figueroa ’19 Is Making A Mark in Television and Film

If you are learning Spanish and happen to watch one of those conversational CDs accompanying the textbook, keep a lookout for a 13-year-old Leilany Figueroa ’19. That was her first professional acting job and ticket to her membership in the Screen Actors Guild  (SAG).

Since then, she has graduated from Oak Knoll, attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and has recently appeared in a recurring role on Law and Order: SVU. In addition, she has appeared alongside Queen Latifah on The Equalizer and in an episode of FBI on CBS. Her star is definitely on the rise. Today, she is known professionally as Leilany Celeste.

Her acting gifts were already on display in the performing arts program at Oak Knoll. She has fond memories of Dramatica — Oak Knoll’s acclaimed after-school drama program — but her fondest memory occurred off stage.

“I vividly remember during college acceptance season, I got my email during a Dramatica practice,” Figueroa shared. “I opened it up in my five-minute break and saw that it said, ‘Congratulations. You’ve been admitted to New York University’s drama program. I remember dropping the laptop and running in during someone else’s scene rehearsal; I screamed, ‘I got into Tisch,’ and everybody stopped and hugged me. That is one of my best memories.”

Figueroa caught the acting bug at eight, but the road to her current television success took work. “I always said I never felt present inside my body,” she explained. “I always felt so stiff, and it led to not a lot of success when it came to auditions in high school. I never really did well. Part of it is you’re growing, and your confidence will always be back and forth.”

She believes persistence, a strong work ethic, the support she received from her parents, the safe single-sex environment at Oak Knoll, and her faith all contributed to building her confidence and perseverance in the field. While attending Oak Knoll, she also enrolled in the New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts, where she found her first agent. There were many big auditions and an equal amount of disappointment. There were parts she didn’t get with Nickelodeon, HBO, and Disney. However, she never gave up.

“Over time, I learned the skills that helped me figure myself out,” Figueroa related. I have noticed that your self-worth cannot be linked to this career. That was a very hard lesson that I was trying to figure out as I was growing up, even in college and beyond. My worth does not correlate to my success in this field, and I really believe that once I got those separated, I started to flourish and started having a lot of success, but it is very challenging.”

Finding that mental balance in the fast-paced, competitive, and often disappointing world of film and television is tough. Figueroa credits Oak Knoll’s values and her faith-based upbringing with providing her the tools to push forward.

“It’s such a critical time, between 13 and 17, to figure out your relationship with God,” she explained. “I think the consistency and the environment of collaboration and learning at Oak Knoll did that for me. I don’t feel like I need to push or rush anything because I feel like I have a best friend in God. I think there’s a process of letting go and trusting that you are enough, that things will work out.”

At one point, in contemplating the hard road to success in film and television, Figueroa left it to prayer. “I did prayers and surrendered it to God, and I said, if you want me to pursue this, I trust you will guide me in that sense. If it’s not, then I will let it go. It was a very hard prayer to have. I had that prayer one night, and then I found out the next day I booked Law and Order.”