Many people in the Rio Grande Valley enjoy watching Conan O'Brien on his late night TV talk show, but few - if any - know what it is like to work for him or will never have a chance to touch his signature mane of red hair.
"That really drew me to his show specifically because one of my long term goals is to be a writer on Saturday Night Live," said Cruz, who previously worked part-time at a local TV station as a camera operator and associate news producer. "I figured Conan's show would be perfect to learn more about TV in every way."
During her internship Jan. 6-April 4, Cruz worked in production with 19 other interns. The show hires 38 interns per semester who can also choose to work on digital, research, costume and wardrobe and other areas during their time there.
"I liked best being on the set - stage managing and camera work. I like being on my feet in the middle of the action," Cruz said.
While her duties included menial tasks like coffee runs and filing, Cruz said the interns also served as a test audience for O'Brien during rehearsals.
"We were told it was important feedback for the writers and Conan. It was amazing just to watch them building these stories and wacky ideas. You could see as they were trying to figure a joke or skit out the wheels in their head turning," she said. "I was able to ask one of his writers about the pressures of being a writer on a late night show. He said it was like trying to come up with a hit song every single day."
Despite his star status, O'Brien was very laid back and down to earth Cruz said. On her second week there she was selected to be part of a humorous 10-minute on-air skit with four other interns titled "Conan Hangs with the Interns" in which he asked them questions about himself and how they liked working on the show. "The only thing he said was 'Don't feel any pressure to be funny or to laugh. I am just going to ask you some questions and you guys just react.' Then we just started filming," Cruz said.
After he dubbed her in the comedy bit the "glasses girl" in reference to the only intern with eyeglasses, Cruz asked him if it was true he wore a wig. That is when he told her to rake her hands through his hair to prove it was real.
Cruz said she grew up in a "perfect Petri dish" to develop a love of TV and film. Her mother and stepfather, Sarah and David Chavez, own LatinPointe, a production and promotion agency that produces the annual ALMA (American Latino Media Arts) Awards.
"They were my first mentors, teaching me everything I needed to know about TV, film, about how to deal with celebrities, different vendors, the connections that you need and how focused I need to be in order to accomplish what I want to," Cruz said.
Cruz, who remained a full-time student by taking two online courses during her internship, is intent on completing her degree by next year before heading back out to pursue her dream. She said living in Los Angeles was one of the best experiences she has ever had.
"Just picking up and moving across the country is one of the scariest things a person of my age can do. It was an unpaid internship and I didn't have any other job out there. But when you get there, you find kindred spirits who you are able to bond and connect with," said Cruz, who shared a North Hollywood apartment with four people she met after her arrival. "Since I came back, I have been encouraging more people to get out of the state, go and explore. You find out a lot more about yourself when you meet new people and have new experiences."