America Ferrera recently stepped out in a T-shirt that reads ‘Phenomenal Woman.’ It’s a slogan in support of a feminist group, adapted from the Maya Angelou poem. But Ferrera could just as easily be stating a fact: She’s the first Latina to win an outstanding lead actress Emmy, for the comedy ‘Ugly Betty’ in 2007.
She addressed both the 2016 Democratic National Convention and the Women’s March on Washington in 2017. Then, after sharing her own #MeToo experience, she helped found Time’s Up last year.
Onscreen, Ferrera’s characters are pretty phenomenal, too, like Astrid, the Viking warrior in ‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,’ now in theatres, and Amy, the floor supervisor, in ‘Superstore’. But for all their Hollywood pluck, they still don’t shine quite as brightly — or cram as much into their days — as the actress playing them.
Of course, they’re not trying to save the nation.
These days Ferrera, who already produces ‘Superstore,’ is turning ‘Gente-fied,’ a web dramedy about gentrification in East Los Angeles, into a Netflix series.
She’s raising Sebastian, her nine-month-old son — now in the “army crawling” stage — with her husband, actor and director Ryan Piers Williams. And she’s not only imagining the kind of society she wants him to grow up in but also helping to shape it through organizations like Harness, a nonprofit that the couple founded with Wilmer Valderrama to power political change through conversation. In a phone interview from the back seat of a car, Ferrera, 34, spoke about her artistry and her activism.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: So, has your son dabbled in ‘Dragon’ already?
A: He’s way too young. But when I started I didn’t have any nieces or nephews and couldn’t bribe people to come to the premiere with me. And now in this last premiere I had 12 nieces and nephews and godchildren by my side on the carpet. And it was so wonderful to get to be a part of something that all these young’uns in my life are obsessed with — and gives me a lot of cachet as an aunt.
Q: Between the three ‘Dragon’ movies and the TV show, you’ve been voicing Astrid for a decade. Is it an emotional farewell?
A: It’s so bittersweet. I am such a huge fan so it’s super exciting to see this beautiful story find such a satisfying end with a lot of integrity. And I am of course sad to really say goodbye to Astrid and to everyone who’s been involved in the project. But I’m confident that it will have a legacy and live on for a long time.
And it’s been such a joy to be a part of this onscreen romantic relationship that feels very positive: Two people being active and supportive of one another, and neither one being less important than the other in their journey.
Q: Amy just had a baby and is now on the management track in ‘Superstore,’ and you’re now experiencing your own working-mother situation.
A: Coming back to work part time as a breast-feeding new mother was a real challenge, even with all my privileges. And it’s true that the larger culture expects that women compartmentalise the different roles they play. I didn’t realise how many pressures I had internalised about what I expected from myself — to be strong and tough and able to do it all — until I got back out there and wondered why am I not 100 per cent 10 weeks after I gave birth to my child.
Q: Those challenges that Amy and her co-workers face are hilarious onscreen and yet painfully real for a large segment of Americans.
A: The issues that we talk about on the show are timeless and completely relevant to what it means to be working-class in America. One of my favourite episodes has been the maternity-leave episode where Amy has to come back to work 48 hours after giving birth, which sounds like a ridiculous sitcom setup. And yet when the episode aired, I heard from so many women about how that was a reality for them. And the timeliness of certain themes and issues surprises even us. We did a Halloween episode where we talked about the political correctness of everybody’s costumes at work, and we ended up airing the same week as the conversation around blackface as a costume was in the news. People imagined that we somehow planned that, and we did — but it was months before that issue arose.
Q: You’ve said it’s important for people to see themselves on TV. Why?
A: Our writers aren’t sort of pulling issues from the headlines. They are mostly driven by the characters in the show. And this is where the real necessity for diversity is exemplified. It’s so that the storytelling is rich and compelling and relevant to today because that is what our world actually looks like. That is what our culture should be reflective of — all the different points of view and real-life experiences that one has as an American.
Q: Telemundo has just debuted ‘Betty en NY,’ another version of the ‘Ugly Betty’ story. Do we need one more?
A: You know, it’s such a timeless story and character. The idea of an underdog succeeding in a world not built for them is surprisingly a story that actually doesn’t break through often enough. We can tell the FBI agent story countless times. Why not have several versions of Betty in the world?
Q: What about the fact that they took ‘Ugly’ out of the title?
A: I think it’s wonderful. It’s smart to be as relevant to the time that you’re trying to reflect. ‘Ugly Betty’ came out in 2006, and it’s fabulous that they have found an incarnation that they feel speaks to the conversation that we should be having now. I never thought of Betty as ugly, physically or otherwise. For me it was always about the label that was put on her externally and how she transcended it.
Q: You’re an executive producer of ‘Gente-fied,’ created by Linda Yvette Chavez and Marvin Bryan Lemus, and coming to Netflix. Why have you put your stamp on this?
A: It’s always been my guiding force to support and uplift young Latino creative voices, so that is a dream come true for me. But what I really responded to in this story — aside from it just being funny and told in a voice that I recognise deeply in my own life but have never seen on television before — is that physical manifestation of gentrification is an internal experience that I as a first-generation American have felt on the inside for so long. This push and pull of where I come from, what of the past needs to remain but what also needs to grow.
Q: Before you had your son, you competed in two triathlons, which you’ve said helped silence your inner critic. Do you have another one planned?
A: It was truly transformative for body, mind and spirit — the feeling of, I set out to do something that I didn’t know I was capable of. My pregnancy and childbirth were a very similar experience, on a completely different level. I created a life and brought that life into the world, and my body is still giving life to that child, and it will never be the same. And in a way there’s freedom, because I can let it be what it is and not feel like my relationship to my body has to just be about exercising it into submission but really having an awe and respect for all of the incredible shapes and strengths and capabilities my body has. So I’m actually really in love with my body right now — even though I have significantly less muscle mass. [Laughs]
Don’t miss it!
Superstore’ streams in the UAE on OSN Play. ‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’ is now showing across the UAE.