2023 – Elle

Kayla Webley Adler

November 30, 2023

2023 - Elle
Article taken from Elle Magazine Scans

When America Ferrera was 17 and acting in her debut film, Real Women Have Curves, she stripped down to her underwear with other jiggly women and marveled at how beautiful their bodies were—cellulite, stretch marks, and all. A defiant Ana, played by Ferrera, said to her mom: “How dare anybody try to tell me what I should look like or what I should be when there’s so much more to me than just my weight?”

Ferrera didn’t intend to be groundbreaking in that moment. She didn’t mean to challenge what audiences saw onscreen—that was just the way her body looked and she was an actor in a movie, playing a role that required more confidence than she says she actually had in real life. Like Ana, Ferrera was just a teenager with big dreams: “I didn’t set out to be a role model, or to break barriers, or to have a career about defying the norm,” Ferrera says over breakfast at Sant Ambroeus in the West Village. “I just wanted to be an actress.”

When she was starting out, Ferrera says she had no idea how to go from being the “broke-ass daughter of a single mother” of six, who’d immigrated to Los Angeles from Honduras via Miami, to building the life and career she wanted for herself: “I was just looking for any and every opportunity, and you feel grateful when you find water in the desert.”

In daring to exist onscreen—as the lone member of the foursome in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants who worried the jeans wouldn’t fit, and as the titular star of Ugly Betty, for which she would go on to become the first and only Latina to win a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series—Ferrera was praised for setting a new standard for who and what a Hollywood star could be. “What’s so insane is, you go back and look, and I had a very average-size body. And so the idea that people were looking at me and saying, ‘That’s curvy’ is crazy. Not that I care, but it’s like, that’s insane that we thought that was so groundbreaking,” she says. “I was Hollywood’s version of imperfect, which seems so ridiculous.” (“I don’t feel alone in that either,” she adds. “There are so many women who were called brave, just because they are people in bodies.”)

The roles she is landing now—as Gloria the human in Barbie, wherein she delivered a show-stealing monologue, and as a nurse trying to carve out a new future for her family in Dumb Money—allow her to push beyond the limits that others set. “What I continue to wish for my career, and women’s careers and people of color’s careers, is that we don’t have to exist inside of these boxes or these lanes—that we don’t have to be relegated to represent just the thing that the culture wants us to represent,” she says. “I want to be more of who I am as a person, and to get to make art that doesn’t fit into any of the boxes and isn’t about the dominant conversation people have wanted to have about me because I’m a woman who doesn’t fit into stereotypical Hollywood.”

Perhaps the best way she can do that is by taking control. “I grew up thinking the rest of my life would be about being good enough to be chosen,” she says. “And a big surprise of my career is that I have somehow found agency in choosing myself and doing what is inspiring to me, and needing and wanting less to be the thing that is chosen and more the person who is empowered to tell their own stories.” Up next, Ferrera will direct her first feature film, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, based on a book by Erika L. Sánchez, which follows Julia, a teenage Latina defying the expectations her family has for her. It’s a storyline reminiscent of Ana’s—a full-circle moment.

Ferrera tells me about how when playwright Josefina Lopez’s Real Women Have Curves was adapted for the screen, she had to strip away some hard truths in order to get the film made—Hollywood wasn’t ready. But Ferrera hopes it is now. “This does not feel like a movie that could have been made 22 years ago,” she says. “It’s a version of the coming-of-age story that I’ve never seen a young Latina get to inhabit. It’s deeper, more complicated, messy.” In other words, it’s a story about a young woman like Ferrera, daring to exist just as she is.

“My internal voice really knows how to rob the joy. At that stage in my life, I was struggling. I could only hear the extreme voices like, ‘You don’t really deserve this; it was all an accident; you’re a fraud and people will find that out sooner or later.’

“Please note that I’m laughing through the telling of this story so that people know I’ve come out the other side.

“Most of us have voices that tell us we don’t deserve the things that we have, and my experience is that if I don’t get those voices under control, then I miss the moment. And, unfortunately, that Emmy moment was a moment that I’ll never get back, and I missed being in the joy of it because I was gripped by a lot of doubt. And then the moment’s gone, and you’re like, ‘Well, shit. I missed it. I could’ve just had fun.’”

On her “only in Hollywood” moment
“The very first time I directed, it was a short film back in 2008. I had the best day ever, and just felt a whole new world opening up. And I happened to go to an event that night and Steven Spielberg was there, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go tell Steven Spielberg that I just directed for the first time.’ So I did, and he was so genuinely excited for me and sat there and talked to me about directing. I felt so lucky that on this first day that I’d had this experience—he was in a way blessing my crossing of that threshold.”

On the pressure to be perfect
“I’m learning to let go of the myth of perfection and the assignment that our role as women in the public eye is to never make mistakes. Early on, I thought my role was to be perfect, to be a saint, a model citizen, a model woman, a model Latina, whom everyone could be proud of. It’s a really harmful dynamic that says we’re only deserving or worthy if we are perfect in every way and if everybody is happy with us. And so I feel now the work is giving myself the permission to be more of who I am, whether people like that or not.”

On working with and becoming friends with other women in the industry
“The MO used to be to just operate in your silo, and you were lucky enough to have one or two good friends in the industry. [But after #MeToo and Time’s Up], I have felt a huge shift, as a woman in this industry, in the openness from other women to reach out and be in it together, which I think has been really, really transformative.

“As a Latina in Hollywood, I always felt like the only one of my kind in the room. I was the only one in the cast, or the only female Latina producer on any given thing I was doing, and I felt further isolated and on my own. And those were barriers that we just had to decide to start breaking down.

“At a certain point, Gina Rodriguez and I had lunch, and I thought, ‘Why don’t we do this more?’ I think part of coming up in this industry is you’re taught that everyone’s your competition, and that there’s so little for the taking, and you are in competition with everyone for those crumbs. One good role came up every five years, and everyone was up for it. And it was like, ‘Why are we over here fighting over stuff that’s not even good?’ What if we came together and made stuff we loved and got to work with each other?’”

On creative freedom
“Is it really empowerment to just continue to step into these roles that are created by other people’s preferences of who we are, and what we look like, and what roles we’re allowed to inhabit? Real creative empowerment is saying, ‘I’m going to make a movie that doesn’t have a damn Latina in it. I’m going to make a movie about rocks.’

“If I’m creatively empowered as an artist, then I have the freedom to decide I’m going to make the movie about rocks, or about birds, or about a space that has nothing to do with my experience as a Latina. Not that there’s anything wrong with those stories—I’ve told those and I will continue to tell those—but freedom is being able to follow your artistic impulses that are not bound by whatever labels we’ve been attached to our whole lives.”

On progress in Hollywood
“I always have to remind myself that my career is an anomaly. I have had an incredible amount of fortune, and I have so much gratitude, but I know this does not mean, ‘America did it, so anyone can.’ It’s still an anomaly. I am not a symbol of things changing in this industry; I’m an exception. And I do think some things have changed, but I really regret being used as proof that everything’s okay, because it really isn’t. And yet, I can still appreciate the progress. I love that the new Latina stereotype is ‘unhappy goth.’ I’m like, ‘Hell yeah!’ I was never allowed to be that.”

Script developed by Never Enough Design