2023 – Harper’s BAZAAR (UK Edition)
July 21, 2023
America Ferrera is in athlete mode. Her long brown hair is scraped back, she’s in a loose black sweater and leggings, and draws on all her stamina to stay awake. “It’s a marathon,” she concedes with a voice husky from the effort. Ferrera has just touched down in Australia to promote Barbie, one of the most-hyped releases in cinematic history, on her biggest-ever global tour, and has dialled into Zoom to meet me. “It’s Barbie 24/7, which is a fun world to be in. I want to see all my friends, I want to have cocktails all night, but I’m trying to use every trick in the book – masks and peels, what I eat, working out, sleep – to stay well and nourish myself on every level.”
Indeed, Ferrera has never held herself back. When she was in kindergarten, she told her mother she was going to become an actress and a human rights lawyer. “I was five years old!” Ferrera says with incredulity. “I don’t even know how I knew the words ‘human rights lawyer’! But I’ve always been pulled towards speaking up.” And even after Ferrera was propelled to global fame as Ugly Betty’s titular fashion antiheroine, that need to fight for others lay deeply rooted within her.
She studied international relations as well as dramatic arts at the University of Southern California on a presidential scholarship, and would finish her term papers on the film set of Real Women Have Curves (in a role for which she won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance). Her first major television appearance was in Ugly Betty, which hit the mainstream and helped bring a much-needed visibility to Latin Americans, while challenging the conventions of female storytelling in Hollywood. In 2007, she was named among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world after winning what’s known as the “triple crown” of Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG awards.
The following year, she committed to public political engagement, at first campaigning for Hillary Clinton’s Democratic nomination, and then co-founding Poderistas, with powerhouses including Eva Longoria, as an organisation that originated as a digital lifestyle platform to encourage voting within the Latina community. “I didn’t want to shed a part of myself that felt so ingrained,” she says. “I was able to get close to issues like voter suppression and environmental racism. When my creative life and acting career began to dovetail with my deep desire to be engaged in the world, that’s when things started to feel of my own making.”
That sense of purpose and autonomy gave rise to a confidence to revisit distressing parts of her own life. During the increasing momentum of MeToo, Ferrera felt ready to share an event that she had so far kept secret, revealing in a stirring Instagram post that she had been sexually assaulted by a man familiar to her when she was nine. “I was so moved by the women who were speaking out, realising how much courage they had. [Telling my story] felt like an act of solidarity,” she says.
The Ferrera I see before me is one we are unaccustomed to on screen, where her characters are energised, fast-talking. She takes her time, and is thoughtful, pausing before committing to her words. “It felt as though women I knew and women I didn’t were sticking their necks out in a moment that was historic. I wanted to stand with them and my friends.”
What she didn’t expect was the force of criticism that would be unearthed as a consequence. “It was the first time I had ever mentioned it,” she says with a deep breath. “I got phone calls from very close people in my life telling me that I’d done the wrong thing, making me feel really ashamed. They were not happy. It was super traumatic.
“The hardest part was experiencing just how threatening it was to people. And it was so validating of why I had never said anything about it since I was nine years old.”
Unsurprisingly, Ferrera was one of the driving forces of Time’s Up, and addressed 1.2 million people with the opening speech at the Women’s March in Washington, after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President in 2017. She went on to set up the not-for-profit organisation Harness with her husband in response to the election, as a way of amplifying marginalised voices. “Most artists are discouraged from using their voices: ‘shut up and sing, shut up and act,’ she says emphatically. “But artists, storytellers and poets have always been deeply intertwined with the social justice movement. We have our Harry Belafontes and Nina Simones, who came before.”
Being an agent of change is fulfilling work, but it is hard won. Ferrera was born 39 years ago in LA to Honduran parents. Her father left the family when she was young, and she was brought up, along with her five siblings, by her mother, who worked throughout her childhood. “I grew up a free range, latchkey kid,” she says. “We got each other to school, were sort of unsupervised. Sometimes there’s a nostalgia for it, and sometimes it feels appalling. I have so much empathy for what a mum can do within her own circumstances with certain (or a lack of) resources.”
Independence and fearlessness characterise her upbringing. Early success in lead roles led her to believe she could achieve anything: “I didn’t want to be afraid to do the things that brought me joy out of a fear of failure,” she says. “A lot of first-generation children of immigrants understand that there’s a lot on the line. Sacrifices were made. Countries were left. Third jobs were taken so we could pursue our dreams and becoming something more and something bigger. When that much is riding on your success, failure isn’t an option. So, you don’t do the things you’re not exceptional at. Getting to be mediocre is a privilege.”
Now married to Ryan Piers Williams, with whom she is a parent to two young children, Sebastian and Lucia, she is aware that her original blueprint for family life is markedly different to what she wants to create now. They live in New York City (“where finding a kindergarten for your kid feels like trying to get them into an Ivy League school!”) and, she feels that she’s learning to navigate new cultural environments.
“I’ve gone through a struggle in my life trying to figure out how much of my own cultural identity I get to claim,” says Ferrera, “and now I have to do that for my children.” So, she ensures that they are exposed to their Latino culture and heritage, and hopes that Spanish will feel like it’s their mother tongue. “I want them to be at home in a culture that I was never fully at home in as a kid.”
In the foreword to a book of essays she edited, American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures, Ferrera writes of a heart-breaking incident aged six, in which she falls in love with a boy, only for him to declare that he likes Jenna more “because she has blue eyes and lighter skin than you”. In her 2019 TED Talk My Identity is a Superpower – Not an Obstacle, Ferrera recalls the time she was rejected for a movie that wasn’t financeable until they cast the white role first. “I went through the process of feeling deep shame that I couldn’t overcome the obstacles…” she goes on to say. “But then I realised what had been said about me my whole life… that I was a person of less value. I wasn’t asking the system to change, I was asking it to let me in.” It was a turning point: from then on, she accepted these obstacles were not down to personal failure.
Ferrera returns to these ideas again and again: the confronting of expectations, the usurping of stereotype. “It’s a different experience for women who fit a very historical standard of beauty and ingenue status,” Ferrera explains. “They have an easier time accessing opportunity. It’s not without its own complications. But I discovered there was a common theme to some of these moments, where I haven’t been able to break through to even get the chance to be denied.”
It seems curious, then, that the actress, who is a champion of inclusivity, who constantly challenges beauty standards, takes top billing, alongside Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, in the shiny new, and very pink, Barbie film. “To be perfectly honest, I was never a Barbie girl,” Ferrera admits. “I didn’t play with Barbies for a number of reasons,’ she says. ‘We couldn’t afford them. And they just didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t see myself reflected in that world in a way that captured my imagination.”
Instead, she saw an opportunity: “What’s exciting about being a part of this movie about such an influential icon in our culture is getting to expand and shift the narrative to include more of us, so young girls and boys can see themselves in something so dominant.”
Ferrera’s character Gloria, a Mattel employee who is “low on the totem pole”, is central to the narrative: a woman whose imagination, fears and aspirations drive the story. The film itself is an existential jamboree, in which “stereotypical Barbie” played by Robbie (who conceived the project), leaves the utopia of Barbie Land on a quest to discover why she has developed “thoughts of death” and cellulite. The two characters meet in the real world, and (thus) an irreverent and comedic odyssey ensues.
A large part of the appeal for Ferrera was that the film was written by Greta Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach, and directed by Gerwig. “They didn’t ignore what was problematic about Barbie, or the multitude of perspectives that people have,” says Ferrera. “I read the script and I was laughing on page one, then I was crying, and then I was laughing and crying. By the time I was done, I was deeply shocked at how invested I felt. I was fully in, and really quite giddy.”
She acknowledges the divisive nature of the brand, as, she says, does the film. Gloria’s daughter Sasha (played by Ariana Greenblatt) represents the haters, and goes as far as calling Barbie a “fascist”, and accusing her of “setting feminism back 50 years”. “There have been times where Barbie has been revolutionary, and then moments when she has been so behind the times,” Ferrera says. She points out that there was no kitchen in the Barbie Dreamhouse, thus freeing the doll from domesticity. “But we also look back and see the exclusion of so many of us – how long it took for her to have a Black friend, and then she had another ethnically ambiguous sort of brown friend. There were very inelegant times of change and growth.”
What fascinates Ferrera is what Barbie says about society. The opening of the film presents Barbie Land as an idealised world, but one that allows no room for womanhood in all its messiness and complications. The adventure that follows is an exploration of that tension. “A lot of people have very strong feelings about Barbie, as if she is something apart from us,” says Ferrera. “But people gave Barbie meaning. It’s only natural that our feelings towards her shift as we shift, as we change, and culture changes.”
So, when Gloria vents her frustration about the female condition in a powerful mid-film monologue, it feels like the bursting of a dam. “It’s so hard to be a woman!” Gloria exclaims. “We’re always doing it wrong.” There are echoes of Laura Dern’s tirade on the image of the “perfect mother” in Baumbach’s Marriage Story, a performance that garnered the actress an Oscar. “Greta called me and said: ‘I wrote an aria for Gloria!’ When I first read it, it just hit me as truth,” Ferrera says. “That constant balancing act of expectations and contradicting roles that we try to play at all times. And it’s bubbling up in culture everywhere – this speaking out on the impossibility of the assignment of being a modern-day woman.
“It was almost too easy to connect to for me; that truth about womanhood, to deliver something so well-written and resonant. As an actor, it was a gift.”
But more importantly, did Gerwig succeed in her original vision, for the film “to be something that is both able to come from the adult part of your brain and also remember what it was like to be a little girl just looking at a beautiful Barbie”
Ferrera is unequivocal: “100 per cent! The adult elements truly pulled me in, that exploration of womanhood, real or imagined. But the sets evoked such unexpected, childlike awe and nostalgia. It was such an invitation to play!”
And with that, Ferrera is soon to bed, so that she can get ready to play another day.
‘Barbie’ is out in cinemas now.
This shoot and interview took place prior to the SAG-AFTRA actor’s strike.