Guest of Honor

America Ferrera Imagines Herself in the Hero Role

The "Superstore" star reflects on what drew her back to TV, what a lack of on-screen representation meant to her, and the one "Ugly Betty" question she can't stand.

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Photo Credit: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

America Ferrera is best known for starring as the homely office assistant with a heart in the ABC comedy “Ugly Betty.” That role earned her an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actor’s Guild award. She’s also starred in a number of films including “Real Women Have Curves,” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”

Now she stars in the NBC sitcom “Superstore,” in which she plays Amy Dubanowski, a young mom working at a big box store called Cloud 9. The show revolves around the misadventures of the staff. In this scene, Amy defends an offhand remark she made at a store-wide diversity training.

 

America spent four years away from TV before taking this role. When she met with Brendan, he asked what about it drew her back.

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America Ferrera: They had already begun the casting process. It was actually a little bit later in the pilot season, and I was really excited, not just by the talent of the cast but the diversity of the cast, too. I thought, they’re really making it feel unique and authentic, and it was exciting to me: the possibilities of this setting, and what one could talk about, and what one could represent in this setting. Which is the voices of everyday working class people from a lot of very different backgrounds. And so, that was what was most provocative to me about it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: This show, like, Superstore itself, has an appeal to a broad audience, and it also has to appeal to a broad audience because this is network television unlike, say, a movie or kind of, a more niche kind of cable network. I think that’s actually a noble cause — to create a program with a broad appeal in this day and age — but it can’t be easy with a broad audience in mind.

America Ferrera: Yeah, it’s not. One of the things that’s always excited me about broadcast– and, believe me, I am a cable watcher, a streaming watcher, binger. I love all kinds of television. But what I think is still a huge opportunity that lies in broadcast is to have a conversation that encompasses more people than just your choir, you know?

So, if it is about pushing the envelope, in a way, you know, one “Modern Family” on broadcast is worth, you know, 100 shows on the Logo channel. You’re not changing anybody’s mind on Logo, but you are kind of having a conversation with a bigger audience.

Ben Feldman as Jonah, and America Ferrera as Amy in a scene from "Superstore." (Photo Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC)
Ben Feldman as Jonah, and America Ferrera as Amy in a scene from “Superstore.” (Photo Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, and for those who don’t know, Logo is a cable channel aimed at the LGBT community.

America Ferrera: Exactly. And it’s kind of how I feel about everything in our culture these days, whether it’s your news coverage or the memes you watch, or the cat videos you get. There’s so much curation that we never have to really have a conversation on a bigger scale with people who disagree. But I think it’s kind of an amazing challenge, and, I think, an artistic challenge to see how do we have a conversation that appeals and includes a larger audience than just the people who already feel the way we feel?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Not all of the employees at Superstore, in the show, are working class. One of them is named Jonah, and he seems like an upper-class kid, and he’s educated. We learn why he ended up at Superstore, but it’s interesting. His approach to work kind of becomes a subplot. He’s competent in some ways, clueless in others. He approaches it sometimes with this kind of insouciance, perhaps born of the fact that he has other options.

I interview a lot of actors, and, while researching this interview, I learned that your background is much different than many of the people I speak with. You have described your beginnings as “humble.” You are one of six children raised by a single mother who cleaned rooms at a hotel. How, if at all, do you think your background has informed your approach to your work?

America Ferrera as Amy in a scene from "Superstore." (Photo Credit: Vivian Zink/NBC)
America Ferrera as Amy in a scene from “Superstore.” (Photo Credit: Vivian Zink/NBC)

America Ferrera: Well, yeah, I mean, that’s a big question. I do think that — I’ve thought about this a little bit — that kind of growing up being a huge fan and lover of film and television and never really seeing people who represented me exactly for who I was, whether that was lead female roles or women or color or Latinos that were American and not just the Mexican immigrant maids and gardeners on television.

The fact that the heroes of the stories never really looked like me or felt like me, I think, built a muscle very early on on how to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and how to have an imagination, and how to relate and how to be able to say, oh, yeah, that might be Tom Hanks, or that might be Will Smith, or that might be Julia Roberts’s character’s story, but I can put myself in those shoes and relate.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, you’d have to imagine yourself in the role of the protagonist or the hero because there wasn’t some natural connection.

America Ferrera: Yeah. So, I think that, in some ways, that kind of created an elasticity of my imagination and allowed me to kind of relate in a lot of ways to other people’s stories even if they didn’t look like me.

You know, it’s always so funny when it’s like, “Oh, boys won’t watch movies about girls.” It’s like, “Well, what do you think girls have been doing forever?” We’ve been watching movies about boys and having to imagine ourselves be the heroes, even though we never get to see ourselves as the heroes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. What do you know — an unexpected bright side to cultural bigotry.

America Ferrera: Right.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, I need to ask you our two standard questions, and the first one is: what question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

America Ferrera: I would have to say when people ask me, like, “Oh, my gosh! You’re so pretty. What did it feel like to have to play Ugly Betty?” I always am really kind of… I hate that question because I just feel like that’s — what does one have to do with the other? Like, I’m an actor, and I stepped into a character. And also, what if I was ugly?

I just feel like that’s not a question or a standard that we hold male actors to. But for a woman, somehow the bravest thing you could play is ugly. And that, to me, is really irritating. And people don’t mean it in a mean way. I think people think they’re being really nice when they say, “You’re so much prettier in person.” But to me, it’s just kind of evidence of a bunch of really ingrained standards in our culture that make me feel like it restricts my job and my creativity, you know?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Also, if you watched “Ugly Betty,” part of the message, insofar as there was one, was that appearance shouldn’t matter.

America Ferrera: Right.

Brendan Francis Newnam: OK. So, our second question — it’s actually a request — is: tell us something we don’t know. And this can be a fact about you that you haven’t shared in interviews before or an interesting piece of trivia.

America Ferrera: Something you don’t know. Well, I’m preparing to do my very first triathlon, which is by far the craziest physical thing I’ve ever done.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Goodness. What is your favorite part of the triathlon? Are you allowed to have a favorite part?

America Ferrera: Is it OK if I don’t have a favorite part? My favorite part is when it’s over [laughs], but I’m always so happy when I’ve done it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m glad you’re doing that so I don’t have to. You wouldn’t be a hero to run a triathlon if everyone ran them. So, you need people like me not running triathlons, too.

America Ferrera: Well, I appreciate the role you’re playing. Thank you.