After four years playing an exuberant young office worker on TV comedy "Ugly Betty," actress America Ferrera is all grown up and taking a decidedly more serious turn in a movie she worked tirelessly to make.
The actress, who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of the fashion-challenged, brace-wearing Betty, is starring in independent film drama "The Dry Land," which opens in major U.S. cities on Friday and was written and directed by her fiancee Ryan Piers Williams.
"I feel like it's a new chapter in my career," Ferrera told Reuters. "This is my first role as a woman dealing with really grown up issues."
The movie has earned mostly positive early reviews and scored a 63 percent positive rating among a group of eight critics polled by movie website rottentomatoes.com.
Ferrera portrays the wife of a soldier (Ryan O'Nan) who has returned to his Texas home from the war in Iraq and is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
The soldier, named James, has very little memory of his injury, and when he returns home, dormant anxieties begin to surface that affect his relationships with his wife, mother (Melissa Leo) and best friend (Jason Ritter).
Looking to understand what happened to him, James embarks on a road trip with an army buddy (Wilmer Valderrama) to piece together the details of his tour of duty and try to put some order back into his life.
"Dry Land" proved to be a passion project for Ferrara and Williams, a first-time director who was inspired to write "Dry Land" after being "deeply affected" by an article he read about a returning soldier whose life fell apart due to PTSD.
"I realized I had a story to tell with the ultimate goal to bring about conversation and awareness to the issue" of PTSD, Williams said.
Didn't plan to star
Ferrera originally came aboard only as executive producer to help get the film made. She had collaborated with Williams five years earlier when they worked together on a short film.
The actress used her Hollywood connections to help put together the cast including long-time friend Wilmer Valderrama ("That '70s Show") and Leo, an Academy Award nominee for best actress in drama "Frozen River."
"Wilmer had done so much work with the USO and was looking for a story that was true to the thousands of soldiers he had met," said Ferrara. "And Melissa was 12 pages into the script when she called and said 'yes.'"
At first Ferrera had no plans to star in the film, instead offering the role of Sara "to some of our friends, hoping they would attach their names and help us get it made"
When that didn't happen, the actress decided to take on the challenge herself.
"As a producer, I had spoken to so many women whose husbands had come home from Iraq with PTSD," said Ferrera. "I was ready to play this part."
The film was shot last summer over the course of four weeks while Ferrera was on hiatus from "Betty."
"I had three days to (mentally switch) from Betty to Sara," recalled Ferrera. "I wrapped 'Betty' on a Saturday at 6 o'clock in the morning and was shooting in New Mexico by Tuesday.
The film screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the same month the ABC television network announced it was canceling "Betty." The series went off the air in April, and Ferrera immediately immersed herself in promoting "Dry Land" with Williams.
"As soon as I finished 'Betty,' we have not put our feet on the ground," she said. "We've traveled to so many places from Boise, Idaho to Iraq to Scotland, setting up screenings on (military) bases and in the communities."
During the hectic traveling, Williams found the time to propose to Ferrera in June. However, at the moment the pair is only focused on their joint film, something Ferrera could not be more proud of.
"It's magical to be inspired by a piece of work and realize that this was created by my partner in my life," said Ferrera. "His work, his dedication and his art inspires me to be more passionate and dedicated to my own."