America Ferrera hesitates at the door of the studio commissary, peering inside. The cafe is invitingly cool, but dark. She retreats instead to a patio table in the bright afternoon sunshine.
Of course. Why should a young actress basking in the glow of freshman TV hit “Ugly Betty” settle for the shadows? This is her moment and Ferrera, who turned a mere 23 last month, is making the most of it.
“What’s happened with the show is everything that we hoped for,” she said. “It’s insane. I can’t explain it. I don’t know what kind of special stars or elements have to align for something to get everything it deserves.”
The same could be said for the talented Ferrera. Since her eye-catching film debut in “Real Women Have Curves” in 2002, she’s moved swiftly to award-winning TV star, novice movie producer and, as fans tells her, a role model for girls and Hispanics.
Add in her spot on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people (she was one of fewer than two-dozen artists and entertainers to make the cut) and her rise is more impressive.
It’s also reassuring in this era of instant and empty fame, as is Ferrera’s reaction to it.
Following her own path
In a recent interview, she thoughtfully discussed where she is, how she got there and where she wants to go from here. Her destination: far — and reached by following her own path. Not so different, it turns out, than fictional Betty Suarez.
Although Ferrera can still gush, charmingly, like a teenager, she’s already learned to face choices that would test a less determined, less secure actor of any age.
“I am incredibly, incredibly fortunate about the opportunities I’ve had. But at the same time, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to screw it up, too,” she said. “Sometimes the most powerful thing you can say is ‘No’ ... and not feel the need to do everything. It’s about doing what rings true to me.”
“Real Women Have Curves,” in which she played a Mexican-American teenager balancing family tradition with her dreams of education, helped set the standard.
“Early in my career I was really spoiled with a beautiful project. I got such a good start that I thought, ‘Why would I ever take a step back?’ Why would I take on something that wasn’t meaningful — to me, if nobody else — and powerful and groundbreaking?”
She found such a project in ABC’s “Ugly Betty.” Based on a Colombian telenovela that has been successfully adapted worldwide, the comedy-drama centers on a dowdy young Latina with a blazing spirit who intends to make her mark on the world.
For Ferrera’s transformation to Betty, extensive makeup and costuming are required to obscure her delicately pretty features and petite but curvy figure. Whether behind faux eyeglasses or free of them, her eyes are a dominant feature, her gaze expressive and direct.
The only time she appears guarded is when asked about rumors that she’s engaged to beau Ryan Piers Williams (“I’m not. Totally made up,” she says.)
Whatever her personal future holds, her professional one seems boundless after winning a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award for “Ugly Betty.”
Ferrera is keeping her hand in movies as well as TV, returning in the sequel to “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” due out next year, and starring in “Hacia la Oscuridad” (“Towards Darkness”), a film about Colombian kidnappings that showed at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Ferrera also was an executive producer for the drama, directed and written by Antonio Negret. It’s based on a short film Negret made with Ferrera while at the University of Southern California, where Ferrera studied international relations (she’s one semester shy of the bachelor’s degree she intends to get.)
“We’d literally beg, borrow and steal from parents and everyone we knew to do the feature ... pretending to be adults, pretending to make a movie. But it was like, ‘Wow, we’re not pretending, we’re actually making a movie,’ ” she said, laughing at the memory.
Young and talented
She shrugs off the notion that the responsibilities of being an executive producer seems daunting given her youth.
When the process of filmmaking becomes “demystified,” she said, it’s clear that those involved in it are “are just people with ideas. ... It’s nice, at a young age, to feel my ideas and opinions can be just as good as anybody else’s.
“And to be a part of a collective voice in this industry is fun, because there’s room for all of it.”
She credits timing, in part, for the career options opening up for her and other minorities in Hollywood. Ferrera was born in Los Angeles to Honduran parents and raised, along with five siblings, by her mother after her parents divorced.
She dreamed of acting since childhood and claims Bette Midler as an inspiration for her “heart and passion” as well as talent. Now Ferrera is the one who’s allowing youngsters to dream of what might be.
“I want to see how far we can take this thing about representing young women in a different light, representing Latinos in a different light, taking the (entertainment) industry back to a tool versus a weapon, and where you can still entertain but it can mean something at the same time.”
That’s what she found and values with “Ugly Betty.” She has no intention of giving it up, she said, even as her marquee value increases.
“There’s something pretty awesome about staying with a character and growing,” she said. “Just thinking about the end makes me want to cry. One day it’s going to be over. Life goes by so fast.”