From her cinema debut in Real Women Have Curves to her TV takeover as Ugly Betty, America Ferrera has built a career on playing the most relatable female characters in pop culture today. Here, she talks with her close friend and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants costar, Amber Tamblyn.
When was the moment that you felt like you knew you were going to do something big, regardless of how people treated you?
I think the first time I felt that moment was when I was seven years old. [laughs] Oh, my God. When I auditioned for Romeo and Juliet at the junior high, I tagged along with my sisters, and I watched what these people were doing, and I was like, “I can do this.” I got up and did it, and I got cast in the play as the apothecary. I showed up every day for rehearsal, and I couldn’t wait for the performances. I knew that I had found something that was work but that made me feel in the right place. I’m constantly trying to get back to the kind of self-confidence you just described. That feeling of “I’m going to do big things” that I felt when I was seven and didn’t know the obstacles. Those moments come and go now. One day I’ll wake up and say, “I’m going places, I’m doing big things, I’m really excited about what I’m going to accomplish in my career and my life.” And other days I’m like, “Can I just go live in a hole in Manhattan, watch movies, and eat my way through life?”
And, yes, when I heard about Ugly Betty—before I was even cast in the role—when Salma [Hayek] came to me and said, “I want you to do this,” I just had an intuition that this was going to be a powerful show. This show was going to really connect to an audience, and I am the right person to do this. So something like that just felt so right. I guess the moment that I really thought, “Holy shit, I can’t believe this is happening,” though, was the first time I ever saw myself on screen. It was in the movie Real Women Have Curves . I was 17 years old when I shot that, and I saw it at the Sundance Film Festival in a room of 500 people. I didn’t even know what the hell Sundance was. The producers called and said, “We’re going to Sundance.” And I’m like, “Well…can I bring my mom?” And they were like, “You can bring whomever you want!” Then the lights came up and the movie got a standing ovation. I just couldn’t believe that I was a part of something that gained such a reaction. That’s a moment where I felt, “Oh, my God, Sundance today, Academy Awards tomorrow!”
Was there ever a specific obstacle when you realized, “I’m going to be facing this kind of shit for the rest of my life, and I just have to buck through it”?
Yeah, I’ve had those moments. One of them I remember, I was a senior in high school. I had just done Real Women Have Curves, and I thought, like you said, “I’m on top of the world. I can do whatever. Uggs gave me boots for free! This shit is on. I’m here to conquer.” And there story set in Texas about this family, and they weren’t sure who they were going to cast as the male role, so they were holding off on the female role, depending on if the male role was Latino or not. They didn’t want to put two Latinos in the same movie, because then it would be “a Latino movie.” So in my delusionary state, I thought if I dyed my hair blond, I could show them that I could play anything. It was obviously very sarcastic: Is it really the color of my hair or the color of my skin that’s going to stop you from giving me this role that I could be really good at? So I stripped my hair. I looked fucking crazy. I only took one Polaroid and I burned it.
You wore whiteface…
I did! I’m not even kidding! I had such resentment. And that was one of those mo- ments where I just thought, Wow. I didn’t even get the chance to fail at that part because of the color of my skin. If I didn’t get it because I gave a bad audition, then maybe my talents aren’t up to par. That I can work on. That I can change. That I can get better at. But how do I get better at be- ing a blond white girl? I can’t, because it’s not who I am. It was just so isolating.
Photos by Michael Lavine