EXCLUSIVE: America Ferrera Discusses 'Cesar Chavez', Strong Women, and Human Rights

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Audiences will have a chance to experience the increidble story of civil rights activist Cesar Chavez thanks to an important new biographical film, Cesar Chavez. The Diego Luna directed flick boasts an all-star cast of Latino talent, including Michael Peña, Rosario Dawson, and America Ferrera.

We chatted with Ferrera about her role as Helen Chavez, the wife of Cesar Chavez, a mother to eight children, and an integral part of the United Farm Workers movement. Ferrera, 29, chatted with us about the difficulties of portraying such a dynamic, nuanced character, the importance of promoting Cesar Chavez's legacy, and more.

Read our entire interview below:  

Why did you want to get involved with Cesar Chavez? 

Well, funnily enough, the first time I heard this film was happening, I was at the Cesar Chavez Legacy Awards in Arizona -- I think in early 2011. They were awarding me the Legacy Award, which was such an honor. I was sitting next to Paul Chavez, and Paul leaned over and said, "You know, Diego [Luna] is going to make a movie about my dad." And I was like, "Oh my Gosh, are you serious?" And I think I emailed my agent right then and said, "There's a movie happening about Cesar Chavez, and I want to be a part of it!"

I think that was in the early, early days, because it wasn't until amost another whole year that I heard from Diego. It was interesting, because the female character that pops into your head when you think about Chavez and the movement is Dolores Huerta, and, when Diego first called me, it was about the role of Helen [Chavez]. He began to tell me about this woman that I had known so little about -- and that I was ashamed to have known so little about. She's not necessarily in the history books in the same way that she was present and a part of the movement. So, that was a really exciting time because the more I learned about her involvement in everything -- as his partner in the movement, in the union, in running the credit union, and the sacrifices that she made to support her family and raise her eight children...

The film really does shed a lot of light in terms of how much she actually did!

Yeah, and that was the most amazing part: learning how this woman was behind so much of his legend, and how she was so involved in the movement.  In some ways, she sacrified very differently than the way in which he had to make sacrifices. And then I got to meet her, and spend a 3-hour lunch just talking to her. And at first she was... She doesn't talk to the press, which is why so many people don't know who she is. She's always very, very camera shy. You know, you can find a few pictures - like when he broke his fast and Bobby Kennedy is there and she's sitting next to Bobby Kennedy breaking the fast -- but you won't see a ton. It's hard to find tons of pictures of her, and also, it's hard to find any recordings of her voice. And, so that was kind of scary for me. Having gotten the chance to spend time with her as an 85-year-old woman, and trying to imagine what her essence was at 35 when she was a mother of eight children and part of this movement. 

So, I thought, "Well, this is where I take a creative leap and build this character sort of from my imagination." And then the day before we started shooting -- it was the day before! -- it was this amazing, miraculous gift that one of the researchers found a clip of her voice when she was around 35. I remember I played it, and I just started crying! It was just so wonderful to hear that she sounded like a 35-year-old, and I could hear her youth and the essence of her. Having had only what I knew of her and the time that I had spent with her in her eighties, it was so scary to me. When I got to hear her voice, it really gave me the permission to have faith in the character that I had built.

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