It's early Friday morning, and America Ferrera is already on her second cup of coffee. Outfitted in preppy chic with a lightweight teal sweater, dark blue jeans, and flats, the 31-year-old Honduran American actress is eager to begin, but when construction noise blankets the patio of the Beverly Hills Four Seasons restaurant, Ferrera grabs her cup and looks for a quiet nook. “They probably won’t be able to find us here,” she says cheerily. Once we begin, it’s all business. Thoughtful and articulate, Ferrera is not one to serve up glib answers. “I take it very seriously when I’m deciding what I’m going to give my life to, and as I get older, time becomes more precious and valuable,” she says. “Things that I would have done as a young upstart I think twice about now because I have a family that I want to spend time with and friends who are important to me.”
Yes, this is the same actress who wore fake metal braces for four seasons on the Emmy-winning sitcom Ugly Betty and stripped down to her underwear to cool her body in her 2002 breakout film, Real Women Have Curves. She looks the same, still curvy, with long, wavy brown hair in a casual side braid and big brown eyes with minimal makeup. But this is a new Ferrera. Reflective. Determined. A woman who knows what she wants. Not only is she back on the small screen starring in NBC’s new workplace comedy, Superstore, she’s also hot off a production deal to develop shows and features with ABC Studios. More importantly, Ferrera is on a mission to give Hollywood a serious face-lift. Whether it’s producing a family drama or costarring in a sitcom, Ferrera is intent on telling diverse stories that reflect the world we actually live in.
“TV and film have progressively made this move toward the aspirational, where everyone is an FBI agent or detective or the best lawyer, and those things are great to be and fun to play,” Ferrera says. “But I feel like there is so much pathos and comedy in the everyman’s experience of the world. That’s one of the things I really loved about Superstore when I read it. This is a comedy about how the majority of the people in our country live and what it’s like to have a job that isn’t about saving the world. It’s just about getting by and surviving.”
Ferrera’s new comedy harks back to the days when regular people were portrayed in TV sitcoms like Roseanne and All in the Family (whose show runner, Norman Lear, was Ferrera’s current inspiration). In Superstore, she plays the snarky Amy, a long-suffering floor supervisor at a Costco-like store who’s in desperate need of some levity. The lighthearted humor is supplied by coworker and possible love interest Jonah, played by Mad Men’s Ben Feldman. In her Superstore uniform, Ferrera dishes out one-liners while pulling heartstrings as a woman who’s making the best of a situation many would find monotonous.
Just as fans fell in love with Betty Suarez’s awkward positivity in Ugly Betty, fans will fall in love with Amy’s tough wit, a defensive front she puts on to cover up her feelings of vulnerability. Ferrera is clearly at home in this character, which allows her to tackle uncomfortable situations with humor and heart.
“Aside from getting to laugh at work all day and entertain, doing comedy is a great way to address real issues and spark conversation,” she says. Case in point: Ferrera posted a parody video that showed her trying to name 20 white American actors in one minute, her take on Tina Fey’s clip when the 30 Rock creator and actress failed to name 20 Latino actors in 60 seconds during a Billy on the Street skit.
Ferrera’s used to taking the view of the outsider. Her parents separated when she was 8, with her father returning to Honduras, leaving Ferrera’s mother, a Hilton Hotels executive, to raise the family. Ferrera grew up in the predominantly white neighborhood of Woodland Hills, in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. She knew early on how different she was compared with other kids, even joking in an interview once that she had attended 35 bar mitzvahs before attending her first quinceañera. She also knew that she loved singing and dancing, twin passions she relentlessly pursued from early childhood. Instead of following in her siblings’ footsteps by joining band or ROTC, Ferrera signed up for drama.
“There was a part of me that wanted to do what my siblings did, but I took joy in breaking the mold,” she recalls.
Ferrera’s estranged father passed away in 2010, before she was able to mend that relationship. In 2014, for TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Ferrera traveled to his hometown of La Esperanza, Honduras, to learn more about her history. It was there that she made the discovery that her great- grandfather Gregorio Ferrera was a famous general and revolutionary who fought against a dictatorship in Honduras, foreshadowing the actress’s own strong political activism.
“There is absolutely something so personal about finding someone in my own line, who took up arms for an ideal that I relate to,” she told TLC.
Real-world history and politics exerted their influence on her decisively with the attacks of September 11, 2001, during Ferrera’s senior year in high school, contributing to her choosing to study international relations at the University of Southern California on a scholarship. “My world busted wide open,” she says.
It was during that same school year that Ferrera landed her first starring role in HBO’s Real Women Have Curves. She followed that up with a memorable role in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. In 2006, Salma Hayek recruited her for the lead in the U.S. remake of a Colombian telenovela she was producing. Ferrera and Ugly Betty became household names.
Ana Ortiz, who played Betty’s sister Hilda, remembers that Ferrera was a reassuring presence on the set, though she was only in her early 20s.
“Everybody was nervous. Mark Indelicato [Justin] was just 10, and I had to play his mother,” Ortiz says. “We were all sitting down, and America looked at us with tears in her eyes and said, ‘We look like a family.’ ”
Ortiz marveled at how her poised young castmate handled the red-carpet whirl and delivered moving speeches at award shows with grace, never compromising her dedication to the profession. “She was in every scene, worked 16-hour days, five days a week,” says Ortiz, who asked Ferrera to be her son’s godmother. “She is a constant inspiration to me.”
In 2007, Ferrera became the first Latina ever to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. With that victory, she paved the way for the networks to take notice of other Latinas, like Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin.
“I didn’t set out to be the first Latina [to win]. I just set out to find opportunity, and if that results in opening up more opportunity, great,” Ferrera says. “I do think it’s something to be celebrated, but it’s only one side of the coin. The other side of the coin? This shouldn’t be an anomaly by now. It shouldn’t be just two or three token Latinos who have made it by now.”
Ferrera is working to change that. Nine years ago, she created Take Fountain Productions to develop television and movie projects, and she has sold two shows, the comedy Plus One to ABC and the drama Social Creatures to ABC Family. She’s no newbie in the field, having already produced movies, including the 2014 indie film X/Y, a drama about the obstacles faced by people caught between Gen X and Gen Y, which was written and directed by her husband, filmmaker and actor Ryan Piers Williams. The two met at USC and were together for six years before getting hitched in 2011.
New York has been the couple’s home for close to a decade, with Ferrera enjoying the anonymity the city offers, riding the subways and avoiding the Hollywood grind of red carpets and grand openings. A perfect day for her is lounging in her pajamas, watching Netflix, ordering pizza, and snuggling with their golden retriever, Buddy [ pictured above]. She jokes about recently discovering the TV cult classic Freaks and Geeks. “If there is a show that was popular five years ago, leave it to me to find out about it now,” she says. “I mean, have you heard of Mad Men? It’s amazing.”
When not vegging out on television reruns, the couple also spends their free time with their eight nephews and nieces and godchildren. Picking apples with a 5-year-old is a great way to let go of work, she says. Is all that practice for her own future babies? Ferrera once again takes her time responding. “I don’t know,” is all she’ll say. For now, she’s focusing more on her career and standing up for her convictions.
“There was a part of me that always felt like, eventually, I will feel empowered in myself and in my body,” Ferrera says. “Being in my 30s has become about taking myself seriously and not apologizing for who I am.”
Whether she’s penning an open letter criticizing Donald Trump or continuing her work of engaging and empowering young Latinos in the political process as co-chair of Voto Latino’s Artist Coalition, Ferrera stresses that it’s a struggle not to give up on her own convictions.
“There is always a reason not to use my voice. It would be more comfortable, it would be safer to shut up,” Ferrera says. “And I know that I’m not alone in that. I’m learning to hear the voices that say no and still say, ‘I’m going to speak up anyway—my voice does matter.’ Regardless of whether you are an actor or scientist or reporter,” she stresses, “we are the only ones who get to decide what our time and energy and our talents go to.”