America Ferrera: From Ugly Betty to dragon training

America Ferrrera won us over as the meek, perpetually put-upon ‘Ugly’ Betty – but she much prefers playing kick-ass characters and strong female roles. The star of How to Train Your Dragon 2 exchanges some star-spangled banter with Tara Brady


There are plenty of Latina superstars with gazillions of fans and unit sales, who exist completely above and beyond the Anglo- sphere. And then there’s America Ferrera. The 27-year-old became a household name as the star of Ugly Betty, a role that won her a Golden Globe, a SAG Award, an Emmy and a global fan base.

“Betty will always be with me,” says Ferrera of the part she played for some four years. “She’ll be a huge part of my life forever.”

There are internet rumours – unfounded, of course – that America Ferrera’s smile is insured for x (think of a number) million dollars. It ought to be. A sunny creature who says things like “Oh, you’re too kind” and “I’m so, so blessed”, it’s easy to forget that “being blessed” couldn’t possibly account for her success. With only a few exceptions – J-Lo, Sofía Vergara, erm . . . Spanglish superstars are few and far between.

Fererra is more exceptional still: not simply a statistical anomaly but a critical darling. Her career has inspired the kind of rave notices and wows that poor old Jenny from the Block can only dream of. Even before she donned lawnmower blade braces and let her eyebrows run free as Betty Suarez – a process she called “Bettification” - the actress had won awards for such female-oriented pictures as Real Women Have Curves, How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.

“Growing up, the characters I most often related to were male characters,” she says. “So I think I’ve always held out for the female characters who are in the driver’s seat. It’s fun to bring them to the screen.”

She also done a critic-pleasing stint on London’s West End, as Roxie Hart in Chicago, and will return to Broadway later this year in a revival of Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart.

“I don’t think anyone knew what my career would look like,” she says. “So we were all surprised by the turn of events. So very surprised.”

Ferrera is, additionally, involved with the organisation Voto Latino and has worked on Barrack Obama’s election campaigns. She routinely features as part of America’s Most Influential Hispanics compendiums.

Life and work must sometimes feel a little ambassadorial, surely?

“It’s tricky,” she says. “It’s been my own journey to figure out what I care about and what I want to stand for. But certainly people place and project their own meanings. My career is definitely something that that Latino community is proud of and claim. I think that that’s wonderful. I love being Latina. I love the fact that I’m a woman who doesn’t fit easily inside common stereotypes. I’m grateful that people latch on to that. But it’s not really something that I think about myself. I don’t wake up wondering: ‘How am I going to represent all these minorities and groups?’”

America Georgine Ferrera was born in Los Angeles in 1984, the youngest of six children born to Honduran immigrants America and Carlos. They divorced when Ferrera the Younger was seven-years-old; Carlos returned to Honduras, leaving her mother, who worked as the director of housekeeping staff for Hilton Hotels, to raise the children alone. Her daughter suspects that her mother is the reason she developed a taste for strong female role models.

“She had to be strong to run the household,” recalls Ferrera. “We got to explore unknown territory because she was so strong and inspiring.”

Did being the youngest play a part in her future career?

“It’s funny. I’ve met a lot of artists or entertainers who are youngest children. I think, if anything, there’s a little bit of having to carve out your own identity going on. Your older siblings will have done everything already. There were so many siblings and so many hobbies and interests and even personalities that were claimed before I got there. You have to spend more time figuring out who you are.”

For Ferrera, who she was meant acting, a profession she decided upon aged eight, having landed the role of the Artful Dodger in a school production of Oliver!

“I don’t think it was taken seriously at first,” recalls America. “Every eight-year-old wants to be a movie star or a veterinarian or an astronaut. And it’s hard to know which of those ambitions will stick around. As I got older and continued to express an interest, it was difficult for my mother. She would have preferred that I stayed focused on my education and got a sensible job and a sensible degree. With real stability.”

She entered the University of Southern California on a presidential scholarship and spent a semester in Northern Ireland as part of her double major in theatre and international relations. During her studies she met the Texan director Ryan Piers Williams, her future husband, when he cast her in a student play.

“We’ve practically grown up together,” she laughs.

Williams and Ferrera have been married since 2011 and have made two films together: The Dry Land, a 2010 Imagen Award-nominated drama about a soldier returning from Iraq and the upcoming X/Y, which debuted at the Tribeca festival earlier this year. Both star, she produces, he directs.

Who bosses who on that shoot?

“It’s definitely a challenge,” says Ferrera. “But it’s just as much of a challenge when we’re immersed in our own projects. You still have to carve out time to come home and be a couple. What’s nice about working together is that we’re both in the same creative process; we can dive in and stay together. Of course there are still things you have to work around. Who is going to walk the dogs? Who is going to do the dishes? But it feels right. We admire one another. Partly because of our shared passion for storytelling and film. It can be exhausting. And I wouldn’t want to do it all year round. But it’s a treat.”

Before X/Y reaches our shores, there’s a little movie called How to Train Your Dragon 2 to contend with. The sequel to the $494,878,759 grossing 2010 original, Dragon 2 has a staggered release in this part of the world (out now in ROI, but not in the UK) to chime with its unusual World Cup crossover demographics. Unlike most Dreamworks or Pixar Animations, How to Train Your Dragon’s CinemaScore weighting suggests that it’s the one animation that brings in men and grown-ups. The new instalment was, in fact, hip enough to feature at the Cannes Film Festival.

“None of us knew what to expect first time around,” says Ferrera, who voices Astrid for the fire-breathing franchise. “It was amazing to see an audience come to the movie and find it and enjoy it. And it was word of mouth really spread it. Since then we made a series for Cartoon Network called Dragon Riders of Berk. I think that really gave people more to cling on to and more reasons to love the characters. I was a huge fan of the first film. So it’s fun to come back knowing that there’s a fan base, knowing that there are people with high expectations, knowing they are waiting for it.”

She suspects they’ll be glad that they did.

“I think it really delivers. I thought it would be a huge challenge for (writer/director) Dean DeBois to live up to the original. But I think the new one is amazing. I’m a huge, huge fan.”

The dragon-riding Astrid – despite being a blonde – is typical of the kind of roles we’ve come to associate America Fererra. She can star in a girly coming-of-age picture such as Travelling Pants (for which she was nominated for Best Hissy Fit at the Teen Choice Awards). She can turn up tomboy as the skater Thunder Monkey in Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown or as Officer Orozco in David Ayers’ End of Watch. But all of her major roles share a certain kick-assedness.

“I hope so. I grew up playing baseball with the boys and dress-up with my sisters. Both are part of me. So I want to find characters that are fresh and that reflect that. And that are masters of their own fate.”

In this spirit as soon as Ugly Betty came to an end, Ferrera set up a production company and started to seek out writers and directors she could collaborate with. Ultimately, she hopes to move to the other side of the camera as a film-maker. For the moment, she’s happy with producing and developing material.

“At a certain point I do want to direct something myself. I’m aware how few women that are out there writing and directing. So I feel compelled to walk the walk and push myself into the creative process and be a part of creating stories. It’s only right that I walk the walk and do what I urge so many other young women to do. Don’t sit around and wait for others to break out.”

Last year, she finally finished the degree that had to go on hiatus when Ugly Betty came along. Most actors, I suspect, would not have bothered going back to school in the circumstances.

“But I was raised to value education above everything. And even though it was a lot of work at the end, it was easy and sort of for me to go back and finish because it was a welcome break from work and life. I had the luxury to go back and finish it.

“I do a lot of work advocating greater access to education so it very important to me personally. And my mom was so concerned when I didn’t complete my last semester. I think those concerns are a little less prominent now.”

yyy How to Train Your Dragon 2 is out now on general release

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