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America Ferrera nearly quit acting to be an activist — now she does both




Activist and actress America Ferrera is the star and a producer of the NBC comedy
Activist and actress America Ferrera is the star and a producer of the NBC comedy "Superstore" and is a correspondent on the EPIX docuseries "America Divided"
photo credit: Adam Franzino

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America Ferrera is best known for her roles in shows like "Ugly Betty" and "Superstore." But at one point she almost quit acting to pursue a career as an activist.

I went to college to study international relations and I had a professor who meant a lot to me who I confided in and said, I feel like I should stop acting and do something meaningful — go off and become a lawyer or something to do with trying to fix the world.

Luckily, Ferrera's professor argued that her work as an actress could have real impact too, and now she's using her success to shine light on immigration — a deeply personal issue for her as a first-generation Honduran-American. This fall, she makes her debut as a "celebrity correspondent" focusing on immigration issues in the Epix cable channel's documentary series, "America Divided." 

The Frame's John Horn spoke with Ferrara on the set of "Superstore," the NBC comedy that she produces and stars in.

To hear the full conversation, click the play button at the top of the page. 

​On acting alongside Lupe Ontiveros in 'Real Women Have Curves':

Her talent was so untapped and underserved and underutilized in her career. She [turned] the housekeeper role in "The Goonies" into one of the most memorable moments in that film. That's all fun and great, but she never got to really express the capacity of her talent, and that's a shame. And that's sad to me because I would have loved growing up to see a woman like Lupe take on incredible roles and create those representations. Working with her early on absolutely made me feel like, Gosh, I'm so lucky to be alive in this time. You know, 15 years ago — where I happened to be in the right place at the right time to play Anna in "Real Women Have Curves" or Betty Suarez in "Ugly Betty" — I realized how fortunate I am and who had to come before me and play 200 maids so that I could step in and play "Ugly Betty" on broadcast television. I do think that there is so much work that needs to be done. 

Actress America Ferrera speaks at the 2016 Women in the World Summit in New York City.
Actress America Ferrera speaks at the 2016 Women in the World Summit in New York City.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

The diverse casting of 'Superstore':

It started with the writing. Justin Spitzer, our creator, wrote these characters and didn't specify ethnicity at all, which I think is even more radical in television. To not say, This is the black character, this is the Asian character, this is the Latino character. One of the things that really struck me when I first read the pilot was, They're coming to me for this role and she's not even specified Latina. This was the very first time that I'd been offered a role in television that wasn't specified as a Latina.

On being cast in Latina-specific roles:

Things become normalized when you've read so many scripts where the only roles you're asked to play are the ones that are specified to the color of your skin. You come to expect it and that's the danger of it. I never thought of myself as a Latino actor. I never really even thought of myself as Latino. I grew up a valley girl in the San Fernando Valley, going to 25 bar- and bat mitzvahs, and I'd never been to a single quinceañera my whole childhood. So I never thought of myself as inside of that tiny, teeny box. It wasn't until I started auditioning that I started to realize that, Oh wow. People really take note of that. People really see my Latino-ness.

On the diverse stories in 'Superstore':

The beauty is ... our characters come from all different walks of life. A character like Glenn [played by Mark McKinney] — a very religious, conservative man who you really come to like — you can see things from his perspective in a different way. It can be funny and we can know that there's truth in it at the same time. What we're going for is sort of the throwback to the Norman Lear comedies where you could talk about what was happening in the world. And it could be funny and sad at the same time and we could acknowledge the pathos that exists inside of the show.

Actress America Ferrera talks to students at Rancho High School as she partners with Voto Latino to discuss the importance of young voters, including Latinos, participating in the civic process.
Actress America Ferrera talks to students at Rancho High School as she partners with Voto Latino to discuss the importance of young voters, including Latinos, participating in the civic process.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Activism through art:

I think it's the artist's role to reflect the world we live in — to represent people and stories and voices ... it is the role of the artist to push culture and society forward. to push us towards progress, and not just merely reflect what we see in some sort of neutral way — if neutral is even possible in this day and age. But to really invite progress, and to be bold and radical enough to imagine progress. And to present what that world might look like. What an America united might mean. 

"Superstore" airs Thursday nights on NBC; America Ferrera’s  episodes of  "America Divided" air on EPIX Friday October 14 and Friday, October 21 at 9pm ET/PT, 8c.

 



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