America Ferrera heads to Chicago via West End
America Ferrera found fame playing the frumpy Ugly Betty, but she's all glammed up to star in Chicago.
In the history of Hollywood, is America Ferrera the only young actress to have launched a successful career by hitching herself to the word “ugly”?
A 27-year-old Californian actress with no formal training, Ferrera made her name as the star of Ugly Betty, the hit American television comedy series which followed her frumpy character’s unlikely rise at a New York fashion magazine. It ran for four years and won her a Screen Actors Guild award, an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
Ferrera, who took her first acting jobs while reading International Relations at the University of Southern California, had already tackled the issue of body image as Ana Garcia, a Mexican-American girl rebelling against an overbearing, weight-obsessed mother in the 2002 film Real Women Have Curves. She was only 17 when she landed the role, and her performance won her the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002.
“I don’t think I meant to challenge an industry as a whole,” she says, sitting in the empty auditorium at New York’s Ambassador Theatre where she is rehearsing for her new role, as murderous showgirl Roxie Hart in the London production of Chicago. “I didn’t see any fear in playing Betty.”
Every day, Ferrera would sit in the make-up chair for several hours to be made “ugly”: bushy eyebrows, train-track braces, greasy hair and unflattering clothing became her uniform.
“I loved every minute of being her,” she says. “It would be impossible to be a woman in Western culture and not have your own issues about your image and what you look like. That was there for me before I played Betty and it’s still there after. But I got to throw that all away when I stepped into her skin, and just revel in the beauty of who she was as a person.”
Adapted for the American market by Salma Hayek from a Colombian telenovela, the show drew at its peak 14?million viewers a week. Its cultural impact for the Latin American community was so great that Congresswoman Hilda Solis took to the floor of the US House of Representatives in 2007 and said: “Through her work, Ms Ferrera is breaking down barriers for Latinas in prime-time television.”
Ferrera, whose parents immigrated from Honduras in the Seventies, was raised alongside her five elder siblings in the San Fernando Valley, a predominantly white, Jewish neighbourhood.
When she was 10, her school put on a production of Oliver! Ferrera auditioned for the role of the Artful Dodger – and got it. “The boys were really upset that I had taken the best role,” she says. “That was my first time singing. I just got up there and did it because it was so much fun.”
Growing up in California, her only exposure to theatre was through those school productions, she says. She didn’t see her first professional stage production until she went to New York to film the final scene of Real Women Have Curves, and spent every minute of her spare time queuing in Times Square to get discounted tickets to Broadway shows.
“I just wanted to see every single musical I could,” she says. “The very first one I saw was Beauty and the Beast, the only one I could get tickets for, and then Les Misérables and then Chicago.”
The minute she clapped eyes on Roxie Hart, she was smitten. “Roxie lives in her feelings,” she says. “I call her an emotional ninja – she is completely in touch with her gut and not with the brain, and that’s fun sometimes. It’s that that informs her sexiness.”
In preparation for playing the role of Roxie for the next two months, Ferrera has been rehearsing for four weeks, six hours a day, six days a week. It’ll be her first theatre role since an off-Broadway production of Dog Sees God six years ago.
“I am trying to be guided by my passion,” she says of her decision to step out on to the London stage. “I could have easily been too afraid to say 'yes’ to Chicago, because it requires so much I haven’t done before. If I am a flop at singing and dancing, maybe my love for it will carry me through.”
Ferrera completed two films over the summer – End of Watch with Jake Gyllenhaal and Anna Kendrick, and It’s a Disaster with Julia Stiles. There was also a guest spot on the critically lauded The Good Wife series, opposite Alan Cumming and Julianna Margulies. Next spring, she makes her Broadway debut in The Miss Fire Cracker Contest.
Far from being narrowed by her role choices so far, she has decided “not to run from things that feel like typecasting”. For her role in The Good Wife, she played a Hispanic illegal immigrant and the love interest for Alan Cumming’s character.
“It’s easy to think, 'well, of course they thought of me for that, because the character is Hispanic’. But there was so much deliciousness in that role, and something that I could really infuse with my own experience. That was a really important lesson to not make my choices based on what it should look like from the outside.”
Latina, curvy or “ugly”, none of it matters. “I don’t even worry about why I got the part. Even if at first someone says, 'Oh, we are looking for a Latina and she’s a Latina so stick her in there’. That may be what they asked for, but what they get is all of me.”
America Ferrera is appearing in Chicago at the Garrick Theatre, London WC2 (0044 20 7492 1552), from Monday