Courtesy NBC
John Russo
John Russo
Fill 1
Fill 1
June 24, 2016

A Matter of Voice

After Ugly Betty, America Ferrera's next TV project had to speak to her in a meaningful way. That show turned out to be NBC's Superstore, a working-class comedy with heart — and equal-opportunity casting.

Graham Flashner

America Ferrera slides into a booth at the Terrace Cafe inside the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood.

She's in stylish business attire — black blazer, cobalt-blue dress, black heels — and she's hungry, having just come from an industry luncheon where she was so in demand, she didn't have a moment to eat. Not that she's complaining.

After a five-year hiatus from television, Ferrera is starring in and producing the NBC workplace comedy Superstore, a mid-season show that has been picked up for a second season.

Back in 2006, Ferrera captivated viewers as the beloved star of ABC's Ugly Betty. When the show ended in 2010, she wasn't sure what would be next. Offers flooded her way, but nothing clicked.

The actress had plenty to do in the meantime: she returned to USC to complete her degree in international relations, got married (to writer-producer Ryan Piers Williams, whom she met in college), campaigned for President Obama, guested on series like The Good Wife and Inside Amy Schumer, played Roxie Hart in a West End production of Chicago and began producing independent films including X/Y, written and directed by Williams.

"Television was something I knew I would want to go back to," Ferrera says. "Ugly Betty set such a personal standard for what I wanted that experience to be like. I didn't have a clear expectation of what the show would be, what would make me want to do TV again. I certainly didn't think it would be a half-hour network comedy. But I was open to being moved by anything."

Ferrera is not your garden-variety comedy star. As a political activist, she's working to register Latino voters for the November election, and last summer she wrote a scathing letter to Donald Trump about his views on Mexico.

The enormous success of Ugly Betty, and the accolades that followed, made her a Latina role model — and she takes that role seriously.

"Knowing that I have the opportunity to represent so many people who don't feel seen gives the work a different meaning," she says. So when her name came up for Superstore, creator-executive producer Justin Spitzer (The Office) tempered his expectations.

"I assumed she wouldn't want to do it," he recalls. "She says no to everything. [I thought] she's not going to say yes to some network sitcom."

But the show's portrayal of the daily lives of working-class Americans won her over. "I like my comedies to have a little heart, not be too cynical," Ferrera says. "It felt like the show was a metaphor for America in terms of [working for] the Man and being a cog in a wheel. The comedy of being a frustrated human being in that system felt very relevant to me."

Ferrera plays Amy Dubanowski, a long-suffering floor supervisor at Cloud 9, a colorful Walmart-esque mega-store.

The staff is an endearing, multi-ethnic group of oddballs, including the sardonic Garrett (Colton Dunn), a wheelchair-using African American, and Mateo (Nico Santos), a gay Filipino immigrant. Also on hand are pregnant 17-year-old Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), aggressively rules-bound assistant manager Dina (Lauren Ash) and socially inept, ultra-religious store manager Glenn (Mark McKinney).

"It's a group of people from different backgrounds who are forced to be together," Spitzer says. "This environment felt like one I hadn't seen on TV before." Superstore is produced by Universal Television and The District. Spitzer, Ruben Fleischer, David Bernad, Gabe Miller and Jonathan Green are executive producers.

Ferrera is gratified that Superstore is the third high-profile NBC show to feature Latinas in starring roles, the others being Shades of Blue (Jennifer Lopez) and the recently canceled Telenovela (Eva Longoria).

She was equally impressed by the way Superstore was cast. "No ethnicities had been written into these characters," she explains. "They were casting non-white actors in roles not specified as non-white. I thought, Wow — they're casting in a way that's reflective of the world."

If one asset defines Ferrera's best work, it's her ability to reflect the actual world her characters inhabit, whether as Betty Suarez or as Ana, the willful Mexican-American daughter in the HBO film Real Women Have Curves.

"She can be completely real and also be completely funny," Spitzer says. "Some comic actors are hilarious, but you don't believe what they're doing. It takes a deft touch to be able to do both."

NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke calls the actress a triple threat: "She's hilariously funny, has great physical skills, and she's packaged as an actress who's really relatable."

Recalling Jim and Pam's dynamic in The Office, Ferrera also has a potential love interest in Superstore: privileged white kid Jonah, played by the engaging Ben Feldman (Mad Men, Drop Dead).

As the sunny, irrepressible yin to Amy's weighed-down yang, Jonah brings much-needed levity to her humdrum existence.

According to the dictates of sitcom formulas, these two should wind up together. But here, a serious obstacle subverts the romance. As the first season progresses, it's revealed that Amy not only has a child, but a husband as well.

If a love connection never materializes, that's fine with Ferrera. "Amy and Jonah's relationship is about so much more than whether they end up together," she says. "It's about two people with such perceived differences in life... seeing themselves and their surroundings in a new way, because someone else is forcing them to do that."

"It was a very conscious decision to make Amy and Jonah do as slow a burn as possible," Spitzer confirms. "With Cheers, you always knew Sam and Diane would get together; same with Ross and Rachel on Friends. In Superstore, nobody knows. Even I don't know yet."

For Feldman, acting opposite Ferrera has yielded its own surprises. "She's really funny, but you don't always notice it," he says. "You'll be doing a scene with her, and nothing she's doing strikes you as out of the ordinary. [Then] you watch the scene, excited to see the incredible things you did — and you're blown away by what America was doing.

"There's a nuance and subtlety to her acting. She doesn't create a big dust storm in the room. She just tells the truth."

Ferrera was seven years old when she announced to her family that she wanted to be an actor. Born to Honduran immigrants and raised in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, she was the youngest of six children and often performed for the family. "I was married to the idea of being an entertainer before I even knew what it was," she says.

Raised by her mother after her parents' divorce, Ferrera identified as American. As a teenager, she devoured American pop culture but had the disorienting feeling that — in the entertainment world, at least — her own culture didn't exist. There were few, if any, Latina role models she could emulate on screen.

"Something deep happens psychologically when you don't feel recognized by your culture," Ferrera says. "The people I watched growing up — Tom Hanks, Bette Midler, Julia Roberts — were actors I recognized as people having an emotional experience I related to, but none of them ever looked like me.

"I think that's sharpened my ability to drop into someone else's experience. I can be the superhero, or the smart lawyer who comes from nothing and does something heroic. I didn't expect to see people who looked like me in stories; I had to learn to translate for myself."

Growing up with kids from a wide spectrum of ethnic backgrounds, Ferrera took diversity for granted. But, she notes, "I had to learn how people saw me when I entered this industry."

The industry gave her a rude welcome. At her first audition — for a commercial, at age 16 — the casting director told her she wasn't ethnic enough.

"I was genuinely confused," Ferrera recalls. "I said, 'You mean, you want me to speak in Span¬ish?' And she replied, 'No, sound more Latino.' I realized she was asking me to speak in broken English and put on an accent."

Such cultural stereotyping is sadly familiar to any working actor of color in Hollywood. It would hardly be the last time for Ferrera, but she was undeterred.

As a high-schooler in 2002, she scored a role in the Disney Channel movie Gotta Kick It Up! and that same year earned critical raves for Real Women Have Curves. She followed that up with a strong performance in the popular young-adult ensemble film The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in 2005 (and appeared in the 2008 sequel as well).

In 2006, she landed the life-altering Ugly Betty, an adaptation of a popular Colombian telenovela, Yo soy Betty, la fea (literally, "I am Betty, the ugly one"). As Betty Suarez, the hopelessly dowdy but ambitious editor's assistant at fashion magazine Mode. Ferrera wore fake braces and a wig. She became America's sweetheart playing a Latina woman who was both family oriented and career driven.

"There had never been a character like Betty on TV before — a woman of color whose primary function was not to look pretty, but to actively go against traditional beauty standards," Ferrera says.

In 2007, she won the Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series; she followed that up with wins at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards. She was also named in Time magazine's list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the World" and People's roll call of the "100 Most Beautiful People" and was honored by Congresswoman Hilda L. Solis for serving as a role model to young Latinas.

"The most exciting message I took away from the success of Ugly Betty was that regardless of their ethnicity, gender or economic class, people wanted to see that story," Ferrera says. "They related to new and exciting characters that don't follow the traditional model of what people think audiences want to see."

With Hollywood under close scrutiny after #Oscarssowhite, Ferrera believes the town is ripe for an ethnic makeover.

"We're in a more malleable time, where networks do see the benefit of reaching a more diverse audience," she says. "So these conversations don't fall on deaf ears. It's someone like Justin saying, I'm not just going to make a show by default with white actors — I'm going to look for a cast to reflect the world we actually live in."

"America's a real lean-in person," NBC's Salke observes. "She's informed, intelligent and owns her power in a way that's never off-putting."

Comedy, of course offers Ferrera a platform to bring delicate issues to light in ways that don’t threaten.

She and Spitzer devised a much-tweeted bit at this year's Golden Globes, where presenters Ferrera and Eva Longoria spoofed the way Latina actresses are often mistaken for each other. The duo assured the audience they were not Eva Mendes, Gina Rodriguez or Rosario Dawson. "Thank you, Salma," Ferrera signed off. "Thank you, Charo," Longoria replied.

In its third episode, Superstore gently satirizes racism when Amy is asked to hawk salsa out on the floor. She has little success until she relucantly agrees to wear a sombrero and fall into a spicy Latina caricature, thereby convincing a group of white customers that the brand is genuine.

Last fall, Ferrera signed an overall deal with ABC Studios and launched her own production company, Take Fountain Productions, to develop new projects for cable and broadcast. ABC has already bought a comedy titled Plus One, and ABC's revamped cable network, Freeform, has bought the drama Social Creatures, to be written by her husband.

"My drive in setting up my production company is about creating more opportunity for voices that haven't been heard," Ferrera says.

Producing also gives her the chance to pay forward favors extended in her early career. "Salma Hayek gave her name to Ugly Betty as a producer, and that's what made that project viable," she says. "She used her stature to create that opportunity for Latino writers, actors, showrunners, et cetera. The show represented so many groups of marginalized people.... I want to tell great stories and entertain and break some long-standing boundaries."

Work has become a mission of sorts for Ferrera, who confesses that she's forgotten what it's like to walk into a room representing only herself.

"It is part of my experience, and there's nothing I can do to change it, except embrace who I am," she says. "If I can create spaces for people who haven't had that opportunity, that is so much more meaningful than another acting job or another award for acting. I see it as the work — my work."

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