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September 11, 2015

She Can. She Will.

As a teen, Gina Rodriguez reluctantly followed her dad’s practice of positive thinking. Now this goal-directed Everygirl — and Golden Globe winner — is very much a believer.

Shawna Malcom
  • Miranda Penn Turin
  • Miranda Penn Turin
  • Miranda Penn Turin
  • Miranda Penn Turin
  • Miranda Penn Turin

It’s early on a Sunday morning when Gina Rodriguez rolls into a warehouse in downtown L.A.

While she’s makeup-free and dressed casually in a midriff-baring shirt, ripped jeans, black sneakers and glasses, with her hair thrown up into a knot, the actress doesn’t make a beeline for her glam squad — the norm for starlets arriving at a photo shoot. Rather, she stops to introduce herself — and her father Genaro, who’s driven her in — to each person on set, from the photographer on down to the catering assistant.

“Come on,” she says, when she gets to this writer, choosing to forgo a handshake for a warm hug. “Bring it in, girl!”

Over the past year, that down-to-earth charm, along with a generous dose of talent, has helped to transform Rodriguez from little-known actress to Hollywood A-lister.

Her Everygirl appeal helps to ground the CW’s winning Jane the Virgin — no small feat, considering its high-concept, telenovela-inspired premise: chaste grad student–Miami hotel waitress Jane Villanueva, played by Rodriguez, becomes pregnant by her playboy hotel-owner boss after a mistaken artificial insemination.

“Everything filters through Jane, who reacts to [developments] as the audience would, like, ‘That’s crazy!’” says executive producer–showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman. “Making the unique tone of the show work really does all come back to Gina. If she didn’t hold down the center, the show would be a mess, and we wouldn’t be able to ride that line of whimsy, warmth and cliffhangers.”

In January, Rodriguez was rewarded for her efforts with a Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy, which earned her a spot in Hollywood history books: not only is she the first CW star to score a Globe, she’s also just the third Latina to win in the category. But it was her gracious and emotional acceptance speech that endeared her to a worldwide audience.

“This award is so much more than myself,” she said through tears. “It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”

The speech, Urman says, was quintessential Gina. “The night before,” she relates, “her parents were staying with her, so they slept in the bed and she slept on the couch. Then she gets up and goes and wins a Golden Globe! For her to pull it together in that environment and be so eloquent, moving and passionate was magical.

“But I’ll also never forget,” Urman continues, “that the next day, she was not a second late to work, and she knew all of her lines. That speaks just as much to who she is as the speech.”

Settling into the makeup chair, the actress calls the past year “an explosion of dreams coming true.” Not only was Jane renewed for a second season, which premieres October 12, but she landed a lead in an upcoming Peter Berg–directed film, Deepwater Horizon, which costars Mark Wahlberg and Kate Hudson.

She also signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster for an inspirational tome based on advice from her father, and she’s fronting lucrative ad campaigns for Kipling handbags and Crest toothpaste.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume she’s surprised by the whirlwind turn her life has taken. “I think you must believe something can happen in order for it to happen,” she says. “I definitely always believed I was capable of doing all this, as long as I didn’t stop trying.”

That head-down, do-the-work mentality is evident when she’s asked about this year’s Emmy nominations — despite expectations in many quarters, she did not score a nom. “People were saying, ‘Oh, she got snubbed,’” Rodriguez recounts. “No, I didn’t get snubbed. It’s just not my time.

“It’s just gonna make me work harder and act my ass off this season. I’ll make sure my acting is super on-point next year, and the year after and the year after that. If it takes me four or five seasons to get a nomination, then so be it. If Tatiana [Maslany, nominated this year for Orphan Black] can do it, I can, too.”

Rodriguez comes by that humble approach honestly. Raised in a “pretty rough,” predominantly Latino and Polish neighborhood in Chicago, she watched as her boxing-referee father and mother Magali, a courthouse interpreter, worked hard to provide a brighter future for their three daughters.

“We didn’t grow up with much financially,” Rodriguez says, “but my parents never stopped trying to better themselves, their family, our situation. They spent all the money they could save on our education. We all went to schools outside of our neighborhood. Our high school [the private St. Ignatius College Prep] was, like, $17,000 a year.

“We didn’t have chores growing up,” she explains, “because our chore was to do well in school. It was my parents doing what they could to help us understand that if we worked hard, we could take ourselves anywhere.”

When she was 15, a family tragedy tested — then solidified — that belief. “My father got into a terrible car accident,” she says. “The car was like an accordion, it was so smashed. They were totally sure we were going to lose him.”

It took nearly two years for Genaro Rodriguez to fully recover. Out of work, he began driving his youngest daughter to school each day, playing motivational tapes by Zig Ziglar and Joel Osteen along the way.

“It was like, ‘Again? This is ridiculous!’” the actress remembers with a laugh. “Then he started making me look in the passenger-side mirror every day and say, ‘Today’s going to be a great day. I can and I will.’ At the time, I thought it was so lame. The worst! But he wouldn’t let me out of the car until I did it.

“What I came to realize,” continues Rodriguez, who still recites the mantra to herself each morning and referenced it in her Globes speech, “is that there is no better way to live than the way that man lives.”

Her interest in performing sparked early, after the self-professed tomboy attended a local salsa-dancing festival when she was six. Eleven years later, she’d performed with salsa troupes across the country, as well as in Puerto Rico, and even opened for singer Marc Anthony.

“It was where I got to be feminine without feeling embarrassed,” she says. “And I was good at something, and if I worked hard, I got better.”

Rodriguez was sure she was on a path to becoming a pro dancer — until she played Diana Morales in a high school production of A Chorus Line. “Then I was like, ‘No, this is what I want to do,’” Rodriguez recalls. “I get to talk. And I love to talk!”

Her parents weren’t sold on acting as a career choice, though. They made it clear to Rodriguez that they hoped she’d follow older sisters Iveliss, an investment banker, and Rebecca, a doctor, into a more stable profession. “But,” Rodriguez remembers with a laugh, “I was like, ‘Sorry! You’re the ones that told me I could be anything I want to be. I’m going after it.’”

While attending New York University’s esteemed Tisch School of the Arts, Rodriguez interned at a management company, answering phones, getting coffee and learning the ins and outs of the business she desperately yearned to join. But an unexpected medical diagnosis at 19 put those plans at risk.

“I got thyroid disease, and it was hard to deal with my weight,” Rodriguez says. “It’s a disease that directly affects your metabolism. Growing up, I was a twig. Then I got sick, and it was very difficult to stay that way. I thought, ‘I’m screwed. I’m cursed. The one thing I want to do, now they’re telling me I’m not going to be skinny enough for that.’”

Ultimately, though, she resolved to blaze her own “curvy and delicious” trail. “I thought, ‘It means I have to convince the industry that just because you’re not super-skinny, it doesn’t mean you’re not an ingénue. It doesn’t mean you’re not a leading lady. It doesn’t mean you’re not sexy and beautiful and strong. But there were times that even reminding myself of that was a daily struggle.”

So, too, were those early years of auditions. Rodriguez snagged a sprinkling of roles — including guest shots on Law & Order (“twice, girl!”) and Lifetime’s Army Wives, as well as a recurring stint on the CBS soap The Bold and the Beautiful. But it wasn’t until 2012 — when her lead performance as an aspiring rapper in the indie Filly Brown made a splash at Sundance — that doors started opening.

For the first time, the actress found herself fielding several Hollywood offers.

Devious Maids is the one I always get asked about,” she says, referring to the Marc Cherry– and Eva Longoria–produced Lifetime series, which Rodriguez famously turned down. “I love Eva Longoria. She’s one of my role models. And I love all of those women [acting on the show]. It just wasn’t my story.”

Early on, Rodriguez had decided that part of her mission as an actress would be to play characters she felt would serve as role models for young Latinas. When she got her hands on the pilot for her CW series, she knew immediately she’d found one in the smart, ambitious and level-headed Jane.

“Jennie’s script encompassed this dual-culture identity so authentically,” Rodriguez says. “I met her and I was like, ‘You don’t see me as a brown baby. You see me as a woman, and that’s why this show is so strong. Because you see people as people.

"You’re writing about the human experience. And no matter the ethnicity, we all want love, success, a family. We all want to do it right. That’s the human experience. And that’s the shit.’”

Urman was likewise impressed with Rodriguez. “I was prepared to hunker down and have a really long search for Jane,” the producer recalls, “and Gina came in third to audition. She gave the performance then that she wound up giving in the pilot, switching between comedic and dramatic elements so fluidly, and I was stunned.

"She said, ‘Do you want me to change anything?’ We didn’t even have our director yet, but I said, ‘No, you’ll be back!’

“She made it better than I’d imagined,” Urman goes on. “Jane’s a virgin, but she’s not a prude. I didn’t want people to watch this character and be like, ‘She’s a goody two shoes, I don’t relate to her at all.’ And Gina just drew me in. She instantly made Jane so warm and relatable.”

While Jane marks Rodriguez’s first starring role on a series, Justin Baldoni, who plays Jane’s baby-daddy, Rafael, reports that from the start she was a natural leader: “When you have someone who’s number one on the call sheet, they set the tone, and Gina always remembers to say hello to everyone on set. She even meets all the extras.”

It’s not unusual for her to give gifts to the guest stars. “Gina’s been the stand-in and the guest star before,” Baldoni says. “We all have, and she knows how important it is to make people feel welcome.

"I’ve seen her on bad days, when she’s tired from working 14 hours a day, five days a week and doing press on weekends. She still puts on a smile and makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the room. She knows how fortunate she is.”

For Rodriguez, finding breakout success with a project she’s immensely proud of has proved especially sweet. “I thank God,” she says, “that I wasn’t afraid to choose this path, even though it seemed longer and harder.”

She takes pride in finally being able to give back to the close-knit clan that made sacrifices for her. When the actress got her first big check, she didn’t buy a flashy new car; instead, she gave a large sum to her grandmother, who’d lived with the family and helped care for the Rodriguez daughters while their parents worked. And she’s since paid her eldest sister back for helping fund her education at NYU.

“Now if my family needs anything from me, they got it,” she says. “All they have to do is ask.”

Leave it to Rodriguez, though, to keep it refreshingly real when it comes to the vagaries of fame. “We think all of a sudden because somebody’s [famous], that everything’s great,” she says. “But life still happens. And I’m not exempt from feeling like shit.”

There are days, she says, when she still battles insecurities about her looks and her weight: “When you do photo shoots, you want to fit into things. At the end of the day, you’re still a girl who wants to be considered, and feel, pretty.”

Spending this past summer in New Orleans, where she was shooting Deepwater Horizon, a film inspired by the 2010 BP oil-spill disaster, wasn’t without its own challenges.

“I was a little sad at first because everything was so different,” she says. “I didn’t have my family and friends around. And I felt like I went from one job [Jane] to the next, which is a blessing, but I was alone.”

Ultimately, the experience led to a period of personal growth.

“I learned a lot about myself,” she says. “I gave so much of myself to Jane the first season, I didn’t have many opportunities to stop and say, ‘Gina, where can you get better as a human being? How can you work on your insecurities? How do you teach others to be confident and full and strong when you still need to do that as well?’ So in New Orleans, I worked on that. I worked on my character, my body, my health, my strength.”

An avid amateur boxer like her father, Rodriguez spent many days at the New Orleans Boxing Club, which helped to remind her of something that’s long been a part of her DNA: “When you take a beating from life, you always get back up.”

“I made changes for the better for myself moving forward,” she says. “It was a pretty transformative summer.”

Now recharged and refreshed, she’s ready for the second season of Jane. “It’s gonna be great shedding that baby bump!” says the actress, whose character gave birth to a son, Mateo, in the season-one finale.

“I’m so excited to explore what Jane will be like as a mom.”

She’s similarly eager to discover what her own future holds. Rodriguez harbors ambitions of directing, as well as producing her own series. She’d like to voice a role in an animated film.

“And I want to be a superhero. I want to be an X-Man. Talk about Storm…,” she says of the female flying mutant. “I want to create a f—king storm!

“My dreams keep getting bigger. I don’t expect them to happen tomorrow. But I believe they’ll happen before I’m done.”

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