America Ferrera burst into prominence in Patricia Cardoso's 2002 film Real Women Have Curves, which earned Ferrera a Special Jury Prize for Acting at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Best Debut Performance Award at the Independent Spirit Awards. With roles in two big summer movies—The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Lords of Dogtown—the 21-year-old USC student is back with a vengeance.
Groucho: So you started acting in school plays and community theatre when you were very young—
America Ferrera: Yes.
G: Do you remember your first role or when you first caught the acting bug?
AF: I think I was seven, and it was Romeo and Juliet at the local junior high, and my sisters were going in to audition, and I begged my mom to take me along with them, and they were like "No, you're too young—you can't be in our play!" But then I went in, and the director thought I was so cute—when I was seven—and so I was the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet when I was seven. And from then on, it was just like—I just did it because I loved to do it. I don't even think I was aware of an audience.
G: "Who calls so loud?"
G: You also supported your acting career in the most traditional way. You waited tables.
AF: Yeah, that's very true.
G: Were you as good at that job as you are at this one?
AF: No. (Laughs.) No, no, no. I was horrible at waitressing. My mom got me a job working in the restaurant at the hotel she's in—you know, at which she's an executive director—an executive board member. That's where she works, at a Hilton hotel in Los Angeles, and I started waitressing tables on the weekend to pay for my workshop classes when I was fifteen.
G: You broke into film when you were still a teenager, on the Disney movie Gotta Kick It Up.
G: Were you prepared for your first movie set?
AF: You know, it was such a shock. I was—like you said, I had just turned seventeen. I don't even think I was seventeen when I got it. It was right before I had turned seventeen, so it was like the best birthday present ever. But it was the first callback—the first job I'd ever booked—with this Disney Channel movie, and it was funny because it was the first movie audition I'd ever gone on. For a year, I'd gone on commercial auditions—just forever. And every single time it was—I mean, I never got a callback. The phone never rang. And it was—it's so hard when you're sixteen to be rejected every single week. And it hurt, but I just started getting to the point where I was like "I don't care about it"—I was jaded by the time I was seventeen. Then I went on this audition, and I got the call, and it was the furthest thing from my mind. I mean, I never thought I would actually get it. I was not prepared. I had no idea what to expect. But I went on, and it was actually the best way to start a film career because it was a Disney Channel movie, so you can make your mistakes and not be doomed, because there's a certain audience that will forgive you. And it was with four other girls—young girls—and it was a dance movie, and the director was—he wasn't looking for Oscar-winning performances. It just kind of introduced me to everything: the ins and outs of what was what and being on the set and that was it. And then a month after I wrapped on that, I got Real Women Have Curves. And then, since then, it hasn't really had any pause.
G: That's exactly what I was going to say. Right after that, you got that movie, and the rest is history in the making. Were you at all surprised at the popularity of Real Women Have Curves?
AF: Yeah, absolutely. I think that when we were making it—it was just meant for the HBO Channel; it wasn't meant to be distributed in theatres. We took it to the Sundance Film Festival, and there was just this enormous response. I was—it was the first time I had ever, ever, ever seen myself onscreen. I mean, the film I had done right before that—a month before that—wasn't even done editing. But they rushed this one to get it into the Sundance Film Festival. And the first time I saw myself onscreen was at Sundance at the Library Venue, which is like a five-hundred seat theatre, with my mom sitting next to me. I had no idea what to expect; I didn't know if it was going to be horrible. I had no idea. All I knew is that while we were making it, we had the best time, because we really didn't have that much pressure on us. And I think I was just completely unaware of what it meant. For me it was just [that] I loved to do it. I was there; I was doing it. And I didn't even think there was a product. For me, it was just all about doing it. Because I'm used to plays. And there's not really like an end to it. You know, it's just kind of like a whole process—a whole run, kind of. And, like you said, the response was like completely unexpected and—yeah, I had no idea what I was in for after that.
G: That must have been quite a wave to ride, from that first screening.
AF: It was insane. It was such an amazing experience.
G: Well, the popularity of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants certainly seems preordained. When were you first aware of the books, and how did you come to be involved in the film?
AF: I didn't know about the books before I got the script. So I got the script first about two years ago now, and I did not want to read the script. It was called The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and I was like, "Oh, right"—"Not so much." So it sat on my desk forever. And then my mom read it—actually, my mom read it first, because she'll just, like, pick up a script that's sitting around and read it. And she's like, "Oh, my gosh, you have to read this script." She's like, "It's so beautiful," and I'm like, "Are you serious?" So I did; I read it, and I was so amazed at what I found. It's just this story about really beautiful characters and [an] honest portrayal of being young. And it wasn't cheesy and sappy, and it wasn't any of those things. And I went in and met with the director and the producer, and then—they postponed it for an entire year. They said, "Oh, we're gonna come back to it the next year." But they didn't cast anybody. So it was kind of like, you know, "It could never come back, so who cares?" But I did love the script, so I went and got the first book and read the book, loved it, then ran out and got the second book and loved it. So by that time, I was, like, a huge fan of the books, and then a year later, they called back and said, "Okay, we're doing it now." And by that time, I was so invested in the script and the books [that] I was like, "Oh, I have to do this." And so then I did. And we shot it last summer. Now it's two years since I first heard of the project.
G: Well, let me tell you what Ann Brashares said about you. I don't know if you heard this. She said, "I got to see America, who is the most delightful person. She's a real reader. I had the galleys of the third book with me, and she started reading it right there. She's so interested and eager and so into the book: that made me feel great." Now its your turn: what do you have to say about Ann?
AF: You know, I just have so much—I'm just appreciative of her and her work. I'm inspired by it and so many things, but more than anything, just I appreciate what a real person she is and how that translates into her—because I think a lot of us are real people, but writing is such an art. It's so—it's not easy. And then to do it and do it well and to do it so effortlessly—true to life—I was just blown away by her skill. And that's what I was thinking when I was reading the book. I was: "Wow! I'm so surprised this wasn't written by a sixteen year-old girl." You know, because most stories about teenagers are written—you know, they think they're written for teenagers, so they speak down to them, and they speak to them like this isn't the most important thing in your life: who you take to proms. So it's never really like a portrayal of—how those sixteen-year-olds see that experience rather than what their 35-year-old alter egos see that experience as. You know what I mean? And she just did that with so much respect for these characters. You know, she really respected the strength that it took for these girls to confront growing up. And when I read it, I just really thought she had done such an amazing thing for young girls 'cause when you read the book and when you watch this movie, it gives the sense of—although you're young—you have value to your opinions, and you have a certain amount of control of your life and the choices that you make and even confronting the adults who think they may know what's right and what's best for you: that you should trust yourself in those moments and making those choices. I think she's amazing, and she did such an amazing job in the beginning—you know, the origination of these characters in the script—that since then, it's been just kind of a breeze.
G: Do you aspire to do creative writing yourself?
AF: Oh, jeez. You know, I don't know. It's one of those things that I fear to death 'cause I hate sitting alone in a room. It's just not my thing. But it's so cathartic. You sit down and you start to write. Then you have this product and it's like, "Oh, well, that's pretty good." So I think I enjoy doing it when I'm doing it. But it's getting myself to sit down and do it that's really hard. I think that for me it's—I really need to be inspired to sit down and write. And usually that's in the hardest moments, you know, the deepest, saddest, most miserable, depressing moments in my life. And then my writings are all about the worst—it's always like my diary is riddled with the most horrible things that happened in my life. You know, because no one is, like, happy and "I'm going to go sit down in a room and write." It's always so—it's when you're at the lowest point in your life. So I don't know. Writing scares me. But I do have such a respect for it and, you know, hope to maybe one day overcome my fear. If I have a story to tell, I will definitely write it.
G: Your character, Carmen, is first among equals in the ensemble cast since she's the principal narrator of the story. How helpful were the books in filling out the character as a resource?
AF: Amazingly helpful. You know, when you translate a book to a screen, so much is kind of lost in translation, and it's our job to fill in that in—to fill in the dialogue with nuances. And so the book really helps with so much backstory, kind of. And also Ken Kwapis, our director, was such an amazing director and really helped fill—we just talked about it a lot and discussed it and—really tried to figure out what were all those empty holes and tried to not leave any empty holes.
G: She has a very interesting and very relatable emotional dynamic. She is very outgoing with her circle of friends and with her single mother, but she's incapable of opening up to her father and passive-aggressive with his new family. So she's understandable and she's lovable, but she's not always easy to deal with. Did you ever find it hard not to judge her?
AF: Yeah. No, absolutely. And I think that that's what my fear in playing this character. And every teen character that I ever have to confront. Because they're written with such kind of —they're such stock characters. They fulfill such stereotypes in how the teenage characters are written. You either love them—they're the hero of the story—or they're the bitch cheerleader, or they're the jock, or whatever: all of those stupid things. And I think it's definitely a challenge to play a character honestly—play a character with flaws, who makes mistakes, and still make them lovable. I think that's really hard, and that's what I talked to Ken about. I said, "I don't want people to look at this girl and say, "My God, she's such a brat"—She's so upset that—she's selfish, and she doesn't want her dad to be happy, and—. That's hard to play and—I don't know—I think she came out lovable and complex, but I think it comes back to that idea of how well the story was created and these characters, because unlike most teenagers that we're used to seeing on TV and screen, they're portrayed as real people and have just as many layers as any 40-year-old character could have too.
G: Yeah, I think a major element of that in the film, of course, is that it deals realistically with the complications of divorce—.
G: With both parents. Usually it's that elephant in the room in the movie that they ignore, or it's a wish-fulfillment fantasy thing. And this was very realistic in that respect, I think. I know you were raised by your mother. Do you have contact with your own father?
AF: Uh, no. No, when my parents split up, I was very young, and that was kind of, you know—that was the end of it. I was just raised like my mom was both to me: you know, my mother and my father, and growing up, I never ever understood the, like, teenage angst thing about the parents being divorced, 'cause for me it was like, "My gosh," I couldn't even imagine having to deal with a father, too! (Laughs.) Do you know what I mean? A dad who says you can't go out on dates and have people over. I couldn't even imagine! But I never had that. I never had a resentment towards him, do you know what I mean? And so I really loved this character Carmen, who—you know, when she goes into the summer, it's not like, "Oh my god, I have to go spend a summer with my loser father who never pays attention to me." It's heartbreaking because she goes into it with every expectation of him fulfilling all the imaginations that she's had about her relationship with her father. And then, then he falls short of it. Then he disappoints her. And I loved that. I loved that it was a young girl who was not beaten down by it: "My parents are divorced, and that's why I'm a loser." (Laughs.) You know what I mean? And not to invalidate people who are, you know, deeply affected by their parents' separation, but I was so young, and so I didn't know anything else. And so I didn't really. I wasn't aware of what I was missing, you know?
G: Uh huh. Yeah, and [in] the film, of course, the amazing scene, the jaw-dropping scene is when you have the phone call with your father in the film, and it's very powerful and very heartfelt, her shame at feeling replaced by a new family and her—difficulty just talking with him. And I guess it's really an important element in the scene that you do that over the phone, but for an actor that's a real added challenge, right? Not having the other actor to play off of?
AF: (Laughs.) The person on the—first, the person on the other line of the phone was a—was a girl!...I was, like, "Look, Ken, can we please just get a guy's voice on the—'cause Brad [Whitford] wasn't there, because he was wor—you know, we can't all be there at the same time and...so they put, like, a grip on the other phone. (Laughs.) You know, one of those set grips, and we're like, "Will you, like, say these lines on the other side of the phone?" and I was like—. (Laughs.) So anyway—so, yeah, that was kind of complicated. But you know what? It wasn't so much, just because, for Carmen, I think that she was saying those things more for herself than for her father anyway. You know? And it doesn't really matter sometimes who's on the other side of that line, you know? You say the things that you need to say for you. And so that—wasn't that hard.
G: And it's a theatrical kind of scene—with your stage experience, that would be probably easier to play than someone who's—well, I don't know: it seems like a stage kind of skill—.
AF: Oh yeah! And for me, yeah, I enjoyed it because Ken shot it all in one shot, you know, except for one cut in the beginning. The entire conversation is in one shot, and for me, I needed it to be that because there's such an arc in this conversation that it's like, "I can't have this edited." You can't edit performances together because it has to be just one natural kind of rise and fall of what happens here, so—he did that. He knew that, and he understood that, and I was so grateful for that.
G: Oh, yeah, and well, you really feel it. I think that's your Oscar clip right there. Warners should take out an ad with you on the phone.
AF: Oh—oh, my gosh. Oh, thank you.
G: I imagine this film was on a tight schedule. Did you get to bond with your screen parents? And you have a few scenes as a group with the sisterhood, but did you get time to hang out with them much?
AF: You know, yeah. I mean, it's funny because when I think of this movie I think about—I think about the girls, you know? I think about them. They were the experience for me in this movie, and I think that friendship—that relationship—is the heart of this film. You only get to see them together in the beginning and again at the end, but we did hang out for a couple weeks before we started shooting. You know, we went to movies and, you know, like, watched— we went to dinner, we went shopping, and we just got really lucky—we had such a natural chemistry when we were together, and we [so] enjoyed being together that you know it was hard for them to get us to shut up on the set. They're like, "Oh my God! Will you stop laughing? We need to get these lines, and we can't hear anybody!"—So we just had a really, really great time. Brad Whitford was amazing. He's so hilarious and, in real life, an amazing father, a very dedicated and loving father. And Rachel Ticotin, the lady who played my mother, was an amazing woman and an amazing actress, and I loved that Ken allowed us to create, you know, little things that kind of told the story of their relationship, too—the relationship with her mother— and to just kind of give us snippets—you didn't have to go too deep into the story, but still understand how—wonderfully bonded she was with her mother, you know? So yeah: I mean, everybody on this film—it was just a very easy kind of atmosphere to really get to know each other and bond...
G: You mentioned needing to calm down or quiet down on the set. There was something I wanted to ask you about, actually. In movies you always see the montage, you know, where the friends are having fun, and there's some moments where the music is playing over but you four are talking. I was wondering if you remember any of the ad-libbing you did that—.
AF: Oh my god—.
AF: We were a mess—like we—yeah! Half of our scenes together are like inside jokes that no one understands, and Ken didn't care if anybody understood them, you know?—For him—you know, I think it was most important [that] what the audience understood was that the girls understood, you know? That they didn't have to know exactly what it meant, but that these girls had such a connection with each other that everything they said was an inside joke, and they understood each other...he would sometimes just let the camera roll and let us do our thing, you know? And everyone else was just really irritated, but he loved it.
G: And [in] one of the memorable scenes, you play tennis—.
G: I understand basketball is your favorite sport. Are you much of a tennis player?
AF: You know, I didn't start playing tennis 'til I had to train for this, and I loved it—I really enjoyed it 'cause it's like basketball—it's so physically intense, but then you have to, you have to be there. You have to be there mentally, too. You know, I used to run track and cross-country, and for those...your mind didn't have to be there. Your mind could be just blank—or anywhere. You know? And you just ran, or you just kind of swim, or you just do it. Sports that require you to be there physically and mentally at the same time are so challenging. And—.
G: And emotionally there because you're so frustrated—.
AF: Yeah! And tennis is one of those things, you know—just the type of people who play tennis, I think, are interesting people, so—. (Laughs.)
G: There's also a scene where you sing a snippet from A Chorus Line.
G: Is that a show that you had done?
AF: I have done Chorus Line. I'd done that in high school.
G: Was that your idea to sing that in the movie?
AF: You know—Rachel and I—when we first met, it was very easy for us to just kind of start talking, and it was natural, and she has a daughter my age, so...she thought she was hanging out with her daughter, you know? And we both love Broadway musicals. We just started singing musicals together—everywhere—everywhere we were. And we were sitting in rehearsal, and we were thinking, "Okay. What are the things that we can do together to kind of briefly show—the relationship that the mom and the daughter have together?"—In the book, it said that the mother loves musicals, so it just seemed really—and we're, like, "What songs should we sing?" That one kind of just came out because every single Latino woman who's ever been in the theater has played Diana Morales in A Chorus Line. And so that's just the one we chose to do.
G: That's great. It was a great moment in the movie.
AF: Thank you.
G: You mentioned that your mom picks up scripts and reads them. I know initially she was concerned about this career for you because it is so difficult.
G: Has she softened to that over the years?
AF: Yeah. You know, I think for her the fear was [that] she was so unfamiliar with this world of Hollywood and filmmaking and it just didn't seem real, you know?...and it doesn't. It never does. It's never secure. It's never—it's not real. It's not real life. Life...exists—outside this world, you know?—For her, she wanted me to go to school and be a doctor and be a lawyer, and I was always a really good student, and so that was always the plan. And she loved watching me on stage when I did theater, but she never thought that it would ever come to something that was real, you know? She never thought that my dreams of being in films would ever really come to pass and—when they did, it was very daunting for her because the plans that she envisioned—you know, the path that she had envisioned my life going on—completely turned around and went the other way. So I think that that was hard for her as a parent: to see her kid go into something that was so insecure. But I think that over the years she realized that I don't want anything else out of this except to do what I love to do, and she knows that I love to do it, and she loves to watch me do it. She's just afraid for everything else, the way any other parent would be, you know?
AF: Letting your kid ride a bike, you know, by themselves, and you're not there to guide them every step of the way. And my mom is actually here. She travels with me everywhere. But—she just, you know—she's a mom, and that's what she was concerned about—she still has all those concerns about people taking advantage of you and stuff, but she knows it's what I love to do. She loves to watch me do it, too, so—.
G: There's—a couple of films, I guess, that you have in the can that have been getting out there: How The Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer.
AF: Yeah, that...
G: With Elizabeth Peña. Is that—do you know what the progress on that is?
AF: Yeah, that went to the Sundance Film Festival. It was there for the Dramatic Competition, and it's a beautiful film, but I think it's still making its festival circuit round. I have no idea where that is as far as distribution goes. So I don't know, but it was a really fun and beautiful film.
G: And Lords of Dogtown you have coming out as well.
AF: (Laughs.) Yeah, it comes out the same weekend...
AF: I was going to ask you about the name "Thunder Monkey."
AF: (Laughs.) Yeah!
G: What does that mean?
AF: (Laughs.) Well, you know it's based on real people: Tony Alva, Stacey Peralta, and Jay Adams, and Tony Alva—actually all of them were involved in the film in one way or another. Tony was on the set almost every single day, like skating with the guys, teaching them the kind of style, and Stacey was a co-writer of the script. And Catherine really wanted to put girls in the movie 'cause she thought that these girls played such a huge part in their culture. I mean, though they were like the periphery...chicks were just the ones on the side—it was for the chicks that the guys did this, you know? To get the attention and to get, like, girls and whatever. And so it was important for her to have that in there, and Tony was—I don't know if it was Stacey or Tony, but they had a girl named... a friend named "Thunder Monkey" who just hung around and she was crazy, and she came to the parties, and she was just insane, and so they put that in there. I was like: "Does her name have to be "Thunder Monkey?"
AF: And they're like, "Yeah that was her name in real life." So you know. It was a big name to live up to. (Laughs.)
G: Well, I have to wrap up here, but I really want to ask you about $5.15/Hr..
G: Richard Linklater.
G: How was that?
AF: It was amazing. But you know it was a pilot for HBO, and it was a great script. The writer of that is Rodney Rothman, and—his book was just released called Early Bird, and it's this awesome book about—he likes retires at 29. He went and lived in this retirement home in Miami. It was, you know: he's a funny, funny man, and he wrote it and Rick directed it, so it was this great team, and HBO was producing, and I don't know. It was just one of those things that...it was a wonderful experience, Rick's a great director, but they just didn't go—it didn't go. They didn't pick it up. You know, it's one of those question marks, but it was really great. It was a great experience.
G: I have to ask my last question because they're going to give me the hook here. I want to ask you a dumb question, to end with here. The tagline of the movie is "Laugh. Cry. Share the Pants." So how do you, America, share the pants?
AF: You know I think that the pants is just the connection between these girls and the support that they give each other. And the pants being present is all their friends being present and all that support, you know. It's like a physical kind of representation of people believe in me. And I think that "Share the pants" is just—that, particularly for women, this film is important because it shows female relationships at [their] best potential. And we're so used to seeing female relationships portrayed as conniving and back-stabbing, and, you know, competitive, and sharing the pants or sharing this support is like: women go through—people go through—you know, men alike go through such similar experiences in this life of isolation, and we always feel so alone going through them. And the relationships that you have with other people have such an amazing value in your life to help you through those moments. And you think you don't need friends, and you think you don't need people around you 'cause you don't want to admit that you're weak, but the potential that sharing that support and sharing your experiences with other people—it's life changing, you know? It's amazing. It's the difference between getting through things with a smile on your face, and you know, not getting through things at all. So that's what was special for me. And I think that what is most important to stress in this film is that, for guys, I think, they'll hear this title and not want to go watch it. And then from what we have been getting from a lot of the male reporters is that they go in, they don't want to watch this movie, and then they come out, and they're so surprised at what they got—so surprised that they themselves found something to relate to, and a lot of guys—I think especially the communication thing with the father and the son and the child-parent communication is never easy. I think that that's something that guys relate to, too, you know?
G: Well, thank you very much. Great answer, by the way. And it was a real pleasure talking to you.
AF: Thank you. Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, click here.]